I skipped the sun, sand, and sea during the Lenten break this time and headed for some wind, mountains, and caves. Sagada is a place you often hear about but never really get to due to its sheer distance and one’s willingness to rough it up a bit. When The Librarian brought it up as a Lenten destination, I knew the opportunity had come. I got myself a copy of Lonely Planet, found some numbers to call for cheap accomodations, planned the IT, and bought tickets to Baguio. Yes, we were the first to buy tickets for the April 3 11pm trip.
The Victory Liner station at Pasay was quiet as it was still Tuesday evening and the steaming crowds won’t come swarming until Wednesday. But The Librarian didn’t make it to the 11pm bus so I was left selling his and another companion’s (who cancelled) bus tickets during the trip. Fortunately, there were a lot of chance passengers and the conductor sold the tickets to them. The Librarian managed to take the 11:15 bus and we caught-up with each other at the Tarlac stop-over and finally at the Victory station in Baguio. The 6am GL Lizardo bus was already full so we took the 7:30 am bus instead with a bunch of Koreans, a few Europeans, and local tourists like us.
A High on the Highway
Contrary to what I expected, Halsema Highway was a smooth ride all the way. I still had memories of that terrible terrible rough road from the Ranger Station in Mt. Pulag to Ambangeg which was 10k of butt-hell. There were still patches of road that were being cemented but these were few and far between. Of course, the hairpin turns were, well, a little anxiety-inducing, but this was the Philippine countryside, particularly the Gran Cordilleras, and no ride would be complete with the twists and turns. Besides, with such gorgeous scenery—beautiful rolling mountain ranges, vegetable plantations, and lots and lots of clouds, who actually notices? There were several stops along the way as people kept going on and off the bus which passed through several mountain towns and villages. After 6 hours, we finally reached Sagada. The cool mountain air, pine trees, and backpacking crowd (yes! it was the holidays and there was quite a crowd) greeted us. We passed Masferre Inn, Rock Inn, Mapiyaw Guest House, until we reached the center of town.
The Green House
Because Sagada Guest House bumped us off their reservation list for someone else, we were sent to a private house whose rooms were being rented-out. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea as the rooms were overlooking the pigpen with its smell drifting towards the window and there house residents were staying at the first floor living room which meant we had to “intrude” into their space everytime we come and go. Fortunately, on our way to the main road, we bumped into one of our bus companions, The Russian and Anastasia who were looking for Green House. We followed them and got ourselves a room at the 2nd floor facing the Igorot Inn. For 175/bed or Php 350/room, it was cheaper and the location better. The beds were large enough and there was a place to put our clothes and bags. The common bathrooms were on the first floor though which could be a bummer if you had to pee in the middle of the night. But it was still loads better than getting an aromatherapy session courtesy of the pigpen. With the excuse that we had met some of our friends and opted to shack-up with them, we quickly gathered our stuff from the house and moved in.
“Don’t ever come back from Sagada without trying the yoghurt at Yoghurt House or you’ll be missing half of yor life!” was The Volcanologist’s advise, or rather, warning to me. The first agenda that afternoon was of course to Yoghurt House. Lunch was Vegetable Rice and yoghurt with banana, strawberries, and granola at Yoghurt House. Of course, as expected, it was yummy!
The center of town is rather non-descript just like any other town in the Cordilleras. There’s a small plaza where vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables. The Tourism Office where one registers (Php 40.00) and gets guides, the Police Station, and the local bank ring the plaza. Alfredo’s Bed and Breakfast, Sagada Guest House, and a couple of stores selling everything from breads to canned goods to souvenir items and even ukay-ukay are all there. But the real treat of Sagada is on its fringes which could be a walk as short as 15 minutes to real hike of about an hour, unless you take a jeep.
While The Librarian slept the rest of the day-off, I was ready to explore. With a Php 10.00 map, I planned my IT starting with Echo Valley which was the nearest hiking destination. Following the trail behind St. Mary’s Church that turned left, I crossed the cemetery and followed a trail that was on the ridge of a small hill until I ended-up in one of the so-called Echo Points.
Limestone cliffs dotted the valley covered with thick foliage. Numerous trails led to various points echo points. I took a narrow one which brought me to two of hanging coffins on the side of the valley. Another one led directly to a cliff where numerous coffins were stacked and still another to a small cave where a skeleton lay scattered amidts the debris of a broken coffin. There was another trail going all the way down to the valley which supposedly led to the Lutang udnerground river but it was starting to drizzle and I didn’t even have a jacket with me.
