Travel

Baguio Has Reopened to Tourists, So We Took A Tour With Kidlat Tahimik and BenCab

If you’re willing to go through multiple health checks, Baguio is ready to welcome you back.
IMAGE PJ Cana
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Kidlat Tahimik first heard about Enrique de Malacca in the late 1970s. The artist and filmmaker became so fascinated with the story of the Malay slave who became a member of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition party—and who some historians believe is the first person to have actually circumnavigated the world—that he shot a film about him. 

Nearly four decades later, Kidlat Tahimik is still enamored with Enrique, whom he fondly calls “Iking.” The traveler and adventurer’s likeness shows up at his pieces at the Baguio Convention Center, where an exhibit called “Interlinked” is one of the highlights of the monthlong Ibagiw Festival. “Iking” shows up again in the masthead of a sculpture piece shaped like a ship inside the cinematheque at Kidlat’s Ili-Likha Artists Village. And he was the main topic during an impromptu lecture inside arguably the quirkiest, most unique movie house in the country.

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Ferdinand Magellan and his Malay slave Enrique de Malacca are depicted in this art installation at the Baguio Convention Center

Photo by PJ Cana.
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“During a Zoom call organized by the Philippine Embassy in Spain, (historians) couldn’t accept that Iking was the first person to circumnavigate the world,” Kidlat says in front of a small group of journalists and officials from the Department of Tourism. Instead of his usual bahag, he was wearing cream-colored cargo pants, a t-shirt underneath a flannel button-down, and Crocs. “But they also couldn’t say for sure that he wasn’t the first person to travel the world. So I took that as a win.”

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Two National Artists

Along with compatriot BenCab, Kidlat Tahimik has become the de facto face of the Ibagiw Festival, Baguio’s creative and arts festival that the city is doggedly celebrating despite the threat of a worldwide health crisis. With the support of the DOT, the city is showing off some of its best painters, sculptors, musicians, performance artists, and artisans all this month.

Kidlat Tahimik in his Cinematheque at the Ili-Likha Artists Village

Photo by PJ Cana.
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And there’s perhaps no better ambassador to promote the rich culture and artistry of the city than the pair of BenCab and Tatay Kidlat. Proclaimed National Artist in 2018, the seventysomething Kidlat Tahimik’s real name is Eric De Guia, but hardly anyone ever calls him that. He may be regarded as the father of independent cinema in the Philippines, but his creative output extends far beyond the camera lens and into other creative media.

Kidlat is also nurturing the next generation of creative minds in Ili-Likha, an artists’ village that is as tough to describe as it is a marvel to behold. The multi-level creative space is a mish-mash of materials and architectural styles that Kidlat says is still a work in progress, not unlike Gaudi’s masterpiece the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Artists who are also micro-entrepreneurs operate shops, restaurants and cafés in the sprawling space that all sprung from Kidlat’s head.

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Kidlat Tahimik at his Ili-Likha Artists Village

Photo by PJ Cana.

“People seem to like what I do,” he says. “We don’t always have to copy Western architectural principles.”

At the lowest level, his artisans are busy working on what he says will become a Trojan horse. Asked about the significance of the art piece, Kidlat says it symbolizes how Western Culture was able to seep into the consciousness of Filipinos through television. 

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Dueling goddesses

A staunch opponent of neocolonialism, Kidlat Tahimik also illustrates this point through the dueling images of two Goddesses of the Winds: Inhabian, the Ifugao Goddess and Marilyn Monroe, which represents the Wind Goddess of Hollywood. The gigantic representations of the two goddesses—rendered in wood by the artist Cris Atiwon—stand next to each other at the entrance to the Interlinked exhibition at the BCC.

Kidlat Tahimik beside an art piece depicting the Ifugao wind goddess Inhabian and Hollywood goddess Marilyn Monroe 

Photo by PJ Cana.
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“It is a protracted fight for local tales to resist giant-screen superheroes that are homogenizing our world culture today,” the description of the artwork reads. Both goddesses are also locked in a perpetual battle at the Ili-Likha Cinematheque, further emphasizing Kidlat’s continued fascination with the images they represent and his own recurring point-of-view.

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Kidlat’s influece is also apparent at his Victor Oteyza Community Art Society (VOCAS), yet another haven for artists and creative types to gather and mingle sharing ideas and perhaps a drink or two. Named after a Baguio local who is considered a pioneering figure in abstract art in the country, VOCAS is similar to Ili-Likha, in that it is made of an assortment of materials and haphazard yet strangely transfixing design details. The space is also home to Oh My Gulay, a restaurant that serves items that reflect the creativity and passion of its proprietor.

Attracting artists

If Kidlat Tahimik is a larger-than-life figure that defies traditional definitions of what it means to be an artist, BenCab is just as imposing. Although located just outside of Baguio City in the town of Tuba, his BenCab Museum has become an important stop for anyone on a cultural tour of the city. 

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BenCab inside his eponymous museum in Tuba, Benguet

Photo by PJ Cana.

On the day our party caught up with him, BenCab was hosting a wood-carving competition at the museum for artists in the area. The National Artist admits that while he is not originally from Baguio (he was born in Malabon), he has fallen in love with the city and now considers it his home.

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“I’ve been coming to Baguio since high school,” he says. “I just love the place. I moved here right after the EDSA (Revolution).”

Asked what it is about the city that attracts artists, he gives a straightforward answer.

“Number one is the weather,” he says smiling. “We don’t need airconditioning. We save on electricity. 

“There’s a lot of talent here,” he adds. “Most of them are self-study, but they’re very good. And it shows.”

BenCab isn't originally from Baguio but has made the city his home

Photo by PJ Cana.
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With the pandemic decimating entire industries, including the artistic and creative communities, BenCab chooses to look at the good that has come out of something so bad.

“In a way, the pandemic is a help, because artists stay in their studios and create.” 

The septuagenarian also waxes nostalgic about how Baguio itself has changed over the years.

“Any city really becomes cosmopolitan. When I first moved here, there was no cell phone yet and there were a few cars. Through the years, I think Filipinos multiply very fast,” he laughs. “And a lot of outsiders started settling themselves here. That’s one reason I moved out of Baguio. We’re now in Tuba. To have more space.

“And the reason for putting up the museum is, I love collecting. So I’m sharing my collection. So I built up a foundation. So that will be my legacy. And when I’m gone, that should hopefully continue.”

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Is it safe to go to Baguio?

Baguio may have reopened to leisure travel, but officials aren’t making it easy for tourists. The threat of the pandemic means tedious and multi-layered health protocols—proof of a negative swab test, health check at the city limits, a second, perhaps a third check at your hotel, and constant, vigilant wearing of your face mask and face shields everywhere you go. It’s enough to make you consider skipping the trip before you even step foot on the city’s mist-covered avenues and streets.

A glimpse of Kidlat Tahimik's VOCAS and Oh My Gulay restaurant

Photo by PJ Cana.
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But all that just means they’re making sure that the city is as safe as it can ever be. So if you’re willing to go through all that, then Baguio folks are ready to welcome you back with open arms (figuratively, of course). Minus the hordes of tourists that seemed to have become a fixture no matter the season, the country’s “summer capital” is extra relaxed and charming these days. Ironically, the fact that officials are limiting the flow of visitors to Baguio might just be the perfect excuse to schedule a trip there, stat.

For more information about traveling to Baguio, visit this site.

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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