Ijen to Bromo, Prambanan to Borobudur: a DIY question

Here’s how we arrived at our Java itinerary

Indonesia 101

A friend recently told me that she’s planning for that dream trip to Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo. She had looked up my post about our family excursion to Java’s volcanoes, and while she couldn’t contain her excitement to visit this awe-inspiring part of the world, there were plenty of questions in her mind. I was more than glad to help a fellow traveler.

The post about that part of our trip, though, was in need of details, so I’m sharing here our actual itinerary with more specifics, tips on planning and safety, links for maps, and select transport, booking and contact info.

Take note, the island of Java is huge — almost half the area of the entire Philippine archipelago — with many attractions to choose from, so let’s start with the places in East and Central Java one ought to visit first for a one-week trip.

East and Central Java’s major sights

■ Mount Ijen via Banyuwangi
■ Mount Bromo via Cemoro Lawang
■ Prambanan and Sewu Temples in Yogyakarta
■ Borobudur via Yogyakarta

Candi Prambanan

How many days do you need?

Kicking off the tour with transit from Ubud, Bali, five days sufficed for us to see and experience four of Java’s major attractions. We had to skip visits to the town and city centers for lack of time, though. So if you wish to engage in other activities in East and Central Java, set aside seven days or more.

Merry mix of tour package and DIY bookings

We booked the Ijen BlueFlame Tour package online for the Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo legs of our trip, starting from Gilimanuk, Bali and culminating in Surabaya, East Java. BlueFlame also arranged the trip by van from Ubud to Gilimanuk in Bali and the ferry crossing from Gilimanuk to Ketapang, Banyuwangi in Java. The tour company, of course, is named after the otherworldly blue flames of the sulfuric crater lake of Mount Ijen.

We specified that we were traveling with three children, the youngest being nine years old, and BlueFlame assured us they’ll do fine (they had a blast). Although the tour company offered the lowest rates, surprisingly, the quality of the tour, the guide, driver, and accommodations in all was beyond expectation.

As for the train ride from Surabaya to Yogyakarta, we booked it online ourselves weeks in advance, alongside the accommodation in Yogyakarta.

Is it advisable to go full DIY with your Java trip? I considered doing so, but opted for the tour package for Ijen and Bromo. I’ll explain later. Moving on…

Road in Banyuwangi in East Java
IG: @thetravelingvs

Here’s what the entire tour looks like:

Day 1
(Start of BlueFlame Tour package)

12 noon
Depart for Gilimanuk Harbor

5 p.m.
Ferry to Ketapang Port, Banyuwangi

7 p.m.
Check-in Banyuwangi

Mount Ijen Crater Lake

Day 2
Mount Ijen Volcano Complex

12:30 a.m.
Pick up for tour

2 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Ijen

5 a.m.
Watch sunrise

7 a.m.
Stop at waterfalls
(We skipped the coffee and rubber plantation)

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

Check out

12 noon
Depart for Cemoro Lawang
Stop at Pasir Putih Beach for lunch

6 p.m.
Check-in Cemoro Lawang

Cyan takes a dip at Air Terjun Jagir in Banyuwangi

Day 3
Mount Bromo
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park

3 a.m.
Pick up for tour on board 4×4 jeeps

4 a.m.
Watch sunrise at view point

6 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Bromo

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

10 a.m.
Depart for Surabaya

3:30 p.m.
Drop off at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station
(End of BlueFlame Tour)

5 p.m.
Board train to Yogyakarta
(We booked our train seats online weeks ahead)

10:30 p.m.
Arrive at Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta then check-in at hotel

Day 4
Explore Yogyakarta
(We booked a 5-seater car via Klook for one day)

8 a.m.
Candi Prambanan and Candi Sewu

1 p.m.
Magelang, Central Java

6 p.m.
Rest in hotel

Sunset over Borobudur

Day 5
Yogyakarta to Singapore

5 a.m.
Depart for Adi Sucipto International Airport

7:25 a.m.
Depart Yogyakarta via AirAsia

10:45 a.m.
Arrive in Singapore

Candi Sewu near Candi Prambanan

Where we stayed

For Mount Ijen tour:
Ketapang Indah Hotel
Banyuwangi, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Mount Bromo tour:
Istana Petani Hotel
Cemoro Lawang, Probolinggo, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Yogyakarta tour:
BeOne Jogja
Jalan Solo, Yogyakarta
(Booked via Agoda and chose this one as it is just 15 minutes away from Yogyakarta airport, and cheap)

Tour Info

We recommend Ijen Blueflame Tour for your Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo excursions based on our experience.

Operator: Ijen BlueFlame Tour
Website: blueflametour.com
Proprietor: Johanes Tony
Email: [email protected]
[email protected]
Johanes was with us all throughout the booking process. (Thank you, Johanes!) Request for Arif as guide, if he’s available. You won’t regret it.

