For centuries, they have been maintained by the Ifugao, a people who are believed to have migrated from Indonesia and who brought with them the hand-terracing technique, which also can be found in China.
But recent generations have abandoned more than a quarter of the terraces, which are made of compacted mud and stone and require constant maintenance, as young Ifugao (eef-OO-gaw) have been lured away to cities or to the more lucrative business of tourism rather than the hard work of rice-planting.
As a result, the terraces are now on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites in danger.
Some critics argue that tourism has hurt the region, but it seems inevitable that Ifugao families would realize they could import rice cheaply for their own food and make money from visitors wanting to see and walk among the legacy of their ancestors.
I was happy to pay for the privilege - to stand on the edge of a perilous mountain road and survey a transfixing landscape of irregularly shaped terraces that form an architectural harmony between rugged nature and human survival.
Some Ifugao today still live in tightly clustered villages that are a mix of thatched-roof huts and simple modern buildings. Others live along the mountain slopes or around the town of Banaue in third-world tin shacks and dilapidated wood or concrete structures.
The encroaching development, for some, mars the viewing of the terraces. However, I was fascinated by the little peeks I got into the still very simple lives that many of these people lead. I remember one family in the most basic box of a home perched on a cliff, sitting together and staring out at the passing mountain-road traffic. They seemed very content. It made me think: How content, in our American homes, are we?
It's a long haul from the United States to the Philippines, which is a half-day ahead of East Coast time, and an arduous drive from Manila to Banaue (bah-NOW-way), the small town that serves as the gateway to the rice terraces. But all the travel is well worth the awe-inspiring experience.
I spent a week in the Philippines and packed a lot of sightseeing into my woefully short visit. I took day trips to the island of Corregidor and the Bataan peninsula to explore those iconic World War II sites. I walked the walls of the Intramuros, the core fortress city in Manila built by the Spanish 400 years ago.
The Philippines, full of natural wonders on more than 7,000 islands, is easy on the wallet, and most people speak some level of English. Many ATMs will take American bank cards and spit out pesos. You can stay in touch with family and friends at numerous Internet cafes. You can easily find McDonald's, Burger King, KFC - and they all have spaghetti. It's a Filipino thing.
With my schedule packed, I thought I could do Banaue in a day. I did, but it was a mistake. You need to wake up and watch the sun rise over the Cordillera mountains. During the day, you need to find your own little corner, maybe after a long hike to Batad village and its amphitheater of terraces, to simply sit and marvel.
And there are fascinating side trips nearby. There are the cliffside hanging coffins of Sagada. In Kiangan, you can visit the mountain hideaway where Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who commanded the doomed Japanese defense of the Philippines, surrendered to American forces on Sept. 2, 1945.
In Banaue, the main lodging is the Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel. Rates range from 2,000 pesos, or about $40, a day for a standard room to about $100 for a suite. The large hotel is an attractive facility with a restaurant and gift shop. There are smaller, cheaper inns nearby.
Getting there is a journey. There's at least one daily overnight bus (Autobus) that leaves Manila for Banaue. It costs 462 pesos, or about $9. And it's a nine-hour trip. I figured I'd shave some time off the drive and also have the freedom to stop, visit other places, and leave when I felt like it by hiring a taxi.
I used taxis frequently around Manila and Makati, the business district where I stayed, and I asked drivers how much it would cost for a round trip to Banaue. I had three offers: $100, $200 and $300. I decided on the $200 driver, Elmo Cruzat, because I was apprehensive about the cheapest rate. Everything else was so inexpensive in the Philippines, I was willing to splurge on this one major expedition for my own peace of mind.
Elmo picked me up promptly at 4 a.m. in his white Toyota and we were soon hustling our way north, zooming around slow-moving convoys, the ubiquitous jeepneys (colorful Jeeps converted into mini-buses), and tricycles (motorbikes with side cars). As we approached the mountainous jungle, we passed numerous police checkpoints set up to deter illegal logging.
We reached Kiangan about 6 1/2 hours later and got sidetracked trying to find the Yamashita surrender site. It was located on the grounds of a school and not marked from the road, so you need to ask locals for its whereabouts. It was a proper bookend to my visit to Corregidor, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur withstood Japanese bombardment in the months after Pearl Harbor before being ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to leave for Australia (where he declared "I shall return"). Banaue was less than an hour away.
At the Banaue Hotel, the registry listed recent visitors from Israel, Argentina, Belgium, Spain, Canada and the United States.
Ana P. Haclao, 54, a hotel clerk and an Ifugao who planted rice as a child, said visitors come mainly during the dry season, from October through April. Some are particular about what stage the rice is in during farming.
"Others want it when it's green," she said. "Others want it when it's ripe, golden. Others want it when it's just planted."
From the hotel, Elmo and I took a jeepney tour, courtesy of Aslay Tucdaan, 27. He's another Ifugao who planted rice as a child. We bounced up a rocky mountain road and down to the valley-floor village of Bangaan.
On a footpath to the village, we stopped at some homes where natives were making and selling souvenirs. I was interested in their knives, but I figured a knife wasn't going to make it through airport security. I was curious but somewhat disturbed by the monkey skulls. In any case, one of those would also get flagged at the X-ray machine. Instead, I bought some traditional red-and-black garments, a necklace with boar tusks, and a dark-brown wood carving of the rice god, Bulul.
I shot lots of pictures and video. The rice terraces are a photographer's dream with their otherworldly vistas and intriguing and friendly locals.
At 3:30 p.m., it was time to leave if we were to get through the mountains before dark. I regretted that I had not planned for an extended stay, but was exhilarated to see the terraces in person.
As we headed back to Manila, the mountain road was dotted with various environment-friendly signs, including one that declared: "The Earth is not a gift from our parents. It is a loan from our children."
Let's hope the rice terraces will survive to be repaid for many generations to come.
Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rice Terraces
The least expensive and quickest way to reach Manila is through JFK International Airport in New York, where a one-stop round trip was about $1,450 on Cathay Pacific recently. (No nonstops are scheduled from Philadelphia, Newark, New York or Baltimore-Washington.)
The Autobus Terminal in the Manila area is located on Espana Boulevard, at the corner of Cataluna Street, in the Sampaloc district. Call 011-63-2-735-8098. If you have trouble contacting Autobus, check with the tourism authority about how to get tickets to Banaue, about a nine-hour overnight ride away, or ask about other bus lines.
You can make reservations at the Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel by calling the Philippine Tourism Authority at 011-63-2-524-2513. The authority's Web site is www.philtourism.gov.ph.
Other local inns have listed phone numbers that can be found by searching the Internet, using the keywords Banaue and hotel.