Artists, entrepreneurs and regular citizens alike are out to protect Baguio’s environment, while highlighting its rich cultural and artistic heritage
On a clear morning at the misty summit of Mount Santo Tomas, Baguio’s highest peak, a panoramic vista unfolds: grassy hills, dense forests and quaint towns. A long-time magnet for vacationers, Baguio is perched more than 5,000ft above sea level in the Philippines’ fabled Cordillera Mountains. Nowhere is its splendor more obvious than in this pine tree-scented nest above the clouds. Here, it’s easy to recall Baguio’s golden age, when it was truly a City of Pines, an outpost officially designated as the Philippines’ summer capital. In many respects, it retains that status even a century on, as urbanites continue to flock here to escape Manila’s scorching summer heat. That said, owing in large part to runaway development — and a devastating 1990 earthquake — the Baguio of today bears little resemblance to its serene, turn-of-the-20th-century incarnation.
At that time, Baguio’s chilly climate and picturesque landscape inspired American colonialists to set up a retreat — Camp John Hay (Loakan Rd; www.campjohnhay.ph) — in the heart of what was then a popular hill station designed by US architect Daniel Burnham. Its colonial charm lives on in the form of the Swiss chalet-inspired cottages of Teacher’s Camp (Leonard Wood Rd; +63 74 442 3517), a one-time training facility for American educators, the paddleboats on the lake at Burnham Park (Jose Abad Santos Dr) and the scenic horse trails of nearby Wright Park (Leonard Wood Rd).
Though signs of the US role in Baguio’s development are everywhere, for the most part the traditions of its many indigenous cultures have also been preserved. While some might raise an eyebrow at the sight of Cordilleran tribesman posing cheekily for tourist photos at Mines View Park (Outlook Dr) — a remnant of Baguio’s heyday as a mining town, it’s now a po souvenir market — the city’s enduring appeal owes as much to the ingenuity of its native people as it does to its majestic but fast-disappearing pines.
For some, Baguio’s ongoing urban makeover has spawned a sense of nostalgia for long-ago summers filled with evening bonfires and games of hide and seek in the pine trees. In past decades, the city was a haven for artists, poets, intellectuals, Catholic nuns and Cordilleran cowboys whose traditions stemmed from Spanish cattle-ranch days. Today, the stench of engine fumes pervades traffic-choked Session Road, Baguio’s main thoroughfare. And green sanctuaries like Burnham Park, once the city’s centerpiece, have gradually given way to sprawling shopping havens. More recently — especially after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake laid waste to the city 25 years ago this July — the arrival of several large-scale commercial and private development projects has worsened pollution and deforestation, leaving residents feeling as if the pristine Baguio they once knew might be gone forever.
Is Baguio, in fact, a lost cause? Ask the small business owners and others spearheading Baguio’s plans for a cultural renaissance and the answer is a firm “no”. Perhaps the clearest signal of the coming revival was a summit held in February at the University of the Philippines Baguio. At the event, entitled The Baguio We Want, the aspirations of the city’s residents rang out loud and clear — a vow to protect the environment, balance tourism with education, boost local government accountability and serve as the voice of change. Organizer Padmapani Perez, who co-owns the independent Mt Cloud Bookshop, located beside Hill Station, says, “My new hope after the people’s summit is for a more engaged citizenry that values the environment and participates in making the Baguio we want.”
While the city has changed and continues to evolve, this movement — led by the city’s preeminent artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs among others — is committed to taking Baguio back and making it even better.
Art to the Rescue
Art has always been a part of everyday life in Baguio, so it comes as no surprise that artists are at the forefront of revival efforts. In the 1980s, the city experienced an artistic renaissance initiated by a community of like-minded artists, among them Filipino National Artist Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik and visual artist Santi Bose. Three decades on, the seeds they planted have begun to bear fruit.
The BenCab Museum (Km 6 Asin Rd) near Ifugao Woodcarvers’ Village beautifully showcases the artist’s vast contemporary art and bulol (rice-god statues) collections. Baguio’s first art museum of this scale, it’s home to nine galleries spread over three stories. Featuring works by contemporary Filipino artists, including homegrown talents like Leonardo Aguinaldo and Kawayan de Guia, the museum displays art against a spectacular natural backdrop made up of forests and rice terraces. “My idea is to highlight art and nature,” Cabrera says. “The museum opened six years ago when I was able to acquire this area, which is still a forest. People like sitting outside the [museum] café and looking at what we’re preserving. We want to promote indigenous trees, which are fast disappearing.”
But that isn’t Cabrera’s sole priority; he’s also invested in preserving the natural aesthetic of the mountains he’s called home since 1986, when he relocated to Baguio from London. Cabrera has since forged deep friendships within Baguio’s art community while helping to establish the Baguio Arts Guild (BAG) (113 Upper General Luna Rd) in partnership with Bose — the guild’s founding president — Tahimik, Roberto Villanueva and a number of other artists who’ve also spent time abroad. Throughout the 1990s, the members of this growing artistic community took it upon themselves to promote Baguio’s revival by staging the annual Baguio Arts Festival, which brought in artists from across the globe.