Package inclusions for Bromo and Ijen tours:

✓ Private car
✓ Driver
✓ Fuel (petrol)
✓ Tickets for ferry crossing (Gilimanuk to Ketapang)
✓ Hotel accomodation for Ijen with breakfast
✓ Hotel accommodation for Bromo tour with breakfast
✓ Breakfast
✓ Guide for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Entrance fees for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Dual filter gas mask
✓ Torch light
✓ Private 4×4 jeep for Bromo tour
✓ Toll fees
✓ Parking fees
✓ Mineral water during entire tour
✓ Bonus: Waterfall side trip in Banyuwangi

✘ Horse in Bromo
✘ Lunch and dinner

Road info

Ubud to Gilimanuk Ferry Port
Distance: 130 kilometers
Travel time: 4 hours (with stops)

Ketapang Ferry Port to Banyuwangi (hotel)
Distance: 3 kilometers
Travel time: 7 minutes

Banyuwangi to Mt. Ijen (parking area)
Distance: 40 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Banyuwangi to Cemoro Lawang (hotel)
Distance: 219 kilometers
Travel time: 6 hours (with stops)

Cemoro Lawang to Mount Bromo (drop-off)
Distance: 9 kilometers
Travel time: 30 minutes

Cemoro Lawang to Surabaya Gubeng (train station)
Distance: 114 kilometers
Travel Time: 3 hours (with stops)

Gilimanuk Port

Ferry info

Gilimanuk Port to Ketapang Port
Distance: 5 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes
Frequency: 30-minute intervals
Fare: 6,000 rupiah (₱23, included in tour package)

Railway info

Surabaya Gubeng to Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta
Distance: 330 kilometers
Travel time: 5 hours 30 minutes
Train class: Eksekutif (soft seats)
Train name: Sancaka
Online booking: tiket.com (you need to sign up)
Tickets: 240,000 to 305,000 rupiah (₱890 to ₱1,130)
Operator: Kereta Api (major operator of public railways in Indonesia)

Passengers waiting for their train at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station

Flight info

Yogyakarta and Denpasar, Bali have non-stop flights to and from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur via Air Asia.

Yogyakarta to Kuala Lumpur
2 hours 40 minutes

Yogyakarta to Singapore
2 hours 15 minutes

Denpasar to Kuala Lumpur
3 hours

Denpasar to Singapore
2 hours 50 minutes

You can do the Bali-Java route in reverse, depending on your entry points and flight availability. If you wish to skip Yogyakarta and just see Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo, you can use Surabaya as entry or exit points via direct flights from Bali or Kuala Lumpur.

One of the signs reads: “Be careful of the volcano area.”

Safety and other matters

■ Always follow what your guide says, especially when it comes to advisories on volcanic activity.
■ Wear the right clothing for cold weather. The temperatures on Mount Ijen could drop as low as 8 degrees Celsius with the wind chill, and even lower at the Mount Bromo viewpoint.
■ Wear comfortable hiking shoes. The hike from the drop off area to the crater rim is four kilometers. Bromo will need you to hike a little less.

The lake is one kilometer below the crater rim

■ For Mount Ijen, you need a gas mask even if you don’t have to wear it during most of the climb.
■ Masks and flashlights are usually inclusive of tour packages, but for DIY trips, you can rent a mask and flashlight at the parking area of Mount Ijen.
■ If your guide says you need to wear the mask, wear it.
■ The path to the sulfuric lake a kilometer from the crater rim is steep and unsteady so if you wish to see the phenomenal blue flames up close, make sure you’re fit to go down and back up.
■ Stay alert in the vicinity of the crater lake, especially while watching the blue flames and observing the sulfur miners, since the vents suddenly expel huge volumes of toxic sulfuric steam.

Ijen “taxis”

■ Make way for the sulfur miners. Some of them, by the way, moonlight as “taxi drivers” and offer their trolleys to hikers whose legs have given up on them.
■ Mount Bromo is a sacred volcano among the Tenggerese people, so observe proper decorum. They have a temple at the foot of the mountain called Pura Luhur Poten.
■ Since the volcano is active, those who wish to climb the crater are warned of its dangers, if not prohibited from doing so.
■ Bring a scarf or face mask as the Tengger massif is surrounded by vast sandy plains and it could get dusty when the winds blow.
■ Always bring your trash back.

Bring a quality phone camera for night time shooting so your photos of the phenomenal Ijen blue flame wont’ turn out like this. So from who’s camera is this? Mine.

Final note on DIY and tour bookings

I explored the idea of doing a DIY trip for both volcano trips, but acquiring the services of a tour organizer turned out cheaper, more convenient, and more secure for us with an experienced guide — our animated guide Arif was an ex-miner in Ijen — especially that we had three children in tow.

Consider the accommodations, which the tour package includes. When I checked the rates of similar hotels — we would have needed to book two hotels for Bromo and Ijen — the rates made little difference when I ran the numbers at that time. And to our pleasant surprise BlueFlame booked us in a three-star hotel for the Ijen leg, and then at a cozy bread-and-breakfast hotel for the Bromo leg.

