Travel Guide to Buscalan, Kalinga, Philippines
Buscalan is a small baranggay up in the mountains of Kalinga in Northern Philippines. It is a small and secluded community and can only be reached through narrow trails on steep mountain slopes. Buscalan is the homeland of the Butbut Tribe, once known as fierce headhunters among the Cordillera groups of people. But this practice has long been discontinued. It has recently gained tourism favors because of its respected elder Apo Whang-od who holds the recognition as the oldest and last surviving traditional Kalinga tattoo artist.
With the recent grounding of Florida Line’s fleet of buses from Manila to Bontoc (as of March 6, 2014), travelers are only left with 2 options: via Tabuk-Tinglayan and via Baguio-Bontoc.
Tabuk Route (from Manila)
Take Victory Liner bound for Tabuk from Kamias station in Quezon City. There are also stations in Pasay and Sampaloc. For further information, please refer to Victory Liner Webpage or you may call +63 2 9207396.
Tabuk bound buses leave at 7:00PM and 7:25PM. I am personally recommending the 7:45PM trip because the bus has an onboard comfort room. Fare is about P680.
Manila to Tabuk is approximately 466 kilometers or about 11 hours on the road (with a few stopovers in Nueva Vizcaya).
ETA in Bulanao, Tabuk is around 5:00AM. Get off infront of St. William’s Church. Note that it is too early for the first trip to Tinglayan. You may want to use this time for early breakfast.
There is no fixed terminal for Tinglayan jeepneys and mini-buses but you can find them along the national highway, a few walks from the church. First trip normally leaves at 7:00AM. This takes about 2 hours on long winding road. Prepare anti-dizziness tabs especially if you’re toploading.
Look for the mini-bus or jeepney that goes to Bontoc. Make sure you drop off in Mar-u in Barangay Bugnay. Fare is about P120.
Mar-u, is exactly where the 1st leg of the trail to what they call as Turning Point begins. The easier but longer trail is through that paved road about 5 kilometers uphill. Best to take this route going up. The marker is a wooden gate. The shorter way is through the dugout steps on the sides of the mountain. This is about 2-kilometer steep climb. Ask the locals where to pass. Drivers know where Mar-u is. Best to take this route coming down.
From the turning point starts the long walk to Buscalan. This takes about 2-3 hours depending on your stamina and leg strength. Take a slow walk. Whang-od can see you from her village on the other side of the mountain.
If you missed the Bontoc schedule, take the next trip out but this will only take you to Tinglayan Proper. Fare is only P100.
From the poblacion in Tinglayan, you may negotiate for single motorcycles to bring you to the Turning Point. Travel time is approximately 1 hour. Fare is no more than P300.
Be careful, there are a lot of motorcycle drivers that will take advantage. Do not pay them the full amount in advance. The modus here is they will suggest a quick stop over in Basao for the view of Mt. Patukan commonly called Sleeping Beauty. Before you leave, they will adjust the air lock of the tires and when it starts to deflate along the way, they will get you off near Mar-u and will let you walk about 8 kilometers more. When you negotiate, make sure you tell them that you know what they usually do to uninitiated tourists. This should warn them. This happened to us because we purposely alighted in Tinglayan to see more of it. Good- hearted Butbuts along the way saved us.
Victory Liner leaves every hour from its stations in Cubao and Pasay. Check the web for schedule and fare matrix here.
Genesis Joybus in Cubao Station leaves Manila to Baguio as early as 3AM. Check their website for further details on schedule and fare http://www.genesistransport.com.ph/gtsi/schedules.html
Manila to Baguio is 396 kilometers or about 6 hours. Baguio to Bontoc is 146 kilometers or about 5-6 hours.
Lizardo/GL Bus Lines, Dangwa Bus, Rising Sun Bus leaves Baguio Dangwa Terminal every hour but only until 3PM the latest. Fare is about P220.
From Bontoc, take the jeepney or mini-buses bound for Tabuk or Tinglayan. Make sure to get off in Bugnay.
Coming Down From Buscalan
Make sure you get down as early as 6:30am to catch the jeepneys or buses that pass through Mar-u going to Bontoc or Tabuk. It’s better to be early as there is really no fixed schedule.
