Sagada: Hanging Coffins, Squeezing Through Caves, and Beer!

by Elizabeth

Described by Lonely Planet as “the closest thing that the Philippines as to a Southeast Asian backpacker mecca,” we were excited to head north from Baguio to the small town of Sagada to fit in some more mountain hiking.  We hopped off our 5-hour bus ride and started looking for a place to stay for the night.

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Looking down on the small town of Sagada.

We quickly learned about the impact of weekend tourism from Manila.  The place we had hoped to stay had no availability for the night (Thursday), but had a room the following night.  A place a couple doors down had availability for the night, but had none the following night.  This was despite the fact that it was completely empty when we arrived.  We booked at both spots so that we’d be covered for the weekend.  This turned out to be a good move because by 9am the next morning the main street was crawling with 15-passenger vans of groups just arriving from Manila.  Looks like we weren’t the only ones drawn in by Sagada’s allure.

Echo Valley Hike

It wasn’t just the promise of hiking that drew us to Sagada, it was the local practice of hanging the coffins of the dead from the sheer rock faces of the surrounding cliffs that made the destination stand out.  We soon learned that the only way to see the hanging coffins, or to do any local hiking or attractions, was to hire a guide through the local guides’ association.  We lucked out and ran into another couple interested in the same tour as us, so we were able to split the cost and have company for our walk.

First stop, a small waterfall and swimming hole.  It was too cold for us to do any swimming (although one guy from our group did brave the cold), but it was a cute spot and could be a nice hangout on a hot afternoon.

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Next, we walked along the river, where we attempted to balance on rocks to keep our shoes dry as we frequently criss-crossed it.  Our efforts were in vain, because we ended up following the river through a cave where rock hopping wasn’t an option.  Wet shoes it was!

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Michael was still under the illusion that he’d be keeping his feet dry.

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Emerging from the cave.

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Finally, we arrived at the famed hanging coffins.  Hanging the coffins is a local pagan tradition (despite the cross cameo in the pic below), so it has largely died out in this Christian community.

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There were a few more recent additions at this spot and there are other locations on the surrounding cliffs where you can spy additional coffins, but this set is the only one that tourists can safely get up close to see.

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We passed a funeral procession on our way back into town.  This one was destined for a more “ordinary” burial and not the surrounding cliffs.

The guided hike ended up taking about 3 hours, so it was pretty short.  This was a bit surprising because it was technically one of the longer hiking options — one of the tour options was just to visit the coffins,which would have just been a 15 minute hike from town along a well-marked trail.

Caving Adventures (and More Coffins)

For our second day in Sagada, we opted to hire a guide to explore the Lumiang and Sumaging caves (on the “Cave Connection” tour) after hearing a glowing recommendation from another couple that we ran into.  We didn’t know exactly what to expect other than that there would be dark, tight spaces and that we’d be walking through thigh-high water.  The experience did not disappoint!

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Hiking down to the cave entrance, we passed an area where you could see coffins hanging from the cliffs in the distance.

The walls surrounding the cave’s entrance was lined with coffins, some of which were a few hundred years old!  We sadly don’t have any pictures of what came next because we opted to leave our camera behind after hearing about the wet, dark spaces.  You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that we spent a pretty awesome couple of hours inside the cave.

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We slipped through cracks and made our way over and under large boulders.  This was definitely a trip that wouldn’t have been possible without a guide because there is no way that we’d have been able to find our way through this cave on our own.  At times I was unclear how I would fit through the various twists and turns (let alone Michael), but we both managed to do so!  There was one time when I looked at what our guide wanted us to do and could only shake my head in disbelief — there was no way I had the upper body strength to simply pull myself up onto a 10-foot ledge with a large overhang.  His solution was simply to have me step up onto his shoulders (he’s my size) and then pull myself up the remaining bit.  Easy!

 

Needless to say, it was dark inside the cave.  Michael and I relied on our headlamps for light, but our guide also carried an old-school gas lamp with which I had a love/hate relationship.  The gas lamp provided great light, but it was also very hot!  As we twisted through the cave’s cracks, the lamp really heated up the small space.

In addition to leaving our camera behind and only taking a small bag with water, we both wore water shoes in anticipation of walking through water throughout the cave.  Unfortunately, Michael’s shoes were on their last leg and met their bitter end in the cave.  As it turned out, there was only one section of the cave where we got our feet wet in thigh-high water (we hear it can be higher), and it was after we were done with most of the climbing.  I guess we could have brought our camera after all!

