Most travelers head up north of Manila to cool down in summer capital Baguio or La Union to catch some good waves or to Banaue to witness the majestic rice terraces. But further up the province of Kalinga and into the depths of the earth lies an isolated and serene village of Buscalan where the traditional tattoo art lives on.
Just as how special the tattoo tradition in Buscalan is, the journey going there is nothing short of epic. A 15-hour travel by bus, van, and jeepney takes one from Manila to Bontoc to Buscalan. The road from Bontoc to Buscalan is one of the most scenic any person can ever imagine: lush and endless mountain ranges, the raging waters of Chico River, and perfectly carved rice terraces. But it definitely is not for the faint-hearted. While the views can be best seen and experienced by riding on top of the jeepney, the sight of deep ravines just a few inches away from the jeepney’s tires will make one hold on for his dear life.
From the drop-off point, the 1-hour trek to the village begins. With the locals as guides, one walks through a narrow path along rice paddies and across mountains. The steps are steep and slippery and the trek seems endless. Then a gorgeous amphitheater of rice terraces dotted with tin roofs begin to unfold. Welcome to Buscalan.
The locals open up their homes for travelers to stay. For P250 a night, one gets a mattress and unlimited rice and coffee. Kalinga coffee is delicious. Their brew is not too bitter, not too sweet. Just the perfect blend to sip in the middle of fog-covered mountains. The locals are friendly, warm, and simple. They make you feel like you are a part of them. They also greatly appreciate some gifts (it is advised not to bring candies for the kids anymore, school supplies and dental kits might be more helpful). And as they share their interesting stories, one can’t help but notice the beautiful and intricate artworks in their bodies: the traditional tattoos.
The Bubut tribes in Buscalan are warriors known for their headhunting tradition from decades ago. Once a man takes down an enemy and brings back the head to the village, he earns a tattoo. For the women, the heavily decorated your body is, the more beautiful you are. The designs also signify different meanings: centipede for protection, pythons for strength, and an eagle for courage, among others.
The town of Buscalan has become famous over the last years as people want to have a piece of this tradition most notably from the 98-year old Apo Whang-od, regarded as the oldest and last “mambabatok” from the tribe. But the tradition lives on as the new generation members Grace and Eliang, two young and beautiful ladies, have started to do the tattoos to visitors as well.
Using a bamboo stick with a sharp calamansi at the end and pine loot as ink, the painful yet rewarding tattoo art begins. The women’s skillful hands bring the intricate designs to life as the inked thorn pricks the skin. Blood rushes out and the sting lasts. One is marked forever.
Deep into the mountain ranges lies a village where an important tradition lives on. The journey to Buscalan is not easy. The lines to get a tattoo from Whang-od and her granddaughters are long. But as the locals have said it, “if you cannot wait, you don’t deserve it.” But if you can, the epic journey awaits.
How to get there
- Take a bus from Sampaloc, Manila (Ohayami Bus) to Banaue. It leaves every night at 9:00 in the evening.
- From Banaue, ride a van to Bontoc.
- From Bontoc, ride a jeepney to Buscalan drop-off.
- It is better to travel by group to split the guide fee of P1,000/day for 4 people. Guides are usually on stand-by at the drop-off point.
- Bring food to cook and share as the homestay fee of P250 only includes coffee and rice.