I wish I could describe the feeling… waking up in this sleepy little mountain town. But try as I may, the words get lost, somewhere in a memory still unformed. Traveling alone in the Philippines can be a bit scary at times. And other times it can be downright dangerous. But with a few precautions and a lot of patience, the Philippines will have your heart in no time.
Sagada is nestled within the rugged Cordillera Central mountain range in Mountain Province. With a population of just 12,000, it has a certain appeal that I can’t describe. Maybe it’s the small town charm. Or it could be the idyllic scenery. Something about it pulls you in. It holds you tight. And it never really lets you go.
I’m not altogether certain what it was that so captivated me. It was something unseen. Something below the surface of the physical senses sang out and appealed to something deep inside of me. The sky had never looked so blue. The mountains seemed bigger. More majestic. And so green. Greener than I’d ever seen before. All the while, the terraced valleys far below seemed to dance about as the long green grass swayed in the gentle breeze.
An Eventful Journey to the Mountain Province
Getting to Sagada was not such a breeze. It wasn’t a matter of getting lost. The directions were simple. An easy 6-hour bus ride from Manila to Baguio, followed by another 6-hour ride to Sagada. But as is so often the case with getting around the Philippines, things didn’t go as planned. I guess that would’ve been too boring. The bus pulled into Baguio at sundown. I headed straight to Mang Inasal (my favorite) and then went to sleep early. I made my way to the bus depot the following morning. We departed for Sagada that afternoon.
Lesson learned – always opt for an early departure. Because things can and do go wrong.
Mountain Roads and Heavy Rain
The rain started 2 hours into our journey. A torrential downpour. Heavy rain and mountain roads are not a good combination. And we nearly paid for it. I sat in the front row behind the driver. I saw it coming. The feeling was surreal as the scene unfolded. It was like a movie where everything plays out in slow motion. The driver never had a chance. A deafening BANG jolted the scene back into real-time. The impact of a head-on collision is something I’d never felt before. It was… intense. And loud. Violent. Sobering. The truck had skidded down the mountainside out of control, tossed into our path by a river of water.
And then everything was still. Quiet. As if nothing had happened. Just the sound of raindrops dancing on the top of the bus. Fortunately, our bus was quite a bit bigger than the truck. Aside from a few bruises, the passengers were perfectly fine. And by some miracle, the two men in the truck walked away without injury (I think). But the bus was rendered inoperable. So we waited for a replacement. And we waited. For 2 hours. As I said, things can and do go wrong.
We eventually made it to Sagada, albeit way behind schedule. At least the scenery along the way was nice. Wide valleys cut deep into the land as terraced hillsides climbed up the distant mountains. Photo opportunities were plentiful. The visual appeal also served as a distraction from the obvious danger of traversing these parts. Rain aside, let’s just say that the edge of the road was a little too close for comfort.
Discovering a Lovely Guesthouse in Sagada
I registered at the visitor and received a permit. I was told to carry it at all times. My permit was never checked, but paperwork means everything in the Philippines (a topic for another day). A short stroll through town led me to a small guest house on the outskirts – Hidden Hill Inn. I rarely endorse places, but this one is a true gem! It seemed like I was one of their first guests because some parts were still under construction (June 2014). The location was amazing and the family was delightful. The price was right at 300 pesos per night. I know there are cheaper options, but they really don’t compare. They even have hot water! You can read my full review on TripAdvisor. Scroll down to the oldest review, the very first one. That’s me! And no, I’m not affiliated with them in any way.
A Shattered Calm Atop Kiltepan View
After I settled in, 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.
My personal favorite was Kiltepan viewpoint. 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 lightning ripped through the sky. It felt like an out-of-body experience. There wasn’t much time to enjoy it. The lightning was getting closer. And fast! But those few precious moments, alone in the midst of the approaching storm, will forever be seared into my memory.
Head Hunters and Hanging Coffins
I headed back into town where I found the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. This Anglican establishment is over 100 years old. It’s known for its beautiful stained glass. Past the church, I made my way through the Anglican Cemetery. Before long, Echo Valley opened up beneath me. Its jagged rock formations cut through the foliage in every direction. Secured to the side of a cliff below, the famous hanging coffins of Sagada came into view. The Igorots, indigenous local people, are responsible for this unique practice of securing coffins in this manner. It’s found nowhere else in the Philippines. Some say the tradition is 2,000 years old, though the origins remain a mystery. It’s possible that contact with groups from southern China may have played a role. Hanging coffins in that region date back over 1,000 years. Nevertheless, the uncertainty only adds to the appeal.
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 private collections of the local people. Entrance is free and donations are welcomed. The museum worker was friendly and extremely knowledgeable. He walked me through every display 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. Coolest of all, I learned a bit about the fearsome headhunters that once roamed this region of the Philippines.
Reflections from the Philippine Cordilleras
As I sit here now, writing this love letter of sorts, the feelings come rushing back. I can hear the laughter of the local kids. Close my eyes, see their faces. The hustle and bustle of the big city is just a gentle whisper that rides in softly on the cool mountain breeze, only to vanish as quickly as it came. Sagada is a place that has retained some semblance of self, its true and traditional self. Even in the face of the modern world, life in Sagada carries on. And that’s something beautiful.
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