For the longest time, I’ve resisted the urge to travel via motor vehicle. I wasn’t interested in the kind of road trip most people know; I preferred traveling on my own power, via bicycle or simply on foot—hiking, running, and everything in between. Vehicle travel is confining to me: you get in, drive, and get out for the sights. Unlike human-powered travel—where you can only go as fast as your legs will take you—your entire body is immersed in the experience. No second is lost to the wind; each second is a destination in itself.
When you cycle, every incline, road bump, or change in temperature is a memory that is stored. When you hike or run through a landscape, the scene is magnified; you are one small speck in this vast area, and time extends magnificently—you have the time to watch a snail pass you by, or the sun slowly rise across the ridge.
So… why was I now finding myself in a brand-new Ford Everest?
We were going on a road trip—something I’ve avoided for years, but times are changing, and I’m getting a little too old for the bare-bones expeditions into the outdoors. I still do those, but I figured I should try heading out on the open road with some friends on an adventure road trip. A few emails back and forth with GRID, and here we were: two Ford Everests, one Ford Ranger, and a crew of adventure athletes, filmmakers, conservationists, and a great outdoor cook on a road trip from sea to summit to city and back.
Before meeting up with JP and his team, the GRID crew made a stop in La Union. The drive was powered by three of Ford Motor's hardiest beasts: two Explorers and one Ranger.
As I always do before an expedition, I looked at our cast of characters: how would everyone fit together, who would I have to worry about, who wouldn’t make it up the mountain, who’s most likely to get into a shouting match with someone else.
There was Paco Guerrero: producer, videographer, and photographer extraordinaire. Serious bloke with a beard. A chain smoker, but fit enough to travel anywhere due to his outdoor assignments. Carmen del Prado: up-and-coming filmmaker and photographer making her mark on the world. She seemed fit enough to be thrown into any situation, or at least young and curious enough to be able to hack it. Red dirt amazes her—yes, that’s a good thing. Miguel Nacianceno: a food photographer with witty comebacks and a relaxed, cheery atmosphere about him. He didn’t look like he would make it up, but he’d be damned if he didn’t try. Nayna Katigbak: cooks good food, is game for any adventure, and wears a fanny pack filled with essentials. Don’t get on her bad side; she’s a vital part of this trip.
Then, there was the adventure crew: Thumbie Remigio, race director and mountain athlete who’s done every endurance sport in the country, and has stood on the podium for many races. A fun guy to be around, and is always the life of any expedition. Ruel Trias, dog trainer and emergency rescue worker by day; mountain athlete in his spare time. One of the strongest guys I know, both on the bike and on two feet—he was running barefoot way before Christopher McDougall made it hip. And Harry Tanoja, the gang’s regular joe: his day job as an engineer has him creating high-precision instruments, but his weekends are filled with running up mountains and biking gnarly trails on the way home from work. One of the most adventurous 9-to-5ers I know, breaking the stereotype that you can’t be adventurous if you work in an office.
Our ragtag group was traveling from sea to summit, in three cars over eight days. But what was this road trip all about?
There’s something ephemeral about camping; how it strips you down to the bare necessities of what you can bring on your back.
With more people traveling locally, the Philippines is in a time of transition. Ten years ago, you could go anywhere in the mountains, and few people would be around even during peak season. But now, with better roads and more prosperous people, travel is on everyone’s to-do list. I’m not complaining; this can be a good thing. My friends and I have advocated and worked to get more Filipinos outdoors for a while now, because creating a demand for wild places themselves—instead of just for the resources you can extract from them like land, timber, and minerals—makes the value of pristine landscapes even more tangible. But as this interest in wild spaces expands, we also need to relearn how we use them.
For many travelers, an outdoor trip is all about reaching the peak, seeing the sea of clouds, taking that selfie at the famous sunrise spot. Now, every holiday weekend, we see photos of these spaces filled to MRT capacity, with tourists brandishing selfie sticks and cameras. Again, this isn’t a bad thing—it’s great that crowds are outdoors and imbuing value to the space—but reducing an outdoor adventure to a bucket list item or selfie opportunity makes you miss out on the experience of everything in between.
That is what this road trip is about: teaching travelers how to experience wild spaces. It’s not just about reaching the peak—every experience along the way is worthy of remembering, if you know how to stop and slow down for it. It’s feeling the air shift as the sun rises and warms the valley, wondering at the vast forest on the way up the summit, stopping on the roadside when the fog opens up, or just sitting back at camp, lying on the grass, and watching the stars with the sounds of the river in the background.
This is what keeping it wild is about; it’s not just the points you have to hit, but everything in between. Travel is about every point and every second that you’re outdoors. The summit is important, but so is the journey that gets you there.