Central to the local art scene is the Victor Oteyza Community Art Space (VOCAS) (La Azotea Building, Session Rd), which is named for Tahimik’s uncle. He was one of the 13 Moderns, a group that spearheaded the modern art movement in the Philippines. Run by Tahimik, his wife Katrin de Guia and their children (all artists), VOCAS is an incredible space for exhibitions and also offers quite a view from the top. The onsite vegetarian restaurant, Oh My Gulay, was designed as a massive ship filled with art. The architecture and furnishings are organic and funky, which makes for a quite a contrast with the modernistic BenCab Museum, but that’s what accounts for its edge. The vibe at the family’s newly opened art café, Ili-Likha Artists Village (Assumption Rd) is just as eclectic.
Tam-awan Village (Long Long Benguet Rd; www.tam-awanvillage.com) in Pinsao Proper is also a key hub for art lovers. Modeled after a traditional Cordilleran Village, the venue is a living museum where visitors can see — and sleep in — traditional Cordilleran houses. A proponent of art education, Tam-awan holds art exhibitions, operates art and art therapy workshops and hosts cultural events. The resident artists can even do on-the-spot portraits so you can take a personalized artwork home with you. Since it became part of the Chanum Foundation in 1996, Tam-awan has drawn support from the Philippines’ National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Its International Art Festival, held every May, has been going strong for six years. Beyond that, Chanum Foundation Vice-President Chit Asignacion says, “We interact with locals to give them an alternative livelihood through art. We also go to different public schools in the region to teach art using indigenous materials.”
The mini-museum of Arca’s Yard (Ambuklao Rd; +63 74 442 9706) on the other side of the city also delivers the personal touch, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s home to a diverse collection of native textiles and bulol, handpicked by proprietor Ninja Sabado. Drop by to enjoy a slice of her delicious homemade kamote (sweet potato) pie — the house specialty — while leafing through a book in the spacious living room, whose floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the city. Beyond its role as a mini-museum, Arca’s Yard also functions as a B&B, library and café. “I created Arca’s as a tribute to my father Arca,” Sabado says. “Our purpose is to promote our Cordilleran cultural heritage through fashion, art, culinary arts, tourism and handicrafts.”
If local textiles tickle your fancy, head over to Kalinga Weaving (Camp 7, Kennon Rd). Owned and managed by the husband-and-wife team of Ruel and Irene Bimuyag, this small, nondescript shop is a treasure trove of colorful hand-woven textiles, clothing, bags and accessories. An avid photographer, Ifugao wood sculptor and dancer, Ruel also holds woodcarving workshops at TALA-NEST Creative Space (facebook.com/talacommunity) near Mines View Park. The space has an artist residency program and operates a guesthouse and organic coffee shop.
Like many residents, Ruel is put off by Baguio’s urban sprawl but excited by the city’s renewed creative energy. And he’s doing his part to further the campaign. “We dance in celebration of our heritage, carve and build to immortalize our experiences and honor our ancestry, and weave to define and redefine the lines from which we originate and to which we’re headed,” he says.
Café By The Ruins (25 Shuntug St) founded 27 years ago by a group of friends with a shared passion for art, food, friendship and the environment, is a testament to what can be achieved when like-minded people join forces to pursue altruistic aims. Focusing on local recipes and showcasing the delectable dishes of the Cordilleras, Café By The Ruins has become a home away from home where customers can hang out, admire locally made art and make new friends over a hearty meal and a fresh brew made with homegrown beans. Working with members of La Top Farmers Cooperative, the café also helps run an organic market that’s held every Wednesday and Saturday.
The same spirit animates the new and fancier Café By The Ruins Dua (Upper Session Rd; +63 74 442 4010), which is run by the founders’ children. Co-owner Feliz “Fifi” Perez says, “Dua takes after her older sister. The ambience of the cafés is definitely different but the soul is the same. Dua’s role in making Baguio better involves not just catering to tourists but to locals as well. By presenting our local produce as something special, we not only provide livelihoods for those who produce and create but also instill a sense of pride in what’s ours.”
Similar sentiments are the driving force behind the city’s newly opened microbrewery. Though craft beer is a Western concept, Xavierbier Corporation president Chris Ordas is quick to point out that the small-batch brewery he heads is all about Filipino pride. “Baguio Craft Brewery is 100% Filipino owned and operated,” he says. “We have a passion for keeping jobs in Baguio and promoting a sense of community among our staff and customers.”
By infusing craft beers with a bit of local flavor — Mythic Beers, the brewery’s flagship line, was inspired by the five spiritual realms of Ifugao mythology — Baguio Craft Brewery (Ben Palispis Highway; www.baguiocraftbrewery.com) pays tribute to the Cordilleras. The same philosophy lies at the heart of the better Baguio movement, whose many adherents are seeking to take the city back for good.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Smile magazine.