Snaps From Buscalan

Snaps From Buscalan Kalinga |

I was told the trail to Buscalan was paved. In my mind, I imagined hiking up a wide cemented road flanked by trees and no cliffs in sight, like Forestry in Los Baños where I grew up.


Buscalan, Kalinga is a small village tucked away in the Cordilleras. I knew nothing about the tribe, the place, or the culture before this trip; I just knew that it was home to Whang-Od— the last mambabatok or traditional tattoo artist— and her successor and grand-niece, Grace.

It rained on the way there from Bontoc (1.5 hour drive) and we were greeted by Charlie (a popular tour guide) at the turning point. It’s not advisable for tourists to go to Buscalan without a guide so we hired Charlie’s cousin, Craven, on the spot to be our guide and porter.

The hike to Buscalan was scary; probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done (or maybe I’ve just lived a long, cushy life). The rain made the narrow trail wet and slippery and seeing how far down I could fall (or roll) to my death put the fear of God in my heart.

Carrying only a tote bag filled with boneless bangus and vegetables for our meals and my camera hung around my neck, I started questioning what I was doing. Seriously, I’m a dainty baby. It really wasn’t that hard; locals climb the mountain carrying babies on their heads. I was just very scared.

“Do I really have to?” I tossed the thought around my head. “I think I can still go back and sleep in the van. I’m not planning on getting a tattoo anyway.”

The second time I slipped, Craven took away my tote bag (“ang bigat pala!”) so I could focus on what I was doing. Slowly but surely, I made my way towards Buscalan. There’s a small waterfalls halfway through but I wasn’t in the mood for fun or photos. In fact, I was considering throwing my camera off the cliff (it was only PHP26k anyway) because I felt it was throwing off my balance. I just wanted the goddamn hike to be over with and get to safety.

Buscalan. The hut is where Whang-Od does her tattoos.

The last ten minutes of the hike (20, if you’re me) was a 45-degree assault.

I smoke and I haven’t worked out in 2 years so it was pretty painful.

Forty-five minutes later, I was in Buscalan saying hi to the native pigs that roamed the village freely. THEY ARE SO CUTE but they kept scurrying away from me. I guess I had to earn their trust. I followed a bunch of piglets until I saw a mommy pig nursing the cutest, littlest ones. I whipped out my camera but she snorted a warning, protective of her babies, and I quickly ran off. I’ve never seen an angry pig, okay!

“Kinakatay niyo ba yung mga baboy?” I asked Craven. One of the locals told me their pigs were pets, like dogs.

“Minsan, pag may kasal. O pag may bumibili.”


We stayed at Craven’s sister’s house which had a beautiful view of the mountains and rice paddies. Her home also had a small lawn with Bermuda grass where we hung out, drinking native mountain coffee. They brew coffee all day and it is delicious.

The sun started to set and we watched the fog creep in.

A couple of notes:

-bring your own food. Your homestay will provide you with rice and can maybe cook for you but bring your own meat and vegetables. We passed by the market at Bontoc and bought food for dinner and breakfast before heading to Buscalan. It would be a nice gesture to bring extra so that you can share with the locals. :)

-bring little things for the locals. We got several bags of chocolates for the kids and our host, and matches for the elders.

Buscalan has electricity and icy cold running water. Our homestay had a clothesline where Craven and his friends would hang their phones from to get cell reception (Smart only). The village has a curfew on alcohol but you can drink at your homestay as long as it’s just your group and aren’t too loud. To be honest, I wasn’t in the mood to drink at all and only had a couple of shots of mango wine. I didn’t want to be hungover for the trek down the next day.

I went to bed (a foam mattress on the floor) and tried to sleep but all I could think off was falling off cliffs. I decided to get a tattoo the next day.

After watching the sunrise and getting our fill of coffee, we headed to Whang-Od’s hut a little past 630AM. We were told that we were fifth in line because there were some tourists from the previous day who weren’t able to get their tattoos done.

There really isn’t a system or queue they follow. It’s important that you have a guide because they’re basically the ones who will tell everyone who’s going next. I opted for Grace to do my tattoo because there was a line for Whang-Od and because… I don’t know, I just liked Grace haha.

Traditional tattoos are done using a bamboo stick, a pomelo tree or citrus thorn (which you get to take home with you) as the needle, and charcoal for ink. Unhygienic? I didn’t really care.

Back in the olden, headhunting days, traditional Kalinga tattoos were symbols worn by men or warriors to signify their rank and power, while considered ornaments to beautify women.

You can come prepared with a design or you can tell Grace or Whang-Od what you want. I came prepared!

The top is a Pang-ti’i design that represents rice stalks. Old Bontoc warriors would incorporate the Pang-ti’i into their chak-lag chest tattoo to symbolize the successfully taking of heads in battle. Hashtag POWER. Anyway, the Pang-ti’i also suggests bountiful harvest, abundance, and good fortune for the wearer and their family.

