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I have an air-tight plan for money management on the road. Two credit cards, two debit cards, all thoroughly vetted for ease of use overseas and stored in separate location so I always have a backup. I track my daily expenses with an iPhone app and each month do a full accounting analysis of my spending and earning to keep on track. I inform myself about the availability of ATMs and am always sure to have enough cash to get me from one place to the other.

Or at least I used to.

Banaue

I can think of at least three times in my travels when I listened to distraught travelers come to the realization that they were on a speedboat/bus/ferry to an island/town/beach with no ATM and were severely under-supplied with cash. On each occasion I took the opportunity to feel smugly superior and full of pity for those who clearly hadn’t read their guidebook cover to cover before butting in to the situation to see how I could help.

So imagine my horror when on an overnight bus deep into the heart of The Philippine’s Cordillera mountain range, my seatmate began to discuss the difficulty he had had getting enough cash out of various ATMs in Manila to cover his time in Northern Luzon. Because there were no ATMs in Banaue or Batad, the two towns I was planning on spending the next four days in. After a few moments of getting over the shock of becoming one of the people I used to roll my eyes internally at, and a frantic flip through my guidebook to confirm, I took silent stock of my funds. Earlier in the day I happened to take out 4,000 Philippine Pesos, or around 100 US dollars. After buying some snacks and a taking a taxi to the bus station and buying the overnight bus ticket to Banaue (500 php/12.30 usd), I was left with the equivalent of around $80 dollars. It was going to be an interesting few days. Normally under these circumstances I might find another backpacker, befriend them and explain the situation, and run to an internet cafe to make a transfer to their account in exchange for a loan. I’ve done it for others before. But this was the Philippines — other backpackers and internet cafes were almost as scarce as the fickle ATMs themselves, and so even if I found someone they’d likely be precariously low on cash themselves. It would be good blog fodder born of necessity, I told myself: could I see the Philippine’s world famous, UNESCO-praised rice terraces on the cheap?

Town of Banaue, Philippines

Rice in Banaue, Philippines

Arriving in the tiny mountain town of Banaue the next morning, I joined forces with that seatmate, the one other backpacker on the bus, who’s travel plans luckily aligned with mine for the next few days. Normally I wouldn’t consider giving up my privacy and a healthy dose of alone time to share a hotel room with a stranger, but desperate times call for normal frugal traveler extraordinary measures. So we found a room in a clean lodge (250 php/6.15 usd each) and split it. After breakfast (75 php/1.84 usd) we walked the entire length of the town in about ten minutes, and then checked in at the visitor’s center. Here, we gathered information about the journey to our final destination of Batad and our current destination of Banaue, and paid the mandatory environmental fee and bought a map (75 php/1.84 usd) so that we could explore the area relatively independently. Banue is more of a jumping off point than a destination in and of itself — most visitors are there on their way in and out of the idyllic getaway of Batad. But G.I. Joe (the nickname I gave my British military contractor travel companion) and I agreed — there was no way we were taking on that journey straight after an overnight bus ride, so we had a day to explore Banaue. Guides were asking 200 php to drive up to the top of the viewpoint, but our own two feet were free and even with my current delicate money situation aside, I was itching for some exercise. After using the Steripen to prepare a decent amount of water (bottled water was actually quite pricey in the area, making me glad once again for my investment in the Steripen) and grabbing a quick snack from a bakery (just 5 php/.12 usd!) we set off.

It was a decent hike — a windy paved road curving sharply upward the entire 800 meters. I was glad we weren’t being whisked up in a quick ten minute drive. Instead, our stroll gave us a peek into life in the Cordilleras. We passed many small provincial churches, evidence of the vast and devout Christianity that more than 85% of Filipinos identify with.

Church in Banaue, Philippines

Church in Banaue, Philippines

Church in Banaue, Philippines

We also met many eager guard dogs, who were the first of many dogs in the Philippines who would absolutely break my heart. It was much worse in other areas, but I first noticed it in Banaue. Dogs tethered on impossibly short chains, wincing with fear whenever humans came near them. I desperately wanted to put each one in my backpack and nurse it back to happiness.

Sadly, like I said, I would soon see that these dogs were actually fairly lucky compared to others.

Dog in Banaue, Philippines

Dog in Banaue, Philippines

Dog in Banaue, Philippines

And of course, there were plenty signs of ingenuity that come from being in a place where the nearest Target or Tesco is…. uh, in another country. One that made me smile was the prevalent use of sawed-off tin and plastic containers as planters.

Plants in Banaue, Philippines

Plants in Banaue, Philippines

But really? We were there for the rice terraces. Banaue’s rice fields were sculpted more than two thousand years ago, and have retained their (admittedly fairly organic) shape despite being made of mud, rather than stone. These being the first true rice terraces I had ever laid eyes on, I was very impressed. Coming back through Banaue after Batad they seemed a little more “meh,” so I’d recommend following my order.

