The first time I stepped in Bontoc was in 2011. Back then, my friends and I were on our way to Sagada and merely stopped over by its poblacion to withdraw additional cash.
I could still remember that it was raining that Saturday afternoon. But I managed to excuse myself from the group and told them that I’ll just take a photo of the Rizal Monument. It would have been the only image and memory I have of Bontoc, until I got the chance to visit again the place last month.
Bontoc, compared to Sagada, Banaue or Kalinga, is often overlooked. But there are other activities that can be done here at the crossroad town of Mountain Province.
Meet a vegan boar at the Bontoc Museum
Entrance Fee: Php 60.00 | Opens daily, 8:00 AM – 12:00 PM, 1:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Head first to the Bontoc Museum which is now curated and run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (SIHM), an indigenous missionary congregation in the region. It has well-organized collections showcasing the various traditions, ritual artifacts and heirloom pieces of the seven ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordilleras.
Taking photos is not allowed inside by the way, but you can take a lot of selfies at the outdoor museum where one can find a representation of a traditional Bontoc ili (village), and a charming, vegan native pig. One of the museum staff said that it thrives on tongsuey, a local organic watercress.
On your way out drop by the museum’s souvenir shop for some Lingling-o pendants and other keepsakes to bring back to your friends and family.
Try the Littuko
The littuko (Rattan Fruit) is common perhaps in Luzon, but it was my first time to see and taste the fruit in Bontoc. Its skin is light-yellow and has scales resembling those of a snake.
It is mind-numbing sour for such a small fruit. The taste is probably acquired and does take some time getting used to. I wonder though if the littuko can be an alternative souring agent for the sinigang.
Wade in the Chico River
Although the Chico is probably one of the most ubiquitous sight in this landlocked province, my colleague and I were unable to see the river up close or wade on its cool waters. From the town center, one can easily access its river banks somewhere near the Chico Jumbo Bridge.
Sample the Pinikpikan with Etag
Pinipikan is a chicken dish that is unique in these parts. It is also not for the faint-hearted. But if you get past its unorthodox preparation, i.e, the fowl is slowly and lightly beaten at its wings and then burnt, you’ll find it to be a strangely satisfying meal.
Make your dinner more interesting by ordering the etag or the local salted pork. This is usually cooked with the pinikpikan and adds a welcome layer of brine to the overly rich broth. We had the pinikipikan-etag combo at Junny’s Sagada Lunch, one of the many mom-and-pop restaurants along the highway. It takes an hour to prepare this house specialty, so you may want to order it in advance.
Drink as much local coffee as you can
It would be really unforgiveable and unthinkable if you have your morbidly sweet 3-in-1 sachets in Bontoc. That’s not even coffee.
Drink up instead on the local brew and you’ll help ensure a coffee tradition, one that’s older than your multinational coffeeshops in the metropolis, to continue into the future.
Might I add that the few that we had at Churya-a Hotel and Restaurant comes really cheap at Php 20.00. If this was served in a snazzier place with soft jazz music playing on the background, it will probably cost you 10x more to enjoy the same cup.
Visit the View Deck
Soak in the sights and the fresh air at the Bontoc View Deck. At this elevation, you can see Bontoc’s fertile valley and the Chico River weaving through it. This perspective allows you a sneak peek as to why the people here are very proud of their place.
Getting to the view deck involves a long, uphill drive. The good thing is that Miguel, our trike driver, was skilled and eager to take us there. He was also generous with his stories and his moma that afternoon.
Just walk around
While a well-outlined travel itinerary would allow you to save time, nothing beats an ‘unstructured’ walk around the town.
Such was the case for us. In just a few hours, my friend and I got to see how the people in Bontoc do their day-to-day tasks – old women selling smoked fish by the roadside, students playing basketball at the plaza and anxious passengers waiting for their rides back home.
To me, these small snapshots paint a more vivid picture of what a place looks like, after all the tourist buses have left or during those sacred minutes at dawn when most are still asleep.
So just walk around Bontoc. This might take you as far as the Maligcong Rice Terraces or just around the block. Either way, you lose nothing, except some portion of your weight perhaps, when you do just that.