*text and picture heavy post ahead!*
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who thought about going to Sagada during the extended holiday brought about by the Pope’s visit. When we arrived, the streets were littered with vehicles and tourists. It’s like half of Manila was there for the weekend. Carrying our heavy bags and still high with the euphoria from top loading, we began our search for a place to sleep. I have this bad habit of going to a place without booking any hotel/inn because I believe in divine providence. Seriously, God has never let me down for I always find myself under a roof. And if worse comes to worst, I wouldn’t mind sleeping on the streets for a night.
From the tourist center, we separated into groups and asked for a vacant room in every inn we come across. But alas, everywhere it’s either fully booked or unreasonably priced (650 each for a room of 6, really?). Fae sat and waited at Sagada Brew where we had lunch before commencing our search. Honestly speaking, if it weren’t for the the restaurant being on the exact place where Fae decided she can no longer walk another meter, we wouldn’t have eaten there. For starters, it was a bit expensive for our pockets at 200 pesos meal. Second, the service was so slooooooooow (tho it’s understandable because of the huge turn out of tourists. They even gave us a card bearing some reminders like be kind and willing to wait etc). Third, the food, though they look appetizing in pictures, were so-so. Best tasting of the bunch was Chicken Roulade followed by Chicken with Sagada oranges. Emman specifically didn’t like their salad.
Finally we found a place to sleep! During peak season, some residents offer their humble abodes to tourists like us. Our space came in the form of mattresses spread on the second floor of a residential house. It’s not even a room (three rooms in the house, all taken). When you climb up the stairs, our beds are the first thing you see on the left. Everyone passing by can see us and we felt so exposed so we asked our landlord to put on some sort of division. Hence, he clipped some blankets together. Tada! Instant wall.
The very homey kitchen where we can actually cook, but we don’t have the energy nor patience for that. Good luck preparing anything other than instant noodles when you’re so tired from a day full of activities.
Actually, the first thing you have to do upon arriving is to pay the environmental fee of 35 pesos each at the Tourist Center but there were a lot of people so we skipped it. Later that afternoon, after thinking that we could get away with registering and paying the fee, we went there to inquire about transportation and guide rates (we later learned that it’s a must especially if you plan on going spelunking because the receipt is required before you’re allowed to enter the caves. Safety and accountability purposes). Anyway, just drop by the center. The people there are pretty helpful and you get a free map of Sagada complete with all the information you will need — bus schedules and fares, popular tourist spots and guide rates, etc.
Since we wasted so much time looking for a place to sleep in, the only thing we could fit in our itinerary for the rest of the day was a trip to Sagada Weaving, Sagada Pottery and Lake Danum with sunset viewing. Our driver was kuya Robert and he was very kind he even does the haggling for us. Thanks to him our trip went smoother than I expected. At the back of a tourist’s mind there’s always a hint of distrust. What if this person has a hidden agenda etc. Just have faith in people while keeping your common sense intact. Kuya Robert’s mother-in-law operates a homestay and her wife and sisters-in-law manage businesses ranging from carinderias to souvenir shops. If you manage to see something called 7J’s, that’s their empire. haha! Again, his number is: +639212230301.
Mam Tess (or was it Therese?) of Sagada Pottery charges 100 pesos each group for a demonstration plus another 100 pesos if you want to try your hand at pottery. Just like in anything where you’re an outsider, there are things that look perfectly normal to you but to the artist/expert, they have defects.
Emman gave it a try and when asked how it was, he confidently answered “it’s easy” to Mam Tess’ slight irritation. Nobody wants their art to be taken lightly. She left Emman alone and the vase became irregular until the defect became too big not to notice. It actually isn’t easy.
Lake Danum (Danum is Ilocano for water) looked like it wasn’t from the Philippines. Only cattle and sheep are missing and you’d think it’s somewhere in New Zealand maybe. Anyway, we were too early for the sunset so we just looked for a good spot on a hill adjacent to the lake and endured the blazing rays of the sun.
Still pretty wonderful if you ask me. They say no two sunsets are alike so it won’t matter if you watch one every single day for the rest of your life. I remember a Peanuts comic strip where a character says “I hate seeing the sun go down, it means I wasted another day”. Well, I don’t want to feel that way. Not that I see the sun set in Manila. I doubt if people even notice in the city. Most of the time we’re just too busy with our own lives or we’re locked up in some concrete slab in front of our computers, too absorbed to notice.
Some souvenir shopping. You’re a Filipino if it’s a staple in your travels to bring home pasalubong. For me, it’s one of the most nerve-wracking part of travel so I just skip it altogether (at times). I’m a pretty specific person and I appreciate it more if people tell me exactly what they want (like this brand of this delicacy instead if the ephemerally irritating “kahit ano”).
The Lemon Pie House is either always closed or full of people so I had my share of Lemon Pie some other place. According to the owner, it’s the same recipe al throughout Sagada. Just a different name.
