City to Mountain: First Steps into Homesteading in the Philippines

Kelly Ramos
20 Min Read

I am 42 years old, female, a native of the Philippines in Asia, and a recently-single mom of three boys.  I am an artist and a writer.
I have been earning as a freelance writer and have neglected the economic possibilities of being an artist as I concentrated on family life.  Recently, I have decided to rectify this situation by accepting illustration jobs and exhibiting in established galleries in the metro (hence the need for studio space to paint).

Having grown up in a small, but rapidly growing town from middle-class origins, the homesteading lifestyle was not really that familiar to me.  Although we are primarily an agricultural country and the outskirts of town are full of farmlands and rice paddies, mango plantations and coconut groves, our family was already set in our city ways a few generations back.  We got our meat, fruit, and veggies from the market.  We got our eggs, butter, and cheese from groceries.

Our parents and grandparents would tell of days climbing fruit trees and gathering sineguelas (Spanish plum or jocote).  Some days, my grandfather would come home from a week-long hunting trip in the mountains with his friends and we would taste native deer or wild boar (hard-to-chew meat, with a funny taste and smell).  Some summers we would take a trip to the grandparents’ farm and for an afternoon we would have our fill of sweet coconut water and the succulent meat inside.

And that was the extent of my exposure to “growing your own food.”

Now that I’m older, I have had more experience.  I have read more, seen more, and have just the right mixture of conceit and a spirit of adventure within me to try out something new and believe that things will turn out all right somehow.

About two years ago, my boys and I moved from our coastal hometown of Cagayan de Oro in the southern Philippines to a famous northern city in the mountains, Baguio.  The circumstances of that move were purely personal and could be attributed to matters of the heart.

Right now, we are scheduled for another move.  This is the story.


Partly fueled by the notion of the artist going up to the mountains to paint, the nitty-gritty of leaving this apartment at the outskirts of the city to a clay house further up north is turning out to be far more problematic than romantic.  I say this because I am in the middle of packing up.

But when an artist gets an idea into her head, she will do most anything to make this idea materialize.  First priority is the family meeting.  It’s only me and the three boys now; if the kids say no, then it’s a no-go.

They said yes.

Nineteen-year-old son: “It would be so cool to live there!”

Ten-year-old son: “Yes.”

Eight-year-old son: “We could buy a goat and have fresh milk and make our own butter!”

That settles it.  We are going to embrace the alternative lifestyle for real.  I will have my studio space.  The children will have their mountain.

Next on the list is to check for nearby schools.  It has to be near enough to walk, and it has to have a decent enough reputation.  The two little ones being avid readers already, we could supplement whatever gaps in learning there are at home if needed.

The teenager expresses his willingness to make the daily commute to the university campus in the city.  And that is that.

Homesteading in the Philippines: The Clay House in the Clouds

About fifteen-or-so years ago, my friends built a house using clay and lime on a hectare of land, 4,000 feet above sea level, and five kilometers from the city.  The clay was sourced from the surrounding area; they dug beneath the topsoil until they came to a substratum of pure clay.  A slight shine to the clayish soil indicates that it is good building material.

This is the entrance to the clay house in the clouds.  You will have an idea of the house structure from this glimpse of walls and the roof.  Notice the lush greenery.

They planted trees and singlehandedly populated the bare mountain with flora and fauna.  Where there was a 360-degree view of the mountains around and the valley below, it is now obscured with bamboo, pine, and fruit trees like guava, persimmon, and mulberry.

Lemongrass that needs full sun now makes way for Arabica coffee, which grows well in the shade.

With rapid development the way it is, there are now also neighbors where there were once none.  There is a jeepney route that plies this road, and there are sari-sari stores where one could buy daily supplies.  The steep, narrow, rough, and bumpy roads are now steep, narrow, smooth cement roads.

Homesteading in the Philippines
Path for the car to climb up to the house.  This is a five-minute walk from the gate, up a slope.  The trees were all planted by the owners.  It was a struggle to keep them from being chopped as firewood by the neighbors while they were still growing.

