Benguet, Philippines feature: Visiting Sitio Belis with Kalsada Coffee

Under the star-studded sky, past the larger-than-life billboards along the interstate, we’re off to the Belis coffee farms nestled in the Cordillera mountain range. Every hour, I weave in and out of sleep with the swing of the bus as it travels further, further north.

Soon, the morning light glows from behind the mountains, and the stars fade away. It’s pale blue and pink as we climb higher and roll into the bus terminal at Baguio. It’s still quite early, 5 a.m., but Baguio is already beginning their day. Small and pleasant, Baguio with its curvy roads, hilly terrain, and fog feels like an American town in the Northwest as fresh mountain air mixes with jeepney smog as we walk past a meat shop, coffee shop, a bakery. After idling for an hour, we climb onto the jeepney along with other sweatshirt-clad people. We’re off, climbing higher and higher, closer and closer to the height arabica coffee is grown at 3000 feet. Students and workers with farming supplies join the ride, and we’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder as the road twists and turns up the mountain.

Soon, we arrived at Kilometer 21, and no longer than 10 minutes pass when jeepney lumbers down the mountain towards the coffee farms. We climb on. We hop off the jeepney at Auntie Asthrine’s home, and I look out the overlook at the home where coffee grows up.

As the sun hits the vegetation, all the leaves glimmer, shimmer, and show off as the deep green of the alnus trees shades the coffee cherries. The blue sky transforms, hour to hour, minute to minute, it’s unpredictable. The sun waxes and wanes according to its wishes, and as it moves across the sky, the shadows dance upon the mountain ridges, reflecting off the trees and sayote. But the fog settles in as lunchtime swings by.

 

The winds shift towards Belis, and the cold rushes in, the kind that makes you shiver even with a jacket on. The mountains fade away as the fog glides in, then there is nothing to be seen except for soft white fog and the bleak grey of the clouds signaling that rain is coming. Droplets of water pitter-patters onto the metal roof as we, the Ibaloy farmers, the dogs, the chickens, and pigs duck under the shelter of the farm. But the ducks joyfully splash in the puddles as we watch and languidly sit on the porch sipping coffee from the farm.

The rain and the fog continue their journey, and the mountain peaks soon turn into green islands peeking out of the sea of white fog. Soon, the sun begins to hide behind the mountains, and blues, purples, pinks, oranges splash across the sky. The pink and white cotton candy clouds travel past the farm as the insects begin their nightly song. The birds settle in for the night in the leaves, and we leave the overlook to walk back down the mountain to enjoy dinner with family.

 

Like in coffee tastings back in Manila, as I gaze at the Cordilleras, I struggle to experience it all: the immense depth, the sweet smell, the entire palette of color, the cacophony of the wildlife, the soft spoken tones of the Ibaloy farmers, and I can’t look away because as soon as I do, the experience dies away as does the evanescent tasting notes of grapefruit, honey, and dark chocolate of the coffee from Belis soon fades away from my tongue too. What doesn’t fade away is the warmness everywhere here in Belis that exists regardless of the temperature, present in the welcoming smiles and laughs of Auntie Asthrine and the whole community of farmers here in Benguet.

It is here, somewhere between Baguio and paradise, where coffee grows up.

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