My Buscalan Village Experience

Four months ago, I went to Buscalan Village in Kalinga to meet the legendary tattoo artist of the Philippines, Apo Whang-od. As going to hyped places isn’t my type of travel, I wanted this trip to be as cheap as possible.

From Bontoc, I rode a van to Buscalan. There were three other locals from Kalinga who shared the van with me. From the beginning of the ride, one of them asked me if I already have a guide, to which I replied none yet. She offered to be my guide but I said I want to reach the tourist information first to see if there are other tourists I can split the guide fee with. But throughout the ride, she followed up three times and asked if I already have decided to hire her as my guide.

When I came to the tourist information center in Buscalan at 3pm, on a Tuesday, there are still three guides lined up waiting for tourists. The fees were:

Registration: Php 100
Day Tour Guide: Php 1,000
Overnight Guide: Php 1,500
Homestay: Php 400

I was trying to come up with different options that I also run with them so I could make the guide fee as cheap as possible because the guide to hiker ratio is 1:5. If I can find 4 other people to share it with, I could save Php 800.00.

I asked things like:

“During this time, would tourists still arrive if I wait long enough?” They replied “No.”

“What if I stay in a homestay here, near the tourist information center and wait for other tourists I could share the guide fees with tomorrow morning?” They said there are no homestays here, only up in the village.

I was trying to make other options work until they finally said, I cannot share a guide with other tourists because they already have a packaged tour. They said if I wanted to share a guide with other people I should’ve talked to them in Bontoc and not here. In here, I cannot share a guide with other people, they said.

I know what they said makes sense but the motivation was to get as many guides as possible to earn money throughout the day. So they insisted I get my own guide and if there is another group of tourists, they should have their own guide.

As it is already late in the afternoon, I decided to take the day tour by myself. It was before 4pm. For a really short hike up the village (didn’t even take 10 minutes) the 1,000 guide fee is already too expensive for a solo traveler like me.

My photos with Apo-Whang Od

But when we arrived at the village they were still encouraging me to stay in a homestay, which will make the guide fee 1,500 (for overnight). One guide was persistent in telling me the price of the homestays in the village and by the highway is just the same. I should just stay in the village. She said I would only save 400 if I don’t stay in the village, and that’s not a lot.

I told them from the start I’m on a budget but they kept encouraging me to spend more money. So I dismissed it by saying, I also need to travel to the city early in the morning so it’s also better if I stay in a homestay by the highway.

From the beginning of my van ride to Buscalan, I already felt the locals easily hustle tourists for money and it’s not really a good experience. After Buscalan, I also traveled to other villages in Kalinga and I was able to see how much the culture in Buscalan has become different compared to the other villages of Kalinga.

From my travel experience in Kalinga apart from Buscalan, I find the locals are kind and accommodating. They would offer anything without hoping for anything in return. You can be friends with them on an equal level. In fact, I told many people I met in Kalinga they should also come to Palawan so I can show them around my hometown too. If you go to touristy places like Buscalan, there is barely any kindness. You cannot connect with locals genuinely because they already expect to provide you their service in exchange for money 🙁

Other places I went to this year that I felt the same are in Oslob and Siquijor. I call it “tourism hustle”. Locals are hustling for money from tourists almost every time. A simple help needs a tip. When you’re traveling, you really need to spend money. But there are other places in the Philippines that get flocked with tourists but manage to control the tourism hustle, like Sagada. I went to Sagada twice, alone at first and with friends the next time around. Sagada is an expensive town to travel to but my experience was great at both times.

The simple difference and a suggestion for improvement is— In Sagada, the person who assist at the tourist information decides objectively. She gets paid the same amount on a monthly basis regardless of how many guides she puts to work. She’ll help you arrange your tours with other tourists if you want to share the guide fee with other people. In Buscalan, the people who wait at the tourist information are also the guides. They have a motivation that can affect how they treat the tourists.

If you’re planning to get a tribal tattoo in Buscalan, on a packaged tour, or with friends, I have no doubt it will be a pleasant bucket list experience. But if you’re a traveler who wants to do things like me, plan to go in the morning so you can wait for other DIY tourists you can share the guide fee and the whole experience with.

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