I wish that I could describe the feeling… awakening in this sleepy mountain hideaway. But try as I may, the words get lost… somewhere in a memory. Traveling solo as a foreigner in the Philippines can be a little scary at times. And other times it can be downright dangerous. But with a few precautions and an extra order of patience, the Philippines will have your heart in no time.
Sagada is nestled within the rugged Cordillera Central mountain range in Mountain Province, Philippines. This little town of 12,000 has a certain allure that can’t quite be described. The small town charm and natural beauty impress themselves upon one’s soul. And the mark they leave behind is undeniable.
Solo in Sagada
The funny thing is I’m not altogether certain what it was that so captivated me. Something unseen, below the surface of the senses, sang out and appealed to something inside of me. I couldn’t resist Sagada. The sky in my eyes had never before looked so blue. The surrounding mountain peaks, so majestic in their ascent, commanded my attention. All the while, the terraced valleys far below seemed to dance about as the rich green grass swayed in tune with the gentle breeze.
Journey into the Cordilleras
The journey to Sagada, however, was not such a breeze. The directions were simple enough. It was scheduled to be a 6-hour bus ride from Manila to Baguio, and then another 6-hour ride from Baguio to Sagada. What could possibly go wrong? Well as is so often the case with transportation in the Philippines, things didn’t go as planned. Because that would’ve been too boring, I suppose. From Manila, the bus climbed its way through the mountains and arrived in Baguio at sundown. After staying the night (and eating at Mang Inasal, my favorite), I headed to the bus depot the following morning. We departed for Sagada that afternoon. Lesson learned – always opt for an early departure. Two hours into our journey to Sagada we experienced a torrential downpour. Heavy rains and mountain roads rarely play nice together, and in this case we suffered the consequences of that combination. Shortly after the rain kicked in we had a violent head on collision. A truck lost control and swerved into our lane as it came hurtling down the mountainside. Being in the front row right behind the driver’s seat offered a surreal first-person perspective of the action. It was as if time slowed down as the oncoming vehicle slid into our path. And then… BANG!! The impact was intense. Then, as if nothing had happened, time resumed its usual pace. But something had happened. Thank goodness our larger vehicle offered some protection. And by some miracle the two men in the truck walked away unscathed (I think). Unfortunately our bus was rendered inoperable. Thus began our two hour wait for a backup bus to save the day.
Of course all is well that ends well, I suppose. We eventually made it to Sagada, albeit way behind schedule. At least the scenery along the way was stunning. Deep valleys cut sharp through the land as terraced hillsides rose far off in the distance. For the steady-handed cameraman, photo opportunities abound. The visual appeal also served as a distraction from the clear and present danger of riding through these mountainous parts. Rain aside, let’s just say that the edge was a little too close for comfort at times. It’s not for those with weak stomachs or fragile nerves.
Upon arrival in Sagada, I registered at the visitor center as per the directive at the entrance to the main street. It was quick and painless. I received a permit and was told that I’d need to carry it all times. My permit was never checked, but hey this is the Philippines where paperwork means everything (that’s another topic altogether). After a short stroll through town I came across a peaceful looking guest house along the outskirts named, Hidden Hill Inn. I don’t usually endorse accommodations, but this place is a true hidden gem! It seemed like I was one of their first guests, as some parts were still under construction (June 2014). The location was amazing, the family delightful, and the surroundings were ideal. Not to mention the price was right at only 300 pesos per night. Yes, I know there are cheaper Sagada hotels. I tried them. They don’t compare to Hidden Hill Inn. Plus they have hot water. You can read my full review on TripAdvisor. Scroll down to the oldest review, the first one. That’s me! And no I’m not affiliated with them in any way.
Headhunters & Hanging Coffins
Once settled, the adventure began. Perched high in the mountains, Sagada offers a plethora of outdoor activities. Sumaging and Lumiang caves are two of the most famous Sagada tourist spots, boasting eye-popping rock formations and strange patterns deep underground. Bomod-Ok Falls, Marlboro Mountain, and Lake Danum are all easy to access as well.
For me the highlight of this Sagada trip was Kiltepan viewpoint. It’s rarely at the top of a visitor’s to-do list, but it is stunning! Just a couple miles outside of town, the view of the Kiltepan terraces from high atop the viewpoint is nothing short of awe-inspiring. I arrived just as a ferocious storm came rolling in. Waves of clouds flooded the valley as massive bolts of lighting ripped the fabric of the sky in two. It felt like an out-of-body experience. There wasn’t much time as the lightning approached, but that scene will be forever seared into my memory as one of the most humbling I’ve ever seen.
Back in town, around the corner from the visitor’s center I came across the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. This lovely Anglican establishment is over 100 years old. It’s well-known for its beautiful stained glass windows. Continuing past the church I made my way through the Anglican cemetery. Before long, Echo Valley opened up beneath me. Its jagged rock formations, jutting every which way cut through the foliage. Secured to the side of a cliff far below, the mysterious Sagada hanging coffins came into view. The Igorots, an indigenous local tribe are behind the unique funerary practice of securing coffins in this manner. It’s found nowhere else in the Philippines, and some claim that the tradition is 2,000 years old. Still, the origin of this practice remains a mystery. It’s suggested that contact with tribes from parts of southern China may be responsible. Hanging coffins in that region date back over 1,000 years. Even so, the uncertainty only adds to the appeal because the coffins offer a rare glimpse into a unique culture. One that holds tight to its traditions even to this day.
No journey to Sagada would be complete without a stop at the Ganduyan Museum. This unassuming structure in the heart of town is a treasure trove of items and insights from the days of old. Many of the pieces are from the locals’ private collections. Entrance is free but donations are welcome. I found the museum worker friendly and accommodating. He actually walked me through and elaborated on each item one by one! The information was thorough and offered an inside look at life in the Mountain Province before and after Spanish contact. Fascinating! Coolest of all, I learned a bit about the fearsome headhunters that once roamed this region of the Philippines. Ganduyan Museum is so small that 45 minutes was more than enough time. A perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Reflections from the Philippine Cordilleras
As I sit here now writing to Sagada this love letter of sorts, the feelings come rushing back. I can hear the laughter of the local children, see their smiling faces in my mind. I reminisce on their laid-back lifestyle. The hustle and bustle of the big city is just a distant whisper that rides in softly on the cool mountain breeze, only to dissipate just as quickly as it came. Here lies a place that has retained some semblance of self, its true and traditional self. Even in the face of a fast-changing modern world, life in Sagada carries on. And if by chance your heart is open, it may just pick you up and carry you right along with it.
Have you ever had any close calls while traveling? Ever dodged death or avoided disaster? Share your stories in the comments below!
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