We camped by the Agno River on the first night: enclosed in a deep valley, under a bright crescent moon and a carpet of stars. There is something ephemeral about camping; how it strips you down to the bare necessities of what you can bring on your back. It’s also a good litmus test for your travel companions: how they respond to scarcity, and the lack of toilets, electricity, and running water. In this time of being overly connected, the quiet is a boon, and you’re reduced to fireside conversations and enjoying each other’s company. Here, you truly feel like you’re in the heart of the mountains.
Everyone fell into their roles easily, getting along over the first of many of Nayna’s wonderful meals. Paco, Carmen, and Miguel broke out their toys and started filming, while the rest of us put up the tents and brought out campsite reading. It was a pleasant night, and one that I think broke the ice with the team. We were like old friends hanging out at the mountain come morning.
RUNNING THE TRAILS
Everyone was up at 4AM on Day Two of our adventure, when the moon was just setting over the western ridges of camp. Some of us had chosen to sleep outdoors—given the clear air and the carpet of stars overhead, it wasn’t a bad place to rest your head.
Today, we’d be tracing the course of the Cordillera Mountain Ultra: a 50-kilometer circuit around Mt. Ugo in Itogon, Benguet—from its lowest point in Dalupirip at 300m above sea level, up the southern ridge to the summit (an elevation of 2150m), and back down. We set out at 5AM, slowly making our way down the Agno River Valley. The sun started to crest the ridge at 6AM as we caught up with Miguel and Carmen, who had gone an hour earlier. After shooting by the river, we started the climb up to the summit.
The mountains have a way of slowing you down—personally, I think this is Mother Nature’s way of teaching you to appreciate what she has to offer. On the vertical kilometer, over the sound of our strained breaths and hearts beating loudly in our chests, we still talked about how nice that knife-edged ridge was; how amazing it would be to have a drone film us climbing; how small we were in the landscape. Sometimes nature was so beautiful, it stopped us in our tracks.
This road trip had the windows wide open, and the itinerary lost in the wind.
Two hours later, we stopped for coffee at the village of Uling, around 15km from the summit. Despite trying to chase the sunset, stopping for coffee at a small village is a habit we’ve all picked up from our backpacking adventures that we couldn’t give up. We could still make it down the other side in good time, and stops like this one are a necessity—you get to know the village a bit, interact with the locals, and share a hot cup of coffee before continuing on your adventure. You also contribute to the local economy by purchasing from the local stores.
We reached the saddle by noon—in the village of Domolpos, 500m below the summit. We’d have arrived much earlier if we hadn’t kept stopping for the view: the 15km ridge line to the summit was too jaw-dropping, we were slowed by its beauty. By this time, we were all dreaming of Nayna’s promised pork chops, but had to make do with nut bars and beer-flavored energy gel.
Lunch on a mountain run isn’t glamorous, but an act of utility to keep you going: you tear the food up, put it in, and hope it refills your depleted fuel stores. At this point, we were all wasted from the climb, so we opted to skip the summit—we’d all been there before, anyway. Instead, we decided to contour around it, which added a few kilometers to our run but was a flatter, easier route. With visions of pork chops in our heads, we took the path down and started running the last 16km to the trailhead in Tinungdan. It was a fast and flowy downhill run from the summit ridge, weaving through the pine forest as the afternoon light streamed through the trees.
Running down a mountain is a different rush entirely; you have to think fast as you try and avoid the roots and rocks, your feet sliding over slippery pine needles and loose gravel. For me, It’s one of the best parts of mountain running: cresting a big hill and letting go, feeling the pressure ease, letting gravity take its course, and steering your body down. It’s a mountain of anticipation as you climb, then a form of release as you let go all the way to the bottom.
By the time we got back, we all had big smiles on our faces (and a healthy mountain glow from Mt. Ugo’s pixie dust). We probably smelled like the cows on the mountain, but one of the best parts of the day was crossing that final bridge and seeing our crew waiting with a pickup truck. Than night, we feasted on pork chops, mushroom soup, and smashed potatoes—a reward, Nayna told us, for all our hard work that day. This is the life.
Spoiled for choice: The expedition team always ate well after a long day outdoors, thanks to our talented cook, Nayna Katigbak.
CROSSING OVER TO BONTOC
We arrived in Bontoc on Day Three of our expedition, after a drive through Halsema Highway. Bontoc isn’t on most people’s lists, simply known as the town you pass on the way to Sagada. But for us, it was the gateway to a new adventure: our friend Roland Wang lived here; he’s one of the handful of Filipinos to have finished the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and he invited us to try the Tawid Mountain Marathon course in the surrounding mountains.
It’s fairly rare to start a trail run right from the center of town, but we started our ascent up to the surrounding ridges only a hundred meters away from the inn we stayed in. Fifteen minutes later, we were firmly above the town, and in Bontoc’s wild spaces. Every city should have this kind of access to the wild; here in Bontoc, Roland was leading the way in making this possible by creating a race that used spaces right next to the city—creating tangible value for what others see as idle land.
