Sagada is unlike most Philippine travel destinations.
In a tropical country famous for white sand beaches and scorching mid-day temperatures, Sagada sits on top, 1800 meters above sea level, crowned with temperate forest and cools down to 16 deg C at night. It's our little spring/autumn town which the little beach girl is now madly in love with.
Going to Sagada is not as easy as booking a Piso Fare flight. It is a heart-stopping, minimum 12-hour bus ride up the Cordilleras. We chose the Manila - Baguio - Sagada route which we risked as the safer one. We also opted not to drive. We made the right choice. Although the road is right beside a hundred-feet cliff, it is paved and motorists drive defensively (traveling at 40 kph max). Having left Manila at 1 in the morning, I slept throughout the entire trip but still got bored with the never ending drive up the mountains. Hindi ko alam ilang bundok pa ang aming tatahakin.
I can't stay still.
I can't stay still.
After a seemingly never-ending view of mountains, we reached our intended destination.
Sagada is a SMALL municipality. The town proper consists of a main street where most of the inns and restaurants are. It is also the road that leads to Ambasing, the Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves. The two minor roads lead to (1) Besao (the path to Lake Danum) and (2) Bontoc and Baguio (leads to Bokong and Bomod-ok as well).
The surroundings consist of cliffs, mountains, coniferous forests and rice terraces. It is a farming community with rustic and simple houses, farm animals on people's backyard, and dogs going up and down the hill.
The flowers are also very beautiful.
Apart from long-haul transportation, there's no way to commute in Sagada, hence everything is walking distance, 500 meters, 5 kilometers and 20 kilometers. If you don't have a car, you're gonna walk them all.
Let me tell you about the residents of Sagadas: the Sagada Igorots. Don't go looking for an Igorot, everyone is an Igorot - minus the traditional costume. Don't mistake them for the Ifugao Igorots, they're different and some locals take offense. They speak English, with excellent accent: guides, farmers and almost everyone. Second, they have a strong sense of integrity: very honest, polite, and they don't charge more than an acceptable profit.
Sagada is an adventure and coffee destination. All must travel sites require physical fitness and getting your feet, hands and bum muddy. Bawal maarte.
If you are not joining a professionally-organized trip, everything starts at the Tourist Information Center, where there's a menu for all available stops and where you can hire a guide. For first - timers, like us, I highly suggest to get a guide unless you have a detailed map or you have Bear Grylls strength and survival skills. Most adventure charge an average of PhP 600 for a group of 10. The cost per person gets expensive as the number in the group diminishes. Makes sense.
1. Eco - cultural Trek at Echo Valley/Hanging Coffins (PhP 400)
The cost covers trekking the nearby mountain with a view of the public cemetery, hanging coffins, cave entrance and ends with a walk to Bokong falls. It took us 2.5 hours to complete the trip and is best done when it hasn't rained yet as the trail gets muddy.
Trip starts at the Anglican church then heads to the public cemetery. The elder council decides where the dead will be buried: in the public cemetery or to be hanged in the cliffs. If you are older than 80 y.o., chances are you will be hanged (the coffin, at least). In the public cemetery, local tradition of burning coals instead of candles is practiced.
Then you start trekking the pine forest where you can volley echo, take photos at a viewing spot and marvel at the surrounding.
Then head to the hanging coffins. This cliff is still being used and the last one buried was 4 months ago.
The trail to the stream
and cave entrance gets slippery
Coffins are hoist tens of meters up. How do they do it? Coffin is first hanged on the cliff using scaffolding (must be a super scaffold!), then the body is brought down the valley, hoist up the cliff, and put inside the pine coffin. The body is not embalmed.
This is worth the slips, muddy bum and almost fall.
2. Bokong Falls
Coming from the valley, we headed straight to Bokong which is 15-minute walk from the town center. It's actually very near. This can be done without a guide and if you're in Sagada for a long time, the walk and trek down the rice paddies is a good exercise while the falls is a good place to have a picnic (which most locals do).
The falls provide irrigation for the rice paddies. The cool water is very refreshing after the walk. There is also a small pond, 15-ft deep and is perfect for taking a dip.
The area is also a good site to sunbathe (most foreigners do) and take photos.
