Long before “That Thing Called Tadhana”, Sagada was a favorite place of off-beat travelers. It was a preferred destination where one can enjoy the serene and laidback atmosphere ideal for those who are “soul searching”. The cool mountain weather, the laidback community vibe, the colorful culture, and the great natural attractions was enough to re-charge or refresh one’s tired soul. It is a place where you get reconnected with yourself.
Sagada in Mountain Province is a community nestled in a valley in the Cordillera mountains. Local stories claim that it was a village established by Biag from Abra who went back to the settle in mountains after his refusal to be baptized in the Christian faith. Its location, difficult travel, and local stories about headhunters (in its true sense) discouraged the Spaniards from exploring their territory. In fact, it was only in 1882 that Spanish conquistadors were able to establish its presence in Sagada. It was the Americans who was able to take a strong foothold in the community.
Sagada is a place where nature’s beauty, the Cordillera culture, and meekness of its locals perfectly blend together. It is a place where guests are not treated as guests but as locals. You live and breath with them, immersing in their daily way of life. Allow me to be your virtual guide as we walk through Sagada’s treasure trove of history, culture, and natural beauty.
Church of Saint Mary the Virgin
Sagada is the only Philippine town that is pre-dominantly Anglican because of the strong American missionary influence under Rev. John Staunton. It is not surprising that at the heart of town is its iconic landmark - the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin.
The stone church, built in 1904, serves as the heart of the Episcopal faith in Sagada. Its massive structure stands out with its simple facade, higlighted by its round window panes, is not the usual design of the old churches that you find in the country. Its design is reflective of its American influence.
The interior of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin evokes a unique homey and rustic ambiance. It was designed to be simple with its altar, highlighted by an image of the Risen Christ, as its main focus. The overall design of the church give its guest a sense of leace and serenity.
Sagada Town Cemetery
As you continue exploring the town, you will come across a small cemetery by the hill within the Mission Compound. The hill, with its tombstones jutting out from the soil, may give some the creeps but the scene itself is a picture of beauty and serenity.
Locals share that the town cemetery comes to life during the celebration of All Saints' Day when the living remembers their departed love ones. The hill lights up, not from the lit candles, but from the bonfires set. This is the locals' way of celebrating the life of their deceased - sharing stories around the warmth of a bonfire.
Echo Valley is both a visual and an auditory treat. The valley was named as such because of the echo generated when one shouts atop the valley. A short hike from the Mission Compound will bring you to a natural platform where you get a 360-degree view of Echo Valley.
Limestone rock formations carefully mix with the pine forests of Sagada. The view makes you feel that you are on top of the world and letting your voice out is a natural thing to do. You will get to enjoy the sound of your voice ringing out in the valley. For adventure junkies, you can also try out cliff wall climbing at the base of the viewing platform for a minimal fee.
The limestone cliffs in Sagada are sacred among the locals as some of these cliffs are the final resting place of their ancestors.
Sagada is a town that has preserved its indigenous culture. One of its main attraction are its hanging coffins. As I have mentioned earlier, some limestone cliffs serve as the final resting place of their ancestors. A short downhill trek at Echo Valley will bring you to a spot where you can view its iconic hanging coffins.
Suspended along a face of a limestone cliff, these wooden coffins are the picture of Cordillera's century-old culture. The Igorots believe that these hanging coffins serve as a vessel to the afterlife for the departed. The coffins are small because the deceased take on a fetal position inside these coffins.
Not everyone in the community though is accorded the privilege to be buried in this manner. Our guide mentioned that people who held esteemed position and those elders who were highly regarded by the community are the ones who were privileged to be buried high above the ground.
Lumiang Burial Cave
Trekking down a steep trail in the outskirts of Sagada will bring you to an ancient burial cave of the Igorots - the Lumiang Burial Cave. The mouth of the cave serves as the final resting place of the Igorot's ancestors. Unlike its hanging coffins, the remains were laid to rest inside pine wood coffins with wood carvings.
These wooden coffins are stacked at the mouth of the cave so it is not hard to miss. You can take a close look at these coffins and you would be amazed at some of its wood carvings. Some of these coffins are already broken and, upon closer look, you would see the human remains inside it. Unfortunately, some of these historical and cultural artifacts have been disrespected and stolen. I urge you to just observe and admire these artifacts from a distance. Please do not touch or get parts of it as souvenirs.
