Magic Mountain: Revisiting Baguio City’s Classic Attractions

Holidays in Baguio gave Barbara Romero-Villanueva some of her favorite childhood travel memories, and although the quaint mountain town has morphed into a dense and often unwieldy city over time, she tells us how many of its classic charms endure.

A traditional hut sits in the middle of the garden at BenCab Museum (photo by The Danish Connection)

A traditional hut sits in the middle of the garden at BenCab Museum (photo by The Danish Connection)

I spent my childhood in a small, remote barrio called Inabaan in Rosario, La Union. Inabaan is where the steep, tight, cliff-side ride of Kennon Road begins. It’s only an hour away from Baguio City but Inabaan and Baguio were worlds apart to a kid surrounded by trees, mountains and rivers, and not much else. I felt trapped in the middle of nowhere and I rebelled by not speaking a word of my grandparents’ dialect. Ilocano is a language widely spoken in most of northern Luzon, and I was an Ilocana who refused to acknowledge her heritage.

Baguio was a wonderful escape. My parents used to bring me to the city, perhaps out of guilt for leaving me in the care of my grandparents, while they both worked in Manila. We’d take the ordinary, non-airconditioned bus and that made the anticipation sweeter; the breeze getting colder as the bus neared the city and the faint smell of pine trees getting stronger.

The Baguio of my childhood was less crowded and more serene. Walking up and down Session Road, the mountain city’s main thoroughfare, meant breathing in the sweet, cold Baguio air. And the boat ride in Burnham Park meant getting rosy cheeks with the icy wind against my face. We shopped for wooden bowls and plates in Mines View Park. We stayed as transient guests in rented rooms in other people’s homes. We bought knitted sweaters and bonnets that we wore while enjoying foggy nights in almost deserted streets. The pace was relaxed — the locals didn’t walk as much as they strolled, and they even slowed down to say hello.

Progress has of course changed the landscape. The streets are now crammed with hotels and Session Road is jammed with crowds. People no longer stroll; they rush instead. And a huge mall sits right where pine trees used to rule.

A weekend in the city

On a whim, my husband and I decide to hop on a bus and spend the weekend in Baguio. With bus companies like Victory Liner and Genesis Joy Bus now offering non-stop first-class trips via the new NLEX, SLEX and TPLEX, and by the easier-to-navigate Marcos Highway, the journey is a breeze. What used to be an excruciating eight-hour ride to Baguio now takes only five, and it’s made more relaxing by a bus attendant who plies us with drinks, snacks and blankets. The free WiFi and charging outlets are also a happy bonus.

On previous trips to the city, over many years, we often did things by default, like checking in at The Manor in Camp John Hay, a former American military complex. Some of the most memorable moments in our married life include sitting on the balcony of our hotel room and silently staring at the whispering pine trees. Few things have felt as special as waking up at four in the morning, reveling in the silence broken only by the soft pitter-patter of light rain and watching the pitch-black sky turn royal blue in slow motion; an almost spiritual experience that can never get old. We whiled away days strolling through the mountain forests and reading books with a cup of hot chocolate in the local Starbucks, happily feeling cut off and away from our regular daily grind.
But on this trip, we decide to get to know our favorite cold-weather retreat a little better, and our first stop is Tam-awan Village, a reconstructed Cordillera village of seven traditional Ifugao huts and two houses from Kalinga. Built in 1998 by the Chanum Foundation with huts that had been transported from Bangaan, Ifugao, it was upended over time by artisan-made reconstructions of more houses.

How people construct their homes or buildings is always a good introduction to how they organize their community, and in Tam-awan we get a glimpse of what has been sacred to those who have called the Cordilleras home for millennia. Some huts are named for a specific purpose served in the community — the Fertility Hut, for instance, was where the shaman or priest performed a ritual for married couples who were unable to conceive. Hand-carved wood figures called bul-ul stand outside each hut. Imbued with spirits believed to be guardians of rice granaries, bul-ul were also credited for a good harvest. These bul-ul were treated with utmost respect, with the carving of each of them following a ceremony officiated by a shaman.

Visiting the BenCab Museum

A bul-ul or rice god statue at the BenCab Museum (photo by JP Alipio)
A bul-ul or rice god statue at the BenCab Museum (photo by JP Alipio)

Baguio’s art scene has always been a vibrant one, and among its most celebrated figures is National Artist Benedicto Cabrera, or BenCab, who moved to the city in 1985. The rain and fog reminded him of the time he’d spent in London, but there was another draw. “Baguio was ideal as it was more laid-back and the art scene was thriving. Other artists had also come back from living abroad,” he later tells me. “Santiago Bose, Robert Villanueva, Kidlat Tahimik, David Baradas.” Together with other artists, they established the Baguio Arts Guild. Much later, in 2009, he opened the BenCab Museum on Asin Road.