To lessen the cost of a guide to Sumaguing Cave (Php 400) and Bomodok Falls (Php 600) we decided to team-up with two couples who were on the same bus as we were and who also happened to be on the same guesthouse—The Russian and Anastasia and the Laguna. Nora, our hostess recommended her friend, Luis as our guide. With another guide (no extra charge) who brought the gas lamps, we headed down the road towards the caves. The pleasant walk brought use views of the village, the rice terraces and fields, and the Sugong coffins. After about half an hour, we reached the jump-off point. Like the huge mouth of a monster about to swallow its prey, the entrance to the cave was daunting.
We entered the abyss. As we walked down the steps towards it, we could feel the cool air blowing from inside. The smell of bat shit was overpowering at first, but once inside, you get used to it.
Going down the limestone steps was very slippery but once we reached the stalagmites, it was smooth going all the way. There were bat droppings all around and while trying to get my balance, I accidentally put my hand on a fresh mound of dropping. Eeeeeks!
The cave was exhilirating! We climbed and slipped down on stalagmites, crawled through a small hole to get to the other side, waded in waist-deep water, and climbed on cave walls with ropes. The gas lamps lit the magnificent mineral formations in an eerie glow. Formations with names like King’s Curtain and Queen’s Bathtub made it seem like we were in another world. We explored the cave for about 2 hours and when we finally emerged we were wet, tired, but happy.
The Cave of Coffins
A short walk from Sumaguing Cave leads to the path to Lumiang Cave, commonly referred to as Burial Cave. Hundreds of coffins are neatly stacked on the side wall near the cave entrance while others are placed higher-up on the opposite side. The oldest is said to be more than a hundred years old.
Some coffins have deteriorated badly and one can see a skeleton in one of them. On one side is what looks like to be a landslide of white sand. The guide tells us that it’s actually ashes.
10,000 steps to the Falls
Bomod-ok Falls is in the picturesque town of Bangaan, about 30 minutes away from the town proper. From the trail head at the side of the road, it was about an hour’s walk down towards the village starting with steep concrete steps that finally gave way to rice terraces and winding paths in the village.
The walk was long and the trail steep. My knees were hurting already from the impact of the concrete steps but once we reached the rice fields, the walk through the pilapil was lovely and invigorating. The scenery was so gorgeous that we had to stop several times to take-in the view.
I could imagine a trail of Kankana-ey elders and warriors beating their taggitag as they made their way to the village dap-ay for a bodong.
One of my favorite paths was of stones set in a narrow creek with bubbling water. I couldn’t help be the anthropologist I am as I stood in fascination at traditional Kankana-ey huts and a couple of dap-ay we saw on the village we passed through going to the falls (Php 10 entrance). It was interesting to note that some huts were sort of encased in a larger hut made of galvanized iron and concrete which acted like a protective fence around it.
A short scramble on some rocks and we finally reached the towering falls. Quite a number of people were swimming on the pool already so I decided to head up to where the water ran into streams. Large rocks and boulders, water running down the clifs, and colorful shrubs created a landscape of quiet beauty. Far from the crowd, it was my moment’s peace. I lay down on a boulder and let the coolness of the water wash my weariness away.
Trekking back-up to the highway alone, I took the wrong path and ended on another party of the road. I knew it wasn’t right when everything seemed so quiet on that part of the highway. After about a couple of minutes, I asked someone if it was the trailhead and she pointed up the road. I hurriedly walked back and made it back in time to see the other just arriving. As The Russian and Anastasia and the Laguna Lovers were having halo-halo, The Librarian and I walked back to a house I passed by that was selling home-made yoghurt. For just Php 50.00, it was one of the best I’ve ever had.
That evening, after dinner at Masferre Inn and just lounging in our room at the Green House, The Librarian received some tragic news. It was shocking and unsettling. Unable to comprehend the sorrow that Fate had unleashed upon him, he wanted to take the first bus home the next day; but being Good Friday, I managed to persuade him to go home on Saturday, instead. So we were cutting our trip short and skipping Bontoc and Banawe. But The Librarian needed comforting and had to be in familiar grounds to gather his wits. The best I could do was to listen to him and be his rational mind to his tugging heart.
