Nestled in the majestic Cordillera Mountains, the sleepy mountain outpost of Sagada continues to be a conundrum. Despite not exactly being a secret a hideaway, the fifth-class municipality of less than 13,000 continues to maintain itself as a prized destination for backpackers. It has undeniably received its fair share of media exposure both locally and in foreign shores, but despite being renowned for spelunking, trekking and other nature-oriented activities, Sagada continues to be the Philippinesâ€™ answer to Shangri-La â€“ an idyllic refuge tucked away in between the mighty monoliths of the Cordilleras.
Getting to Sagada remains to be still quite an ordeal â€“ especially for people who are not used to long hours of commuting like me. Unless youâ€™re ridiculously well-heeled enough to be able to afford a helicopter, youâ€™ll be forced to take a bus or jeep and roll the die as you traverse the seemingly treacherous roads of Mountain Province. I took the route from Baguio City. The first bus (operated by Lizardo Bus Lines) leaves the Dangwa station at exactly 6 a.m. Baguio is only a hundred miles away from Sagada, but the entire trip takes more than five hours. The bus is not particularly luxurious but you have no choice â€“ it is the only mode of public transport that one could take to Mountain Province from Benguet. To make it more of a concrete example, the trip from Manila to Baguio can still be half an hour faster than the trip from Baguio to Sagada.
If youâ€™re taking the bus to Sagada, the trip will seem like an eternity. The sights of the endless rows of mountains, vegetable plantations and crop terraces along either side of the Halselma Highway are visually-arresting, but passing through six towns during a five hour trip definitely doesnâ€™t make the entire journey seem like a blur. From Baguio, one will pass through the towns of La Trinidad, Tublay, Atok and Buguias in Benguet before crossing over to the towns of Bauko and Sabangan in Mountain Province.
The transit service operated by Lizardo Bus Lines relies on rickety buses with virtually no suspension (you will feel every bump on the road) and the hard rock mettle of their courageous drivers. A ticket to Sagada will set you back 220 pesos and will have you feeling like you were thrown into a washing machine for six minutes.
Itâ€™s hard to decide which part was worse. Benguet, being a high-income province thanks to the vegetable industry in La Trinidad and the tourism of Baguio, has the advantage of wide two-lane roads. The roads in Benguet are a hundred percent paved. But (and this is no small detail)â€¦ the turns are so sharp and so frequent that it will be impossible not to feel dizzy after a few hours. The dips and rises in elevation are also too extreme for this first-time long-distance commuter. Factor in the drumming of the blazing sun â€“ it is NOT an air conditioned bus and it becomes a recipe for nausea. The roads in Mountain Province on the other hand are less crooked. The catch â€“ the road is not paved, landslide-prone and is sometimes only a lane and few inches wide. You could literally peer through your window and see that the busâ€™ wheels are only clearing the edge of the road by mere centimeters. Vehicles strategically stop in rare parts of the road that are two lanes wide when they notice incoming traffic from the opposite direction. If you really have it bad, your vehicle even has to back up (yes, you heard it right) until you reach a piece of road thatâ€™s wide enough to accommodate the two vehicles. One wrong move by the driver and 50 people lives could easily be hurtling down a steep ravine just like that.
After spending over five hours in a potential tin-can death trap (including two restroom stops at Atok and Buguias), the bus finally pulled over at Sagada’s main road. Almost all of the roads in the town proper of Sagada is two-laned and well paved. After getting out of the bus with my overstuffed backpack, I called up the owner of the guest house I’ll be staying in to ask where her place is. Her guesthouse was built on top of her existing house. I didn’t expect much from a 200 peso-a-night room. I only booked this guesthouse because it’s the cheapest private room that I could find while scouring the net. Come on, this room looks real good for 200 a night, right? It also had a working flush toilet, the floor is tiled, has an amazing view and yes… there’s actually a bath tub!
After unpacking my stuff and freshening up, I grabbed some lunch at a local restaurant. I caught some shut eye to allow my body and mind to recuperate from the bus ride – an ordeal that I could have never prepared for.
I did little else during the first day. Aside from eating dinner, it was all about sleeping and enjoying how cold it was.
My second day in Sagada started mighty early. I woke up at around 6 am to grab breakfast. At 830 or so, I was already registering for one of the sight-seeing trips. For a fee of 400 pesos (for a group of four people), one could pick three sites in the Sagada area for trekking. The sites are within 30-45 minutes hike through trails that range from roadsides, steep mud bridges that could send you hurtling to your death (good thing there were branches! whew!), cave faces, boulders and wooden beams that allow you to cross deep crevasses.
Echo Valley. When my family made the trip to Sagada back when still in high school, we also visited the Echo Valley. The trail to the Echo Valley is relatively easy compared to the other ones that we encountered. You’re not really in the valley (the depression itself) – you’re actually standing at a cliff’s edge that overlooks the valley. It’s very close to the town and I actually noticed that there was a lot more houses in the periphery of the monoliths this time around. Aside for letting you hear the mountains call back your name for two or three times, numerous hanging coffins could also be seen in the area. The coffins are literally suspended in mid-air with just pegs driven into the cliff face to keep them from falling. Some of these coffins are over 300 years old.