The good thing with BlueFlame is that they can easily customize your trip. So, I still suggest that you ask separate quotations for tour with accommodations and tour without accommodations, then check booking sites like Agoda as they regularly offer huge discounts for you to compare.

Our guide Arif explains that pilgrims leave food offerings on the crater rim of Mount Bromo to appease the gods .

Also, consider the six separate land trips and one ferry crossing that you need to book separately. The other option is to get a package tour there. Since time wasn’t on our side and to minimize delays that could arise from having multiple “service providers,” we opted for one tour operator.

And except for some minor hitches like the ferry incident in the Strait of Bali, the trip from Ubud to Yogyakarta — to our huge relief — went on wonderfully as planned.

So, are you ready for the mesmerizing island of Java?

Making Ijen and Bromo happen

And what brought us to Java’s epic volcanoes

Crater creatures

On the crater rim of Mt. Ijen in East Java, Indonesia, trying not to inhale too much sulfuric smoke from the crater lake. IG: travelingvs

The plan — hatched around this time last year — was to stay in Bali for five days. Just chill out. Go temple hopping. Check out the beaches. But the wife, from out of the blue, posed (although she’s denying it now): “We’re going to Indonesia and we’re not seeing any volcanoes?”

Good question, because I’d been dreaming about going to two remote volcanoes in East Java: Bromo and Ijen, arguably two of the most beautiful in this Southeast Asian country dotted with active craters. I showed Bretha some pics, and without hesitation, she declared, “Let’s go!”

This otherworldly scenery was what greeted us at the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, and it was surreal to be taking snapshots like this one.

Now, there were quite a few issues to hurdle. To get to Bromo, we’d either take a two-and-a-half flight from Bali to Surabaya, then another three-hour road trip to the jump-off point in Malang, then go back to Surabaya before heading to Yogyakarta for more temple hopping. This option meant we wouldn’t see Ijen Crater, which is famed for its blue flames and sulfur mining.

So, we took another route (cutting short our Bali trip by three days) to see both Bromo and Ijen. While we DIYed everything else during the two-week trip, we opted to acquire the services of an online tour agency — Ijen Blue Flame Tours, which we highly recommend along with our funny and awesome tour guide Arif — to see both volcanoes. And this itinerary explains why (more info here):

The Traveling Vs (a.k.a. The 7 Kilos Gang) arriving at the Port of Banyuwangi, East Java from Gilimanuk, Bali. Check out our bags that carried all we needed to last two weeks.

Day 1
*Ubud, Bali to port of Gilimanuk by car: 124 kilometers (4 hours)
*One-hour ferry crossing from Gilimanuk Port to Ketapang Port.
*20-minute van ride from Ketapang to Banyuwangi
*Speed sleeping in Banyuwangi hotel.

With our guide Arif at the miners’ bunkhouse halfway through the three-hour hike.

Day 2

*Call time at 1 a.m. for 1-hour ride to Mount Ijen jump-off point.

*Two-hour, four-kilometer hike in 10-degree Celsius weather to viewing point of Kawah Ijen, or Ijen Crater.

So how was the climb like? Consider the trail slope of 30 to 45 degrees in the dark. No kidding. Depending on your pace, you’d reach the crater rim. There was the optional descent to the crater along a narrow, steep pass, which takes roughly an hour with a gas mask on. My eldest daughter and I descended to witness the blue flames with Arif, while my wife and two younger kids stayed near the crater rim and made themselves warm and cozy by a bonfire that some miners made.

The hike back to the parking area with a quick stop for hot coffee or tea in between takes two hours through spellbinding scenery. Through all this, Arif was extremely helpful and encouraging, telling us his story of how he used to be a sulfur miner himself here in Ijen two years ago.

Thank you, Kawah Ijen!

*On our way back, we stopped by a nice waterfall called Air Terjun Jagir, where we had breakfast and Cyan took a dip.

Cyan takes a dip in Air Terjun Jagir

We headed back to Ketapang Inda Hotel, tidied up, then took a 280-kilometer, 6-hour drive to Cemoro Lawang village.

*Speed sleeping in Cemoro Lawang Inn.

Bye, Ketapang Inda Hotel… hello Cemoro Lawang Inn!

Day 3

One of the viewpoints to witness the indescribable beauty of Bromo Tengger Semeru.

*Call time at 2:30 a.m. for 1-hour ride on 4×4 jeep to Bromo viewing area and wait for sunrise. The weather here was much colder than Ijen, around 8 degrees and we had to warm our hands over hot coals during the wait.

Minutes later, we headed to the designated viewpoint, waited for the first rays of sunlight, and then slowly revealed before our eyes was the jaw-dropping scenery of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. The park features five volcanoes sprawled within the caldera of an ancient volcano: Mount Bromo (left), Mount Kursi, Mount Widodaren, Mount Watangan and Mount Batok (frontmost). In the background at the edge of the Tengger massif, an active volcano complex, is Mount Semeru, the highest mountain in the island of Java.