We only did 10 of the 42-kilometer Tawid Marathon course, ending in the rice terraces of Maligcong, but even then the route we ran was incredibly beautiful—and that it was no more than a few kilometers away from most parts of town was amazing. We ended the day with a mountain bike ride back down from Maligcong to Bontoc, through a very steep and twisty road into the valley.
That night we headed up to Sagada to visit another mountain athlete, Andrew Chinalpan, who had set up a small craft brewery called Sagada Cellar Door in the pine forest above the town. His hospitality allowed us the luxury of drinking beers and planning our next adventures by the bonfire, under the shadow of the pines.
CYCLING THROUGH THE TREES
At this point, we were yet to find significant use for our mountain bikes on the trip, but driving through the road from Balbalan to the Balbalasang National Park seemed like the perfect time to get our wheels spinning and cranks going. Only mountain bikers would get excited at the sight of narrow dirt roads filled with mud and rocks, flanked by deadly ravines—that’s exactly what the Balbalan-to-Balbalasang road had to offer, not to mention the view of the valley looked straight out of a Tolkien novel.
Once we hit the dirt, Harry and I unstrapped our bikes from the Ford Ranger and started our mountain bike ride to Balbalasang National Park. After 16km, we were completely covered in mud, but had huge smiles on our faces from being on our bikes. This road was beautiful, and there’s no better way to experience it than out in the open, on bikes going at a human pace, on a human scale.
WHAT A DRIVE SHOULD BE LIKE
When we drive, it’s usually just to get to a destination. The question of ‘How was the drive?’ is typically answered by the x number of hours it took from Point A to Point B, with no mention of anything in between. If I asked people who went to Sagada about the trip up, they’d likely say it was a comfortable van ride, or that they were so cramped and the chairs made their backs hurt. And yet between Baguio and Sagada exists a multitude of beautiful spaces—and that’s true for any destination.
Our expressway culture, coupled with closed windows and ample air conditioning, has rendered car travel a mere way to get from one place to another. But on this road trip, it was also about what you can find along the way.
From Day One, I made it a point to have the windows down whenever I could. The Ford Everest had a sunroof, and I kept it wide open, often poking my fingers out just to feel the wind blow through. This was what I thought driving was supposed to feel like: the wind in your face, the mist in the air flowing through the cabin, and mud occasionally making its way onto the dashboard.
This road was beautiful, and there’s no better way to experience it than out in the open.
The long drives on this trip were from Baguio to Bontoc through Halsema Highway, the muddy single-lane rough road from Bontoc to Balbalan, and the drive down from Balbalan into the coast across the Abra River. These legs were between 100 to 150km long; a distance we could’ve crossed in under five hours, instead of the six to eight we took on most days of the trip. This wasn’t because we were slow drivers, but because we treated driving as part of the travel experience. The road was the destination itself, and we found ourselves stopping or slowing when we came across anything that piqued our curiosity: a provincial border crossing, a beautiful view, a large bird of prey circling overhead—even, at one point, some red dirt. We added an extra hour or so of travel, but we also produced new insights and experiences.
At one point in our drive from Sagada to Balbalasang, we stopped by Lubuagan, where Carmen had spotted some women pounding coffee. When one of the women smiled at us, I stopped and said that she should get out and say hi. We ended up staying for an hour; the locals offered us some free coffee, and we bought some of the local handicrafts to take home. This road trip had the windows wide open, and the itinerary lost in the wind.
DOWN TO THE COAST
We’d driven our 4x4’s up into the mountains from La Union, and on the last day of our expedition, we drove down to the coast of Ilocos and into Vigan. It’s a surreal experience driving down twisty mountain roads and into the lowlands; you feel the air shift from the cold mountain air to the heat of the plains. Once we crossed the last set of mountains, we could literally smell the sea.
The coastal road from La Union to Ilocos is one of my favorite drives in the country: stretches of coastline with mountains looming in the distance. For centuries, the roads we took in and out of the mountains were major trade routes, used by mountain people and coastal people to trade gold and tobacco for essential supplies. But for us, this is now a path of adventure: an exchange of sea and summit, of biking and running in the mountains and playing in the surf.
The city of Vigan in Ilocos Sur is well-known for its remaining Spanish colonial and Oriental architecture.
By the end of the expedition, we realized that we didn’t just survive the mountains; we survived each other, as well. It’s something to say for a group who came into the trip hardly knowing each other, and coming out as good friends. As Carmen said, there’s no better way to get to know someone than on a long adventure—it’s a shared experience that becomes one of those important memories you know you’ll keep for the future.
The sum total for this trip came out to about 1300km. We biked about 50km, ran 56 km, and climbed roughly 5000m of elevation with our own two legs. We consumed large amounts of good food, good beer, while having wonderful conversations. All of it with our eyes and ears wide open. Our car doors swung open and closed as often as possible, as we rode and considered every kilometer on the road, in an unexplored country waiting to be discovered.
This is how a road trip should be done—keeping the outdoors as wild as it should be.
This story was originally published in GRID Issue 12.