Boating is a popular pastime in Burnham Park.
Boating is a popular pastime in Burnham Park.

IT’S THE usual Thursday dawn and the sun has yet to appear. Burnham Park is still plunged in semi-darkness and except for a few early early risers, the city seems to still be dozing off. It’s understandable, considering that the cold – really cold – weather makes even us want to find a bed and snuggle under a blanket.

A thick fog hovers over the lagoon in the center of a park, groups of middle-aged women do zumba sessions, ballads from the early 90s blare from the loudspeakers, and a taho vendor calls us for a cup of his warm drink.

Joseph, Dave and I are in Baguio City to take advantage of the long weekend break, when Pope Francis is in the country. The plan is to spend a day here before moving on to Banaue. A six-hour ride from Manila bought us here way before stores open so we content ourselves walking around the park until we can find a place to have breakfast.

The Mansion House serves as the president's summer residence in the Cordilleras.
The Mansion House serves as the president’s summer residence in the Cordilleras.
The "Pool of Pines" in Wright Park
The “Pool of Pines,” a long narrow pool at the entrance of Wright Park is a popular sight.

AS A CHILD, our trips to Baguio would consist of different things: boating in Burnham Park; riding horses in Wright Park; my parents stuffing an empty bag with souvenirs; rolling down the car windows and looking outside to have my face overwhelmed by the chilly winds; and scaring ourselves silly with the ghost stories that have become prevalent after the 1990 earthquake.

For my dad, it was where he stayed for a year while working on his doctorate degree. During that summer, he brought me, my brother and a cousin to live with him for a month while we learned the drums at a music workshop in the same school. It was when I got to know Baguio best, although that’s not to say I have memorized the city like the back of my hand. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been to the city but every time I return, it seems another part of the city has just opened up for me to explore. In other words, there’s something new every time.

Baguio City’s history, however, goes back way beyond before my parents spent their honeymoon there. In 1900 American soldiers who missed the temperate climate of their homeland went to the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon to find a place where they could carve their retreat site. They found an Ibaloi village in Benguet province and constructed a city there that would three years later be designated by the government as the Summer Capital of the Philippines.

The altitude brings a low temperature and one thing readily noticeable about the city is the relatively cooler air, ranging between the high teens and twenties. It’s a welcome contrast to the sweltering heat of the rest of the country and the meteorological anomaly provides a respite for lowlanders, perhaps similar to Cameron Highlands of Malaysia and Sapa of Vietnam. This has attracted visitors for the last century, spurring development faster than the indigenous locals could cope up with.

The original Ibaloi tribes who occupied the area have already assimilated to subsequent occupants of the city and, much like many cities in the country, Baguio has so much become a cultural hodgepodge that a huge chunk of its authenticity had been lost. For starters, cynics decry the emergence of an SM mall – the ultimate indicator of urban development in the Philippines. But Baguio remains a constant in quick out-of-town escapades and every Filipino theoretically has to have been here at least once.

Crowds flock early in the morning at Cafe By The Ruins, a homey restaurant that has become a Baguio institution.
Crowds flock early in the morning at Cafe By The Ruins, a homey restaurant that has become a Baguio institution.
Baguio City is awash with restaurants serving fresh vegetables. Oh My Gulay! in Session Road has a menu full of vegetarian options.
Baguio City is awash with restaurants serving fresh vegetables. Oh My Gulay! in Session Road has a menu full of vegetarian options.

AFTER OUR BREAKFAST at the Cafe By The Ruins, we head to the Mines View Park. Its days as a destination for miners is long gone but the site remains a crowd-drawer for its breathtaking views of the Cordillera mountains and the cold, breezy air that is a novelty for Filipino lowlanders.

Originally built as the summer home of American officials during the colonial period, the Mansion House now functions as a presidential residence in the Cordillera Region. The house was constructed during the administration of a governor-general, who named the structure after his cottage in New England. Daniel H. Burnham (the man behind the urban designs of Burnham Park and Chicago, among others) did initial designs of the mansion before William E. Parsons took over.

Across the gated mansion and its sprawling lawns lies the Wright Park, which has served as the backdrop for many Filipino dance numbers in slapstick comedies of the 1980s. A narrow pool is in the middle of the entrance with pine trees lining both sides, providing a woodsy vibe. Filipinos know the place most for the costumed Ifugao tribesfolk who will pose for a picture for a fee, as well as the horse rides.

In the afternoon we take a jeep to the Strawberry Farm in La Trinidad, Benguet’s capital, where the mountains’ temperate climate provides suitable living conditions for berries and lettuce. Visitors can pick strawberries for a fee, depending on the total weight of the fruits. Pre-picked strawberries and blueberries are available as well near the entrance if you’d rather do your picking from a basket in a stall.

Americana kitsch adorn the walls of a diner in Camp John Hay,  a major hill station that served as an R & R spot for US military in the Philippines.
Americana kitsch adorn the walls of a diner in Camp John Hay, a major hill station that served as an R & R spot for US military in the Philippines.
Freshly picked strawberries are sold in a farm just outside Baguio City.
Freshly picked strawberries are sold in a farm just outside Baguio City.

WE RETURN TO Baguio City a little later and have our dinner in SM. We return to Burnham Park in the evening and wait for the bus to Banaue.

I’ve gotten used to Baguio that I no longer feel some sort of separation blues whenever it’s time to descend to the capital. Besides, the continued development is already taking its toll, and locals are in an uproar yet again about rumored plans to uproot the pine trees in Camp John Hay to make way for an expansion project. Many visitors even complain that Baguio has in fact become warmer as a result of climate change and unchecked urban growth.

Despite this, the pine trees, the cool air and the relatively relaxed vibe of the city never fail to transport me back to the good old days when the city was more than just a summer destination – the innocence of our childhood is represented by the sentimental concept of the city as an enchanting mountain break.

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