Baguio: the eternal and the environmental

Baguio’s unique character as a Philippine city requires a similarly unique dedication to its protection.

Sunrise view of the lake at Burnham Park in Baguio, with mist floating over the water's surface.

Baguio is a young city. It is only over a century old—practically an infant among the historical cities and towns of the Philippine archipelago. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, while ilustrados and invaders quarreled over the serious matter of sovereignty in the lowlands, the area known as Kafagway was only a grassland inhabited by humble Ibaloi folk, quietly tending to their cattle. A few years later, after inevitably winning the Philippine-American War, weary Americans stumbled upon this cradle of a land in the mountainous Cordillera region. Exhausted by lowland Luzon’s tropical air, they must have fallen homesick at the first whiff of Kafagway’s chilly midland winds, so they quickly decided that they will build a resort town in that place. Baguio was born.

Flowers with dewdrops at Burnham Park, Baguio City.
Flowers at Baguio’s Burnham Park.

Yet, despite this young history and the absence of a Spanish heritage that most of the rest of Luzon Island enjoys, Baguio has already attained for itself an immortal character. The numerous artists and authors who have made this place their home attest to the sense of the eternal pervading the midland city.

A sense of the eternal: the cold begets contemplation

It must be the cold weather. Baguio does not have the harsh, icy winters of faraway countries, but in this tropical nation of scorching, sweaty summers, Baguio’s cool air provides the ideal vacationing climate. While the cities, shores and waters of the Philippine lowland regions and islands are the very image of energy, action and adventure, Baguio’s mountains, enveloped with fog and pines, stand still in stark contrast as the icon of contemplation.

(I remember how, stepping off a bus from Manila at Utility Road, Baguio, I found myself shivering against the pre-dawn amihan winds. It was actually colder than the freezer-like air-conditioning of the bus. I would recall this many months later, when a French tourist complained to me about the extreme cold of provincial buses in the Philippines. They had come to this tropical country all the way from the winter of Paris, only to find themselves freezing to death in an overspeeding bus.)

In a physical, scientific sense, coldness is associated with inactivity or preservation. To freeze organic substances is to preserve them. Stars cool down as they die. This link holds true also in a geographic and cultural sense: the warmth of Spain and Italy, for example, lend these countries’ cultures an energy that is missing from their counterparts farther north, such as in Finland and Norway; wintry Russia has produced some of classical literature’s finest novelists—the experience of frost seems to enable them to talk about eternal things, and write patiently long masterpieces.

A morning view of pines from one of Baguio's many inns.
A morning view of pines from one of Baguio’s many inns.

It is understandable then, that Baguio is such an inviting space for personalities like BenCab, Kidlat Tahimik, and even Nick Joaquin, who is rumored to have made the city’s watering holes his secret getaway (perhaps as a respite from a stressful week of wielding his pen). Innumerable ‘writerly’ nooks fill the sprawl of Baguio, and it is easy to see these spaces being occupied by imaginative minds, inspired by the stillness of the mountains, moved by the comforting beauty of misty air, enthralled by the evergreen of pines.

It is fitting then that, at a prime location in the city, at the upper end of Burnham Park, the people of Baguio has erected a monument to the nation’s first novelist, and its most-immortalized son.

Monument dedicated to Jose Rizal, near Burnham Park at Baguio City.
Rizal Monument near Burnham Park.

The environment: a feature and a responsibility

The unique environment of Baguio as a Philippine city naturally places it at the forefront of environmentalism. Its solidarity with its surroundings is both its most attractive feature, and its greatest source of conflict.

Baguio is a top-of-the-mind tourist destination, the most obvious reason being, again, the weather. Devoid of the oppressive heat of low-lying cities, all people in Baguio, whether resident or visiting, find many reasons to be active. In no other city in the country is the prospect of sweating outdoors more desirable. Even if one does not have kinetic intentions, there is always the bonus of being in the only place in the Philippines where sporting a jacket is socially acceptable—outside of artificially-cooled shopping malls, that is. (“Kahit na nasa Pilipinas ka, may jacket na pampostura,” [You’re still in the Philippines, but you can show off in a jacket,] sings Yan Yuzon with his band Archipelago, in a song named after the city.)

Then there are places like BenCab’s museum, where art and nature fuse into a total experience for culturally-inclined tourists. For the gastronomic explorers, fine restaurants are aplenty in town. Notable ones include Café by the Ruins and Oh My Gulay, both taking pride in featuring the freshest produce of the region. Their dishes are full with the taste of highland Cordilleran fruits, vegetables, and meat.

Sunrise view of the lake at Burnham Park in Baguio, with mist floating over the water's surface.
The lake at Burnham Park, at dawn.

Even a recreational activity as basic as visiting the park, which is a dying tradition in most Philippine towns (where the plaza is being replaced by the shopping mall), is treasured in Baguio like nowhere else. In the central Burnham park at dawn, one could rent a boat at the artificial lake and watch the soft layer of morning mist dissipate over the mirror-like surface; or one could jog around, occasionally resting to admire the pristine flowers thriving in the city’s cool air.

However, the more creative and critical minds this naturally-attractive town attracts, the louder becomes the call to preserve its delicate place in the Cordillera midlands.

The struggle begins, perhaps, with the Ibaloi, the indigenous people who saw the land transform from a quiet grassland into the crowded summer capital that it is today. They are the people who gave Baguio its Cordilleran flavor, although, being the de facto cultural capital of the Cordilleras, all the other native peoples of the region have a stake in the continued development of the city.

The struggle is borne as well by the residents of Baguio, both old and new: the older ones who have seen the growth of the city through the decades, and the younger ones who continue to come to the city for education and employment. (Baguio is a university town, and the premier destination of higher-learning in northern Luzon.)

But the struggle, admittedly, is an uphill one, because the challenges Baguio is facing are the same challenges faced by cities across the world: increasing rural-to-urban migration, environmental degradation, and deepening strain on natural resources. As the region’s urban center, there is no way for the city’s population figures to go but up, further punishing a town that has long breached its intended maximum population of 30,000 people. With increasing population comes commercial attractiveness: hence we have issues like shopping mall builders cutting down revered pine trees to make room for expansion, much to Baguio old-timers’ horror and impassioned protests. There is also a looming water supply crisis, which seems obvious enough: Manila and other lowland cities situated near rivers already have freshwater supply problems, as it is; what more with an overpopulated upland city?

As a tourist, these things almost make visiting Baguio a guilty pleasure. The young city has quickly caught up with the fame and greatness of other Philippine cities, but in the process it seems to have also acquired the same problems these other cities are facing.

A panorama of the morning sun and landscape as seen from Mines View Park in Baguio City.
Mines View Park at Baguio City.

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