Coffins and Caves in Sagada

After Banaue and Batad we decided to take a two day trip to Sagada, another small mountain town. Since staying at Randy’s seems to also include the services of his personal trike driver Peter and everyone else in their little network, we somehow managed to get a basically private van (there was only one other passenger) to take us straight to Sagada for 200P each, the same price as taking a public jeepney from Banaue to Bontoc and then another one from Bontoc to Sagada, which is the suggested route. Banaue and Sagada are actually less than 30km apart in a straight line, but it takes about 2 hours to drive from one to the other because you have to wind up and down and around all the mountains. The scenery along the way is gorgeous and cute though, as you pass by many other small towns and rice terraces.

Sagada from above.
Sagada from above.
Sagada is all about nature, and going to bed early.
Sagada is all about nature, and going to bed early.

Upon arrival in Sagada we checked into Isabelo’s Inn, which is conveniently right in the centre of town and across the street from the all important Tourist Information Centre. It’s important because when visiting Sagada you are required to register and pay at 35P environmental fee; they actually check your registration receipt at all the different attractions before you can enter. Many of the major sights also require a guide, which you can get at any (reasonable) time from the Tourist Information Centre (they are literally all just sitting outside waiting for tourists to show up and request their services). We decided to take it easy our first day since we were both a little sore from all the rice terrace hiking in the preceding days, so after registering and grabbing a bite to eat we got a guide to take us to the hanging coffins in Echo Valley, the closest attraction. I’m not sure you actually need a guide for this as it’s only a 20 minute easy hike from town, but it was nice to have someone along to actually tell us about the coffins. The coffins are a tradition that is rapidly dying out, and today only the Igorot elders are hoisted up in coffins hanging from the limestone cliffs outside town. It’s done to protect the body from floods and wildlife, as well as to allow easier passage to heaven. The townspeople are Pentecostal, with a smattering of the old beliefs mixed in. You can see that some of the coffins are quite small; apparently they are often enclosed in the fetal position – kind of like a cyclical rebirth thing.

The hanging coffins of Sagada.
The hanging coffins of Sagada.

After checking out the coffins we meandered around town for a bit. Sagada is basically one big hillside, consisting of 2 roads coming downhill and merging into one major road in a kind of “Y” shape. It’s apparently known as a bit of a foodie town, with lots of cute places to eat. It also reminded me (being from Canada) a bit of Banff or Jasper, in that it’s where locals go to get out of the city and do outdoorsy adventure-type activities. It’s much cooler in the mountains than in Manila (and by that I mean in the mid-20’s instead of the mid-30’s), which Chris greatly enjoyed. We had dinner at a cute place called The Log Cabin, then passed out early since we had a big day planned for tomorrow.

Taking a stroll through town.
Taking a stroll through town.

Of all the adventure activities they have in Sagada, spelunking seems to be the biggest one, so we decided to go all out and do their “cave connection” route. After an amazingly large breakfast of toast/eggs/bacon (Chris) and rice/eggs/sausage (Me) that was included with out stay at Isabelo’s, we picked up a guide from the info centre for 800P. It was 800P well spent, because we would have definitely died without him (which I suppose is why they don’t let you go in the caves without a guide, Chris thinks we almost died despite our guide). We started off with an half hour walk down to Lumiang Burial Cave, our starting point. Our guide was pretty tiny and Chris got a bit worried about fiting through some of the smaller crevices (having already hilariously been told at the inn that he could use the extra bathroom in the hall because he was “big” and may not fit into the one in our room hahaha), but was assured that he would make it. We started off at Lumiang Burial Cave, which is pretty spooky since in addition to being a huge dark hole into the abyss, also has a whole bunch of coffins piled around the entrance, with more on the inside that fell over during the last earthquake and spilled bones around the path.

Coffins at Lumiang Burial Cave.
Coffins at Lumiang Burial Cave.

I was pretty nervous about the whole thing, but felt better when our guide lit his super bright kerosene lamp. He was some kind of climbing genius and able to clamber up and down while holding up the lamp in one hand the whole time. He was also wearing what I can only assume were magic flip flops, since I was slipping all over the place in my hiking sandals while he seemed perfectly balanced. Chris and I had also brought our own headlamps, which were quite handy since the lamp can only go so far in pitch blackness.