Sagada's Cave Connection
Sagada is one of the Philippine destinations where you can thoroughly enjoy spelunking. A lot of Sagada's tourists prefer the Short Course Caving which explores the more popular Sumaguing Cave in 2 hours. But for the adventure thirsty traveler, the Cave Connection is a better option.
The Cave Connection is a 5-hour cave traverse that starts at the mouth of Lumiang and ends with exploring Sumaguing Cave. The spelunking activity will have you crawling through crevices, climbing up through rock formations, traversing on the side of overhangs, and walking under a cavernous cave complex. You will also get to explore amazing rock formations.
The activity is done under strict guidance of a local guide trained to handle these spelunking tours. Make sure that you get an accredited guide from the municipal office.
Often referred to as the Big Cave, Sumaguing Cave is the most popular cave to explore in Sagada. It is the exit point of the Cave Connection Activity but not after exploring the beautiful limestone rock formations of Sumaguing.
As you carefully traverse down the slippery slopes of the cave, you will be amazed with its trove of rock formations that would tease your imagination. Locals have names for some of these rock formations - from the mild to the naughty. You will get to a visual treat of limestone formations of terraces, natural pools, and even human genitalia. Extra precaution is needed when traversing the cave because of the slippery rocks and spring water running off on these rocks. Sumaguing Cave will definitely test your physical endurance so make sure that you take a breather by soaking your tired feet in its springwater pools before hiking out of the cave.
As we climbed up the mouth of the cave of Sumaguing, I was awed by the beauty of the cave from the outside. It was a scene straight out of "Jurassic Park" movie less the dinosaurs. It was like a beautiful book cover where things get exciting as soon as you read what is inside it.
The roaring sound of the water cascading from a height of 200 meters was music to my ears. The sound and the cold water running under my feet was a worthy reward after a 15-minute jeepney ride and a 45-minute downhill trek to Bomod-ok Falls.
Bomod-ok Falls is a popular tourist spot and is often referred to as the Big Falls. It sits behind lush greeneries and its waters run through a river bed of rocks. The hike to the falls is a visual treat because you walk along the trail that cuts through its rice terraces. Taking a quick cold dip in its catch basin is the best reward that you can give yourself after the short trek.
Locals shared with us that Bomod-ok Falls played a huge role to the community. They claim that the waterfalls warned them of enemy raids from the sound generated from its water cascade. This gave locals ample time to prepare and defend themselves. Whether that is true or not, the ascend back to the community is something that you definitely need to prepare for.
Post Travel Notes
A popular movie have thrown the town in the limelight and it may have initiated changes to the community and it may have broadened the type of travelers that visit Sagada. The destination was romaticized and attracted the emotional/"hugot" travelers. I am happy with the attention that the town is getting but I sincerely think that Sagada can go beyond its supposed "tadhana".
I have experienced going to Sagada the “hard and long” way with a backpack, in contrast to the ease of travel being offered by Facebook travel organizers nowadays. I have seen how this vibrant community in its rawness in the tourism industry. I have seen how tourists learn to adjust to the daily run of the community. I have also seen how locals taught tourists about respect and discipline while visiting Sagada. And true to my experience, I hope that you also get to experience its rich culture and amazing natural attractions in its truest form.
Getting there: Going to Sagada is an adventure in itself where one can opt to go via Banaue or Baguio. I prefer taking the Baguio route. Once you are in Baguio, you take a bus to Central Mall. The station for buses bound for Sagada is located behind the mall. Most of the trips are in the morning starting at 5.30am.
Alternatively, you can also take a bus bound for Bontoc from the same station and then take a jeepney to Sagada.
You just need to prepare for a breathtaking 5-6 hour trip from Baguio via Halsema Highway. Breathtaking, in a sense, that it has amazing mountain views and nerve-wracking road cliffs.
The rainy season may be in full force but this should not stop you from exploring. Like what I have previously shared, local travelers shift inland during this time of the year so expect a lot of hiking, waterfalls, and lake shots on social media. But the beach is not exactly out of the picture just yet because there are a lot of beach spots in the country that you can enjoy whether the sun’s out or not.
If you are looking for a quick beach escape from the city, the province of Pangasinan is great place to consider and explore. It has a unique mix of coastline and inland attractions that can definitely excite any type of traveler. It is also blessed with a number of natural attractions that has charmed a lot of its guests and the quaint little town of Agno definitely makes its own mark.
