I’ve come to the Philippines at the worst possible time: the height of the rainy season. Concerned that the weather would make outdoor adventures impossible, I had only booked two nights in Sagada, however despite the rain (and boy has it rained!) I’m a big fan. I ended up staying four days.
Sagada feels like one of those places people go to write books. The outrageously stunning mountain scenery that surrounds the small town peeks through the low lying cloud, and strange limestone formations pop out of the ground around every corner.
I’ve heard it can be very busy during the high season, so I’m quite glad that it’s quiet here. It’s meant that I have been near enough the only person at each of the places I’ve wanted to see.
On day one, after a night travelling by bus and the most breathtaking drive up through the mountains in the morning, I dragged my very tired self to the closest POI, the famous hanging coffins. A short walk through the town, a small guide fee (~£5), I was the only visitor there. I think this was perfect, as this place is quite haunting. Surrounded by greenery, the coffins can be viewed from a mere few meters away.
My guide explained the reasons behind this practice and how it had changed over time… The place was so quiet, I can see why people feel that it is very spiritual. On the way back through the forest she asked if I wanted to meet her uncle… ‘Sure?’ I said, rather confused by the question, considering we were the only two people in the forest. She took me off the path towards a small rock face, almost like a cave entrance. ‘In there.’ She gestured for me to go ahead. Inside, centimeters from my face, was a small coffin.
I had expected the hanging coffins to be an older tradition, however some of them were relatively recent. The last person to have been laid to rest this way was about 10 years ago. I hadn’t expected the experience to be quite as personal, with family members of those buried here taking tourists around. It’s quite beautiful really, almost a celebration of the people, rather than the sad, hidden rituals of the western world. Here, death really is a part of life.
The following morning I organised to go caving. With specific requests to make it a little challenging. So we hitchhiked down to the big tourist cave, Lumiang, with the plan to do a through trip to Sumaging cave to make it a bit more challenging.
The entrance to Lumiang was very cool. Huge! And again, another Sagadan burial site. En route into the system, I came face to face with death again, in the form of skulls which had apparently come from coffins which had fallen during an earthquake. Not necessarily what you want to hear when you are about to go underground for the next 4-6 hours!
I was quite surprised by how much climbing there was in Lumiang, considering it’s a fairly big attraction. There’s one particularly hairy bit, where you climb up through a waterfall, with a huge drop behind you and no safety rope (sorry mum), but it’s not as bad as it looks. We didn’t have any safety gear (yep, not even a helmet) but it was generally fairly easy all the way through. The cave connects to Sumaging, so you don’t have to retrace your steps to get out, you just pop out further down the road!
Personally, I’d say this was an easy trip, made slightly more interesting by the lack of shoes, helmets or ropes of any kind! But very beautiful and enjoyable- it had history, some climbs, some cool formations and some really impressively sized caverns/ entrances.
Outside of this, I made the most of the mountain environment by going on a run to a small lake and some short hikes to some waterfalls.
On my final morning the weather took a turn; I finally lucked out and got a clear morning to go and see the ‘sea of clouds’. This meant a short drive and about an hour walk to a peak. This spot was a little busy, with a few groups about, but the view was pretty spectacular.
I left Sagada feeling quite sad, but was quick to forget that because the views on the journey south were outstanding. I’ve never seen anything so impressive. The bus goes along these tiny mountain roads, right at the top! I thought this would last for an hour of the journey, but no. Hours and hours of extraordinary scenery. Terrifying roads that look like the bus is going to topple over the edge. Deep green valleys dotted with white flowers. It was absolutely one of the best journeys I have ever been on.
What to bring
- Some warm clothes! A hoodie and long pants of some kind will do
- A waterproof or umbrella if travelling from August to November
- Some trainers you are happy to get wet for caving
- I bought my camping gear, there are places to camp if you want to do it a bit cheaper, however consider the weather in this. I decided against camping in favour of enjoying the place more on this occasion due to the cold and the rain!
- Money! I didn’t see any ATMs in Sagada
- Accommodation: slightly more expensive than other places in Asia, but you can find places on average for around $7 a night
- Food: again slightly more expensive than other places, even compared to the rest of the Philippines, $3-4 for a meal and drink. I would say the best food I’ve had in the Philippines was in Sagada though!
- Guides: yes, you need guides for most things here. I did the hanging coffins for $6ish, but this would be cheaper with more people, I had to pay the full fee as I was literally the only person there. For caving I paid $10 for the day, through two different caves
- Transport: around Sagada itself I didn’t need a lot, I walked or hitch hiked to most places. From Manila to Sagada I paid $15 and from Sagada to my next stop, Baguio, I paid about $5