Sagada: It's More Fun in the Philippines

It's More Fun in the Philippines Part 1:  Trekking in Sagada



Not long ago, Sagada, one of the municipalities of Mountain Province, was isolated and essentially an unchartered frontier. It became famous for its hanging coffins and coffins found in the crevices of limestone rocks. For this reason alone, most people find Sagada a fascinating place to visit. Today, tourism in Sagada is going through crazy rapid growth, not only because of its ancient culture and undiscovered beauty but for inclusive mountain adventure – trekking, hiking, caving, spelunking. And it seems that the municipality of Sagada tries to capitalize on its mountain playground. All visitors in Sagada are required to register with the Government Tourist Bureau and pay forty pesos for registration. Visitors must hire a registered tour guide. The price for tour guide services, tours, and activities offered by different tour operators are pretty much the same. Most tour or trek starts at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the oldest church in the Cordillera and proceeds to the cemetery to the hanging coffins and a hike in the Echo Valley with the view of the lush vegetation and limestone rock formations.

Hiking Echo Valley and Caving

Not including the 11-hour bus ride from Manila and the visit to Banaue Rice Terraces, we spent a total of three days trekking in Sagada and had the same tour-guide throughout our stay. We pretty much took all the activities listed in the government issued tourist brochure and map. The tourist brochures from the Tourist Information office aren’t kidding when they say that Sagada is not for the faint of heart. Like most treks, we started at the church, past the cemetery to the hanging coffins. Hiking the Echo Valley, which was surrounded by lush vegetation and limestone rocks was exhilarating. But seeing the coffins and skeletal remains in the crevices of the limestone rocks gave me the creeps. Soon we left the crowd in Echo Valley and continued to a more strenuous hike. Climbing rocks and hiking through rugged terrain tested my physical strength and my foot that just recovered from injury. Although our guide explained about the burial process and that the practice occurred hundreds of years ago (the latest was done in 2010), I could not help but think about the decaying bodies slipping through the valley’s streams and rivers. The eerie feeling never left me as we went caving and only intensified as we waded through the waters and darkness of the underground river.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped at Lake Danum before watching the sunset, advertised as one of the most dramatic sunset viewings. The lake was nothing to write home about. It was like a big pond with muddy waters and lots of water-buffalo or cow poop in the grassy area. What’s odd about the little parkland was finding a sole yogurt vendor selling the most delicious yogurt offering in the whole Philippines. The sunset never occurred.

The Trek to Mount Polis

Disappointed at not seeing the sunset, we were hopeful to see the sunrise the following morning (advertised as the most dramatic sunrise as it hangs above the clouds). The hike was supposed to take an hour, but our guide did not show up at our scheduled 4:00am meeting. When the lodge owner realized that we were still in the lobby at five in the morning, he tried to help us find anyone else to take us to Mt. Polis, only to find our driver waiting below without our tour guide. Our driver finally contacted our tour guide and they started talking to each other over the phone. Our tour guide instructed our driver to take us somewhere and he would try to catch up with us. They continued to talk to each other. Suddenly, our driver made a U-turn and stopped in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, our guide instructed our driver to transfer us to a four-wheel drive vehicle and take the shortcut. Our driver drove us through a God-forsaken road with twenty-inch potholes and with no guard rails along the edge of the mountain. Granted there was a lead in truck to guide us through the darkness, it was the scariest ride I’ve ever experienced. Our guide arrived shortly and we hiked for another ten minutes to the sunrise viewing area. Again, there was no sunrise or view. Everything was covered in fog.

Marlboro Country and the Blue Soil Hills and Sagada Rice Terraces

The trek to Marlboro Country and the Blue Soil Hills was the closest thing to the unspoiled country I have ever had the chance to experience. The landscape changed dramatically – from rocky trails, as if we were walking through the top of limestone rocks to steep hills, to wooded hills, to lush valley (Marlboro Country), to the Blue Soil Hills, then back to the normal dirt path, and the most picturesque rice-terraces spreading as the eye can see in the mountains.
Blue Soil Hills

I had the chance to ride at the back of an open truck and enjoy the invigorating crisp mountain air. The whole atmosphere was a stark contrast from the congested city of Manila. I hope it lasts forever.



I don’t normally mention tour companies, transportation or hotel accommodations I used, but I was really impressed by our hotel accommodation. We stayed at Kanip-aw Pine View Lodge. Part of Kanip-aw sits on the edge of a limestone rock. It’s an environmentally friendly lodge. I saw hotel employees hand washed and line dried the linens. It's about 15-minute walk from the town center, but the view was amazing. I went to bed looking at the moon and woke up to the sound of nature. The couple who own the property are very friendly and very much involved in running the place. When I mentioned about environmental sustainability, they told me that most of the hotels are owned by locals (Igorots), but not enough planning went into the municipality infrastructure that on a high tourist season, there’s not enough place to accommodate the tourists so the locals offer their home. So, homestay is a common alternative to hotel accommodation during the peak season.

Banaue Rice Terraces.

It was raining when we arrived in Banaue, so we didn’t get to explore much of Banaue. I just took pictures. But the bus ride from Sagada to Banaue was exhilarating. The narrow road followed the contours of the Cordillera Mountains. One minute we were at the bottom of the mountain, admiring the fog-shrouded mountain, then the next minute we were at the top of the mountain, looking down.




NOTE:  All photos and videos by the author




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