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The remains of Michael’s water shoes by the time we exited the cave.  We carefully collected the pieces of rubber as they fell off…  RIP.

We lucked out and only ran into a couple groups while we were in the depths of the caves.  The groups tended to move through the cracks and drops very slowly, so it was nice to be able to pass them so that we did spend our entire time in the cave in line!  There were a ton of people in Sumaging Cave as we exited because there is an easier tour that leads groups only through the first couple of chambers of Sumaging Cave.  Much of this last section required that climbers proceed barefooted — since it was packed with people and we’d just spent two hours crawling through the caves we skipped this part of the tour.

I don’t think that this was necessarily how we’d want to spend a full day, but it was an awesome experience for the two hours or so that we spent in the caves!

We Found Good Beer!

The excitement of being back in a country with cheap beer had already started to wane by the time we arrived in Sagada.  Yes, we’re back in the land of $0.80 beers, but it’s pretty much the same, watery beer that we’ve found everywhere we’ve traveled (and being San Miguel brand, it’s actually the same brand as we drank in Spain).  Given this, we were pretty excited to learn that there is a small brewery in Sagada called Sagada Cellar Door.

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What more could we ask for?

The brewery/restaurant is about a 20 minute walk up the hill from Sagada and was well worth the climb.  We didn’t call ahead, so we were a little concerned when we showed up at 4pm and saw their sign saying that they opened at 5pm and that reservations were required for dinner.  Luckily, the owner, Andrew, welcomed us warmly and was happy to fit us in for dinner and pour us a couple beers while we waited for the 7pm dinner.  The location was great — it’s hidden up in the hills amidst the pine trees and made us feel right at home.  The roaring bonfire helped as well!

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Our welcoming committee.

Andrew’s beers were really unique and I was a bit skeptical at first, but the flavors worked pretty well.  I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed his “lavender” beer, which incorporates the local purple rice.

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Enjoying some sausage with our beer courtesy of a large group from Manila.

Dinner was served buffet style and was great as well.  We were excited to be fed lots of fresh vegetables (literally picked as we were enjoying our beers) and foods that weren’t super greasy/fatty like much of the traditional Filipino foods.

Last Minute Changes

Our plan when we headed north from Manila was to do a loop from Baguio that passed through Sagada, then moved on through the rice-terraced towns of Bontoc and Banaue.  The terraces around Banaue are particularly well-known and are a major attraction for tourists coming from Manila.

I had assumed that we’d spend several full days in Sagada hiking through the surrounding mountains.  As it turned out, all hikes required a guide per a municipal ordinance.  Looking at the rest of the guided hikes offered by the guide agency, we weren’t particularly excited about the rest of the options since they were primarily short hikes.  While I understand that hiring a guide provides additional jobs in the local economy, we’re not big fans of guided hikes generally and prefer to contribute in other ways.  It was time for us to move on in the hopes of finding hiking opportunities elsewhere.

On our final evening in Sagada, we decided that we’d head to Bontoc the next morning.  Our only concern was making sure that we found a place to stay in Bontoc that had a reliable internet connection because we needed to be online at 2:30am to apply for our permit to hike the PCT!  We’d already missed the first rounds of permits due to a combination of being on a boat in Raja Ampat and the website crashing, so we knew that it was critical that we be online right when the permit application round opened at 10:30am PST.  Our internet in Sagada was patchy at best and Bontoc didn’t look like it would be much better, so we kept our fingers crossed that we’d find a good place (and that the town’s power didn’t go out, etc.).

As we packed up our bags our final morning in Sagada, I was thinking about how hard it was to find independent hiking options in the area and about our upcoming challenge of applying for our PCT permits.  With only about 30 minutes before the last bus of the morning was leaving for Baguio, I proposed a change of plans.  Instead of continuing on to the rice terraces and nebulous hiking opportunities in Bontoc and Banaue, what if we just returned to the reliable internet in Baguio and move on from the region?  Michael was game and we hopped on the bus heading south to Baguio instead of north to Bontoc.

The story of our lives — no plans are final until we’ve actually boarded the bus (or train or plane) and even then they aren’t necessarily final.  Ultimately, I think that we made the right decision.  A couple nights later we were online and applying for our PCT permits precisely at 2:30am… two minutes later we’d successfully submitted our applications and no permits remained for our preferred date (more on this later!).  This would not have been the time for the slow, unreliable internet that we experienced in Sagada.  The town may have had many virtues, but reliable internet or electricity are not one of them.

[This blog post describes our trip to Sagada, Philippines from February 9 to 12, 2017.]

 

 

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