The Old Halsema Highway

Have you ever wondered how it is to travel for more than 100 Kilometers of almost entirely rough road? If you are a tourist who’s planning for your Sagada trip on a holiday, you have to thank the decades of developments to make your journey comfortable. Nevertheless, at the worse condition of the Cordillera’s main highway, it created situations that placed the locals’ persistent spirit on the limelight.

Our humble group of thrill-seeking people (my family, nonetheless) have not been to Halsema Highway for 11 years now. The road from Baguio City to Sagada is said to be at its best condition already, that even sedan could already traverse the once considered a ‘highway-pretending’ mountain trail. More so, the construction of the alternate route via Besang Pass in Ilocos Sur has been generally completed already, giving another good option for tourists bound for that favorite Cordilleran destination should the road from the City of Pines be paralyzed by landslides created by extreme weather that frequently happened before.

A typical view along Halsema.

Halsema’s condition a decade ago was way hell different. It was the only road that connected Baguio to Sagada, unless tourists would venture a long way round via Dalton Pass and Banaue in the east that would take one or two days from Baguio, and the road condition there was even worse. There may be some other alternate roads parallel to Halsema, but those routes were more dangerous and not advisable for non-locals, not even to urbanites boasting their 4X4s, I think.

On June 2007, after about two hours of alternating paved and rough roads from Baguio City bound for Sagada, our journey met a landslide that completely shut down the highway for the motorists. The trucks carrying loads and supplies were stranded. The buses carrying passengers from the isolated communities bound for the city were affected as well. With the scene of an eighteen-wheeler truck wrecked off the cliff due to landslide was demoralizing for the people there too. But they had to find ways and continue living.

Locals took the temporary trail over the rock fall caused by the landslide to reach the other side of the road with high hope of reaching their destination.

Driven by the Cordilleran courage and persistence to keep going, the men tasked for removing the debris of the landslide carved a temporary trail out of the mountain cliff for the people to cross the other side of the road. They understand that removing those tremendous rocks and mud may take days considering the condition of the place and the availability of equipment. The buses from both sides decided to exchange passengers instead. Hopefully, the perishable loads on trucks such as the fresh vegetables from harvest had been managed through a certain transaction as well like what the bus lines did.

Motorists were stranded on the side of the road that leads to Baguio.

For our group on SUV, meanwhile, we had to accept that the removal of the landslide may take a day or more so we had to find another way or simply give in and forget about the trip to Sagada.

At one moment, a motorist from Baguio asked us if we want to join their convoy as they planned to trek the ‘other way’ via a road parallel to Halsema. First, it was not advisable to jump into that gutsy decision especially when the person remains a stranger, but when we saw his crew was also that of a family with an old lady and children on-board, we somehow felt comfortable.

We were three SUV’s then. We passed by miles of cabbage farms and everything that we may never see if we decided not to follow our guts. A huge farm of vegetables on rolling hills veiled by mists made the journey visually magnificent. We encountered local families and children along the way. The once famous “carrot man” who went viral in 2016 may be among those little children yet.

One of the vehicles during our convoy, traversing onto an almost zero-visibility mountain trail.

At one point, we encountered a bus from Sagada bound for Baguio. That bus may had taken that alternate route upon learning Halsema was closed. The bus loaded with passengers was stranded due to mud and the worsening weather. But the passengers, too eager to reach the city to meet their errands, set their foot on the mud and pulled the bus on rope hoping to get out of trouble. I was able to film it, and my cousin even joined the force of those people. They, however, failed on their first attempt, and they said they would let the drizzle pass for a while before they try pulling themselves off the mud once more. The convoy must continue and reach its destination before nightfall. But I’m very sure, those people were able to make themselves out of heck and reach their destination as well.

The passengers, preparing the rope and themselves for pulling the bus out of trouble.

Many locals of the Cordilleras live that way. They work together, leave no one behind, everything goes on despite the burden of rocks and mud that come their way. Such trait is not surprising. After all, they’ve built miles of rice terraces despite the absence of sufficient technology to sustain their communities for centuries. Many urbanites from Manila are travelling to this spectacular region to distress by finding the picturesque mountains and the splendid sea of clouds, but there is more to learn from their culture that may help someone who’s ‘finding herself’ to realize how it is to live in grace despite difficulties and hardships. They find ways to make things happen, even through the most inconvenient way. To stay together and keep going, that’s what I learned from old Halsema Highway.

A local farmer managing his crops. Manila owes them most of the Metropolis’ vegetables.

Waterfalls are everywhere in the Cordilleras.

This little community, just few towns before reaching Sagada, was just so calm.

By: Mr. Anjelo Noah Ordono
Locale Contributor

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