Isnag Tribe: The River People of the Cordilleras Edit

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Colleen Cabili  • Contributor
Opinions expressed by Explora.ph Contributors are their own.

Unless you’re a veteran explorer drawn to the road less traveled, chances are you’ve never been to the province of Apayao, the Land of Rivers in northern Philippines. For the longest time, this small, landlocked province high up the Cordillera region remained on the sidelines of the country’s tourism industry. It all changed, though, when word got around that there’s more to Apayao than being the modest former half of Kalinga-Apayao.

When in the province, you should take advantage of getting to know Apayao’s oldest inhabitants, the riverside-dwelling Isnag tribe. The Isnags are one of the very first tribes to find home in the Cordilleras. They have done a remarkable job at preserving age-old beliefs and practices, making them a fountain of information about the ways of worlds past. You can experience their food and culture tours in any town in the province. Just make a request at the tourism center! 

Here are 7 quick facts about these warm and welcoming people residing in the cold province of Apayao:

1. Hot and spicy: the staple Isnag flavor


A table of what the Isnags usually eat. Photo by Monte Corpuz.

With Apayao's highest point sitting at 2,926 meters above sea level, it's easy to attribute the people’s preference for spicy food to their location. However, the real reason why chili is present in every Isnag meal are its health benefits. The Isnag people believe that chili is a powerful antibiotic that can cure different kinds of illnesses. Hunters would often carry a handful of it while on the hunt, and treat fresh wounds by rubbing them with the fruit. 


Their spicy dishes are often made of river eels and local vegetables. Photo by Monte Corpuz.


Apayao's version of fried pork intestines, pinalatan, is seasoned with liberal amounts of fried chili and pomelo leaves. 

2. The Isnag people are master craftsmen


Export-quality handicrafts are often bought as gifts and giveaways. Photo by Monte Corpuz.

When visiting Apayao, make sure to leave extra room in your luggage for souvenirs! Although it’s always the coffee that takes center stage, their meticulously handmade handicrafts also deserve the spotlight. There are baskets, trays, and wine holders made from native grass like runo and nito—they don’t just look beautiful, they last long too! Best of all? They’re way more affordable than those in the city.


Materials for the pouches and purses are also hand-woven. Photo by Monte Corpuz.

3. Tourists are welcomed with a unique Isnag dance party


Isnag kids invite their visitors to join in when performing their harvest dance. Photo by Butch Capoy. 

The Isnags are very hospitable people, and they appreciate it when visitors express interest in their culture. Newcomers are often welcomed with the Disodis, a native song, followed by the Taddó and Tallip, two traditional Isnag dances. The Tallip is a victory dance for war and headhunting, while the Taddó is performed during thanksgiving ceremonies and courtship, among others. Both involve a lot of feet stomping on a bamboo mat called dalahda, to the rhythmic beating of a gansa drum. All of this is to showcase the strength of the dancers. 


The elders dancing the Taddó after a Disodis performance. Photo by Butch Capoy.


They always encourage visitors to also learn the rhythmic stomping on the dalahda. Photo by Butch Capoy.

4. The Philippine eagle is their spirit animal


The Banamba, or how the Isnags call the Philippine Eagle, freely roams the Calanasan skies. Photo from Philippine Eagle Foundation.

Unknown to many, there is another Philippine Eagle sanctuary in the country aside from the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City. The rainforests of Calanasan loom with towering lawaan trees, making it the perfect habitat for the endangered bird. The Philippine Eagle is a revered symbol of the Isnag due to its majestic appearance and overall strength. Entering the forest is strictly prohibited, and anyone who gets caught would have to face hefty fines and possible jail time. Worse, they’d have to face the dire consequences of lapat—the deadly combination of hefty fines, possible jail time, and plenty of bad luck.


Another shot of the Philippine eagle spotted through binoculars.


The Philippine eagle's wingspan can grow as long as 7 feet!

5. They farm the cream of the crop


A breakfast staple, lutu, is also best when dipped in sugar. Photo by Monte Corpuz.

Aside from freshwater catch, root crops are also a staple in every household meal. There’s cassava, gabi (taro), and lutu—a crunchy cassava-like root crop that tastes slightly sweet. It’s best served with a cup of brewed coffee. The tribe also harvests stalks of sugarcane and transforms these into a local wine called basi. The sugarcane is first pressed through a wooden trapiche, an old contraption that squeezes the juice out of sugarcanes. The juice is then boiled, cooled, and finally fermented with yeast. In the video below you’ll see how the Explora Team tried squeezing the juice out through the trapiche. It’s quite fun to try!

6. They’ve done a great job at preserving their ethnic traditions


The locals still regularly hold Sunday masses at the Mataguisi Ruins. Photo by Monte Corpuz.

What sets Apayao apart from its neighboring provinces is the successful preservation of their ethnic traditions despite the threat of modernization. Aside from the Isnag’s native dances, customs such as kaddag (sacrificing an animal for protection and guidance) and the previously mentioned lapat (the ancient practice where a portion of the land becomes off-limits when someone dies) are still widely practiced.


Aside from chickens, other animals such as pigs, dogs, goats, and sometimes even monkeys can be used for kaddag depending on the event. Photo by Butch Capoy.

7. Their rivers are revered paths and providers


The usual view along the mountain roads of Calanasan, Apayao. Photo by Monte Corpuz.


Nagan River, Pudtol. Photo by Monte Corpuz.


Not too far from Nagan, tourists can go cliff-diving at the neighboring Maton River. Photo by Monte Corpuz.

Despite being landlocked, the province is abundant with streams and rivers teeming with different kinds of fish. There’s eel, catfish, tilapia, and milkfish, which are always featured in their local dishes. The locals also use the rivers for bathing, washing clothes, and traveling, which is why most of the settlements are situated along or near the riverbanks.

Apayao in the local language means “land of rivers”, while Isang means “people of the rivers”. Just like Apayao’s many rivers, this enduring tribe is also teeming with life, culture, and a welcoming warmth for all and any traveler that may come their way. Experiencing a day in the life of the Isnag tribe is a great contrast to the action-packed attractions of Apayao, but a memorable one nonetheless!    

BONUS: 5 Action-Packed Things To Do in Apayao, Cordillera


Check this out: 5 Action-Packed Things To Do in Apayao, Cordillera

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.

How to get to Apayao, Cordillera

Various bus lines in Sampaloc, Manila, offer trips to Junction Luna via Abulug, Cagayan, for approximately P700-750 one-way. The trip can take up to 12 hours depending on the traffic. From Junction Luna Terminal, take a tricycle to Luna Poblacion. The 15-minute trip costs P30 per person.

If traveling by air, take a Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific direct flight to Laoag or Tuguegarao. The airfare for a one-way trip starts at P2,000 per person. Both airports have tricycle and jeepneys bound for Luna, which is approximately a 3 to 4-hour drive away.

Getting around Apayao is a bit trickier since 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 in Laoag or Tuguegarao is the most convenient option.

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