In short, give me money and glory.

The bottom is the Pinulikawkaw design. According to the book on Kalinga tattoos, the Pinulikawkaw is a protection piece against enemies or evil spirits for the wearer. In the old headhunting days, it meant that the wearer’s enemies would get lost while pursuing them after the headhunting raid.

I got it so I would make it out of the trek alive.

We started the trek back down around 3PM. The trail was dry and I knew how to use my walking stick properly now so I wasn’t as nervous. Halfway through, Craven told us that rain was approaching and sure enough, you could see the rain clouds slowly drifting towards us. MOTHER NATURE, PLEASE. I picked up my pace a little because the last thing I wanted was to be caught in a slippery trail again, even though Craven predicted it wouldn’t start raining ’til we reached the turning point (where we left our van).

Twenty minutes later and it was over. I thanked my body for not betraying me and I thanked the mountain for keeping me safe. I also need proper hiking gear.

There was a slight drizzle and just as predicted, the rain poured while we were changing into fresh clothes in the van.

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  • Reply Paoline September 23, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    This is a beautiful story, Helga! I don’t know if it’s just me but there’s a softness in it — it was touching. Also, the photos are wonderful! I regret not visiting Buscalan :(

    • Reply Helga September 28, 2015 at 1:55 pm

      You should go when you have the chance! :)

  • Reply Alex Carpio September 23, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    I would love to go on this trip. I’ve ALWAYS wanted a tattoo from Whang-Od.

    Is it true that it’s more painful than the normal tattooing?

    • Reply Helga September 28, 2015 at 3:21 pm

      Mine wasn’t very painful! Could be because Grace has a light hand and the spot I picked isn’t very painful. :)

  • Reply Gemma September 23, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    This looks like such an amazing experience! I’d probably be just as afraid during the hike, but reaching the top must have been so satisfying. And now you even have a tattoo to remember it all! :D

  • Reply Lou Castaneda September 24, 2015 at 1:07 am

    Ugh. I just love how you make your photos really dramatic. I get jealous with such, tbh. Especially those shots with the mug, and those mountain views, love how you chose the very likeable colors for it. I’m in love with this post! <3

    • Reply Helga September 28, 2015 at 4:23 pm

      Thank you, Lou! It’s hard to take a bad shot when you’re surrounded by beauty!

  • Reply Jae September 24, 2015 at 1:10 am

    Oh, how nice! I have a grade school friend who went there shortly after her mother’s death… She, too, got a traditional tattoo in honor of our her mom. Enjoyed reading this, Helga!

  • Reply Ziba September 24, 2015 at 2:45 am

    Helga, this is great! Especially the part about the tattoos. Yours looks great. My younger brother is a tattoo artist and once for Christmas I gave him a book on Ancient and Modern Filipino Tattoos. I wonder if it had anything about Kalinga tattoos… I gotta share this post with him. Also, all these photos are lovely. Great job!

  • Reply Bae Milanes September 24, 2015 at 5:03 am

    Just scanned through the photos while listening to a webinar LOL but I will read later. Good thing you feel comfortable hiking in shorts! I wouldn’t do it again after hiking Taal Volcano. LOL. But to be fair, I was unprepared and was wearing casual clothes like I was heading to the mall!! This makes me wanna post a #tbt blog post for when we went to Sagada. It looked soooo beautiful.

  • Reply Dominique September 24, 2015 at 10:39 am

    Ugh this made me wanna go there ASAP! BTW, How much did you pay for the tattoos? I love it!

  • Reply Janine September 24, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    WOW! This was an amazing post. I love your ink but I have to say I’m blown away by the photo above yours. Probably because it looks like a feather and I’m feather obsessed right now.

    Glad you didn’t fall to your death but your narration of the situation made me laugh out loud!

  • Reply Corinth September 25, 2015 at 7:37 am

    I love the way you tell us the stories of your adventures! I’m so glad you made it out alive and with amazing photos and that awesome tattoo!! I think for me, the worst part about hiking is the thought that I have to walk all the way back again. And I think we just don’t know the full capabilities of our bodies until we push ourselves to go further! I’m glad you didn’t give up!

    The sunset and sunrise were beautiful! <3

  • Reply Rej September 28, 2015 at 11:41 am

    I love the nature-y drama of your photos. Your tattoo looks pretty good, too! :)

  • Reply Kaan September 30, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Cool adventure! :) Wish I was there!

  • Reply Aye Laniton October 1, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Is it possible to visit Buscalan after Sagada in a 4d-3n trip? I love to meet the pigs!

    • Reply Helga October 4, 2015 at 6:24 pm

      Yes! We only spent 1 night in Sagada and 1 night in Buscalan. :)

  • Reply Erika Diaz October 3, 2015 at 12:23 am

    helgs! what cam did you use here and what lense?

    • Reply Helga October 4, 2015 at 6:24 pm

      Hi! Canon 700D with my 50mm f1.8 lens.

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