Friday, October 25, 2013

Destination: Sagada (Philippines)

Sagada's rice terraces
Our final place on our Filipino to-do list was Sagada. Nestled among some more magnificent mountains, it promised to offer some wonderful outdoor activities such as hiking and caving. We got all of this and more in what turned out to be my favorite day of the trip.

We began the day by catching a Jeepney from Bontoc, a nearby town, to Sagada. Munching on treats from the local Mister Donut, we set off on the hour-long ride. It took about half of the trip but Tom finally mustered up the courage to ride on the roof of the vehicle. The rest of us quickly followed suit, and we were treated to marvelous views of the valley. 

After dropping our bags off at a hotel (for rooms less than $8 a night!), we ambled over to the tourist office, where we had to register and enlist the help of a guide for our adventures that day. There were many possible ventures to undertake, from white-water rafting to strawberry picking. We picked two to do, and let's just say that we got WAY more than we bargained for.


Spelunking 

Many of the travel guides raved about the "cave connection" tour in Sagada, saying it was the one thing all travelers had to do. Alena and I did our due diligence, and it looked great: 2-3 hour tour of caves, with coffins and bats providing some additional scenery. Sounds great! Sumaging Cave, here we come.

Friendly notice at the entrance of the cave. As if I wanted to upset some ancient Filipino spirits.

Ha. Good one, Sagada tourism center. The cave diving was ridiculously challenging and dangerous. As in, "We definitely should have signed some sort of waiver" dangerous (these were my words immediately after emerging from the caves). But also ridiculously fun. The Samuging Cave was everything advertised and way more.

Our guides were full of motivating quotes. "This is not for sissys," the lead spelunker kindly informed us at the beginning. He also let me know that anyone carrying a few pounds might have issues during the dive. He wasn't lying, as many of the crevices we wiggled through were way narrower than you would expect the path to have. The first photo is a pretty solid representation of the overall difficulty of the cave dive - my mates are in various stages of either sliding down the rocks or clinging on to the sides. Beneath them is a 10m drop.


Brought to you by flash photography
It was actually pitch black. Three lanterns and a cloud of darkness
Happy and wet. And happy
 Perhaps the best quote was given after we traversed most of the challenges in the cave. "It is hell getting down, but the bottom is heaven," said one of the other guides. Alena also had some wise words - "Life only begins once you go outside of your comfort zone." With the precipitous drops, roaming bats, and deep waters of the cave, I was certainly getting some living done. 

Lunch took place at the Yoghurt House - fantastic stuff (more on this just below).


Hanging Coffins

Sagada hanging coffins
The cliffs of Sagada provided a stunning view of Echo Valley. On a few of the exposed faces, some strange burial practices become apparent.



These were the hanging coffins that draws many tourists to Sagada. Our guide indicated that this group of coffins began being raised towards the heavens in the 1940s...not exactly a "traditional" practice, but we weren't complaining. Other sites were said to have hanging coffins from 2,000 years ago. When men or women were approaching their last days, they would carve their own coffins, ensuring that their eternal rest would be up to their own personal standards.

Oh, and the chairs. What are those doing up there, one might ask? After the death, the deceased is placed in the chair for a short period so the rest of the community can come and pay their respects. Just a bit macabre.



Of course, we got drenched on our walk. Getting rained on while walking back from an attraction seemed to be a theme of the trip.

Yoghurt House

For dinner, we went back to the Yoghurt House, which deserves a special mention. Lunch was so good that we all returned, and ordered the same pan-fried beef entree. Excellent stuff. The place had a very cool vibe, with all wood interior and great views of the valley.





Let's just say that the yoghurt, or yogurt, or whatever one might call it, was delicious.

Anywho, here are some of my other favorite pictures:
Bontoc, an hour or so from Sagada
Might be my personal favorite. This was a small, unassuming side street in Sagada, but the juxtaposition of the colorful car and natural beauty was just perfect
Wonderful end to a wild day

Sagada marked our final destination of the trip. The next day consisted of two 7 hours bus trips with a stop in Baguio. Public transportation proved questionable again: instead of a bus greeting us at 5AM (as scheduled), a roaming herd of cows rolled through town. Luckily, the 7AM bus was on time. All of this travel was capped off with a 5:30AM flight from Manila.

What an incredible trip. The rare combination of stunning landscapes, challenging activities, and great travel mates ensured that this trip turned out incredibly. In my opinion, about one week would be sufficient to fully explore Luzon, the main island. We had to cut out Baguio and Manila due to the typhoon but were still incredibly satisfied with the sites we did get to visit.


Things still to do in the Philippines:

  • Beaches
  • Baguio City
  • Manila
  • Did I mention the beaches?


Travel tips

  • There are two ways to do short (3-5 days) trips like this - plan everything to the minute or just wing it. If it wasn't obvious, we were definitely winging it. Only armed with WikiTravel printouts of each of the cities we were visiting, we used the spontaneous approach to great effect. This was exciting but draining (definitely not recommended for families).
  • Getting around the Philippines was not fun, it was way bigger than we expected. When going to the southern islands, there are numerous regional flights that appear to be rather convenient. However, for our trip, we encountered a lot of issues, from absent buses to lumbering Jeepneys. It's tricky to book anything in advance as well.
  • Meeting other travelers is fantastic. Running into Eva and Jitka was completely unexpected; their presence made the trip a lot of fun.
  • The famed Filipino hospitality did not disappoint. From the airport to the various cities we visited, we encountered lots of people more than willing to point us in the right direction or recommend a particular dish to sample (although none of us were brave enough to sample the balut sold throughout Luzon).

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