3. Bomod-Ok Falls (PhP 500)
I've written about it here. To get there, you have to go to Banga-an or Aguid, do a 45-minute hike along the rice terraces, which is a trip in itself,
before you can enjoy the magnificent falls.
The falls is humongous, has a bigger pool where you can swim (the water is freezing though) and the spray and splash of the falling water are very soothing. It is also a Sagada winner!
4. Sumaguing Cave (PhP 600 or PhP 800)
This cave has one of the best stalagmite formations and still pools sufficient for dipping. These two are reasons enough to pack your bags, risk your life and head to Sagada. Here's our adventure inside Sumaguing.
You can do the basic caving where you get to see the formations or do the Lumiang-Sumaguing Cave connection to road-test your spelunking skills. The basic caving is already challenging enough for people who are non-spelunkers so unless you are a spelunker, it is best to stick with the easier option.
5. Lumiang Burial Cave
Among the sites open to visitors, this has the most concentration of coffins. Unlike the valley, coffins here are piled and this is an old burial site. It was last used in 1986 hence the bones you'll see are not as scary and the pine coffins are nicely petrified.
The lizard and snake are revered by the Igorots. They believe in reincarnation and these cold-blooded animals are believed to be reincarnate of their loved ones.
You don't need a guide to access the cave. It is a good trek on the main road past Ambasing, then down the pine forest to the cave.
6. Sagada Potters (Php 100)
If you want to know how vase are made, a real potter will provide a demo for PhP 100.
Sagada clay mixed with kaolinite and minerals, molded, baked in the kiln, designed and glazed. Each pot is an art and costs around PhP 500 for a small jar. It's an art.
7. Sagada Arabica Coffee
There are no desserts in Sagada save for yoghurt but if you want to enjoy the best coffee in the country, it's got to be Sagada ... or the Cordilleras.
Civet, regular blend and milk-infused all taste great and at a fraction of Metro Manila cost. Being a highland, Arabica is grown in Sagada which explains the delicate and sweet flavor of their coffee. Robusta's strength is in its aroma and caffeine content. We love the coffee at Bana's.
8. Mt. Ampacao and Lake Danum Trek (PhP 600)
A good clearing after 1 hour hike. The view on top is very relaxing, pitcher plants and other temperate plants are abundant and autumn colors dominate. It's a good picnic site.
The fee comes with a hike to Lake Danum where there are wild berries in April - May. Unfortunately our guide got us lost so we just decided to abort the trek and head back to town.
9. Marlboro Country and Orange Picking at Rock Farm
We didn't get to visit these 2 places but I would definitely be coming back for them.
Marlboro country is where the wild horses roam while orange picking in a 4-hectare orchard is available around September.
Instead of doing a summary, I'll provide some tips we learned during our 5-day Sagada adventure.
1. It is okay to commute to Sagada. The Baguio route is safe enough, motorists drive defensively, it will save your car the damage from a 400-km drive one way, and you won't get tired from driving. The downside is, you might not be able to do things at your own pace and you have to walk while in Sagada. It is also advisable to be in Baguio/Banawe early in the morning (before 12noon) so that you can travel safely to Sagada before the fog descends late afternoon.
2. Sagada is an adventure trip. It is not for everyone: you have to be physically fit, you don't mind walking at least 5 kilometers, you don't mind getting dirty, slipping and falling on your bum. It is also a farming community hence don't expect a glamorous adventure. Other than that, it is an exceptionally beautiful place which you can rarely find in tropical Philippines: the weather is cold, the trees and flowers are pretty and the people are the nicest.
3. If you can, reserve an inn before your trip. This will save you a lot of hassle. If you don't mind spending ~PhP 600/person a night, book at St. Joseph's Inn. Although the amenities are limited to a bed and bathroom, the place is centrally located, it is charming and away from the noise of the town. The cottages are a winner. Please avoid the peak seasons such as the Holy Week. You will be competing with all resources: the sites, the guides and even the inns.
4. You won't do Sagada justice if you will do an over the weekend trip. Travel time will already take 2 days. Each adventure takes a minimum of half day - you will just literally drop by the site. Everything is so beautiful that it would be nice to stay for an hour or more before walking back to town. If you are walking like us, you will get your legs killed on the second day so the longer you stay the more time you can pace each trip.