Travel, Trek and Tattoo

What can be more adventurous than putting travelling, trekking and getting a traditional tattoo altogether?  Just the thought of it pumped up my excitement and a little bit of fear was not far behind.  I was going to get my first tattoo in an unconventional way and I’ve always told myself in the past that I would NEVER get a tattoo.  Lesson learned:  Never say never.


It took us less than two hours to get to Manila from Cebu City through Cebu Pacific Air.   We booked a private van for our 5-day trip.  It was more convenient for us to easily have stopovers and we have the whole van to ourselves.  We were a big group of 11 friends by the way.  If you decide to go with this option, you can check the Facebook page One Viahero Van Rental and request for Billy as your driver.  He’s already very knowledgeable of the route.  He’s a great and professional driver too.  You may also contact Billy through his number:  09167953810.

We initially planned to take a bus from Manila to Bontoc which most (if not all) of the bloggers shared.  Since our trip to Manila was in the morning and the buses to Bontoc leave only at night (even the limited topload jeepneys to Tinglayan leave only at specific times), we wanted to make the most out of our time and booked a private van instead.

Left:  Shows the whole trip.  Ninoy Aquino International Airport-Banaue-Bontoc-Sagada-Baguio-Ninoy Aquino International Airport.  Middle:  Map zoomed in.  Right:  Bontoc-Tinglayan
Our favorite driver, Billy.  🙂

The journey to Banaue wasn’t easy.  More than 13 hours with long winding roads and rough terrains can definitely give you a headache and a pain in your behind.  We wanted to go straight to Bontoc but since we felt that we needed to rest comfortably on a bed, we made a stopover at Wonder Lodge.  It was already midnight when we arrived and it was the only one open at that time.  The temperature in Banaue can drop below 15 degrees at night.  Thank God they have hot showers.

For photos and room rates, please check

We left around 5:00 in the morning to see the Banaue Rice Terraces.  It was just a few minutes away from Wonder Lodge.


An anito
Fog covering the Banaue Rice Terraces

The Banaue Rice Terraces are 2,000-year-old terraces that were carved into the mountains of Ifugao in the Philippines by ancestors of the indigenous people. The Rice Terraces are commonly referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Wikipedia

We didn’t stay long and then went to Bontoc for breakfast.  It was a 2-3 hour trip from Banaue.  Imagine hungry werewolves inside the van.

I wished I took the time to go around and take a lot of photos of Bontoc.  Its rivers, mountains and rice terraces were amazing.  There’s something about that town which holds a lot of mysteries which are yet to be unfolded.


After having a hearty breakfast, we went to another town called Tinglayan.  Bontoc – Tinglayan took less than an hour but the road was the most challenging so far.  I could only imagine riding a topload jeepney on that route but it could have been a fun (and probably dangerous?) experience.  If we didn’t take a private van, we could have stopped in Baranggay Bugnay in Tinglayan where the 2-hour hike begins.  There’s also an option to ride a habal-habal for Php 100 to the drop off.  Our van made it all the way to the drop off point.  From there, the only way to Buscalan was by foot.  There was an area where we could leave the van overnight for around Php 150.

Since we were planning to stay in Buscalan overnight, we just brought the things that we needed plus valuables and left the rest inside the van. You wouldn’t want to be trekking with a very heavy bag.

Two weeks before the trip, I already contacted a tour guide from Buscalan named Gilbert and he also arranged our accommodation.  He was recommended by one of the bloggers.  Tour guide fee – Php 1000 for 5 pax (We had two tour guides).  Accommodation – Php 350/night with free native Barako coffee.  You may contact him through this number:  09084792012.  You can actually haggle on the fee but since we were happy with how they assisted us for two days, we even gave them extra.

At the drop off point.
The trek begins.





The Zip Line.  This was an option to get to the village faster but according to our tour guide, it wasn’t working at that time.  It could take around 10 passengers.
Mang-oy, one of our tour guides, is a local of Buscalan.  He helped us in carrying some of our things.  He shared that the Buscalan Village has its own language that isn’t used anywhere else.
Going down a steep hill with loose soil.
Lazaro assisting us in going down the hill.  Unfortunately there was no easier way.


Looking up to where we were heading.
Lazaro told us that a few weeks before we arrived, there was a man who died of heart attack while trekking.  Please make sure you’re fit to hike/trek.  It’s quite lung-busting especially if you’re not into any sports/other physical activities.
Feel free to take a dip.







We reached the Buscalan Tourist Center in less than an hour where we were required to fill out the guest information forms and pay a tourism and environmental fee of Php 75 each.  They also sell souvenirs.
A pig trying to climb the stairs.  We were surprised to see a lot of native pigs that were free to roam everywhere.
Beautiful rice fields.
Buscalan is abundant in coffee plants.  You can order a pack of kape barako for Php100.
Buscalan Homestay: a small hut where we stayed for the night.  With a clean toilet, hot/cold shower, clean rooms, comfy beds and a beautiful view.  We can also prepare and cook our own food all for Php 350 each/night.  I can’t complain.  The food choices are limited so it’s best to bring your own food to cook.  We had our lunch first before heading out to see Apo Whang Od.


