January 2016 – Since my last post, I’ve been to Buscalan, Kalinga twice, and got inked by the legendary Whang-Od two more times. Every time, I make sure I bring at least one new friend with me. Why do I keep coming back, and why do I want more people to do the same? What’s in Buscalan, anyway?

Here are some of my favorite things about traveling to Buscalan:

The long journey to Kalinga. Sure it’s tiring and takes more than half a day, but the 13-hour drive is truly rewarding. Not only will you learn a lot about the people you’re traveling with, you’ll also be able to discover more about yourself — especially when you get stuck in traffic in Nueva Vizcaya for six hours. (If you’re planning to visit soon, check out my guide on how to get to Buscalan.)

tourist and the Banaue Rice Terraces One of the stops on the way to Kalinga: the Banaue Rice Terraces

The people. I’m going to risk sounding like I’m fetishizing Kalinga, but I’ll say this nonetheless: The Kalingas are a fascinating ethnic group. In particular, the members of the Butbut tribe are a proud people, with a long history of raising brave and terrifying headhunters. Although their ways and values are slowly changing due to the influx of visitors and intermarriages with Ilocanos and foreigners, the Butbut way of life has not changed much in the past century.

children from Buscalan
My friend Mark and two cute kids from Buscalan

The coffee.  Kalinga grows the best arabica beans in Cordillera. Try it and you’ll never go for the over-roasted blend from that popular coffee shop again. You can get this from a lot of coffee shops in Metro Manila — Cool Beans Library Café in Maginhawa and Likha Diwa, two of my favorite cafés in Diliman, serve Kalinga coffee.

The view. Buscalan sits on top of a mountain, some 2500 feet above sea level (but please don’t take my word for it, I’m bad with numbers). Like other Igorot settlements, it takes a strong pair of legs to reach this barrio. There are small huts along the way where people could rest for a bit; the distance between barrios can be overwhelming (for outsiders). But by God, is the view worth it. I remember my first trip to Buscalan: I was mesmerized by the magnificent mountains, and I knew then that I would keep coming back to that place.

The mambabatok.  It’s a powerful experience to see Whang-od and her protégés, Grace and Elyang, working at their craft. Listening to their tools tap-tap-tapping while I gaze at the majestic mountains of Buscalan — priceless. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my heart wells up with awe as I watch scrawny Apo Whang-od, hunched over a visitor, carving an indelible souvenir that tells a hundred stories, as she has been doing for decades.

Photo by Eunisse De Leon

When I first set foot on Kalinga, I remember that all the elders I talked to lamented how the young ones have lost interest in the batok. Even the teenage girls dismissed this tradition because apparently, they found it backward. Based on the stories I heard and my last two visits, I think that’s slowly changing. I’m very happy that the growing interest in traditional tattoos among local and foreign tourists restored the Kalinga youth’s love for this art.

Have you been to Buscalan? How did you find it? Tell us about your trip in the comments section,