At the main viewpoint

From the viewpoint area, we rode to the drop off point for a hike across Tengger Sand Sea (the caldera of an ancient volcano), past the handsome Gunung Batok, and climb on top of the Bromo Caldera with a view of Mount Semeru, both active volcanoes.

Descent from Mt. Bromo’s crater with a breathtaking view of the massif where a solitary temple called Pura Luhur Poten Gunung Bromo rests.

*We then returned to to the hotel and headed to Surabaya via a 95-kilometer road for three hours. We then took a five-hour train ride to Yogyakarta.

Hello, Yogyakarta!

Surprisingly, the kids weren’t exhausted from all the hiking in the wee hours as they got to sleep and rest during transit. But was it all worth it? Hiking up Gunung Ijen Bromo Tengger Semeru massif and experiencing both from near and far are experiences that are beyond words. And the Traveling Vs would say it’s something families should do: to hike up and down volcanoes when you find yourself in Indonesia.

Until next time! — The Traveling Vs
(For more details, check out our itinerary for our entire trip to Java)

Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back (Part 3)

Rites and Rides on a Good Friday and Black Saturday

Young roadtrippers at the Banaue Terraces, a 2,000-year-old engineering wonder

BEAUTY, the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal wrote, has another side to it, and a beautiful place, “like a round loaf of bread,” offers the question whether one could love even what is imperfect, unpleasant, neglected.
The Cebu-Sagada-Cebu road trip, foremost, was about seeing all these beautiful places, those that we only saw in postcards and had dreamed of visiting ever since. And then there’s the entire process of getting to these places and going back. In both cases – the seeing and searching – were marked by extremes.

Tunnel from Sagada to Bontoc

During our long drives, the scenery shifts from breathtaking to dismal, from dramatic to depressing, all without warning. At several points, one can no longer distinguish the urban from the rural, the sprawl of progress from decay. But travelers in hurry have no time to mull over these sad realities, whether there is something to love in spite of these imperfections, unpleasantness and neglect. All there was to do was to get away as fast as we can to reach the next picture-perfect destination.

Kadchog Rice Terraces

That was the story so far on the road – leaving the environmental sob story that is Baguio to get to Sagada, and now two days later, leaving Sagada via a different route to avoid Baguio. This meant passing the road that cuts through Bontoc then down to Banaue in search of a famed man-made wonder. And along the way, the unexpected began to unfold.

Bay-yo Village with its rice terraces was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List

The good thing about not having done much research for this road trip was that we were always in for a surprise, bad or good. But along the last remaining stretch of the Halsema Highway in the soft Cordillera daylight, it was all good – smooth roads, stunning scenery, landslides that procrastinated. Then slowly from down below, rice terraces carved on the edge of the river banks appeared. The Kadchog Rice Terraces with the Chico River that cuts through, we’d later learn. And farther down we’d find the Bayyo Rice Terraces. We were all bent on seeing the “world’s eight wonder” some 60 kilometers from Sagada that we didn’t expect to see these other earthen monuments to Ifugao expertise.

Bay-yo Village viewpoint

The two-hour descent from Sagada – including a stop in Bontoc where Jethro was overjoyed to find at long last packets of momma sold along the sidewalks – took us to the Banaue Rice Terraces, the most popular destination in the Cordilleras. This 2,000-year-old man-made marvel 1,500 meters above sea level covers 10,000 kilometers (nearly half the area of Mandaue City). Shops selling woodcraft and souvenir items lined both sides of the road. A few dozen steps below is a platform that offers lowlanders an expansive view of the terraces.

Banaue Rice Terraces

It was a perfect time to enthrall the kids about how the Ifugaos carved these terraces from the mountains with their bare hands, how they irrigated the rice paddies, how they cultivated rice and crops. And while all of which were feats of engineering and agriculture, the terraces, the kids had to know, are the wellspring of life, art and culture in this idyllic part of the world.

It was tempting to stay for a couple more days and venture to Batad with its stone-walled terraces and witness how the upland life is in this village of some 1,500 people. But we had to leave, our desire to see beautiful places barely satiated, stirred all the more. Nevertheless, we – the Fernandezes, us Villaflors and Jethro, perhaps the biggest traveler in these parts – were grateful for a tranquil drive through a magnificent landscape that makes any traveler vow to his inner anitos of a return.

View from the roadside: the Chico River cuts through the Kadchog Rice Terraces

We drove further down the Mountain Province-Ifugao-Nueva Vizcaya highway, until we reached “civilization,” driving through Nueva Ecija, then past the insufferably monotonous flatlands of Tarlac, before we found ourselves hurtling along the expressways at breakneck speeds, neck and neck with Luzon’s notorious buses, straight back to the metropolis.

…We found ourselves hurtling along the expressways at breakneck speeds, neck and neck with Luzon’s notorious buses, straight back to the metropolis.