My heart raced as we were preparing to see Apo Whang Od, mixed emotions surged.  Mang-oy and Lazaro walked with us to where the famous Mambabatok was at.


Whang-od Oggay ([ˈɸɑŋ:ˈəd]; born 17 February 1917) is a Filipina tattoo artist from Buscalan, Tinglayan, Kalinga, Philippines. She is considered as the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) from the Butbut people in Buscalan Kalinga and the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines. Her tattoo ink is composed of the mixture of charcoal and water that will be tapped into the skin through a thorn end of a calamansi or pomelo tree. She was tattooed when she was a teenager. Each of her arms took one day to be finished and her family paid bundles of rice for it. When her tattoo was completed her father killed a pig to celebrate it. This ancient technique of tattoing is called batok that dates back a thousand years before her time is relatively painful compared to other conventional techniques. She uses designs found in nature and basic geometric shapes. Due to her status as the last mambabatok, many netizens are lobbying her to be one of the National Artists of the Philippines. Instead of National Artist, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago urged her colleagues in the Philippine Senate through a resolution that Whang-od should be nominated as one of the National Living Treasures or Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan, which is equal rank to National Artist. (Wikipedia)

When we arrived, she was still working on an intricate tattoo on a tourist’s upper arm.  She couldn’t speak in Tagalog/English and we had our tour guides as interpreters.  She had to take a break for more than an hour to have her lunch and feed her pigs.  In order to save time (since she had to rest by 4 or 5 pm), we had our first tattoo done by one of her granddaughters, Emily.

Emily choosing a thorn.
She made an outline of the tattoo using the charcoal-water mix and then started to pound the thorn on the skin.
It took only about 15 minutes for her to finish my tattoo.  She then applied virgin coconut oil on my skin.  I also applied  antibacterial cream a few minutes after.

I was often asked, “Did it hurt?”.  Yes but it was bearable.  It was more painful to have your heart broken.  The symbol on my tattoo is called a “crab” which means, “traveller” and it costs Php 500.  When we heard that Apo Whang Od was already available, we went back to her to have her “three dots” signature.

Smile even when you’re hurting.  Apo Whang Od could no longer control her strength and she pounded harder than Emily which made it more painful.  It took only less than 5 minutes and it costs Php 100 for her signature.
The thorn used for my tattoo and I got to keep it.  They also sell a personalized souvenir which can preserve the thorn for Php 100.
Day 1 shows the tattoo right after it was done by Emily but without Apo Whang Od’s signature yet.  Day 2 reapplied with an antibacterial cream.  It was still bruised and quite painful.  On the 7th day, it was already healed.

We’ve heard and read horror stories about the others’ experiences that theirs got infected or took a month before it was healed.  In our case, we constantly applied antibacterial cream which gave positive results.  You just have to make sure to keep it clean all the time and allow it to “breathe”.

These are the tribal designs which you can choose from.  Each of these symbols has its own meaning or representation.

Travelers from Costa Rica asking about the meanings of the symbols.


  • Bring your own antibacterial wet wipes. We caught Apo Whang Od trying to reuse old wet wipes and when we gave her new ones, she refused and told us that it was the same.
  • Bring antibacterial cream. We used terramycin and applied several times a day for several days.  We didn’t have horror stories about our tattoos.
  • Avoid raising your voice, being rowdy or laughing hard.  Apo Whang Od is a very quiet lady and might mistake you for making fun of her.
  • Bring gifts for Apo Whang Od and the kids.  We brought powdered milk, food and candies.
  • They have a different culture in the village and it was a great experience for immersion.  Respect, converse with the locals and never leave your trash anywhere (I saw some trash along the trail).

Summary of our trip:

Day 1- Manila -Banaue

Day 2- Banaue – Buscalan, Tinglayan

Day 3 – Buscalan – Sagada

Day 4 – Sagada – Baguio

Day 5 – Baguio – Manila

We travelled in a fast pace, tried to squeeze in all those places in 5 days, that we only visited a few spots in Sagada and Baguio since those were intentionally just our side trips.  The highlight of our trip was to meet Apo Whang Od and had our traditional tattoo done.  It was a great pleasure to finally meet the 100-year old Mambabatok, who was the last of her generation.

Whenever I look at my tattoo, it brings back all the good and fun memories we had.  It was all worth it.

The photos should not be copied, reproduced & redistributed without my permission.

Copyright © 2017 Julianne Villaflor. All Rights Reserved.

3 thoughts on “Travel, Trek and Tattoo

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