The next morning, on my insistence, we went to Echo Valley. Reminiscent of that scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Librarian unleashed his sorrow. His sobs and shouts resounded all-throughout the forest. With the magnificent backdrop of craggy limestone cliffs, ancient hanging coffins, and dense foliage, it was pure drama. We sat on one of the Echo Points and shared stories of our tragedies. The Librarian told me of a story of love that had no name but only characters. It was a story that had filled him with much joy but had now ended tragically in an accident. “But life has to go on,” I insisted. Perhaps it was the cold sunshine that was slowly filling the valley or the cool mountain air. Perhaps it was the silliness of shouting our names or silly words. But soon, a smile lit-up the face of The Librarian. “Give yourself a deadline and end your grief, ” I said. As people started arriving, we trekked back to town. I knew The Librarian was going to be all right.
That afternoon, we took the main road for an hour’s walk past Ma-piyaw Inn and Rock Inn until we saw an unpaved road climbing uphill on the left side. The sun was out and there wasn’t much of a shade. We walked and walked until we reached a pleateau overlooking the terraces, the mountain range, and the fields. It was so peaceful at the top until a group of tourists arrived and turned the place into a carnival. I can never understand people who go on hikes to immerse themselves in nature but cannot seem to leave behind their urban noise. What good is great scenery when you have someone’s cackle as soundtrack. I’d sooner jump-off the cliff or better yet, push those noisy pests off the face of the earth. With the broken silence, we headed back to town.
The view from the cafe
Because it was to be our last day in Sagada, I tried to get as many hikes as I could. On the road to Ambasing is the Right Turn Cafe. Other than the usual souvenir items, the cafe wasn’t serving anything else. I did see someone buy a couple of eggs and had them scrambled at the kitchen. Either they were making enough money selling t-shirts, bags of mountain tea and rice, or everything else had been sold-out. Based on the map I had bought, I had the mistaken notion that one can actually go the cliffs to see the coffins at Sugong. But the nice old lady at the cafe said you couldn’t really get to the cliffs and besides, the foliage would have blocked the view. She pointed to the coffins and showed me a balcony at the side of the cafe where there was a nice view of them. I took a seat and stared at the coffins for about half an hour. I think it was at the moment that I decided I wanted my ashes to be scattered not in Pulag but right there in Sagada, either at Echo Valley or at the caves.
Sagada has the fortune of having a resident French chef who goes by the name Chef Saklay who has made home and hearth in its cool environs. At Saint Joseph’s Inn, we were treated to a gastronomic buffet of dishes using the freshest produce. The place was packed. Fortunately we made reservations and ate to our heart’s content. I especially liked the Fish Soup and the Fish Terrine. The Cherry Chocolate cake was absolutely sumptuous and marvelous. I couldn’t help getting seconds, thirs, fourths, fifths . . . Chef Saklay also bakes the super soft and utterly delicious chocolate bread, raisin, and whole weat breads at Saint Joseph.
Like all everywhere else in the rural Philippines, Saturday is market day. Before taking the bus back to Baguio, I took a walk at the town center to bring some stuff home. Local rice, tea, fruits, and vegetables colored the stalls. Interesting was a woman selling necklaces made from banana seeds and those from other mountain plants. I got one for myself and another one for The Boss. But my prized catch was a kilo of utag, a slab of salted pork with a pungent smell and an exotic taste. It tastes great as a a flavor for soups and vegetables.
The road home
We arrived back in Baguio at around 3 pm and The Librarian headed to his friend at the market while I headed to Session Road for a Baguio longganiza meal at Treat and Toppings. I would have wanted to drop-by and get some Chona’s Delight at Tea House but there were too many people and Session Road had started to look like Cubao during rush hour. After the serenity and peace at Sagada, it was jolt to be confronted with the steaming masses. After lunch, I boarded the Victory Liner bus back home. And by 10 pm I was back to the real world.
Sagada is beautiful because it is what it is— quiet, traditional, and rural. The 9pm curfew has been on for years to keep the peace in the streets as people still keep their old way of life–getting-up early in the morning to work the fields, following their rituals and celebrations especially those that are connected to the agricultural cycle, and living the way they meant life to be lived. Unfortunately, the very people who troop to Sagada to enjoy it are the very ones who seem bent to bring it to ruin. Long known to be a backpackers’ haven, thanks to good roads, more and more people are going to Sagada on private vehicles. This means, carbon emmision to destroy the clean air and traffic. When I was there, SUVs, sedans, 4x4s, and Expeditions lined the narrow streets and were causing traffic to the jeeps that were plying the Sagada-Bontoc route. I mean, why can’t people just take the bus? Why go to the countryside and bring your urban trappings with you? I can understand staying at an inn with beds and running water and electricity, but private vehicles to fill the roads and poison the air?
Give yourself a break. Give Sagada a break. Take the bus and leave all your poison at home. Give us all a break.