“One wrong step and I’m dead.” I laugh nervously as I fumble for a foothold on the wet flowstone ramp before clambering over the slippery, mud-covered boulders. A dark passage descends steeply before us, its earthy odor wafting through the cold air.
Our teenage guide “Bad Boy” raises his Petromax lantern, breaking the darkness inside the massive chambers of Sumaguing Cave, whose walls are flanked by stunning rock formations. “Whose birthday is it today? Because we have a birthday cake over there.” Bad Boy rhetorically asks, pointing at the formation that resembles a giant round cake. He leads us further down the cave. The steepness increases, making the descent more challenging. Below, the cave rooms are more astounding than the last one. Our eyes feast on the towering flowstone arches, which I’m sure took millions of years to form, and curtain and animal-like rock formations.
“Ang ganda! This is worth straining every nerve of my body for.” I tell “Good Boy”, the other guide, who gladly volunteers to take our photographs with these jaw-dropping backdrops. And before I could even catch my breath, I am hypnotically drawn towards the pool of bone-chilling and crystal clear water at the bottom of the cave. “Your Sagada experience is nothing without exploring this cave,” says Good Boy. I couldn’t agree more.
Sagada, a small town in the Mountain Province in Northern Luzon, has been known as a mecca for nature lovers and culture enthusiasts. Travelers go to Sagada for the unique caving experience, the beautiful mountains and to witness the well-preserved traditional practices of the natives, the Kankanaeys. Getting there may take up to 14 hours of nauseating van ride from Manila, but any stress caused by this is guaranteed to dissipate into the cool fresh air once you pass by the breathtaking cliffs overlooking the pine sceneries and the age-old rice terraces.
Sure, there could be hundreds of things to do in a place as naturally blessed as Sagada, but for the time-constrained, here are six you dare not miss.
1.) Drop by the Banaue Rice Terraces Viewpoint
Travelers who take the Banaue route to Sagada can marvel at this 2000-year old National Cultural Treasure from the roadside. Carved into the Ifugao mountains by the ancestors of the indigenous people largely by hand, these mud-walled terraces are said to be the highest (5,000 feet above sea level), best built and most expansive in the world, covering an area of 10,360 square kilometers of mountainside.
Natives to this day still practice traditional farming; laboriously planting rice and high value vegetables on the terraces while observing ancient rituals from rice cultivation to rice harvest.
2.) See the Unique Hanging Coffins
An exhausting trek through Echo Valley rewards me with a close-up view of the hanging coffins. Suspending the caskets of the deceased on the cliffside may be unthinkable for most of us but for the natives or the Kankanaeys, it means putting their loved ones closer to heaven.The Kankanaeys have a deep reverence for the dead, who they believe have a continued existence and have the power to influence the fate of the living. This ancient practice also prevents their deceased from being eaten by animals and decomposing quickly.
The funerary custom is claimed to be over 2,000 years old and is still being observed by a few today. According to studies, there is a possibility that this originated in Southern China, where the Bo and Guyue tribes bury their dead on the cliffside as well. The tradition says that only a person who dies of old age can be buried in the hanging coffins, otherwise it is considered bad luck. Some elders even take the initiative of making their own coffins.
The Kankanaeys have many interesting rituals prior to the burial of their deceased. Among them are the animal sacrifices and the analysis and interpretation of the bile sac, various chants and prayers, and the tying of the corpse to a wooden chair (sangabil) during the mourning period. Before placing the deceased in the coffin during the day of the burial, it is removed from the sangabil, wrapped in a blanket and positioned like a fetus because they believe that a person should exit the world the same way he/she was born. Doing this would bring complete peace to the dead’s soul. The body is then secured with rattan leaves and carried to the burial site in a procession, where mourners would silently attempt to touch it due to the belief that a smear of deeng orthe juice from the rotting body would bring good fortune.
3.) Trek through the Fedelisan Village Rice Terraces to see the Bomod-ok Falls
To see Bomod-ok Falls (or the Big Falls), which is located north of the Sagada town center, one must trek the three-kilometer well-paved path through the Fedelisan Village Rice Terraces.
The Fedelisan Village, according to Ate Belen, our guide, is the oldest village in Sagada. Houses of tin and galvanized iron sheets glint silver under the sun as we walk along the sleepy community. “Are there any traditional houses left?” I ask after noticing the endless rows of shiny structures. She points to one small house next to a guava tree. Its dilapidated thatched roof barely shelters the sturdy-looking pinewood walls. “Most people use corrugated sheets nowadays, they’re cheaper and easier to transport to the mountains,” says Ate Belen.
Down further, we pass by the community center or the dap-ayan, where agricultural rites and celebrations usually take place to honor their ancestors. These rituals are done before rice planting (ubaya), before the harvest (wange) and after the harvest as thanksgiving (kesep).
