No matter how fit you think you are, nothing can really prepare you for caving. Exhilarating both for its sights and danger, caving is both a physical and mental challenge. And when in Sagada, caving is definitely a must.
We met our two guides at the Tourist Information Center and headed down the road to the caves. On one of the cliffs were viewed from the road were three hanging coffins. According to Brian, the lead guide, the latest hanging coffin burial was last December 22, 2010. It is up to the deceased whether he/she opts for a hanging coffin, a stacked coffin in a burial cave, or in a cemetery. The body is first sat on a chair and smoked for a couple of days to drain all body fluids. It is then wrapped in a shroud. The coffin is first hoisted up on the cliff and the body is passed from one person to another until it is laid to rest on the coffin. They believe that should any body fluid fall from the deceased’s body fall on a person, it is lucky.
Opposite the turn-off to the cemented steps leading to Lumiang Cave, on the right side of the road was a smaller burial cave with stacks of coffins. Lumiang is a really large cave with hundreds of stacked coffins.
We were originally all set to just do Sumaging Cave which I’ve done before but our guide promised us that since there weren’t much people in the caves, we could do the cave-to-cave connection in about 2-3 hours and leave enough time for Bench and Lyndon to fix their stuff and take the last bus to Baguio. All five of us agreed (Don stayed behind at the guesthouse as he was too sleepy).
Like Alice falling into a rabbit hole, we entered a small opening near the stacked coffins at Lumiang Cave where our adventure began. The route in Lumiang wasn’t really difficult but there were a few precarious sections where we had to inch ourselves around a large boulder while trying to keep our footing on the slippery rocks. According to Brian, one of our guides, they knew that there had to be a passageway between Lumiang and Sumaging caves as the bats were going in and out of both caves. The fact that there were bats coming out of Lumiang but no nests meant that they were nesting in Sumaging but using Lumiang as another way to enter and exit the cave system.
Lumiang had none of the sparkling stalgmites and stalactites or interesting formations that Sumaging has. It does have a few nice spots though like the pools of water where we took a break. What it lacks in visual appeal it more than makes up in thrills with its twisted and narrow passageways and holes you have to squeeze through. One particularly challenging hole had us going down feet first as we hanged on a rope and slowly inched ourselves down one precarious step at a time. Most challenging for me was rappelling up a really steep wall and up to a narrow ledge. During the rainy season, it is said that can swim from the embankment to the wall for rappelling; otherwise there is an alternative route that takes you above the water and down to the other side to rappel.
The guides are really well-trained though and taught us how to move, where to step and grab, etc. You just needed to really listen to them and follow their instructions precisely while you held your fear in check. They were especially really helpful to Tintin, Mig’s younger sister who wasn’t used to this kind of activity. Brian, the lead guide would also sometimes ask us to guess where we would pass. Mostly we got it all wrong. Lumiang had a lot of surprises and each one presented a different physical and mental challenge.
It was about two hours later when we finally emerged from a craggy opening out of Lumiang and and into Sumaging marked by its glinting limestone formations. We waded through a shallow pool of water and climbed up large limestone boulders until below us lay the main passageway around Sumaging.
Unlike Lumiang where the only group we came across with was a Korean lady with a Filipino couple, Sumaging was crowded with people. Fortunately, as we made our way down to the main passageway, crowds were making their way out of the exit. Tintin wanted to stay behind and just wait for us but we managed to convince her to finish the entire trip. I did tell Brian to just skip the rest of Sumaging, especially the secret tunnel that requires traversing a short wall then squeezing through a narrow hole then wading through waist-deep water, as it would require major effort on Cristina’s part. Besides, time was running and Bench had a bus to catch. We just descended to King’s Curtain, took some photos, then went back-up and out of Sumaging.
After a couple of hours in the darkness, sunlight greeted us as we made our way out of Sumaging wet, dirty, exhausted but exhilarated. We took an SUV back to the guesthouse for a quick bath. Eric, Joe, and I had lunch at Yoghurt House where I gobbled up a plate of vegetable curry and a bowl of rice.