Friday, April 4, 2014

North Luzon Diaries: Sagada, Mountain Province

What I've written down here is a comprehensive account of my experience in Sagada.
I did my best to describe this fascinating place with justice. And I hope I did. Enjoy reading! 

Three phrases to characterize this place: good weather, delicious food, and extremely nice people and community.

This small mountain town makes you feel that you actually belong here. Everyone knew everyone, and strangers are no exception to their kindness. The have narrow roads but people give way to each other. They have unique gestures and respectable road ethics. The restaurants, guest houses, and stores are almost clustered in one area. You walk one block and you reach the market, you walk another block you can find the barangay hall. Everything you might possibly need has its own place setup in this small town. The courts are almost empty (and that's probably good), the hospitals and schools are structured old-fashionably. At the middle, of course, there was the Church. At the plaza, little children in their cold clothes and beanies, are doing artworks and drawing during weekends. It was hard to imagine such a harmonious community existed, especially when you came from a city with a knack for chaos.

The locals of Sagada are very down-to-earth people. They protect and preserve their culture, discouraging unnecessary developments that will eventually destroy their ancestral lands. The people are very warm as if everyone wants to invite you in their homes for a cup of tea. You will come across backpackers walking on the streets, artists dining at a table next to yours and foreigners playing with local children. Everyone seemed to be taking refuge in the sanctuary of this town. It was not hard to fall in love with this place.

There's just too much positive yet peaceful energy. I don't know if it's the cold temperature, the dust-free air, the luscious and tall pine trees that surrounded the place, or because of the way the town has crafted itself, culturally and spiritually.

They have this natural glowing sun skin and blushed cheeks which I can't really explain. 
...really beautiful and courteous children.

During this trip, I decided to do away with walking and independently asking for directions and places to go to, which is the usual thing. There are many interesting places in Sagada, a tour by a local from there was a right decision. We were lucky to find Mr. Marlon Tauli of Sagada Adventures because he is one of the most humble and accommodating people I've come across with in my travels, apart from the fact his van was so spacious, had a sunroof, and we had it exclusively for three days - all for a good price. He had to drive from Sagada for a good three hours to pick us up in Baguio, and drive another three to take us to the mountains of Sagada. He checked us in his own guest house, a business he inherited from his father (I think George is his father's name, hence the signage). Incidentally, Kuya Marlon took up law for about a year too, but he decided that running the family business was something more fun to do. I couldn't agree more.

This is the cutest guesthouse I've ever seen. The rooms are labeled by colors and when you go inside, the sheets, pillows and curtains match too! Obviously, this room is the Yellow Room. Aircon does not serve any purpose in Sagada. It's already freezing cold up there. I also noticed that people sleep really early. At about nine, the lights are already out. After midnight, you wouldn't see a shadow on the streets.


We drove by the Philippine's highest point of elevation called Pali. For starters, it's a good way to start looking at the province from an above distance. One of the most unforgettable experiences I had here is that insane six-hour spelunking at Lumiang and Sumaguing Cave. It was more fun because we were together with some foreigners from Europe. It could've been only three hours but we went through a cave connection, so that's another three grueling hours. It was terribly dark and we only had one lamp and the water was refreshingly freezing. The climbs were daunting and scary, we could fall and die down there. I didn't know I could actually fit in those tiny spaces between rock formations. I haven't seen that many bats hanging in my entire life. I have done caving before but this one is to die for. 

When spelunking, it's better go on slippers or sandals, trust me, you need to go barefoot most of the time. Wear shorts, do yourself a favor do not wear pants when spelunking. I won't suggest bringing a huge bag or a big bottle of water. There are too many vertical challenges inside and narrow passages, your body can even hardly fit. Don't worry about the water, you won't go thirsty down there because it's really freezing. You will definitely get wet. There are times when you have to swim to get to the other side. I was warned so I wore a bikini inside my clothes. It was a definitely a challenging item on the bucket list.


Kuya Marlon said, "If you go to Sagada, you will have to do a little trekking or at least some form of walking." After all, this is a mountain. And so we did. We combed through the mountain sides of Ankileng to reach this exquisite waterfalls. It's quite a mouthful of walking already considering that we just went caving without any stretch the previous day. My legs were like jello, but hell it wouldn't kill walking for another day right? During my travels, I really have no expectation of what's going to happen or whatever difficulty I would face to reach the destination. But one thing's for sure-the destination is always worth the journey. And from my experience, a trek to a waterfalls is always a sunshine after the rain.

His shirt says, "Igorot Ako". I have high respect for how the people here take pride of their ethnicity.

This smaller falls (forgot the name) is more accessible to tourists and locals. I was told that during  weekends, they take their children here for a picnic and swimming. What else can be more exciting than jumping on a waterfalls on Sundays?

In my opinion, this town is close to being mysterious. Even the way they walk together seems so peaceful to me. Sometimes it's strange. The tranquility of the place and composure of the folks here are so baffling.

Most of the town people here are Anglicans. I asked about the difference between Anglicans and Catholics. They said they have female priests and their priests can marry. Beyond the church area  surrounded by tall pine trees are open fields where children play baseball. Little kids walk in groups to wherever with their dogs or baseball bats.

A little hike beyond the church would lead you to their cemetery located on top of a hill. I always find cemeteries strangely attractive, Sagada currently tops my list. You will see in the photos that they use the traditional tombstones, and they carve the names (families) themselves. They said that sometimes a carved surname would be enough. I also asked them why they would put a pile of wood at the side of the tombs. They said it's tradition. Before candles ever reached the town, the locals used wood and burn them to commemorate the dead. Until now, they practice this.