After dealing with Edsa’s moderate late evening traffic, we reached our hotel in Mandaluyong, where the betel nut from Bontoc was sampled (nice, it was). We realized it was Maundy Thursday, six days since we began this pilgrimage of sorts from Cebu. Except for Jethro who would be taking the plane back to Cebu, tomorrow, Good Friday was time for us to retrace our route. That meant close to half an unclimactic day’s drive to Legazpi City in Albay.

800 kilometers: the distance between the Banaue Rice Terraces and Mayon Volcano

The plan earlier was to spend a day in CamSur, but time had run out. We decided to stay overnight in Legazpi. I tried to recall the 14-hour drive from Matnog, Sorsogon – Luzon Island’s southern tip – to Mandaluyong City five days ago. It was uneventful, if not for the few exceptional minutes through Albay when the elusive Mt. Mayon suddenly emerged from the skyline, then disappeared, before it emerged again, and a good spot drew us out to take snapshots of this beautiful volcano that had gained notoriety for hiding its peak behind clouds from tourists. How lucky we were that Mayon revealed itself to us that Sunday.

Penitents on a Good Friday in Albay

The 10-hour drive the next morning came to an abrupt halt in the heart of Legazpi where the main roads where shut for the Good Friday procession. Going past flagellants with bloodied backs, we drove around in search of accommodations (that is correct, we did not make reservations for the Albay stop, bravo).

Really good street food in Legazpi

After two hours, we finally found a decent hotel, whose guard was nice enough to point us to a good place to eat. And by good, that meant street food preferred by locals of the Bicol region. Two tricycles took us to the middle of town where a number of food carts converged every night on an otherwise empty lot. Various Bicolano fare was served alongside goto, fried chicken and silog dishes. I had tapsilog with the best binagoongang rice on the planet.

The next morning, Black Saturday, we went to the town of Daraga to visit the Cagsawa Ruins, or what remains of a church that was buried in rocks and lava when the nearby volcano erupted in February 1814. Again it was an opportunity to impart some knowledge to our kids, our well-behaved passengers who endured dozens of hours on the road just to see with their own eyes these natural and man-made wonders that they read so often in their textbooks.

Thanks to Reggie Fernandez for the family pic 🙂

This time, it was a story about how the lives of Bicolanons have been built around something so beautiful yet so destructive. And it was right in front of these youngest of travelers: rising close to 2,500 meters to the cloudy sky in all its terrifying elegance.

We finally left Luzon in mid-day. As Jong on his Fortuner and I on my Strada “expertly” negotiated the desolate highways of Samar, the less than 500 kilometers to go no longer seemed that daunting.

Cagsawa Ruins

I looked back at the last few days and the 2,500 kilometers behind us and what we saw that will leave permanent impressions in our mind, perhaps begging us to return one day: Mayon, Banaue, Bontoc, Sagada. But what was this trip all about?

Another European writer, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq said tourists are motivated by one thing when they travel: to confirm with their own eyes what they saw on postcards and travel magazines. Our trip was like that in some way, I admit. But by traveling 3,000 kilometers from Cebu to Sagada and back along the Pan-Philippine Highway, there was something we longed to experience and discover, and we did, from the mundane to the, well, profound. And how we experienced for ourselves the things people endure to see something beautiful.

Lovely handicraft at a row of stalls just outside the Cagsawa Ruins in Daraga, Albay

True, this road trip confirmed how beautiful this country is. But what of loving the other side, all that imperfection, unpleasantness and neglect that tried to call our attention – dilapidated roads, bad architecture, the sad state of our Ro-ro ports, Baguio – reminders that something went wrong somewhere? Did we learn to love those as well? Probably not. But it’s something one learns to accept as one proceeds to leave.

From Matnog, Sorsogon: Farewell, beautiful island of Luzon

As I drove through the highway that leads to Ormoc City, where we’d take a boat straight to Cebu City the next morning, Easter Sunday, fatigue and drowsiness had set in. Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light. What apt words for a Black Saturday night. To keep myself awake, I had to slap myself so hard the foundations of this lovely republic shook, the earth’s axis shifting slightly each time. But I made it, we made it back.

Back home, after traveling 72 hours on 3,000 kilometers of road, I was asked: would we do it again, drive from Cebu to Sagada and back?

Back home, after traveling 72 hours on 3,000 kilometers of road, I was asked: would we do it again, drive from Cebu to Sagada and back? No, probably not, I said. Because we’d be driving off to somewhere else, some other place that’s just as achingly beautiful, imperfections and all.

Mount Mayon, one last time


(Also published on SunStar Travel in February 2014)

For a summary of the entire trip, click here to read “The Long and Short of It: An Epic Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back by The Traveling Vs.

Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back (Part 2)

Past Mordor to the land of momma and magic mushrooms (Part 2)

And when we passed by this beauty on Day 2 of the road trip, we had to stop and admire Mt. Mayon from an unusual vantage point in Albay, which I love owing to the contrasts and layers.

