My favorite experience in our Baguio travels happened not in this city we call the Philippine summer capital but in an adjacent town of Benguet.
If you are familiar with these places, then you’ve probably realized I’m taking about the strawberry picking that tourists can do at a farm in La Trinidad.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Baguio was a heady experience. The cool climate was a novelty for an island girl like me. At any spot in this plateau within Benguet, you get a view. It may be of rows and rows of houses on the hillsides, a forest of pines, the city and surrounding countryside, or the Cordillera mountain range.
Though the winding way up makes me dizzy, I prefer traveling during the daytime along Kennon Road because I can clearly make out the towering mountains and the sheer drops.
I went to all the touristy places in Baguio.
I walked around Burnham Park and was tempted to hop on to one of the swan boats in a man-made lagoon, had my picture taken before one of the most photographed buildings in the city that is the Baguio Cathedral, gawked at the stunning vista of the mountains from a view deck in Mines Park.
An enterprising local even convinced me to sit astride a horse and have my pictures taken for P10 per shot. What can I say? I’m a soft touch. I would have donned an Igorot costume, too, if my companions have been up for it.
I did the requisite shopping and haggling in some of the stalls selling local commodities – scarves, accessories, knitted wear, native bags.
They say Baguio is known for its silver and strawberry food products. I bought those, too. Ibay’s and Pilak for the silver accessories and Mountain Maid Training and Development Foundation, Inc. of the Good Shepherd Sisters for the peanut brittle and ube and strawberry jams.
Wright Park was fun, and it was an easy walk along the Pool of the Pines. I endured the smell of urine and dung to look at the horses; the park’s pony boys said they have over 200 for horseback riding activities. I was especially taken by a white mare with dyed pink mane. Had we more time to spend there, I think I would have found courage to ride on one.
I didn’t mind that we couldn’t go near the President’s vacation house named The Mansion. Taking pictures of the structure by the ornate Buckingham Palace-patterned gate was enough for me.
Our stroll within the Botanical Garden along winding trails and stone steps was aimless and that is what made it unforgettable. We didn’t know what we were supposed to see and where we were supposed to go. At one point, we got to a part of the park overgrown by vegetation and, I think, still off-limits to tourists.
There was a mini replica of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and we didn’t know the significance of that until we were told the area was one of the pocket gardens reserved for Baguio’s sister cities.
It was only during our second visit that we learned about the Japanese tunnels. No, wait. I think our repeat visit was prompted by someone telling us about the presence of the tunnels, lighted now in some areas so an exploration wasn’t a hardship.
The former American recreational facility Camp John Hay, now a mountain resort, is a woodland of Benguet pines with patches of development – tech hub, high end hotels, imported and local brand shops, Jack Nicklaus design golf course, restaurants and coffee shops.
Sticking out like a sore thumb and all the more interesting because of it is a dining spot that is as local as it can get, the Choco-Late de Batirol Garden Restaurant. Its specialty is a hot bittersweet chocolate drink made from locally-grown cocoa and prepared in the batirol, a small pot shaped like an urn with a wooden stirring rod.
The restaurant itself is fashioned after a native hut party hidden in a cluster of plants and trees.
Like a pilgrim, I braved the 252 steps that led up to the grotto of the Lady of Lourdes. I was panting, yes, but I made it all the way to the top and even managed the journey down.
From here, travel to the abandoned and some say haunted Diplomat Hotel on Dominican Hill was an easy few minutes. The hotel owners kept the huge cross on the rooftop that once distinguished it as the monastery and rest house of the Dominican Order in the early 1900s. The whole place is quiet and eerie and I can almost believe the local ghost folklore.
And, yes, I visited the Philippine Military Academy. No one comes to Baguio and misses out on the country’s premier military institution, least of all me. Relics Point held some memorabilia of World War II and the PMA museum was an eye opener on the history and life within the academy. There, on display, is a typical room for cadets.
At Tam-awan Village, I went inside an authentic dwelling place of tribes in the Cordillera. There are seven Ifugao and two Kalinga tribal huts distributed within the village’s rolling slopes along Lt. G. Tacay Road.They actually allow overnight stays in any of these native huts made of indigenous materials.
Tribal sculptures are all over the place, among them of the bul-ul or bulol – an Ifugao anthropomorphic carving of the rice god or guardian spirits.
There are even more of these wooden carvings at the BenCab Museum, founded by national artist Ben Cabrera, along Asin Road. Aside from the rice god sculptures, displayed are other artifacts used by the highland tribes in everyday living, including furniture and cooking implements.
Aside from Cabrera’s permanent collection in several galleries, there are also works of rising contemporary artists.
What I found fascinating was the Erotica Gallery. Drawings, paintings, sculpture, and other artworks of really erotic themes are displayed here. Picture taking is allowed but, sorry, none of those photos can be posted here.
We tried out a number of dining establishments. I even had the guts to order the local fare of Pinikpikan, a chicken soup dish, at Cafe by the Ruins. The main ingredient, the chicken, is beaten lightly with a stick for hours before it is killed to keep the blood inside it. Before you get your animal rights hackles up, know that this method is a ritual performed by Cordillera tribes to determine their fate or the appropriate action to take in a difficult situation.
Pinikpikan gets its flavor from the coagulated blood and the other ingredients of burned feathers and skin and “etag” – a cured and smoked meat made to age underground in earthen jars.
As to other restaurants recommended by the locals – Volante, Jim’s Retro Diner, Good Taste, Forest House Bistro and Cafe, Casa Vallejo, Choco-Late de Batirol – we went to each and every one.
This is Baguio, in a nutshell, and it took us two short trips to the summer capital to cover all of these tourist attractions.
In our second trip, we made strawberry picking the main priority. Though strawberry picking happens in the adjacent town of La Trinidad, I consider it part and parcel of Baguio travel attractions.
Why did I like it so much? The sun was up and its glare enough to crinkle your eyes, yet it was pleasantly cold. There are farms of strawberries and vegetables as far as the eye can see.
A woman farmer guided me to her lot, gave me a basket, and told me to pick the biggest and ripest of the bunch. They were really big and red. They were the sweetest that I’ve ever tasted.
After ensuring that I’ve had a kilo of strawberries and adding some more besides, she told me to pass by her stall on my way out. Regulations prevent her from accompanying me there.
She gave me wine to taste, and it was liquid strawberry ripened by the sun and tempered by the cool climes.
Nearby, vendors sold ice cream and taho in strawberry flavor with fruit bits. That spot was strawberry land through and through.
These strawberries are sold as well at the Baguio City Public Market where La Trinidad farmers unload a big portion of their harvest. If you don’t have time to go to the Strawberry Farm, then the market is the next best thing.
Planning on going to Baguio during the summer break? Our travel experiences and tips are contained in a mobile app “Baguio Guide” that you can download from the Google Play and Windows Phone stores. Using iOS? We have a mobile web version of the guide at baguio.myguide.ph.