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Travel Guide to Apayao, Cordillera: Dare Explore a Maze of Spikes Edit

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Michelle Tobias  • Contributor
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Cover photo by Monte Corpuz. Graphics by Noodle Donato.

At a Glance

Up to eight-feet-tall razor-sharp spikes make up the sprawling labyrinth Dupag Rock Formation. Crawling, climbing, squeezing in sideways—your life hangs on the edge when you dare try this. Underground rivers nearby offer enchanting boating and caving experiences. Do try the food and culture tour with the riverside-dwelling Isnag tribe!

Overview

For a long time, the twin provinces Kalinga and Apayao were conjoined as Kalinga-Apayao until their separation in 1995. Apayao makes up the northernmost chunk of the cool and mountainous Cordillera region. The province is called “Cordillera’s Last Nature Frontier” because its people still maintain their peaceful coexistence with the natural environment. In Apayao, not only will you see well-preserved, rare attractions. You’ll also love the locals whose age-old traditions are honored throughout the land, and respected.


The town of Luna marks the gateway to Apayao’s many unique outdoor adventures. The spiked fortress Dupag Rock Formation is literally a gripping site where daredevils hang onto dear life. There are three trails to choose from, the easiest of which can lead you to the summit in 45 minutes. Nearby are two pristine underground rivers, Manacota and Lussok. Each offer lovely boating experiences and fun spelunking activities.


Next to Luna at the west of Apayao, there’s the hiking destination Mt. Kilang and its blanket of clouds at dawn, leaving one speechless. In Kabugao, Apayao’s capital, you can engage with the river people Isnag tribe and feast on their bamboo-cooked spicy dishes and river eels. You can also join their dance of war and headhunting and learn about their animistic rituals. If you have time to spare, do visit the 10-storey-high, rainbow-streaked Gololan FallsIn the east, go explore the 17th century Mataguisi Church Ruins and cliff-dive in Maton River


Speaking of rivers, Apayao in the local language means “land of rivers”. Various bodies of freshwater course through the province like nature’s veins. Purag RiverNagan River, and Dacao Dam (Apayao River) are some of the local favorites. Several other waterfalls, underground rivers, and cave systems have yet to be explored, assessed, and opened to the public—for everyone’s safety. Wherever you end up in Apayao, its adventures will definitely keep your eyes wide open and your mouth craving for more spicy food!

Things To Do in Apayao

Written by Colleen Cabili

Dupag Rock Formation

Dupag Rock Formation is a sprawling maze-like cluster of sharp limestone rocks in Marag Valley, Luna. There are three different trails to get to the highest point. For beginners, the easiest trail only takes less than an hour. The most challenging trail takes three to four hours. Read more.

Lussok Cave and Underground River

If the haunting beauty of Lussok River isn’t enough to make your jaw drop, wait until you get inside the immense cavern filled with glittering limestone formations. You can choose to exit the river by spelunking—just brace yourselves for an hour-and-a-half of vertical crawling and climbing! Read more.

Manacota Underground River

Shooting the rapids is a common attraction all over the country, but have you ever tried it inside a cave? Travelers who want to try out this extreme activity are accompanied by a couple of boatmen wherein one steers through narrow crevices with a single blade paddle while the other holds on to the stern to keep the boat balanced. Read more.

Gololan Falls

To reach this cascade in Kabugao, visitors would have to trek downhill for nearly an hour through a lush rainforest. The roaring waters can be heard mid-trek, and once you catch a glimpse of Gololan, it’s easy to understand why. This 33-meter-high waterfall flow into a deep azure pool and a smaller cascade at the bottom. Read more.

Immersion with the Isnag Tribe

Kabugao is the official capital of Apayao. Recognized as the province’s cultural melting pot, this town is also home to both Igorot and Isnag tribes. Here, guests can experience Isnag food and culture tours. Try the locals’ bamboo-cooked spicy food or join one of their traditional dances. Just make a request at the tourism center! Read more.

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Click for more info and pictures. Photo by Butch Capoy.

Mataguisi Church Ruins

Mataguisi Church Ruins, located in Brgy. Mataguisi and Brgy. Emilia, is the highlight of the town of Pudtol. These exquisite mortar-and-brick structures date back to 1608 during Spanish colonial rule. To this day, they are still maintained and being used by patrons, with the help of the local government. Read more.

Nagan River

A short distance away from the Pudtol's town proper stretches the crystal-clear Nagan River. Flowing from the town of Lydia in lower Maton, this river has been distinguished as the cleanest river in the region for three consecutive years. Read more.

Maton River

The calm emerald waters of Maton River are frequented by locals during sunny days. A 15-foot-high boulder sits on the mouth of the river, where adventure seekers can be seen clambering their way up and dive into the glistening pool below. You can also try lying down on the shallow bedrock for a relaxing hydro massage! Read more.

Mt. Kilang

Apayao has its own version of Mt. Pulag—Mt. Kiltepan’s famed sea of clouds in the town of Calanasan. You’d have to get to the view deck before sunrise to see the thick blanket of clouds envelop the horizon, so make sure to pile on extra layers of clothing! This is best enjoyed with a cup of freshly brewed Isnag coffee in hand. Read more.

Bellang Cave

There are two ways to reach Conner’s Bellang Cave—one via a 40-minute tricycle ride through paved roads, and another by crossing knee-deep muddy trails and waist-deep rivers. Once you reach the jump-off point to the cave, reward yourselves for surviving the extremely bumpy ride by jumping into the cool lagoon! Read more.