IT’S just like working in the office. You sit for hours straight to get the job done – getting from point A to point B. Extra hours spent on the road meant overtime. Or think about it as a job where you get to watch movies all day – the windshield or car windows the screen, where all those beautiful sights unfold past you scene after scene, reel after reel.

Sagada, Mountain Province

Well, that was the idea I tried to sell when this whole road trip thing cropped up, only that I somehow forgot that even supposedly good movies have parts that can make you cringe.

Bad scripts, pointless scenes, terrible endings: all these were flashing through my head as our two-car convoy crawled up Kennon Road that Monday afternoon, triggered perhaps by the sight of barren cliff walls to our left that looked like a colossal abandoned quarry, the edges cutting ruthlessly against the late afternoon sky above the Cordilleras.

Sagada sunset

Mordor, just like Mordor, I thought out loud, as I dealt with the road’s sharp turns and sudden climbs. Well, at least the road to Baguio City is well-paved and we needn’t have to ascend on bare feet like those poor hobbits did. Besides, we’ll get some good night’s rest in the summer capital, right?
Wrong. The moment we drove past the city’s edge, a horrendous gridlock 1,400 meters above the sea stopped us in our tracks. As our cars crept wearily into the heart of the city, we crossed paths with hordes of orcs steering garish passenger jeepneys, fighting for nanometers of road space, elbowing us at the slightest chance out of our lane.

Half-turkey half-chicken in Sagada

Manila’s notorious drivers seemed like well-bred elves compared to their Baguio counterparts. Road courtesy must have disappeared along with thousands of majestic pine trees that used to cover the mountainsides, now strewn with shoddy dwellings that resembled none of the charming log cabins that our pretty script said we would find.
The sorry state of this upland city shocked us. We felt unwelcome. Go away, the phantoms of Baguio past seemed to tell us, as we inched our way through its mind-boggling network of narrow roads, driving in circles past or under or around an improbable flyover that rose like an ingrown toenail – it looked painful – above choke points, street corners lined with shops that had seen better days.

The sorry state of this upland city shocked us. We felt unwelcome. Go away, the phantoms of Baguio past seemed to tell us…

We had to leave. Ditching our plans to sleep overnight in Baguio, our road trip party of 11 – the Fernandezes, us Villaflors, and the visual artist Jethro Estimo, who joined us in Mandaluyong City that morning – decided to drive straight to Sagada. The town, said Google Maps, was only 146 kilometers from Baguio. Jethro, who had arranged the accommodations in Sagada, sent a text message to the innkeeper that we were on our way.

Danum Lake, Sagada

At a refueling station, Jong jumped out of his SUV, the lead car, and approached a group of van drivers who had called it a day. How far is it from Sagada, Jong asked. Five to six hours, said one. Just spend the night here – you’re not familiar with the road, said another. Jong relayed the message: “Mga lima ka oras kuno bai.” I nodded, “Payts.”
The locals sniggered, one of whom, head shaking, turned towards the group and remarked in their own tongue, in a half-incredulous, half-mocking tone, something that questioned our wisdom, if not our sanity. Crazy lowlanders, they must have muttered. Crazy because Halsema Highway, it turns out, is reputed as one of the world’s most dangerous roads. But at that time we had no idea that it was, as we really didn’t do much research.

Crazy lowlanders, they must have muttered. Crazy because Halsema Highway, it turns out, is reputed as one of the world’s most dangerous roads.

We said thanks and drove off along the Halsema Highway. The fresh air of Baguio’s outskirts filled the car as I opened the windows. Bretha and our three kids – ages 12, 8, and three – looked relaxed in the backseat, and so did Jethro on the passenger side.
By now we had spent some 30 hours on the road with two overnight stops: an hour from Cebu City to Danao, nine hours from Isabel, Leyte to Allen, Samar, 12 hours from Matnog, Sorsogon to Metro Manila, and eight hours to Baguio. We left on a Saturday morning from Cebu. It was now Monday night.

As I followed the Fernandezes’ car along Halsema, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and ease. I just focused on the road knowing the cliff’s edge was always just a few feet away. And there wasn’t anything to see there at night, except for the silhouettes of Mt. Pulag and smaller mountains, and the sign that said you were standing on the highest point of the Philippine highway system at 2,255 meters above sea level, which meant you had to stop and take the obligatory group photo.

(Photo by Reggie Fernandez)

And for the first three hours, the steady uphill climb on smooth concrete roads never felt risky, the dips, turns and ascents almost predictable. This was going to be one laid-back stretch to Sagada. That’s what I thought.
We had passed a number of sleepy villages that were hours apart, but there was one I’ll never forget. On the front wall of what seemed like the barangay hall was a sign that read “In memory of…” Since we merely slowed down past the hall at a curve, I couldn’t read the rest of the message and the list that followed.
A few minutes later, as the highway descended along the mountainside, we plunged – without warning – straight into thick, heavy fog that covered a dozen kilometers or so of road. I had to tailgate Jong’s car otherwise I would lose sight of him, the headlights and fog lamps of my pickup no match for the endless, impenetrable blanket of fog blocking my view.

