When my cousin, who was visiting from Canada, asked me to come with her to Sagada, I panicked. I haven’t had a real break in a long time, and I might’ve forgotten how to do vacations.
Thankfully, we got to drag other people who knew how to have fun to accompany us on the trip. So at 4:00 am on a Monday, we loaded up the car and made our way up north.
It came as a shock to me that my cousin hasn’t been to Baguio. I suddenly remember countless trips in which my parents would tour us around the city – to Saint Louis University where they studied, Burnham Park, Session Road, and Camp John Hay.
Sagada being our main destination, I didn’t have time to squeeze all these places in one go. That’s why we decided to just drop by La Trinidad, just outside of Baguio and into Benguet, where the famed Strawberry Farm is located. It’s on the way and it’s got the Good Shepherd goodies I wanted her to try.
The early morning breeze starts wafting in as we make our way to the muddy fields. Borrowing a box full of strawberries from a random guy, we took our photos, and then continued on our drive.
After 5 hours of driving from La Trinidad, we finally reached Sagada at around 3:30 pm.
All tourists are required to stop by the Tourist Office to pay the environment fee and book the tours. The reason why the latter is important would be revealed to us later when we were traversing dangerous tracks, but we thought it important to get help planning our itinerary and securing a tour guide before our Sagada stint officially starts.
And it’s here where we met our guide – kuya Madrid. It’s obvious we were trying to gauge each other’s friendliness because he wasn’t engaging with our banter. But it’s still early to write off being buddies with him during the trip!
Day 1: Sumaguing Cave/Short Course Caving
At 4:00 pm, we were told we still had time to do our first tour – the Short Course Caving. This includes passing by the Dokiw Hanging Coffins, the Lumiang Burial Cave entrance, the Kapay-aw Rice Terrace, and ending it with a Sumaguing Cave spelunking.
Kuya Madrid was waiting for us at the mouth of the Sumaguing Cave, firing up the lamp that will be our only source of light as we make our way down the cave.
You know when you think you’re generally healthy until you do something that proves the contrary? Well, let’s just say all of us decided we needed to get back to the gym as soon as we’re in Manila. We were (mostly me) singing Disney songs to cover up desperate attempts at breathing – and I guess this was when kuya Madrid finally warmed up to us and decided he liked us.
The trek lasted for a little over 2 hours, with stops in between as we took our obligatory “We’re Still Alive, Mum!” group pictures. But also because we were listening to kuya Madrid lecture about the rock formations surrounding us that were formed over millions of years ago and pointed out chambers where one can reach the many caves that are connected to the Sumaguing.
Day 1 ended with a hot cup of choco and the best sweet potato fries we’ve ever tasted at Yoghurt House.
Day 2: Marlboro Hills – Blue Soil Traverse Track
Sagada Cave Pension House was still in the early hours of the morning. We were the only occupied cottage at the time, and so the only one making noise at 2:30 am – not even the dog was disturbed.
The plan was to meet kuya Madrid at a parking lot in town by 4:00 am where we’re supposed to leave our car during our tour. Because of the park and walk rule in Sagada, kuya Earl was assigned to drive us to our destinations.
First in our Day 2 itinerary was a hike up to Kamanbaneng Peak of the Sagada Marlboro Country, where one will be treated to 360-views of Sagada, Bontoc, and Sabangan. As soon as we reached the starting point, we immediately made a beeline for the stalls selling hot coffee and soup. Looking around we realised that the other tourists looked just like us – crusty eyed and in need of something hot in their tummies to prep for the hike.
However, the morning twilight and the tendrils of fog just made the climb more soothing than tiring.
We spent about 3 hours just going around the mountain, taking pictures at cliff sides and walking in the midst of sharp rocks. The view, though, is one for the books.
After a pitstop right by the mountain of Blue Soil, we agreed to have lunch with kuya Madrid at Bana’s Coffee where we had a coffee-based Pork Adobo and an excellent cup of Civet coffee.
Kuya Madrid has a funny way of measuring distances, but I guess everyone in the province does. He told us that it will only take around 15 minutes to walk from the Church of St. Mary the Virgin to the Echo Valley Hanging Coffins. But really, it was 30 minutes of walking under the sweltering heat of the sun.
When we arrived though, looming above us was a mountainside covered in coffins. According to kuya Madrid, this manner of being wrapped and buried at the mountainside is still being practiced, with the latest being hung in 2010. Just like the Lumiang Burial Cave, there used to be a time when tourists can approach the coffins – but rude visitors started opening and destroying them, so they had to put railings.
From the Echo Valley Hanging Coffins, we trekked a very rocky terrain going through the Underground River, and then ending up at Bokong Falls. A word to the wise: it’s best to make sure you’re wearing non-slip, hard grip sandals because you’ll be walking a mix of slippery limestones and muddy soil.
After we’ve had our fill, we decided to go back to the cottage to wash the day’s efforts before we head over to our last stop.
Nabas-Ang Ridge Sunset
Spending the whole day hiking, walking, and doing all manner of cardio, it was a relief to know that the Nabas-Ang is a cliffside bar offering an uninterrupted view of the sunset. I immediately ordered Etag pizza for us, a meat delicacy in Sagada, and filled our cups with hot Milo.
Just a bit disappointed since the clouds decided to join the party and obscure our view of the setting sun. But all in all, it was the perfect end to Day 2.
Day 3 was supposed to be spent at the Bomod-Ok Falls, called the Big Falls, with cascading waters that form a 200-foot column of cold water. However, kuya Madrid and kuya Earl told us that the valley was closed to visitors because of a harvesting ritual.
It also meant that we had to say goodbye to our guide earlier than we intended. Kuya Madrid made sure we were safe while we were traversing dangerous tracks around Sagada. And we obviously had a wonderful time sharing jokes with him over bonfire with Etag and Gin to keep our bellies full and warm.
And so with one last high-five, we went on our merry way to Banaue Rice Terraces – another 5-hour drive from Sagada via Bontoc.
The rice terraces were fields that have existed for 2,000 years. Created by the Ifugao by sculpting over the contours of the mountain, this sacred tradition has been passed down to many generations, that until now much of the practice has endured in the Mountain Province.
Such a beautiful cultural landscape, and yet we ashamedly marred the experience by excitedly asking the locals where Thanos lives (the house with the green roof which can be seen at Hiwang Native House Viewdeck).
At around 1:00 pm, we thought it best to start driving home to Manila.
It was more or less a 10-hour drive. While our lungs did yearn for fresher air, we did miss the predictability of city living.
My only realization as I started unpacking that night – I should really go on more trips.