Although we’d been to the museum a few times before, I had never noticed the painting that now strikes me as unnervingly haunting as soon as we step in — right by the reception is a portrait of an Igorot woman, ethereal and regal, ebony-skinned, with piercing eyes that seem to look at everyone with both compassion and wisdom. It could have been a painting of my grandmother. Her gaze follows me, as if she knows something about me I haven’t figured out yet.

The museum’s modern and minimalist architecture offers a striking contrast to the lush forest that surrounds it. The first floor showcases tribal artifacts and carvings, including BenCab’s own extensive collection of bul-ul — they are everywhere, as though guarding our ancestors’ treasures; treasures deeply rooted in nature. The hagabi, for instance, a long wooden bench, was a symbol of wealth and prestige among the Ifugao. Story has it that the wood used for the hagabi was chosen after a ritual was performed, and the carving of the wood could only begin after a blessing of the mumbaki, the priest.

We stand on the balcony, drawing deep breaths of cool mountain air. On a clear day, you can see over the spread of mountains all the way to the West Philippine Sea. Three floors below is a sprawling manicured garden with a mountain forest as its backdrop. We watch kids tease the koi in the pond, ducks happily swimming nearby. We watch a couple walk leisurely over beautiful footbridges; another sits contently in the shade of an Ifugao hut in the middle of the garden. The shrieks of the children, the giggling of old ladies, the deep baritone conversations among men and the whistling of the wind — for a lingering moment it transports me to the Baguio of my childhood, a place I thought had disappeared altogether.

Eating, seeing, shopping

Vizco's strawberry chiffon cake (photo by JP Alipio)
Vizco’s strawberry chiffon cake (photo by JP Alipio)

Strawberries were another hallmark of my Baguio childhood, and inspired by the afternoon at the museum, we go looking for the fruit in all its iterations, starting off at Mines View Park Hotel, where we discover strawberry sinigang. Chef Errol Van Manuel is the genius behind the twist on the traditional sour stew, large, whole strawberries floating in the mix. For dessert, we head over to Vizco’s Restaurant and Cake Shop along Session Road for their legendary strawberry cake, a swoon-worthy moist chiffon. We make the usual run to the Good Shepherd Convent, where what was once a small stall stocked with jams and preserves made by nuns, has grown into a huge commissary that’s always packed with tourists shopping for pasalubong. We pick up enough bottles of strawberry jam to last us months back home.

The following day, all strawberried-out, we fall into old, languorous habits — we spend the better part of the afternoon sunning ourselves on the deck of Arca’s Yard, a quaint café-museum-library along a quiet stretch of Ambuklao Road. We sit comfortably on the balcony overlooking a hill with pine trees, mugs of piping hot chocolate and slices of sweet potato pie — the house specialty — within arm’s reach.

The sweet potato pie at Arca's Yard (photo by The Danish Connection)
The sweet potato pie at Arca’s Yard (photo by The Danish Connection)

When the sun begins to set we head over to Casa Vallejo at the top of Session Road. Built in 1909, it is one of the few structures that survived the Japanese bombing in World War II (together with the Baguio Cathedral), and is among the oldest remaining buildings in Baguio City. I remember feeling spooked as a child every time we drove past the then-decrepit landmark, rumored to be haunted. But years ago, Casa Vallejo underwent a major renovation, recasting itself as a social hot spot in the city — the restaurant, Hill Station, serving fresh salads and slow-roasted steaks, is among Baguio’s most photogenic settings; a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled hall with a wraparound vista of pines. Mt Cloud, a cozy independent book shop located in the hotel’s basement, has been a hub for artists and writers and a venue for author readings since it opened in 2010.

Inside Casa Vallejo (photo by JP Alipio)
Inside Casa Vallejo (photo by JP Alipio)

No one can be faulted for nonstop eating in this city, where nearby valleys supply restaurants with fresh produce. We hit up another classic, Café by the Ruins Dua, on Session Road. The spinoff isn’t quite as atmospheric as the original outlet, now closed — started up by a group of artist friends, it was built into the ruins of a former Baguio governor’s mansion — but it does serve the same delicious herbed liver pâté and sweet potato bread that always makes my heart flutter.

Towards the end of the short trip I am floating on air (despite everything I’d eaten). Before the journey home, we catch the last mass of the day at the Baguio Cathedral, where the entire mass is said in English. The prayer “Our Father”, however, is sung in Ilocano. Every word of it resonates, and I feel as though I am among my people. I feel like I am home.

This story first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Barbara Romero-Villanueva

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