Underground River. The route to the Underground River is challengingly wicked. From the cliffside location of the Echo Valley, it was a very steep descent to the river below. The trail was covered with vegetation and it was very slippery. It also involved walking along a river. The river ultimately enters a cave. There’s nothing to see really, but the trail itself is a real workout. This shot of the trail is breath-taking – but if you were scaling the rocks near vertical, you’ll be too busy trying to stay alive to notice how beautiful it is. Hehe. The clincher is a rope aided ascent to the get back to a paved road atop the the underground river.
Bokong Falls. Also known as the Small Falls, the Bokong falls is the more accessible of the two waterfalls in Sagada. The Bomod-ok Falls (the far bigger falls that drops from a side of a mountain) is a good day’s worth of hiking. For people who don’t want to risk falling off a slippery steep trail like myself, Bokong would be a far easier option. It was easy to get to the Bokong Falls – we were on paved road for most of the way and it was an easy 15 minute downhill stroll to get to there. I wasn’t ready with my swimming gear, but I decided to jump in with my boxers. I got inspired by some kids who were jumping off the falls so I decided to do the same. Check this vid out. Unfortunately, the video is of low quality (
Translation: You won’t see my washboard abs on this video). The momeny I jumped in, my butanding choker from Donsol tried to swim away from me – I threw it to the banks to keep it from floating away. I must’ve thrown it too hard, I chipped my whale shark’s tail!!! NOOOOOO!!!!
My third day in Sagada was reserved for the highlight of all highlights – spelunking. I did some cave exploration a few years back, but it wasn’t really that intense. The spelunking I did in the past was just part of the “sight seeing” trip that we took – similar to what I did the day before with a different itinerary. Our group didn’t bring a kerosene lamp back then so we weren’t really able to venture into the deepest and darkest parts of the cave.
Fast forward to 2006, I was more than ready to tackle the four-hour challenge that was the cave connection. But before I could feel the chill of being in a subterranean environment, be exposed to the rich smell of guano and wade across pools of crystal clear water, the guide had to lead me to the entrance to the cave.
The cave was very accessible to motorists. One only needed to take a five minute drive to get to the cave area. A flight of stairs leads to the mouth of the cave and the first few steps in the cave are actually smoothened out with a concrete. Unfortunately, backpackers like myself will have to walk for around 25 minutes to get to the cave complex. It was a hike along the side of the road – and the road pitched, dipped and meandered.
While walking towards the cave, one could easily spot more interesting sights. This paragraph is flanked by two of them.
The Hanging Coffins. There a lot of sites in Sagada were Hanging Coffins could be found, but this site is unique because this is especially for the women who lost their lives while giving birth.
The Sagada Rice Terraces. Sagada’s version of the rice terraces is nowhere as compelling as the ones in Banaue and Batad, but come on, seeing a vast expanse of green paddies along the contoured sides of hills is still nice to look at. In terms of scale, the rice terraces here are about 1/50th of the ones in Banaue. Go to Banaue if you really want to see the big guns.
spelunking, coming soon! haha
- Getting there: [commuting] There are no flights to Sagada – there is no airport. So unless you’re rich enough to afford a trip via helicopter, you will be up for one helluva road trip. On the same note, there is no way that you could commute to Sagada without changing buses/jeeps.You may take buses going to Baguio, Bontoc or Banaue.
- Banaue and Baguio are on opposite sides of the Cordilleras. You can get to Baguio in 4-6 hours (from Manila) while a trip to Banaue that clocks in at less than 7 hours would be next to legendary. It is also cheaper to take buses to Baguio. The fare for Victory Liner buses is as follows – De Luxe 550 [more spacious, less passengers, food and restroom on board] aircon 385. Up to 27 buses leave from the Cubao station round the clock, seven days of the week.
- Believe it or not, Baguio is still 5-6 hours away from Sagada. You will have to take the Lizardo Bus at Dangwa station that goes to Sagada-Besao. The damage is 220 bucks. You will go through hell for 6 hours.
- There are no buses from Banaue to Sagada/ Bontoc to Sagada. You will be forced to take a jeep. *yelp* If
- If you want value for you money, stay at Tita Mary‘s (Daoas – pronounced as Daw-as) place. For 200 php/night, you get a nice room with 2 double-sized beds with a CR that’s probably on the same league as the one you have at home. contact 09109671403 She is really really nice.
- You have to take a guide to go spelunking. It’s for your own good. A german national once ventured into the caves alone – he broke his bones before he even had a chance to plunge into the darker areas of the cave.
Disclaimer: All photos in this post were taken by yours truly — save for one. Jeez. As if it’s that hard to figure out. haha