Baguio…the Coolest City in the Country

The “city of flowers”, “the city of pines”, “the summer capital of the Philippines” – these are a few of the names Baguio is known by. If you’re looking for a city in Philippines that looks distinctly different from the rest, this is it. Sitting more than 1,200 meters high in the Cordilleras of Northern Luzon, you get a rolling terrain, pine trees on empty lots (instead of coconuts), and cool air – lots of it. This is perhaps the only place in the country where you can wear a neck warmer at night without looking utterly ridiculous. Baguio is the “coolest” city in the archipelago, in quite a literal sense.

I’ve been to Baguio several times before, the first when I was about 4 or 5, and then a few more times after that, with irregular intervals. I can still somewhat remember how Burnham Park and Camp John Hay looked like when I was there for the first time as a pre-schooler – it was all clean and green. And Wright Park if I recall correctly was still a relatively quiet place for horse-back riding.

When I came back more than a decade and a half later, it looked as if parts of the city had become G.I. sheet country. The population boomed so much, some slopes were transformed into mounds of houses packed close together it seems their roofs were connected to each other from afar. Traffic around the city center got heavy, Burnham was getting packed with people, and Wright Park looked like it was now ruled by horses, with the smell of horse dung in the air.

Still parts of the city was able to resist the “urban conquest”, and if you know where to go, Baguio could still show you that it still deserves to be called one of the country’s most scenic cities.

At the heart of Camp John Hay.
Pine trees, cool weather and a quiet road – this is the quintessential Baguio.

If you ask anyone in the Philippines about two things they would think of first when someone mentions Baguio, most will probably say cool weather and pine trees. Known for being a city especially gifted by mother nature, it’s no surprise that the most popular spots in Baguio are its parks, where people can inhale all the cool pine-scented air their lungs can take. Having been originally laid out by the Americans, Baguio has a handful of green open spaces, a unique feature among Philippine cities, most of which are so fully packed with little consideration for aesthetics. In Baguio there is a conscious effort to protect its lush, pine-filled parks from the onslaught of urban sprawl.

CAMP JOHN HAY

Though not officially a “park”, Camp John Hay is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of the city’s olden days. This former R&R base for American military officers is perhaps the best preserved patch of green in the area. Being an “exclusive” zone, Camp John Hay was largely spared from the intense commercialization that overtook parts of the city. There is ongoing development there though, as restaurants, hotels and offices are being put up, but large parts of the former camp are still untouched by commercialism. Let’s just hope that they don’t go any further in paving “paradise, to put up a parking lot”, as a song goes.

The Igorot Lodge in Camp John Hay – a remnant of the country’s American Era, now converted into a hotel.

What I would call as “the world’s cutest Starbucks” – a lovely little house in the woods deep inside Camp John Hay, like a scene from a fairy tale.

Inside the “world’s cutest Starbucks”. This is the only place in the country where a fireplace would not look like a sore thumb sticking out.

Coffee and fresh pine-scented air…hard to beat – at the veranda of the Starbucks in the woods.

Cantinetta – also in the woods.

The Cemetery of Negativism, inside Camp John Hay.

Fashioned as a burial site of mankind’s negative habits, the Cemetery of Negativism in the center of Camp John Hay is a short, fun walk for those who could ride the witty humor.

“Born a star, lived a meteor, died in flames”…classic🙂

The Bell House, another remnant of the American era. This was the former home of the commanding general of US forces in the Philippines, and has now been converted into a museum of sorts.

Inside the Bell House, the closest peek most of us could get of an early 20th century American home.

The Bell Amphitheater, another landmark of Camp John Hay

WRIGHT PARK AND THE MANSION.

I have a photo of myself riding a horse in Wright Park almost 3 decades ago (wow, it has been that long), and for that, the place, especially the horse-back riding area, is somewhat special for me. I have been back to that area a couple of times in fairly recent years though, and the first thing that greets me each time is the smell of poop from the park’s multitude of horses. That in itself may put off some prospective visitors, but if you’re really determined to ride, the smell becomes tolerable through time.

The other end of Wright Park though, up the hill from the stables, is another story. Under a lush canopy of trees, and accented by a man-made lake leading up to the gates of the presidential summer house (a.k.a. The Mansion) across the street, the part is more stately and kempt, and is actually a pleasant spot to hang around. It one of those places that seem to fit how most people picture Baguio to be, but it could get crowded with visitors as the spot is in the usual tourist itinerary.

The stables at Wright Park

Horses here come in various sizes and colors.

The riding area at Wright Park. Pardon the line of horse b_tts🙂

The other end of Wright Park, away from the stables.

A bit of a visual irony. A replica of the birthplace of the Son of God in the foreground, and the presidential summer house (aka The Mansion) in the background.

BURNHAM PARK

Nothing is more synonymous to the name of the city itself though than the park right in the middle of it. Named after the architect behind the city’s masterplan, the Burnham Park is right smack in the center of the city. It’s nowhere near as quiet nor as clean as Camp John Hay, but it is much more accessible, especially if you are staying at any of the multitude of hotels in the city center. It is a family friendly park, where visitors can do boat rides across the large man-made like, rent bicycles, or simply go strolling. It could get really crowded here though with locals and tourists milling about, and like most crowded places anywhere in the world, it would be wise to stay cautious, and conscious of the people around you, while walking around.

Burnham Park (and the lake) in the evening.

Baguio at night, seen from Burnham Park.

* These photos were taken on our latest trip to Baguio, last November 2012. All photos were taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.

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