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The Beauty of the Cordilleras, as seen by conservation advocate JP Alipio

By MONIQUE TODA, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 17, 2022 5:01 am Updated Apr 17, 2022 2:02 pm

The vast mountain views of the Cordilleras seem limitless.

Upon seeing this, one can’t help but be awestruck at the beauty of the Philippines. JP Alipio, a man who wears many hats but could be appropriately called an “explorer,” opens our eyes to this magnificent part of the country. “I think the beauty of the Cordillera region really resides in the people and culture that makes it so unique. The environment here is shaped so much by the Indigenous peoples that live in these mountains, that you cannot go through here without a profound amount of respect and awe for what they have done in the time they have lived here. Creating these incredible rice terraces, as well as preserving all these beautiful mountains for us to enjoy, is the synergy of man and nature in action.”

Sadanga Mt. Province Rice Terraces

JP was born in Manila but spent most of his life (since he was four years old) in Baguio and Benguet. He is the co-founder of the Cordillera Conservation Trust. “My work involves conservation, research and adventure. We’ve been able to mesh all of these to work for the preservation of the Cordillera mountain environment. Our work seeks to create avenues for conservation of the wild spaces through ‘adventure economy,’ so that local communities do not have to rely on extractive practices for their livelihoods. Rather, they rely on the beauty of their local ecosystems, which is an added value to trail running, mountain biking, and hiking — leveraging nature for their economies.”

Explorer JP Alipio shares the beauty of the Cordilleras through the projects of the Cordillera Conservation Trust and bespoke tours of his Cordillera Expeditions.

In 2005, JP became the very first National Geographic Young explorer in the world on the project to retrace the ancient Cordillera trails across the central Cordillera mountain range. Together with a team, he walked about 400 kilometers of trails: from Dalupirip in Itogon, through Nueva Vizcaya and Ifugao, all the way through Sagada, and down to the coast in Ilocos Sur, through the historic Tirad Pass. This started his “career in the outdoors,” and allowed him the space to do the conservation work he does now. He has gone on to accomplish a few other projects with National Geographic over the years, which included a research project on tribal wars in the Cordillera Mountains.

The breathtaking beauty of Sagada

According to JP, “The Cordillera Conservation Trust is a direct offshoot of the Nat Geo project. After walking across the mountains, myself and the rest of the team realized that we needed to do something to help preserve the unique ecology of the Cordilleras for its people. So the Cordillera Conservation Trust was born. As most of us were outdoor enthusiasts who dabbled in biking, hiking and trail running, the natural evolution of the organization was to create value for the wild spaces through these different platforms. We train local communities to be able to access the adventure economy in partnership with the University of Baguio, by teaching them Tourism and Homestay development, which also includes things like how to market their products and services.”

JP on his Mountain Bike Image

The group also organizes events that will drive “outdoor customers” to new businesses. An example is the Cordillera Mountain Ultra Trail Run, which has become one of the most famous trail runs in Asia with over 50 nationalities often in attendance. It has become the most competitive trail race in the country. Another event is the Cordillera Challenge Mountain Bike Ride, now the longest continuously running mountain bike event in the Philippines, having been in existence for over 12 years. “This work has effectively been able to change the lives of members of the communities we work with. We’ve seen parents send their children through college, toilets built, new stores put up, and more. This is all from the income derived from the beauty of nature, and willing adventurers. It effectively reduces the pressures on the local ecosystems from natural resource extraction, so that we are able to conserve the area without having to keep people out. We bring people in to experience it, and become advocates for its protection, while improving the lives of the communities that live inside these beautiful places.”

JP and his dog Pacha at sunrise in Sagada

Aside from conservation work, JP has a company called Cordillera Expeditions that does bespoke tours for discerning clients. They cover the entire Cordillera region — as in, they literally can take you to any place you can point to on a map, then create the experience for you. They have done 10-day treks in some of the most remote regions of the Cordillera, all the way to family tours, and more. Mostly, though, their tours focus on the less traveled parts of the region that JP has seen through his conservation work. He believes that these areas deserve more notice, as they are some of the most beautiful and pristine places on earth.

JP running with Pacha on the slopes of Mt. Ugo, the home of the Cordillera Mountain Ultra Run

His pre-pandemic clientele for tours included a lot of Americans, but also Swiss, Europeans, Spanish, French, and of course, Filipinos as well. I asked JP what his favorite spots were. “There’s so many, and each is unique, but I would have to say there’s a trek I particularly love, which is from Batad to Mayoyao in Ifugao. You go from village to village, walking every day across centuries-old rice terraces. It’s just such a treat for me walking through all this living history, imagining how these mountains have been used this way for centuries, and so many people have walked these same paths you are walking on.”

JP and his dog Pacha in Marlboro Ridge Sagada

So how did the pandemic impact the efforts of the Cordillera Conservation Trust, as well as tourism in the region? “We have had to take a two-year break during the pandemic as tourism-based enterprises really took a hit, and events were not possible, but we hope to be able to restart our work in the fourth quarter of this year.

“I think it is slowly starting, again, though. COVID is easing and travel seems to be coming back in 2022. The only issue now is to see if the villages are open to accepting visitors, as there is still fear of COVID. The long isolation has created some xenophobia, which needs to be overcome, even when tourism fully opens up again.” But there is hope, and with it is the desire to be overwhelmed with the beauty of nature once again. The Cordilleras beckon.