…as the highway descended along the mountainside, we plunged – without warning – straight into thick, heavy fog that covered a dozen kilometers or so of road.

I then realized what the sign on the barangay hall was for: it must have been in memory of those who drove their last in this perilous stretch of invisible road, and the list, never mind.
While we did not expect to traverse such a scary road, the strenuous drive to Allen a couple of nights ago somehow prepared us mentally for the remaining stretch that would lead us to Sagada. So we drove on, tired but confident, but not after having goose bumps in this bone-chilling Cordillera air, which cleared eventually.

An elderly man visits tombs of World War II veterans at Sagada Public Cemetery

In the backseat, the wife and kids were sleeping soundly even if all four of them looked like they were trying to pull off submission moves on each other: limbs intertwined, a tiny foot or two resting on someone’s face, cheek pressed against cheek. To while away the time, Jethro, a trivia wunderkind, would throw historical anecdotes about Sagada (e.g. Do you know that many locals in Sagada are descendants of the Chinese pirate Limahong, who sought refuge in the Cordilleras after a failed invasion of Manila in the 16th century?).

Finally, we reached a junction with a signboard that pointed to Sagada. (Take the road to the left, the one to the right will take you all the way to Bontoc, texted the innkeeper earlier.)

Burial cave with ancient wooden coffins in Sagada

We drove up a dirt road – half of which was being paved – and reached Sagada in half an hour. It was one past midnight, a Tuesday.

Our innkeeper was waiting at a street corner, and led us down an alley to a small parking lot several meters from Kanip-aw Pines Lodge, where our austere rooms, sitting on the edge of a karst cliff, were waiting. From the balcony where it was freezing cold, I stared into a coal-black chasm below. Right across was a swathe of dark grey. It was time to rest.

The following morning while the kids were still asleep, Bretha and I stepped out in the same balcony that was just as freezing cold as the night before and gazed at the vision before us: a limestone ridge covered with pine trees all the way the valley below, a veil of fog hovering above. We wanted to stay for as long as we can.

Someone slept like a baby in Sagada

But in our two days in Sagada, we saw what needed to be seen: the Hanging Coffins, sacred burial sites, the Sumaguing Cave, Kiltepan Peak, the Sagada Rice Terraces, a pretty lake, an elevated clearing for sunset-watching.

The Villaflor and Fernandez kids at the Hanging Coffins

And the town proper – it seemed like a place from some make-believe land: houses covered in plain metal sheets for insulation, odd selections of food (e.g. pinikpikan side-by-side waffles and yoghurt salad), fruit wines that were more addictive than we cared to admit, free-range fowl that’s half-turkey, half-chicken.

Jethro and Bretha at Kanip-aw Lodge

And then who could ignore those ever-present signs that read: “No spitting of momma” on roadsides, one that got Jethro and I curious? The prohibition, our tour guide said, had to do with sanitation issues and the crimson stain the spit left behind. True enough we couldn’t find anyone selling momma, or betel nut anywhere.

Instead, what we found – or what the hyperactive sidekick of our tour guide found – was something that had more “magical” effects, something the youth of Sagada were probably just as familiar with. While trekking down a trail that led to a burial cave, the sidekick suddenly jumped up with joy: he had found something at the foot of a pine tree.

Trail leading to Sumaguing Cave

“Look!” he exclaimed, like a child showing off his discovery. 

“Oh, a magic mushroom,” I said. It was a guess – I haven’t seen a magic mushroom up close yet, but I’ve heard about it a couple of times. I asked Jethro to take a look. He chuckled.

Our guide shows Jethro some kind of mushroom

The sidekick looked at me, then at Jethro, at Jong, father of two, then at his find.

“It’s bad for kids,” he said, then threw the evil thing near a clump of bushes. We were sure he’d pick it up on his way back.

Reggie, Bretha and Arwen descent from some boulders inside Sumaguing Cave

But while magic mushrooms and momma are definitely bad for kids, a long trip to Sagada isn’t. Ours was an enchanting experience for the children, the town chockfull of magical tales of cursed mummies and talking skulls, with sceneries straight out of a movie about the unbelievable that came true.

 I’d like to think of the 1,500-kilometer trip from Cebu to Sagada as one plotless narrative, one that didn’t make sense, one that has been excruciating at times, but one that moved us in an indescribable, inexplicable manner. And we were only halfway.

The Villaflor and Fernandez kids taking some rest in wondrous Sumaguing Cave


Allen, Samar to Sagada Leg:

Road Trip 2013: Pt. A to Pt. B and back, March 23 to 31. In short: roughly 74 hours spent driving on the road, covering some 3,000 kilometers to and fro.

