By JESSICA PAG-IWAYAN
Fresh air, chilling temperature, and the best cup of coffee. These are some of the reasons Filipinos and international tourists flock all year round to the country’s summer capital, Baguio City.
This Creative City, as hailed by UNESCO, has another world-class attraction to offer—their annual Panagbenga Festival. The term Panagbenga means “a season for blooming, a time for flowering.” It comes from Kankanaey, a south-central; Cordilleran language used by the indigenous group Igorot.
For 25 years this festival has stayed true to its name by showcasing the beauty and variety of flowers blooming in the Cordillera mountains, a month-long celebration beginning on the first of February that garners more than a million of tourists annually.
Apart from promoting their beautiful, breathtaking flowers, this much-awaited festival also shows the unity of the Cordilleran people. Students actively participate in a street dance competition, while local landscapers join exhibitions and competitions that add color and fun to the Panagbenga Festival. Meanwhile, private organizations from different parts of the country support the activities by competing at the Panagbenga Grand Float Competition.
This year, however, due to the coronavirus scare, some adjustments had to be made to secure the protection of public health. With a heavy heart, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong announced that the local government had to postpone some of the activities and move them to later dates.
“My apologies and my sincerest regrets but one thing of paramount concern, that’s more important to us, is the health and safety of the general public,” said the mayor during the flower festival’s official commencement ceremony.
Some of the activities that were postponed were the opening parade of the Drum and Lyre Elementary Division and the Sunday pedestrianization and art activities on Session Road. Meanwhile, the Baguio Blooms Landscaping Exhibition and Competition pushed through with 18 participants creating works in the open, vertical, and carpet categories. Their creative outputs are scattered around the city—at the City Hall, Burnham Park, and along Session Road, reminding everyone that, despite the delay, the Cordilleran flowers continue to bloom.
Northern Blossom Flower Farm
Aside from Baguio City, there are other areas in the Cordillera mountains where thousands of flowers bloom, putting smiles on every tourist who visit them. One of these is the Northern Blossom Flower Farm in Atok, Benguet.
In an intimate interview, owner Mellany Ganayan gave Manila Bulletin Lifestyle a tour of her three-hectare flower farm now turned into a tourist destination. According to Mellany, she inherited the land from her parents, which used to be a vegetable farm. Upon realizing that flowers were more profitable, Mellany and her husband decided to grow ornamental plants and started supplying flowers for the flower shops in Dangwa, Manila.
One day, a surprise visit from one of The Manila Buletin’s photographers Zaldy Comanda changed changed their lives. “I was in Manila and then my supplier called me and said: ‘Congratulations! You were featured in The Manila Bulletin, a major newspaper,” she recalls. “I asked myself how it could have happened. In a phone call, my secretary informed me that local policemen brought photographers to my farm on a tour.”
Since then, people have started to visit Mellany’s farm, even though she hadn’t opened it yet to the public. “That time, we had no idea really on how to do tourism,” she says. “Groups of people will come in asking if they could go and visit the farm.”
She also said that, due to the language barrier, members of her staff were reluctant to entertain visitors. “Benguet people are very private and shy. That’s why it’s hard for them to make adjustments for other people,” she explains. “At some point, they even perceived visitors as distractions from work because they wanted to finish planting.”
But with the growing demand and a bit of encouragement from the local government, Mellanu and her husband had a change of heart and finally opened their flower farm to tourists. “We opened from February to June 2018, and then we closed again because we had to think about it over and over again,” she says. “We thought of [the] next generation of Benguet people. Our young ones here, even though they will finish their college education, they will come back here to for agriculture. Saying yes to tourism is opening doors for more income that doesn’t harm our natural environment.”
To date, Northern Blossom Flower Farm houses flower varieties that come from Japan. “Majority of the flowers that we have are from Japan. We have cabbage roses, hydrangea, carnation, sunflowers, dragon snapper and more,” she says.
Northern Blossom is open from Tuesday to Sunday. It’s best to visit early in the morning such as 5 a.m. and wait for the magnificent view of the Northern sunrise.
Sakura Farm and the Haight’s Place
Just a few minutes away from Northern Blossom is another destination to visit—the Sakura Farm and the Haight’s Place. Owned by Edward Haight (a relative of Mellany), the place offers a new level of experience for visitors. Here, tourists can find cherry blossom trees donated by the Japanese government.
In an exclusive interview, Edward shared that the Benguet partnership with the Japanese government entails providing 3.3 hectares of land where sakura trees will be planted. “The climate here in Paoay, Benguet fits the need for sakura plants,” he says. “Here, we planted 35 sakura trees in two varieties, the white and the pink.”
On the other side of the Sakura Farm is the Haight’s Place where the attractions are the wonders of growing vegetables rather than flowers. “We also developed the Haight’s Place to be an agri-tourism destination. We opened a restaurant, lodging, and a log cabin,” Edward says. “Unlike Northern Blossom that offers solely flowers, here, we have flowers and vegetables.”
According to him, their area is considered as the Salad Bowl of Atok where most produce of carrot, potato, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, and radish comes from. “The Haight clan has about 85 hectares of land. For tourism, we will open 7,000 square meters of land. The farm itself is around five hectares,” he adds. “But we don’t want to open it all to the public because we have observed that if we would allow that, tourists could destroy the farm.”
With the increasing number of tourists visiting the farm, Edward saw the need to develop their roads. He then pleaded to the national government to help them develop roads for the safety of the people visiting Paoay.
“We need help from the national government to build our roads,” he says. “The landowners are very willing to give land—at least six meters—for road development and improvement. Our road is one way, and it is not safe for the tourists.”
Edward also says the best time to visit is anytime from November to May. For those who want to see the sakura tress bloom, he says that the best months are April and May, summertime.
Just recently, the Baguio City government announced the new dates for the Panagbenga Festival’s postponed activities. The Grand Parade has been moved to March 28 and 29. The Session Road event has been reset from March 30 to April 5, while the Handog and Cultural Competition will take place on March 15.
After attending Panagbenga, take a couple hours to drive to the higher parts of Cordillera and visit the Northern Blossom Flower Park, Sakura Farm, and Haight’s Place. This will make your Northern adventure more memorable. It’s undeniable that the Cordillera region is such a wonderful place, a land rich in vegetation and home to beautiful flowers. This region will stand the test of time and their flowers will continue to bloom through the years.