We (again) trekked our way through the Echo Valley down to the sight of the infamous Hanging Coffins. Try shouting and you'll know why it's called the Echo Valley. In Sagada, they have a rather interesting way of burying their dead. According to tradition, there are two ways to bury their deceased before. One through burial caves and the other, through hanging them at the sides of mountain cliffs.

Burial caves can be found at Lumiang Cave. You'll notice that the coffins are usually short, that's because the dead are put in a fetal position like a child in the mother's womb. They said that they used the mouths of the caves to bury the dead so that they can easily see the light and guide them to heavens.

With the hanging coffins, they believe that the dead will be closer to heaven if they hang them. According to our guide, not everyone can be buried here. There are actually standards. Usually, those people with some social or political standing are qualified. For instance, tribe leaders or one who has contributed significantly to the society. The person also has to die naturally such as old age, and not by any other cause like accident, murder, disease and other like causes. They also have certain rituals. The deceased's body is wrapped into a cloth like a mummy and carried across the valley by passing the body one person to another. Only men can participate in the ritual. Sometimes, they use chairs to sit the deceased during wake (now that's creepy). Honestly, I cannot fathom how could they have done all these rituals, from putting it in a sitting position during the wake to transferring the body by carrying it through that steep forest down the hill just to hang it there. If they use chairs, they hang it together with the coffins. Culture and customs are rather fascinating.

Sorry for the blurred photo.


Unfortunately, the sun did not show itself rise during this morning. Together with an adorable Korean couple and a foreign photographer, we waited for at least an hour from five in the morning until the sun decided not to show us its glory. The view was better at the edge of the cliff. Life is always more beautiful at the edge.

We had oranges for breakfast. We saw quite a handful of different kinds of oranges. The orange picker (who was only sixteen years old) also wore an orange shirt. So my stupid question went, "Are you wearing orange because this is an orange farm?" He had no reaction. In Sagada, they grow a lot of oranges like Baguio grows hectares of strawberries. In this farm, you're given an hour to pick any kind of orange that you want. Either you spend the whole time eating or you can pick and hoard to bring them to Manila or both. I had the orange boy pick for us because I know nothing about orange, really. The price is really really cheap compared down the city.

ooh I'm excited to talk about this!

Sagada is a haven for delicious and healthy food! Even at George Guesthouse, their meals are cooked and served nicely. Their famous restaurants known to tourists include the Yogurt House, Lemon Pie House and the new rising star in town, the Sagada Brew. You have to try that carbonara with smoked ham (3rd photo) of Yogurt house. It is the best carbonara I've tasted to date in the country and I'm not kidding. They told me that what makes it delicious is their native milk and ham that are only made locally in Sagada.  I would definitely come back for this. Unlike those we buy from stores, the yogurt here is not artificial and it's really sour but nonetheless tasty!

What I noticed about their restaurants is that they serve brown rice and they really have big servings. It was worth the try. In Sagada Lemon Pie House, I ordered a chicken meal, and I was pretty shocked because they served me two pieces of big and tasty chicken. That was automatic. Furniture, counters and tables are all made of wood carved elegantly. They also have this very cozy vibe and ambiance. It adds to the serenity of your whole experience. When we got to this one restaurant one night, backpackers are convening while seated on the floor because the tables are low you have to seat with your knees propped in. It was a friendly and inviting atmosphere. People were always smiling.

Sagada Brew was only on soft opening when we first got there. We got the chance to talk to the people who managed the place. Their story rather amazed me. We met two young people, one went to the same university as mine, said that their parents owned bakeshop in Quezon City. They decided to put up their own cafe and restaurant here. I asked them, "Why of all places, here in Sagada where it's miles away from home?" They told me that this place is worth the risk, after all in the metro it's all congested and you can see a coffee shop nearly in every block. "It's peaceful here." Again, I couldn't agree more. People come down in Sagada to experience this kind of tranquility and the place just offered the right vibe for mental calmness.

The best white-sauce pasta I've ever tasted in the country.

Lemon Pie House

Sagada Brew

Orange Farm Restaurant

Whenever I begin thinking of my experience in Sagada, I can't help thinking of that time that I will be able to go back there. Going to Sagada is akin to a spiritual trip, leaving all your angst in the city to contemplate and sort out things in your life from a literally distant perspective. It helps to get through.

One of the reasons why I like to go out there everywhere is because I'm scared- I'm afraid that pressure will devour me up entirely until I lose all my reasonable perspective and optimism in this constant chaos called my life. I'm always scared to lose myself in the puddle of my failures and disappointments, that point when you couldn't see the value of the things you do because you're too exhausted and nothing really makes sense anymore. We all need to shake it up once in a while and find our balance. Traveling makes you happy. You feel like you're a newborn and you know nothing about anything or anyone. You can be your perfectly imperfect self. You can get lost, meet people, eat food unheard of, walk, swim, jump out in an open sea, ask a lot of questions and hear answers you have never heard before. It will all make sense. Then slowly, you will see that your own life will make sense. I'm not sure how it happens, but it will. This is how travel helps me. 

Thank you Sagada for this wonderful experience. Until we meet again.

Our forever thanks to Mr. Marlon Tauli of Sagada Adventures/George Guesthouse, his guides Sherwin Tauli and Stallone for being so patient and accommodating. For those interested in taking the same awesome adventure that we had, you may contact him at 09183522579. He is really really nice.

Warm regards also to RJ Claravall and Mikay (who is really a great baker), owners of Sagada Brew for letting us in nicely and sharing your Sagada story with us. When we went there, they were only on soft second day opening, now they already ranked 2nd in the top restaurants in Sagada. Way to go! They taught us to follow our dreams no matter what. Check out their reviews at Trip Advisor.

xoxo, Gixx