From the gate of the property, it is a five-minute walk to the house.  The house is equipped with a rainwater catchment system, natural lighting, a waterless toilet, a woodstove for heating, and a bonfire area near the entrance to the house.  I suspect it is this bonfire area that had my sons so sold on the move; that plus the woods and mountains for their playground.  We would also be inheriting the animals: three grown dogs, two puppies, a cat, three kittens, two ducks, and a handful of chickens.

Wine-makers, Distillers, and Homebuilders

Aside from successfully building their house and then living in it, these friends of mine have also been operating a distillery, producing best-quality, homemade, organic wines and schnapps from fruits in season.  These they have been selling at annual festivals around town.

One of their products is herbal bitters, a tonic more famous in Europe than here.

Situating Ourselves on the Map

The Philippines is a tropical country near the equator in Southeast Asia.  You see it as a group of tiny islands to the left side of China and above Indonesia in a world map.

With a temperature of 26°C (78.8°F), this country is hot and humid.  Go further up the mountains of Baguio to the north and you get an average daily temp of 18°C (64.5°F).  This is where I am right now; Baguio City in the province of Benguet with its famous cool climate—the summer capital of the Philippines where vacationers head for during the hot summer months.

The clay house where we will be moving is in the municipality of La Trinidad, in an outlying barangay called Tawang.  Tawang, up in the mountains with its caves and its striking rocky outcrops good for hiking and picnics.  Tawang, with its rich culture as the land of the Kankanaey and Ibaloi tribes, now diversified with other northern tribes and migrants from the lowlands.  Tawang, with its produce of cabbages,lettuce, pipinos , zucchinis, and potatoes; and flowers.  La Trinidad is a big producer of flowers and vegetables.  We shall be able to plant here.

The lived-in interior of the clay house.  The giant bamboo posts are round, the roof is a dome, and the walls are clay with a layer of lime.  There is a skylight in the middle of the roof for natural lighting.

The Alternative is Traditional

While I was in Tawang a few days ago, visitors came to look at the house and talk to its owners.  They were planning to build a clay house of their own and heard about this one from friends.  They were given the tour.

I hear bits and pieces of conversation from the impromptu house tour:

“In a country whose indigenous architecture is the nipa hut, we have jumped straight to commercially-sold building materials surprisingly fast.  The nipa hut is as alternative as you can get.  It is the perfect house for tropical countries such as this.  Built out of bamboo rods and mats and fronds of the nipa plant, it has a big open space at ground level for animals to find shade, children to play, and as storage for produce.  The main living area is raised with stilt-like posts and accessible through a ladder.”

“Now cement walls and tin roofs are the norm, and not many people enjoy the economic, health, and aesthetic benefits of dwellings sourced from natural materials.”

“There are no squares and rectangles here.  This house was designed based on the principles of Austrian artist and builder Hundertwasser, who eschewed the straight line.  He believed that anybody can build and should build their own dwelling places.”

The posts here are indeed not square posts, but cylindrical—like a chapel invoking something holy or spiritual from within.

“Despite the abundance of the material, clay houses in the Philippines are rare.  There is this; one up in Sagada; one being built in Pangasinan and then there is an earth village in Palawan with all the houses in that village made of clay.”

How did it happen that I would be getting the chance to live in this paradise?

Cylindrical giant bamboo posts stretching out to a high ceiling and a round skylight at the center evokes a spiritual feel.

The owners are due for a move to Germany.  They have been looking for someone to occupy the space.  Since my sons and I are good friends of the family and we have been going there for regular visits, we were asked to take care of the space for a few years while they are away, pay a token amount as rent, and we’d be taught the ins-and-outs of this alternative lifestyle.

Living Spaces Throughout the Years 

During the last couple of years, we have experienced life in quite a few unusual locations.  We have lived inside a sawmill while we managed a canteen for workers.  Our room was a shack made out of extra wood, adjacent to the office.  It was loud and noisy when a delivery of logs arrived in truckloads, but we had free rein over scrap wood for experimentations in art.

We spent a whole summer in a hut by the beach.  It was not a fun resort for tourists, but a typical residential compound with karaoke from the sari-sari store blasting every night, and flotsam and jetsam pushed to shore at regular intervals.  We learned when it was the best time to take a dip (early morning), and when it was time to avoid the trash coming in from the sea.  We also saw fishermen coming in with their catch, and people carefully looking for little holes in the sand, then digging out shells and crabs until a bucket is full enough for a meal.

