The Halsema Highway Experience

halsema3I was informed that the hotel’s complimentary breakfast will be served at 7:00AM but right after a very quick cold bath courtesy of the unheated Baguio waters, I went down and asked the front desk personnel if I could have mine served earlier because I have a bus to catch. He told me that he would try to make arrangements with the kitchen In charge and that I should just wait in my room for further advice. At about 10 minutes before seven, I heard knocks on the door and a few seconds later I was already devouring the contents my breakfast plate which consisted of a cup of rice, a slice of fried boneless bangus and egg cooked sunny side up. The meal came with a cup of 3 in 1 coffee which I had to pay for P15 because it’s not included in the compliment.

After breakfast, I then checked out from the hotel and proceeded to the bus terminal, hoping to catch the 830AM trip to Sagada. From prior inquiry the night before, I learned that the first bus for the 6 hour  direct trip from Baguio departs at 530AM which I found to be too early a call time, so I planned to take the next trip instead. Unfortunately, in spite the time being only 730AM when I arrived, the trip was already fully booked and only aisle seats were available for the 930AM trip as well.

While contemplating on other options, I overheard the conversation of a group of passengers, who I later realized were attending the same event I was, and learned that the best available option for me given the situation, was to take the 800AM trip to Bontoc and from there take a 45min- P60 jeepney ride to Sagada. And so I booked myself for the said trip and got one of the last few remaining seats.

I was assigned to seat no. 37, as written in the bus ticket. It was actually the window seat on the left side of the final row of seats on the rear end of the bus. These seats are actually elevated more than a foot higher than the others as under it is where the bus engine is usually situated. The position gives you an unobstructed view of where the bus is heading because you practically have the line of sight of someone standing inside the bus, while seated.

The bus left on time as scheduled, full to the brim with all the aisle seats occupied. And within a few minutes past 8 in the morning, I was already on my way to Sagada, The Mountain Province and what would then become my very first time to set foot in the highlands of the Cordilleras. And it too would become my first encounter with the HALSEMA HIGHWAY, the 150 KM road from Baguio to Bontoc and the only access to Sagada from Baguio.

I want to believe that I had a good night’s sleep otherwise it could have been just sheer excitement that kept me awake while most of the other passengers were already dozing off barely an hour after we left the City of Pines. I assumed, based on their bearing and language, that most of the passengers were locals and may have plied the route a thousand times already and I assumed further that the other delegates for the event were on the direct trips.

The landscape on to the first hour of the trip were dominated by modern structures of the built up areas in La Trinidad, Benguet, but later on, the road started to usher us intermittently to the greens and browns of the natural scenery. Greens of the pine trees, vegetable plantations and other flora and the browns of the exposed parts of the uncultivated or eroded hills that the road traverses.

In the beginning, my eyes feasted on what could be seen on the side of the road as I was seated next to the window. My line of sight made my eyes focus more on the trees and rock formations that we pass by but as the road ushered us to a wider and more open landscape, my eyes begun roaming on all directions. Left, right, up… and then down. DOWN!

Although the highway is paved , most of its sections are relatively narrow and could accommodate only two vehicles running side by side or one from each opposite directions and most sections cut on the slopes of the mountains do not always have road shoulders. On the sides are either cliffs or ravines in almost vertical slopes. Most of the curves are very sharp and mostly blind and could turn as much as 270 degrees and some could even go to almost a full circle. What makes things even more complex is that you are maneuvering your vehicle in those curves on steep slopes, either downhill or uphill, depending on your direction. You always have to stay on your lane and have to be very accurate in changing gears and in stepping into the accelerator or one lapse in judgment could spell disaster at any time because you are traversing on a very unforgiving and treacherous terrain.

As to how high the highway is in terms of elevation, more than two hours through the trip, somewhere along the highway stretch in the town of Atok in the Province of Benguet, you would come across a road marker with literature that reads: HIGHEST POINT PHILIPPINE HIGHWAY SYSTEM. ELEVATION 7,400 FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.

Inside the bus, passengers are practically on a roller coaster ride albeit on a slower pace as one could be tossed on all directions if one  does not have a strong grip on something  fixed and sturdy because the twists and turns of the road could come in quick and short intervals. From my vantage point, I had clear view of how the bus maneuvers into those curves and had a deeper appreciation of the impeccable skill our driver has and all the drivers plying the route. Oftentimes, a vehicle from the opposite direction would pop out on one of those blind curves and there is practically less than a foot of clear space between the vehicles as they pass by each other, yet both drivers seem to treat those situations like a walk in the park.

From what I have learned, traffic rules dictate that you blow your horn while maneuvering on blind curves to warn vehicles running on the opposite direction but I have noticed that our driver doesn’t do that. But then if you really think hard, blowing the horn could be an added challenge because those kinds of curves could come in short intervals and if our driver does that diligently, by the time we reach our destination, the people inside the bus may disembark with some kind of hearing problem.

Warning signs like “CHECK BRAKES” and “BEWARE OF FALLING ROCKS” are common all through the whole stretch of the highway and it was good thing that the sun was shining at its brightest so the road was kept rough and dry.

The situation I have mentioned  was experienced by of all the people inside the bus for more than five hours. And since there was no other choice, I just had to force myself sit back, relax and enjoy the ride, although obviously, one could not afford to, especially for a first timer like me.

Nearing Bontoc, we came across a fully loaded jeepney, its rooftop filled with a good number of passengers as well. Our bus came to full stop and the conductor disembarked and talked to the jeepney driver. Then he returned to the bus and summoned some passengers whom I recognized to be those I overheard talking at the terminal in Baguio. Then I realized that the jeepney was heading for Sagada. I immediately went out of the bus with them and hurriedly went to the jeepney. I asked help from one of those in the rooftop for my luggage and then climbed up to join them. I found a free space on one part of the roof, sat down facing the opposite direction to where we were heading.

It was a good thing I was already wearing my hoody when I climbed up the jeep because it was past noon already and the sun was as angry as it could get. It was a good 30 minute ride uphill to Sagada and my eyes feasted on the unobstructed view of the local landscape. Then slowly we began to pass by built up areas, until minutes later the jeepney came to a full stop. When I turned around, I saw a three-strorey building, a tarpaulin hanged in the middle floor veranda that partly reads:  WELCOME AND MABUHAY. NATIONAL CAVE CONGRESS. SAGADA, MOUNTAIN PROVINCE. The said building was the Sagada Town Hall.

After the information I have just read sunk into my senses, and after looking at the immediate surroundings, I heaved a sigh of relief and disembarked from the jeep.

Later in the afternoon, after having settled in the hotel for a few minutes, I went to the nearest church and offered thanksgiving prayers for my safe arrival and those of the others and prayed too for a pleasant, safe and fruitful stay.

The HALSEMA HIGHWAY, considered to be the most dangerous highway system in the country and one of the most dangerous in the world, is not for the fainthearted and I would definitely not recommend it for someone with motion sickness.


If given the chance to return, I would, in a heartbeat!





About red guitar

a typical Arian born in the Year of the Sheep, considers himself lucky in friendship and regards friends as gifts, and enjoys a good laugh.