ASC Museum

Apayao State College Museum is a classroom-turned-museum displaying items of historical and cultural importance from the Isnag and Ifugao tribes. Entrance to the museum is free. Just inform Sir Allen Mayodong, the Humanities and English professor before visiting. Read more.

Dacao Dam

During hot days in the town of Flora, locals flock to Dacao Dam, where water from the Apayao River flows and irrigates the farmlands. Families often have picnics aboard rafts and boats while children cool down in the dam’s emerald waters. 

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Photo by Silver Ian Dimaano

Bonus: Punsian Underground River

Like Manacota Underground River and Lussok Underground River, this site is one of the pristine and adventure-filled outdoor destinations in northern Apayao. Getting here requires about 1.5 hours of trekking, while the river itself can go as 60ft deep! The deeper you descend, the more the water turns into teal color. Its cave system is not yet fully explored but its chambers are estimated at 10km long. Please note that this destination is not yet open to the public. In any case, going to the river and the mouth of the cave itself is risky and dangerous and requires assistance from local guides.

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Punsian Underground River has yet to be explored and opened to the public. Photo by Butch Capoy.

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Travel writer Colleen Cabili sits on a bamboo raft marveling at the cave walls. Photo by Monte Corpuz.

Say-am Festival (February 14) is Apayao’s grandest celebration mainly held in Kabugao and Luna. It involves a series of activities including the indigenous games panagga-angrad, street dancing, agro-industrial trade fair, and the search for the loveliest “Dayag Ti Apayao”. 

Bamboo-Cooked Cuisine

While you’re in Apayao, trying their distinctive bamboo-cooked spicy dishes and river eels and fishes is a definite must! Two of their best dishes to try are sinursur and sinandila

The spicy sinursur is made of eel or catfish cooked with banana heart or gabi (taro). This is stuffed in a bamboo tube and cooked in open fire.

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The usual food served in Apayao comprise of blanched veggies, meat stew, brown rice, and yummy bamboo-cooked dishes. Photo by Butch Capoy. 

Sinandila, meanwhile, is a sticky rice dessert staple on the Isnag dining table. It’s wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, often served with a generous drizzle of latik or coconut curds.

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Apayao’s sticky rice dessert sinandila. Photo by Butch Capoy. 

Pinalatan is also great to try and is best paired with a bottle of ice-cold beer. This dish is made of either fried pork or chicken intestines and mixed with chopped pomelo leaves, chili, and salt.

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Apayao’s favorite pulutan pinaltan. Photo by Manel Solsoloy. 

Tinuno, on the other hand, is a unique food preservation process where bite-sized chunks of wild boar are skewered and smoked for hours. 

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A local smokes boar meat through a process called tinuno. Photo by Butch Capoy. 

The Riverside-Dwellers of Apayao

When in the province, you should definitely get to know the riverside-dwelling Isnag tribe. One of the very first tribes to settle in the Cordilleras, the Isnag have done a remarkable job at preserving their age-old beliefs and practices, making them a fountain of information about the ways of worlds past. 

They reside along Apayao’s main river system, where they catch food, wash clothes, and bathe. When groups of travelers come to their province, the Isnags welcome them with much delight.

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Photo from Butch Capoy. 

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Apayao kids welcome tourists with a dance too! Photo by Butch Capoy.

They perform their native song disodis, followed by two traditional Isnag dances, the victory dance for war and headhunting tallip and the thanksgiving and courtship dance taddó. They’re also very open in sharing their age-old beliefs about their community, revered rivers, nature, and death.

Where to stay in Apayao

Staying in Apayao is incredibly afforable! Book your stay for as low as P300, good for 4 people. (Yes, four!) View our listings here. At Explora, you can easily discover the best things to do and places to stay wherever you are in the Philippines! Many of our listings are unique and can’t be found anywhere else on the web.

Best time to visit Apayao

The best time to visit is during Apayao’s grandest celebration, the Say-Am Festival, every February 14. Get involved with the locals’ fun indigenous games panagga-agrad and their lively street dancing. Outside this main event, the best time to explore is between December and May when the weather is dry. It can get rainy between June and November but visiting is still possible.

Where is Apayao

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Apayao is located in the mountainous Cordillera region in northern Philippines. Graphics by Noodle Donato.

How to get to Apayao, Cordillera

The fastest way to get to Apayao is to book a flight with Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific to Laoag City in Ilocos Norte or Tuguegarao City in Cagayan Valley. Fare is around P2,000 per person. Both airports have vans and jeepneys bound for Luna, Apayao, which is 3 to 4 hours away. A more affordable way is to take a bus to Apayao through any of the bus lines below. Fare from Manila to Apayao is around P700 per person while the travel time can take up to 12 hours, depending on the traffic. Traveling by bus at night can be more practical—you can sleep the time away on the way there.

Manila to Luna bus lines: Rivera Transit, RCJ Lines, Northstar, and Florida

Manila to Flora via Tuguegarao City: Ballesteros Liner

Manila to Tuguegarao City: Victory Liner, Baliwag Transit, Dagupan Bus, Auto Bus, and Genesis

Baguio City to Conner: GL Transit

Baguio City to Pudtol: Gabriel Transit

Tuguegarao City to Kabugao: G. Bros Liner, KATODA Van, and Young Brothers

Tuguegarao City to Pudtol: PUTODA Van and Chona Patrick Bus Line

Tuguegarao City to Conner: COTODA Van and G. Bros Liner

Tuguegarao City to Flora: FTODA Van and Cabulisan Bus Line

Getting around Apayao is a bit trickier because public transportation is limited. You can opt to negotiate with tricycle and motorcycle operators in the area. If traveling in groups, renting a car or a van from Laoag or Tuguegarao is the most convenient option.


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