What to Expect?
Toploading or to sit on the roof of the jeepneys/mini-buses is frequent especially among men as a courtesy to the elderly, women and children.
The jeepneys normally move around Tabuk to pick-up grocery items before it finally heads out.
Bring lots of candies for children. Adults would appreciate if you gift them basic medicines, bread, matches and candles. Do this discreetly as it’s hard to refuse when your supplies run out.
Bring enough food but be ready to share it with your host family.
There is only 1 store there that sells noodles and sardines but it is really very expensive.
Expect that you will be sold fresh Arabica coffee at P100 per pack or knives at P200. Please support our indigenous people’s other sources of income.
There is already electricity in Buscalan.
Expect to be disconnected from the world. No cellphone signal anywhere.
Your host family may prepare food taken from their backyard. Be ready to be served with farmland frogs, miskitu (tiny fish from the ricefield) or just bland mung beans.
Bring bottled water. This is a must!
I was lucky to arrive without any tourist on the day of my tattoo session. It means I did not have to queue. Otherwise, you may have to extend another day. Whang-od usually starts the session in the morning and ends shortly after lunch or depending on her mood.
What They Expect From You?
To be respectful of their culture and traditions is on top of the things they expect from visitors.
Be ready to be challenged to live the Kalinga way. They sometimes bring you to the rice paddies to plant the stalks.
Always keep the area peaceful. Avoid noise. Buscalan is not a party place. You might be sent immediately down even at the wee hours of the night.
Whang-od expects you to pay for your tattoo. As a courtesy, do not ever ask for the price first. Always anticipate that price starts from P500 to P3000 depending on the size of your tattoo.
Whang-od expects that you have not drunk alcohol or taken drugs before you get inked. This is SOP, unless you want to pass out during the process of tattooing.
Bring your trash as you leave Buscalan.
Where to stay?
Many homes in Buscalan are offered to tourists for P150-P200 per person per day. Don’t ever expect to sleep on a mattress.
Charlie Pan-oy at 09981888697 runs a simple home stay type inn for P250 per person. He has his own Toilet and Bath.
Whang-od’s house is also open to accommodate you. Grace, her future successor also offers her home for tourists.
There is no need to panic on accommodations, there’s more room for everyone.
Not every home has a private toilet and bath. There’s a communal bath near the basketball court or you may wish to take a dip in the waterfalls.
If your host family does not have a toilet, you may request to use Charlie’s toilet or some other homes like Apo’s and Grace’s.
Are guides and translators needed?
Honestly, you can trek to Buscalan even without a guide. As soon as you reach the turning point, you will only need to follow the trail. There is only 1 road that leads to the village.
There are also kids in the public high school area near the turning point that goes home to Buscalan every afternoon. You might just want to give them a little tip.
If you arrive early in the turning point, there is always someone going up to the village. They’d be more willing to share the trail with you.
If you want to trek farther in Loccong or to the waterfalls, the kids will guide you.
Should you really wish to get a guide, you may request Charlie Pan-oy at 09981888697.
Translators are not needed because most of the younger people there can speak Filipino or English. Grace speaks fluently in Filipino and she is majoring in English from a school in Tabuk. Apo Whang-od also speaks and understands a smattering of Filipino.
How many days are needed to complete the trip?
3 days, 4 nights including travel time (most recommended)
1st night – departure from Manila to Tabuk or Baguio
1st day – travel from Tabuk or Baguio-Bontoc to Buscalan
2nd night – explore the village or chitchat with the villagers
2nd day – queue for tattoo; explore the village
3rd night – spend a bonfire with your hosts
3rd day – leave early for Tabuk or Bontoc
4th night – travel back to Manila
Best Gift to the Locals
Children – candies or donate educational toys in the school
Adults – hygiene kit especially toothbrush and toothpaste
Apo Whang-od – she likes to dress up with lots of ornaments
Grace – she is 17 years old, I suggest sanitary care or trinkets
Gifts are not needed but will be very appreciated. Else, be ready to share a joke, a dance or a song.
Learn more about the Butbut Tribe here.
Get to know more about Whang-od here.
Know the redeemers of traditional tattoo here.