The various viewpoints became more beautiful as the road climbed higher, and become a more welcome respite as our legs grew tireder.

Viewpoint in Banaue, Philippines

Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines

One thing I really loved about Banaue was the locals who sat at the viewpoint in traditional dress, posing for photos for a small fee. I admit that at first this made me feel slightly uncomfortable and some might roll their eyes at how “un-authentic” it was. But with further reflection, I reasoned — what else are elderly people going to do for money in a society built on physical activity (being a tour guide) or manual labor (tending the rice fields)? This provides them with a modest income and helps keep evidence of their traditional culture alive.

Plus, duh, I like taking pictures! Be sure to bring small change if you plan to take portraits along this route — I was pretty unprepared with small bills and went through my change (40 php/.98 usd) pretty quickly.

Portrait of Man in Banaue

Portrait of Man in Banaue

Portrait of Man in Banaue

Portrait of Man in Banaue

I was quite pleased when we made it to the top, all on our own two feet! The rice terraces were stunning and had me itching with excitement to reach their even more lauded cousins in Batad the next day.

Viewpoint in Banaue, Philippines

Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines

Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines

Feeling accomplished and much in need of a nap, we headed back into town. There, I counted my pesos carefully and decided that even after dinner (180 php/4.43 usd) I had enough left over for a small indulgence of a candy bar (60 php/1.48 usd). There was no temptation to spend the money on nightlife, as the entire town is shuttered by nine in the evening — no problem for those of us getting up at dawn to hike into Batad.

I felt pretty proud of my budgeting! It was the end of day one and I had spent a total of 1,185 pesos (around $29 usd), almost half of that being my overnight bus ticket to Banaue. Thanks to splitting a hotel room, making a pastry from the super cheap bakery into lunch, and forgoing a driver for the rice terraces, I was in pretty good shape for my stupidity-imposed budget challenge.

Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines

Banaue
Banaue

Have you ever found yourself on an unexpected tight budget on the road? How did you handle it?

Warning: I do not recommend the People’s Lodge in Banaue. You will notice that I rarely write negative reviews of a place. This is both because I rarely have experiences negative enough to feel that I need to warn others and because I try to keep a positive attitude. But People’s Lodge left a bad taste in my mouth after my first night there and an even worse one of my return through town after Batad. Rooms were double the price stated in my very recently released guidebook, there was a fee for hot water, there were no electrical outlets in the room meaning all electronics had to be charged at reception, and worst of all the staff was unfriendly and sometimes downright rude. On my final morning they tried to strong-arm me into taking a private driver to Sagada, and when I said that I was taking the public Jeepney they laughed cruelly in my face. Avoid.

I lucked out with this particular destination — not all places are so easy to have a in. Discount booking sites can help you plan intentionally cheap trips — just be sure to check about ATM availability in your intended destination!

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37 Comments...
  • Great photos, as usual! And well done on the somewhat self-imposed budget challenge πŸ™‚ I see people having this problem all the time in Roatan as you can never guarantee that any of the less than 10 ATMs on the island have cash in them or are functioning. I’ve made many a Paypal loan like yours to tourists in a cash crunch (which actually also helps me get money back home into Canada!) Thanks for the honest review of your hotel too, always good to know where to steer clear of.
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      Thanks Rika! It’s always nice to be able to help out a fellow traveler in need, isn’t it? I think of it as a downpayment on future good karma πŸ™‚ And yeah, as I said, I don’t like to be negative… but anyone who laughs at me for trying to do it on a budget is going to get a shout out, and not the good kind!

  • Thanks for the tip on the People’s Lodge! I love reading honest reviews… πŸ™‚
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      My Philippines posts will be featuring a bit more useful and hands on advice than I normally share… mostly because the internet is in desperate need of it! This place was seriously hard to research!

  • Chris
    May 12 2013

    Great post Meihoukai. I admittedly know very little about the Philippines which makes this an even more interesting read.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever been caught short travelling but I’ve had my phone, camera, and wallet robbed in one swoop before from a beach in Australia. Fortunately I was with my GF and friends at the time who shouted me till I could be reunited with a debit card. All fun and games. πŸ™‚
    Chris recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      Wow, you have some good perspective on that robbery! I had a wallet stolen once and that stung, but I think I’d be gutted more about a camera and phone, because at least some photos would probably be lost between backups. Devastating!

  • Naomi
    May 13 2013

    Love the black and white photo of the old man, gorgeous photos as always!
    Naomi recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      Thanks Naomi! I wish I had gone at a different time of day — the lighting was super harsh — but thank god for Photoshop!

  • Sarah Otto
    May 13 2013

    wow, you did great preperations for your trip.