We have lived in regular houses: independent units that situate you in a cluster of other regular houses.  Here there was sufficient space in between houses for a garden or a yard, for a piece of sky, and some distance from another family’s ambient noise.  There was a sense of security from having neighbors at shouting distance, and the chance of a chat when you did a daily sweep of your yard.

We have lived in an apartment unit, which places you right smack in the middle of people—people above you, people below you, and people to each side of you.  Only walls partition one apartment unit from the other.

Homesteading in the Philippines
The mountain is a playground for young children.  Here they fashion a cave from the underbush during one of our visits.

This time, we will be in the middle of nowhere with our house the only one in a hectare of land.  Neighbors will have to be sought out since they won’t be a knock away through a flimsy apartment partition, beyond the garden, or through the backyard wall.

There will be no building maintenance personnel to call in case of a leaking faucet, no homeowner’s association to complain to about the noisy dogs in the neighborhood, and also no one to complain about your own noisy dogs, your chickens, your bees, and your goats—and no one will care about that cow standing by the tree in your yard.

What Are We Getting Ourselves Into by Homesteading in the Philippines?

Adventurous spirits that we are, this decision to move still begs the question, “why?”

For one thing, it’s good economics: minimal rent for holding the fort until the owners get back; more studio space to paint; a whole mountain on which the kids can play; and the possibility of growing our own food.  Then there is the thought of us, years down the road, kicking ourselves with regret for passing up the chance to give this kind of life a try.

Not that we discount the difficulties: the physical efforts needed to keep things in good order; the skills we will need to learn; the isolation; the need for self-sufficiency; the strength of character we will need to cultivate.

As you might have noticed, we are suckers for adventure—not the expensive kind where you book a tour to a foreign country for a couple of days and then go home with a bunch of photos and a travel anecdote to tell, but the harder, more meaningful route that teaches us something of ourselves through time, and might possibly reveal something of the meaning of life—if we get lucky.

This is the bathroom.  It has the waterless toilet, the mosaic tile art on the floor, the wavy non-geometric lines of the shower partition, and the stairs going up to the sleeping area.

Project Paradise on Hold

Paradise Project is a non-stock, non-profit organization started by my friends, the owners of this land.  It is a dream that aims to find that balance between humanity, technology, and nature.

Making use of this land, they have planned the project in phases:

Phase 1: sustainable development and environmental schooling projects.

Phase 2: holistic land development, clay-house building, organic and natural farming, reforestation and creation of watersheds, a bird and animal sanctuary, a botanical garden and tree nursery, solar energy concepts, solid waste management, i.e. recycling, sorting, and composting.

Phase 3: the establishment of a healing center, a home for the aged, and a hospice.

The Philippines is a developing country.  It has its struggles with overpopulation, environmental management, the ironies of overdevelopment of cities/underdevelopment of rural areas, and bureaucratic red tape.  Go beyond these systemic problems and you will see a land rich in biodiversity: you will see countless species of plants and birds; dive spots to die for; mountains to be explored.  You will see a hardy, happy, friendly people proud of their heritage and despairing over recent troubles with politics and leadership and the recent tragedies brought about by extreme weather conditions.

Clearly, alternative living as espoused by my friends is an important step towards a solution.  It’s a slow fight and one that I cannot see us winning anytime soon, but this should not stop anyone from trying.  We are all getting older, but the children are getting older, too.  What we cannot finish, they will continue.  In the meantime, I am here, holding the fort, waiting for the dream to come true.

Homesteading in the Philippines
A view from the back, with the rainwater collection system: gutter, pipes, pre-sediment drum, and the main reservoir which can contain about 20 drums of water.

Preps for the Move to Homesteading in the Philippines

Homesteading in the Philippines
Steps carved from the earth take us to the main water tank. Also seen is the gutter for collecting rainwater from the roof, and the pre-sediment tank. The rainwater tube is not connected to the tank. We are waiting for the first rain to wash away dirt from the roof.


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