As usual, the fog was killjoy. I realized that one of the biggest uncontrollable factor to consider when travelling is the weather. You have to really pray for it. And if the kind you were hoping for wasn’t given to you, you can be a bit sad and disappointed but you have to accept the fact that that’s life. Sometimes it’s all cloudy when you want sunny and sometimes it’s the other way around.
Afterwards we headed to the plaza near the hospital for our Arroz Caldo (rice porridge) fix. It was perfect for the chilly weather although a bit expensive at 50 pesos a bowl. But the vendor insisted that the chicken was native (meaning organic, not feeds-fed) and we really didn’t have a choice. Saturday is market day in Sagada so the streets become extra lively.
What I like more than lemon pie is Vanilla custard pie. From what I remember it’s 200 pesos a box which can be sliced into eight pieces. It had me at Vanilla. But if you prefer a little bit of sourness then the lemon pie is for you.
The day before we reserved a room Tinagtago Inn because some guests were going to check out. We couldn’t be happier with our new home in Sagada. It’s good for six but there’s only four of us so Fae and I had a queen-sized bed for ourselves. We had our own bathroom with hot and cold shower plus a veranda where you can see the town proper as well as let your wet clothes dry. The best thing about Tinagtago is its location. Less than 5 minute walk from St. Mary’s Church and the Tourism Center!
After breakfast we went spelunking and it was #buwisbuhay. My legs were still sore from the Batad hike the day before so I was hesitant to join the group in their Cave Connection adventure but Fae said it would be a wasted opportunity so I forced myself. And when your mind knows that it’s a life or death situation (some parts) and there’s no way out except to finish the course, you get what is called an Adrenalin Rush. You forget the pain in your legs. Heck, you even enjoy yourself and not notice that four hours had gone by. That’s what happened to me. We entered via the Lumiang Cave.
Our guide was Kit and it was his birthday, wala lang! The most important tip I can give anyone who plans to do Cave Connection is this: Trust the guide with your life and follow his instructions. If he says sit and slide, you don’t question him. You sit and slide. If he says left foot, you use your left foot.
Based on the stories I heard, I was expecting something more difficult. I was even scared because I’m a bit claustrophobic and I panic when I can’t inhale maximally. Cave Connection was nothing like that. Maybe it’s because our guide was sensitive to our needs (sorry I don’t have his number) or because there are a lot of other tourists so I felt safer but I really had fun. Of course there are times when I felt scared (especially the ones involving ropes) but all in all it was doable. According to Kit, a typical Filipino tourist finishes the course in 4 to 6 hours. Foreigners are faster and they need less assistance. The fastest a person can go out is in 45 minutes!
In some parts you are asked to step on your guide. As in to literally step on them. At first we were shocked with the idea then Kit said, “Okay lang tapakan ang tao, trabaho namin yun. Wag lang ang pagkatao“. Preach.
When you reach the Sumaguing part of the cave connection, there are even more human traffic thanks to tourists who opted for the short course caving. Actually, most of the rock formations can be seen in Sumaguing and the paths are easier. Unlike in Lumiang where you thread on lime stones which are very slippery, most of the rock on this part are called “flowstones” and they’re not slippery at all! What do you get then for going through the trouble of doing cave connection? Experience and bragging rights. HAHA!
The hardest part for me was the last 15 minutes or so because it was the ascent to follow the light. My whole body is tired and my arms are too weak I can’t pull myself up. In addition, I was wearing trekking pants and when wet, they limit one’s movement so my feet can’t reach what they’re supposed to reach. Kit had to drag me up. It’s so dark in the cave we were so happy to see broad daylight and realize it’s only 11 AM.
After a 90 peso lunch at a carinderia (because all restaurants are full and waiting time is one hour up), we decided to push ourselves to the limit by going to Bomod-ok falls. According to Kuya Robert, tourists don’t usually do Cave Connection and Bomod-ok falls in a day because they’re both very tiring. But we insisted that our bodies could still handle the 3 hour hike. The best option is to go via the Bangaan trail because the path is concrete stairs and return via the Anguid trail because the elevation aren’t as high and we all know how much harder going up than down is.
There was an abundance of sunflowers. Fae overheard one of the tourists we came across say in a condescending tone that we don’t care about the ecosystem by picking flowers and I don’t know why but it irritated us. Define muna niya ecosystem.
The water is freezing cold but once you wet your head and get used to the temperature, you wouldn’t want to leave. I know I didn’t but my companions were shivering like they’re about to die and it was getting dark so we had to go.
Dinner at Pinikpikan house to try what else but Pinikpikan. This dish is pretty harsh on the chickens because they’re beaten alive prior to cooking to bruise the flesh which allegedly improves the flavor. It tastes just like your typical chicken stew with a hint of something smoked. Actually, all of Sagada smells like something is always burning somewhere plus the foggy weather. I kinda miss it.
Bonfires are a thing in Sagada. While driving home, we came across a couple of bonfires around town. Almost every night locals gather together over the fire, drink strong alcohol and converse with each other. This doubles as a way to cope with the cold climate and as a form of socialization. Technology and smartphones haven’t reached this part of the Philippines as of now and it’s actually nice to see kids playing outside and neighbors talking to each other.