*Allen to Matnog, Sorsogon (2 hours ro-ro)
*Matnog to Legazpi City, Albay (3 hours road)
*Legazpi to Mandaluyong, Metro Manila (12 hours road)
*Mandaluyong to Baguio City (7 hours road)
*Baguio to Sagada (5 hours)

(Also published on SunStar Travel in February 2014)

The Long and Short of It: An Epic Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back

THE ROUTE. Road Trip 2013: Pt. A to Pt. B and back, March 23 to 31. In short: roughly 74 hours spent driving on the road, covering some 3,000 kilometers to and fro.

It looked difficult enough on paper. The actual road trip bordered on the absurd. But our small group of 11 on board two vehicles did it, driving from Cebu to Sagada and back. The entire trip took nine days, from March 23 to March 31. In all we drove some 3,000 kilometers and spent roughly 70 hours on the road, excluding the ferry crossings.

Getting lost in the urban areas that cost us precious minutes was the worst setback we encountered, and well a miscalculation of mine that cost hours of delay at the start of the trip. But this group of road trippers — the Villaflors and Fernandezes, plus the big guy Jethro Estimo — did well.
Having been spared of accidents, engine trouble, or even a flat tire, we considered ourselves lucky, after driving at an average of 80 kilometers per hour on pitch black roads in the middle of nowhere. We did just about enough planning: Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D and Plan E. Of course, we had to improvise along the way.

Here, I’m sharing a summary of our Cebu-Sagada-Cebu road trip:

Car 1, Toyota Fortuner, automatic: Jong Fernandez (lead driver), Reggie Fernandez (navigator), Gelo and Geli Fernandez, Abby (support crew)
Car 2, Mitsubishi Strada, manual: Noel Villaflor (driver), Bretha Mellado Villaflor (navigator), Amber, Arwen and Cyan (support crew), Jethro Estimo (who joined us in Manila).

From Cebu:
*Danao City to Isabel (5 hours ro-ro trip)
*Isabel to Tacloban City, Leyte (3 hours road)
*Tacloban City to Allen, Samar (9 hours road)
*Allen to Matnog, Sorsogon (2 hours ro-ro)
*Matnog to Legazpi City, Albay (3 hours road)
*Legazpi to Mandaluyong, Metro Manila (12 hours road)
*Mandaluyong to Baguio City (7 hours road)
*Baguio to Sagada (5 hours)

Return trip:
*Sagada to Bontoc, Mountain Province (2 hours road)
*Bontoc to Banaue, Ifugao (2 hours road)
*Banaue to Mandaluyong (6 hours road)
*Mandaluyong to Legazpi (12 hours road)
*Legazpi to Matnog (3 hours road)
*Matnog to Allen (2 hours ro-ro)
*Allen to Ormoc City, Leyte (9 hours road)
*Ormoc to Cebu City (5 hours ro-ro)

In all, that was roughly 74 hours spent driving on the road, covering some 3,000 kilometers to and fro.

The idea for a road trip was hatched two years ago, when my friend Abe Acosta, a lawyer based in Manila, posted on Facebook a road trip he made from Manila to Cebu. He provided crucial details, such as travel time estimates and the state of the roads along the Pan-Philippine Highway, which he said was generally good. The roll-on roll-off ferry crossings (Cebu to Leyte and then Allen, Samar to Matnog, Sorsogon in Luzon) had regular schedules and the fares were reasonable. He brought his family along. In short, the trip was manageable, even with children.

The Fernandez’s car: what car wash? (Photo by Reggie Fernandez)

In 2011, I proposed the idea to several friends but only Jong Fernandez, a corporate consultant, seemed excited about the idea. We finally decided to take the March trip in time for the Holy Week this year. Jong brought his entire family: his wife Reggie and two kids, ages 12 and 8. My wife Bretha and I brought along our three kids, ages 12, 8 and 3. Jong would drive a Fortuner, I a Strada. Big guy Jethro Estimo, a Cebuano artist and educator, joined us on Day 2 in Mandaluyong City for the Manila-Sagada leg.

Everything was a go, except for one major change of plan: instead of a Cebu-Manila-Cebu trip, we decided to go all the way to Sagada, and back. That single change resulted in the best vacation we’ve ever had.

Peak of Majestic Mount Mayon peeking.

There were many reasons to do the trip, one of which was to see along the long route the many fantastic sights that we grew up seeing only on postcards: the San Juanico Bridge, Mayon Volcano, the Banaue Rice Terraces. Sagada only gained popularity as a destination only recently, but we had to go there. Another reason was to prove that this ridiculously long trip can be done. The blogs and online forums warned: “don’t bring children,” or “better take a plane,” or that “the risk isn’t worth it.”

The blogs and online forums warned: “don’t bring children,” or “better take a plane,” or that “the risk isn’t worth it.”

At the Banaue Rice Terraces

Perhaps they were right, but we had to find out for ourselves. What we found along the way – kids and adults alike – was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or twice, maybe. And why not?

(A version of this post was published on SunStar Weekend in April 2013)