    And you did some incredible photos too

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      Thanks Sarah! Not sure if you are being sarcastic about the preparations, but either way it’s appreciated πŸ™‚

  • Heather
    May 13 2013

    We did have some budget issues in Laos… It’s tough to give up some choices to stretch your cash, but there’s also something triumphant about making it work with very little and coming out on top (or at least with a few dollars to your name). Success!
    Heather recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      While I definitely would have been screwed had my next destination had at ATM, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t that hard to stick to my tiny budget! Loved how cheap this area was…

  • Zoe
    May 13 2013

    Meihoukai! This part of your trip sounds SO amazing!!!! The views….ahhh everything!

    I agree wholeheartedly with your view on paying for photos…it sounds like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon if I was “retired” like them πŸ™‚

    you are always so wise…

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      I think we should consider this for our own golden years, Zo… we could sit on the streets of Williamsburg and pose as those things they once called “hipsters” — ha!

  • Amanda
    May 13 2013

    Ha! This happened to my boyfriend and I when we were in the Philippines too (but it was kind of our own fault because we decided to do an extra day of diving when we didn’t really have the cash to do it.) Luckily for food we stocked up for the day at a ridiculously cheap bakery… but we were dying when we had to haul our bags for miles in Puerto Princesa instead of taking a tuk tuk.
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      Haha, oh I can only laugh at that mental image because I myself have been there and know how it is… but hey, that extra day of diving must have been worth it, right?!

  • Kristen Noelle
    May 14 2013

    These pictures have me emoji-style heart-eyed; just gorgeous! What a relief that the budget challenged stop over turned out okay, except for the lodge experience! Can’t win em all.. Makes the good ones feel that much sweeter.

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      Haha… love that description — “emoji-style heart-eyed.” I’m going to have to steal that!

  • Ayngelina
    May 15 2013

    Wow that place has changed so much since I was there in 1999 – although it seems more developed for the better, my trip was a bit sketchy.
    Ayngelina recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 17 2013

      Ayngelina, I would LOVE it if you went back and blogged about that! I felt Banaue was fairly remote in 2013… I can only imagine in 1999!

  • Walter Bailey
    May 18 2013

    Wow! Now that’s what I call cheap but exciting! I’d love to go there sometime. I will add this place to my to go list, second to Sagada Mountain Province, Philippines.

    • Meihoukai
      May 18 2013

      Actually, Sagada was my next destination after Banaue and Batad! Look for a post coming up tonight πŸ™‚

  • Erica
    May 21 2013

    Oh yes. We arrived in the cloudforest of Costa Rica for a coffee tour and realized none of us had brought our ATM cards. FAIL.
    Erica recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 23 2013

      I mean, what, these people want MONEY in exchange for their goods and services? Jeez. How were we to know?! πŸ˜‰

  • Norman
    May 24 2013

    I’m a Filipino and glad to see you are having a blast in the Philippines! There are still a lot of beautiful places here you can enjoy. Cheers!

    • Meihoukai
      May 25 2013

      I would love to head back again someday to see everything I missed on this trip πŸ™‚ Thanks for the warm welcome!

  • anne
    December 26 2013

    Wow!..such an amazing travel and experience for you. I already went there 3 times in the past few years but I’m planning to go back early next year for another adventure and trying to cut off my budget low like yours.

    • Meihoukai
      December 27 2013

      Wow! Three times! I hope I am able to return someday as well πŸ™‚

  • George
    December 20 2014

    Well, there is an ATM at Lagawe, one hour ride from Banaue..

    • Meihoukai
      December 22 2014

      Considering I was only there for a few days, it would have been a lengthy excursion for some cash πŸ™‚ I’m glad I was able to make it work with what I had — but that’s good to know for the future!

  • ian | going places
    October 13 2015

    What month did you visit Banaue? It seems the rice are just growing into greens. I want to see it by November, would the terraces be greener by that time?

    • Meihoukai
      October 15 2015

      Hey Ian, I was there in March. Sorry, I don’t know anything about any other time of year! Happy travels.

  • elle
    December 30 2015

    hi alex! i enjoyed reading this post, it’s as if i’m exploring the place while reading this. just felt sad when i read the ‘warning’ on the end part because they’re not supposed to act like that, but thanks for posting it. at least, we can avoid that lodge when we go visit Banaue.
    Keep exploring the world! Hope to meet you someday! πŸ™‚
    and btw, i’m a Filipina. πŸ™‚

    • Meihoukai
      January 4 2016

      Hey Elle! Yeah, I wasn’t going to complain until they laughed in my face about taking the jeepneys. That’s just not nice πŸ™‚ Enjoy your visit to Banaue!

  • Karen
    October 23 2017

    Glad I read this post. I’m happy to inform you that we now have an ATM booth at the municipal townhall in Banaue. And I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with our Cordilleran people. Safe travels!

    • Meihoukai
      October 25 2017

      That’s great news Karen! Though I did have a fun adventure thanks to my mistake πŸ™‚ I’d like the clarify that the only bad experience I had was with the employees at People’s Lodge. Otherwise everyone I met was lovely.