Sunday morning the scene was a stark contrast from when we first arrived. Overnight, almost all the tourist with their hired vans were gone. It felt as if we had Sagada all to ourselves. Suddenly it was very quiet and peaceful, no city people laughing boisterously. I know tourism is good for the economy but the chaos that the visitors bring with them might be a bit stressful for the locals who are used to a serene and laid back life.
Was finally able to secure a table at the famous Yoghurt House. No long lines outside and the service was fast, ah the joys of the after-peak season. I understand why this one’s part of every tourists’ itineraries.
The serving was ample and their Yoghurts were yummy. I especially like the one with banana, granola and honey. Emman and Jeff (our fifth companion, a solo traveler we met at our homestay) loved the Beef Tapa dipped in vinegar. I enjoyed my omelette with lots of cheese because cheese makes everything better. Thank you Emman and Marie for treating us with Yoghurt (sana next time whole meal na chos!). HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!!! :]
We intentionally left all the walk-able spots for our third day so we wouldn’t have to pay for transportation and guide fees (running low on moolah!). Marie was too tired so she excused herself while Jeff was transferring inn. Emman, Fae and I walked our way to Sugong Hanging Coffins.
The hanging coffins can actually be seen from the road but we wanted to get closer so we asked a local where the path is. She pointed at the concrete steps going down so we went. After 30 minutes or so of walking, pavement became dirt and we realized we were too far into the forest without any sign of the hanging coffins being nearby. We even arrived at the place where the trees are logged. A bit scared, we went back and tried other routes because the path divided at some point. Still to no avail. In the end, we decided to come back defeated. At this point, we confirmed to a different local where right way is to which she replied that there is none because the path is too steep and dangerous. Sugong hanging coffins are supposed to be admired from afar. Yikes!
Next stop was Ganduyan museum owned by the Aben family. The fee is 25 pesos plus donation which is very worth it. The place is a bit small but there’s a guided tour where the man of the house explains almost everything. What it lacks in space it makes up for with amazing stories. I’m a museum person and I appreciate these kinds of spots. Do yourselves a favor and feed not only your eyes and stomach but your brains as well. I WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR PRE-COLONIAL PAST.
After getting lost again, coming back where we came from and asking for directions, we finally reached the hanging coffins. It was again a lot of walk from where we came from but our legs have learned to be quiet and just keep on contracting and relaxing those muscles. Many has been written about this way of burying in Sagada. Go Google them if you’re curious. That’s the thing about being stubborn and not hiring a tour guide. You tend to get lost and you have no one to pester with your questions.
Emman and Marie left for Baguio after lunch. Fae, Jeff and I contemplated on where to go. Not before having lunch at this carinderia near the tourist center with really good papaitan! One order of the viand is good for two.
Another thing I like about the tourist center is this board where you can look for fellow travelers who want to split expenses with strangers. When I checked, there was someone looking for companions to hike Mt. Ampacao while another is planning on going to Marlboro Country. I sent them both a message and told myself our itinerary would be determined by the first person who will reply.
Donna replied first so Mt. Ampacao it is. She was with FJ. I initially thought they were travelling together only to find out later that they’re two soloists who just met the day before. Ah, the beauty of travel: you get to mingle with strangers and befriend them, on Facebook, at least.
Mt. Ampacao was a relatively easy hike compared with Tarak Ridge but all the tiring things I did the past few days were starting to take their toll on me and I found myself stopping to catch my breath every 5 minutes or so. Plus I was wearing that ridiculous-looking green plastic bag to waterproof myself in case of a downpour.
We did the loop hike going up from the town center and then exiting in Lake Danum. Going down was the real challenge. It just rained and the path was muddy, my very weakness. Heck, I always slip even if it’s not muddy. How much more if the trail looked like this? In the end, Fae and I applied what we learned from our spelunking sesh the day before: If you can’t handle it, just sit and slide. A sincere apology to our companions whose path was destroyed by our butts. #MountainSliding
I didn’t expect Mt. Ampacao would be that harsh so I wore my only jeans and clean jacket. Thanks to this, I spent a good four hours of my last night in Sagada removing mud off of my clothes. Of course without a dryer they would still be wet in the morning so I had no choice but to use my dirty trekking pants with hole on our way to Baguio. That’s life.
Last but not the least is this baked chicken from Masferre Inn, one of those places that’s always full of tourists we were only able to secure a table on Sunday night. Very fitting to be my last meal in Sagada because it’s really good!
I thought Sagada at night without the tourists was nice. Then it rained and the temperature dropped even further thanks to the incoming typhoon. Stores closed early and bonfires were finished before 8PM. Fae and I had the huge room to ourselves and together with Jeff, we were the only guests of Tinagtago Inn. It was kinda eerie especially for someone who is used to the pulsating life of the city and I couldn’t wait to go home.
Now that I’m in Manila, I miss Sagada and I can’t wait to go back, not to tire myself with the adventures it offers but to just chill in the many cafes that has sprung up all over town and appreciate the very laidback environment. I hope tourism doesn’t destroy this charm.