Ready to go!
Ready to go!
Spelunking!
Spelunking!

The scramble down to the bottom of the cave was quite intense, with lots of tight spaces to squeeze through and quite a few sheer drops where I’m fairly sure you could fall to your death if you slip (based on my Googling, there has been at least one hospitalization and three deaths in the cave, although all the deaths were the result of flash floods caused by major storms). Some of the areas are pretty polished from many trips, but thankfully our guide pointed out exactly where to place our hands and feet during the tricky parts. We were pretty relieved when we got to the bottom, where all the crazy rock formations are. The locals have named the rock formations after things they resemble, such as Frog, Hiding Turtle, Chocolate Cake, and Pregnant Woman (which is basically a vagina). There are also several sections where you can/have to wade though super clear but super cold water (although it didn’t really feel that cold since we were pretty hot from the exertion of making it to this point), which our guide referred to as “underground swimming pools”. Some of the caverns were also full of bats, which were neat although a bit freaky (I have a bats in my hair phobia) and also dangerous areas to stare upwards too long in.

The water is COLD.
The water is COLD.
Crazy looking rocks at the bottom of the cave.
Crazy looking rocks at the bottom of the cave.

Getting back out of the cave involved some rappelling, where I admit I used the guide as a human ladder because I’m weak haha. Regardless, we were feeling pretty pumped and proud of ourselves by the time we say the daylight from the Sumaguing Cave entrance, even though we still had a 40 minute uphill walk back to town. You can actually hire transport to and from the cave as well, but honestly, if you can’t make the walk to the cave, you shouldn’t be going into it. All in all it took us a little over 3 hours, which I think it pretty quick (although we were a small group and brought headlamps, which probably speeds things up). It wasn’t even noon and we were too tired to do much else that day, so we decided to spend the afternoon watching Chris’s GoPro footage from the cave and eating lemon pie at the The Sagada Lemon Pie House, where amazingly you can get 2 slices of pie and 2 sodas for the equivalent of less than $3 CAD. We also checked out Sagada Weaving, where we bought ourselves some cute locally woven bags so we could fit in with all the school kids here/look like stereotypical hipster backpackers. We finished the day with an early dinner at the Yogurt House, somewhat of a Sagada landmark with delicious food.

This is what 90P (< $3 CAD) gets you at the Sagada Lemon Pie House.
This is what 90P (< $3 CAD) gets you at the Sagada Lemon Pie House.

We basically spent the next two days getting to Bohol, so they weren’t very interesting, but if you’re ever in the area, here are some tips:

– Getting out of Sagada proved to be a bit tricky in low season since there is not an abundance of travellers. After Randy emailed to warn us that a couple of other backpackers had been forced to pay 4000P for a private van after their “promised” ride from Sagada to Banaue didn’t show, we decided to take the public jeepney route back to Banaue. Getting to Bontoc was easy enough because jeepneys go every hour, but getting from Bontoc to Banaue proved to be a bit trying since there are tons of vans offering to take you, but none of then will leave until they get at least 8 passengers (unless you want to pay the difference, which, no thanks). We ended up waiting 3 hours before enough other travellers showed up that we could get back to Banaue for 150P. Once there, we just hung out until our uneventful overnight bus back to Manila.

– From the bus we went straight to the airport to fly to Manila. We were super early, which turned out to be a good thing because the Ninoy Aquino is one of the least efficient airports ever I think. We were flying Cebu Pacific so we got dropped off at Terminal 3, which it appears SOME Cebu Pacific flights leave from, but not ALL Cebu Pacific flights. So we had to switch terminals, annoying because none of the four terminals is actually connected and the only way to get from one to another is to find the airline-specific shuttle, which only comes once every 30-40 minutes. We got to Terminal 4 only to find that they only check in a few flights at a time, so more waiting with our bags. Suffice to say, Chris was pretty sweaty once we got to the boarding gate haha.

One thought on “Coffins and Caves in Sagada

  1. Your Blog site is great! I’m loving the pictures and comments. Take care and travel safe. Love till next time. Grandma and Grandpa xoxo

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