Revisiting Baguio City

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Greg B. Macabenta

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Revisiting Baguio City

Baguio City is one of the genuine tourism treasures of the Philippines. But for those of us who haven’t been to the City of Pines for years (especially those living overseas), the horror stories told about Baguio are enough to discourage any plans to make a trip.

The only attraction left unspoiled, according to the horror stories, is the cool climate, which the first American Governor-General of the Philippines, William Howard Taft, described “as bracing as Adirondacks or Murray Bay.” Recalled Taft, “…temperature this hottest month in the Philippines on my cottage porch at three in the afternoon — sixty-eight.”

That’s 68 degrees fahrenheit or 20 degrees celsius. Residents of Northern California like my family call that “San Francisco weather” or natural air-conditioning.

The rest of Baguio’s attractions, we are told, like Burnham Park, Camp John Hay, Mines View Park, Session Road, the souvenir market, the vegetable plantations, and the pine trees have all been overwhelmed by squatters, pollution, and Manila-style traffic.

For the millennials, Boracay is supposed to be the destination of choice. Only the hoi polloi or the unsophisticated would be willing to suffer the seven-hour drive to Baguio (of which two hours would be wasted just getting out of Metro Manila).

I hadn’t been to Baguio in over three decades. My family had last been to Mines View Park when our youngest child was 10 years old. He is now in his mid-40s.

My last significant experience with the city was in November 1983, when I chaired the 8th Philippine Advertising Congress. It was held at the Hyatt Terraces Plaza which was totally destroyed in the Luzon earthquake of 1990.

Ad Congresses were traditionally held at the venerable Pines Hotel, a place as historic as the Manila Hotel. Unfortunately, it was gutted by fire in October 1984, claiming many lives.

At any rate, in spite of the unflattering tales, on this recent visit to the Philippines, I felt a nostalgic rush within me at the mention of Baguio City. It evoked images of Lake Tahoe in the summer, with its pine trees and zigzag roads.

Baguio brought back visions of boat rides at Burnham Park, biking and riding ponies, Igorots wearing g-strings, fresh fruits and vegetables, especially strawberries, plants and flowers like the everlasting, wood carvings by native artists, folks wearing sweaters and jackets in contrast to the sweaty, suffering people from the “low-lands.”

Baguio City is also rich in history and culture. It was Baguio that was designated the Summer Capital of the Philippines by the American governors-general. And it was in Baguio where General Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, surrendered to American forces. The people of the Cordilleras continue to cherish and nurture their indigenous cultures, so reminiscent of the Native Americans in the US.

I had often compared the way US environmentalists have cared for Lake Tahoe to ensure that the water remains clear enough to see the bottom of it, and the way the Philippine government and we as a people have allowed our streams, rivers, lakes and forests to be spoiled and virtually prostituted. It was thus that I cheered the decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to put a stop to the degradation of Boracay, another Philippine tourism treasure.

Because my family and I have often driven up to Lake Tahoe, we have invariably been reminded of the Mountain Province and Baguio City.

lake Baguio City

And in spite of the horror stories told to us, we continued to cling to our recollection of the romantic mountain retreat of decades past.

Thus when the prospect of a weekend out-of-town drive was brought up, my family and I decided on Baguio City.

We are glad we did.

The horror stories are partly true. The crowds. The traffic. But the drive up SCTex (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway) and TPLEx (Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway) was a joy — in sharp contrast to the two-hour torment from Parañaque to the North Luzon Expressway.

To our pleasant surprise, Baguio City has not lost its old charm. In the cool evening, Burnham Park offers an opportunity for a leisurely stroll, while folks paddle around the lake in ridiculously cheap, two-dollar boat rides (three dollars with a rower). The Mansion House, the summer retreat of American governors-general and Philippine presidents, is reminiscent of European manors. And the souvenir market just off Session Road still offers a wealth of pastries and native sweets, fruits and vegetables, t-shirts and novelty items, as well as the indispensable walis tambo.

One thing we learned about visiting Baguio: don’t try driving around the city yourself. You will get lost and your GPS will only confuse you, And the traffic will exasperate you, assuming you manage to survive the tangle of cars, jeepneys, motorcycles and trucks that are as bad as Manila’s carmageddon.

Instead, do as we did. We hired a local driver to take over our vehicle and bring us to the best sights in the city. We were lucky to find a young off-duty travel agent named Joseph Gallego, a former low-lander who had found a wife in Baguio and a place to love and raise a family in.

Joseph provided interesting insights about Baguio traffic and the crowds that mill wherever you go. According to him, the bad-mannered ones, the ones honking their car horns and tying up the traffic, are from the low-lands, meaning Manila and neighboring provinces. Native Baguio folks don’t honk their car horns, he said, and don’t play vehicular chicken at intersections.

Joseph brought us to BenCab’s museum, a treasure house of his art pieces and those of other artists, as well as native carvings and bolols (native deities), Camp John Hay, Fort del Pilar or the Philippine Military Academy, the Mansion House, the Lourdes Grotto, and the public market.

How he negotiated the tangle of vehicles without getting into an accident is one of the advantages of hiring a local.

Admittedly, my perspective on Baguio City is seen through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, along with a degree of frustration that so much tourism potential, so much beauty, and so much history are not being creatively harnessed or fully developed — just like so many other tourism treasures around the country. The Tagalog term for the feeling is nakapanghihinayang.

Maybe the new tourism secretary, Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, can view these treasures through the same lens as an old traveler like me. Even without the infrastructure that the Duterte government has promised to build, build, build, there is so much potential in what our country already has.

She just needs to revisit them the way my family and I revisited Baguio City.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.