The stunning view of the Fedelisan Rice Terraces renders me oblivious of the afternoon heat. “This falls better be worth it.” Catching her breath, a lady tourist behind me grumbles. After an hour of walking, I finally get an unobstructed view of the majestic Bomod-ok Falls, a 200-meter stream of clear and ice-cold water rushing down to a rocky pool. Is it worth the knee-wobbling trek? Oh yes! I close my eyes to enjoy its cool refreshing spray. Besides being a major tourist attraction in Sagada, this waterfall is also an important water source for the household and agriculture.
4.) Explore the Caves of Lumiang and Sumaguing
A visit to Sagada is incomplete without exploring its magnificent caves, especially Lumiang and Sumaguing.
The Lumiang Cave speaks volumes of the Kankanaeys’ rich culture and traditions. Within the dark corners of its mouth lay stacks of age-old coffins, which are made of hollowed out logs from a tree trunk. “Some of those still have the remains of the oldest Igorot ancestors,” says Good Boy, our guide. He adds that the deceased were placed in a fetal position to fit the coffins, which are noticeably smaller than an average grown-up man.
Some coffins are suspended in the higher corners of the cave walls. According to ancient tradition, this signifies how important and valued the deceased is.
Sumaguing Cave (or the Big Cave) is the most popular among the caves because of its massive chambers. Exploring its deep dark recesses may take up to three hours of clambering over slippery boulders but the stunning and unusual rock formations inside are not to be missed.
5.) Sample Their Delicacies
Sagada’s growing tourism industry has prompted locals to open many interesting restaurants that allow travelers a glimpse of their everyday life and culture.
The Pinikpikan Haus, located on South Road, serves a specialty dish in the Cordillera Region called the Chicken Pinikpikan. The name comes from the word pikpik, which means light beating. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary chicken tinola. The difference is on the distinct savory and smoky flavors of the meat, which are achieved through its unusual preparation. The live chicken is beaten with a wooden stick. This bruises the chicken’s flesh, bringing blood to its surface, which makes it more flavorful. Afterwards, the feathers are slowly singed in fire, hence the smoky taste.
For the ancient Cordilleran, the dish is only served during special occasions, usually after a ritual. A chicken is slaughtered to appease the ancestors’ spirits, who are believed to have influence over the living, and the squawking of the chicken is meant to call their attention. After the chicken is cleaned up, the bile and liver are taken out for the tribal priests to interpret. A visible bile means good omen. If the liver conceals the bile, the whole ritual is repeated until they get a visible one. This practice is an integral part of their decision-making.
Another delicacy that should not be missed is the famous Lemon Pie at the Sagada Lemon Pie House, located in Atey, Dao-Angan. The sweet, sour and creamy flavors of the filling share the same crust harmoniously that I find myself finishing three more slices.
6.) Buy Souvenirs at the Sagada Pottery House and Sagada Weaving and Souvenir Shop
The best way to support the tourism industry of the places we visit is to patronize what the locals offer- buy their food and produce, get their tour packages, stay at their hotels and buy their souvenirs.
The Sagada Weaving, located in Nangonogan Poblacion, has been producing traditional, high quality and manually woven products such as bags, slippers, hats and other souvenir items since 1968. Weaving is an important part of the Kankanaeys’ rich culture. During death rites for example, the deceased’s hand-woven attire and blanket determine his social class. Also, the deceased’s clothes should be similar to his ancestors for him to be identified in the spirit world.
Pottery also has an important role in Sagada’s culture. The natives use earthen jars and utensils during their rituals; hence they are considered sacred and valuable. These jars are used to keep the tapuey or the rice wine and before one opens a jar, there should be a accompanying whispered ritual. The Sagada Pottery House is where you can find these traditional clayware and buy them as souvenirs. Two Sagadan ceramic artists, Tessie Baldo and Siegrid Bangyay, currently manage the place.
How To Get There:
1.) There are no direct buses to Sagada. You can either take the Manila-Baguio-Sagada route or the Manila-Banaue-Sagada route. Travel time is the same-12 up to 14 hours. I suggest you take the Banaue route so you’d see the world-famous rice terraces.
2.) Take an Ohiyami Bus bound for Banaue. Their terminal is located in Lacson Avenue, cor, Fajardo Street, Sampaloc, Manila. Their schedules are: 9pm and 10pm Manila-Banaue and 6:45pm and 7:00pm Banaue-Manila. Travel time is approx. 9 hours and fare is a Php 400++. Call Ohiyami Bus to reserve, their numbers are 09276493055/ 02 516-0501.
3.) From Banaue, take a jeepney to Sagada. Travel time is around 3 hours and fare is Php 250.
4.) For a hassle free trip to Sagada, get a tour package from TRAVELVENTOURS. You may reach them at 09159576550. Their packages include the van fare, hotel, tours, environmental and entrance fees.
Travelventours Tour Package Php 4,000 (it would have been cheaper if I didn’t go alone :))
Food Php 2000
Pasalubong Php 500
Total Php 6500