Agno is a charming municipality located along the western coast of Pangasinan. It is a thriving community whose main livelihood is focused on farming and fishing. The town of Agno came under the radar of local tourism because of its unique rock formation along its coast, facing the West Philippine Sea. Unknown to many, the town has a collection of old houses considered as part of the country’s cultural heritage.
St. Catherine de Alexandria Parish Church and Convent
At the heart of the town of Agno is the St. Catherine de Alexandria Parish Church. The Spanish-period church started its construction in 1834 and is just one of the century-old churches in Pangasinan. The church is not the typical old Spanish period church that you usually come across in old towns. Its simple facade is highlighted by an image of St. Catherine de Alexandria which serves as the main focal point of its design. A small belfry serves as the highest point of the church.
The simplicity of the church’s design seeps in to its interiors. Its thick walls and high ceilings give the church an imposing impression of a solid fortress. Its two-tierred retablo serves as the main highlight of the church. The wooden lofts extend along the side walls of the church, a common feature of Spanish-period churches in the country.
The only lavish part of the design that you won’t miss out are the amazing stained glass windows of the church. You will find these artworks on all window panes of the church.
Adjacent to the church is the convent which is also a part of Agno’s cultural heritage. The convent was constructed in 1845, a few years after the first church foundation was laid down.
A few kilometers north of the town is a cove that is a popular beach spot in Agno. Agbatanen Beach, judging by the line of cars parked along the road, is a favorite chill spot by the locals in the area. The cream-colored sand glistens under the sun as saltwater trickles down from the sea to a mini-lagoon separated by a mound of sand. The older kids, meaning the adults, enjoy taking a dip by its shores while the smaller ones prefer the calmer waters of its “lagoon”.
On the southern side of the cove are rock formations that serves as a good dramatic backdrop for beach shots. This is where you will also find a small area where you can snorkel and enjoy the underwater scene of Agbatanen. Or you can opt to just sit back and enjoy the panaromic view that it offers.
Guests can opt to stay overnight and rough it out in Agbatanen. There are open air huts that you can rent for a day or overnight or you can also pitch a tent by the beach.
Umbrella Rocks of Agno
If Alaminos has a hundred islands to boot and Bolinao has its lighthouse to show off, Agno’s gem and pride are its Umbrella Rocks. These interesting rock formations were molded by nature for centuries creating a rock sculpture with a wide top and a slim stem and base. This creates an image of a huge umbrella propped onto the sandy shores of Agno, hence the name - Umbrella Rocks.
The best time to explore Agno’s famous rocks is during the sunset. The dramatic setting of the sun and the dramatic rock formations are perfect for that silhouette shots.
Unlike Abagatanen Beach, the shoreline in the area have black/grayish sugary sand. There are also cottages that can be rented overnight or you also opt to pitch a tent so you can also opt to spend the night here if you prefer a more relaxed atmosphere.
Post Travel Notes
There are a lot of small town wonders in the Philippines and, most of the time, these are the communities where most of us live on or have spent most of our childhood. All we need to do is just get curious enough to walk along our streets and you will be surprised with what we can uncover about your locality. Like what they say, do not be a foreigner in your own backyard. Explore and uncover the beauty of your place. You do not need a guest to introduce a tourist destination in your town that was simply your playground when you were young.
As of this writing, I am considering going back to Agno. I have touched up on Agno’s natural attractions but I missed out on a trove of cultural treasures of the place. It would have been another enriching experience if I was able to also cover a walking tour of the town to feature its collection of preserved old houses. On the hindsight, it serves as another good opportunity to head back to Agno.
Hmm... who is up to exploring Bolinao, Agno, and Anda?
Getting there: Victory Liner and Dagupan Bus have direct bus trips to Agno, Pangasinan. There are cottages for rent in Abagatanen Beach or near Agno’s Umbrella Rock Formation for those who wish to stay overnight.
I have always considered myself a water person, except when you are referring to floodwaters. I love the beach more than the mountains. So to kick-off my birthmonth this year, my decision to explore Apo Reef Natural Park in Occidental Mindoro did not come as a surprise.
Apo Reef Natural Park is the country’s largest coral system located along the Mindoro Strait. Its 34 square kilometer area reef system is a protected area and it is a popular weekend camping and diving destination. Most of Apo’s feature is submerged with only three islands breaking above water - Apo Island, Binangaan, and Tinangkapan. The reef is about two hours through calm waters, on a good day, from Sablayan. It is a favorite weekend beach destination because it gives you the opportunity to... uhmmm... well, let us just go and hit it.
Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro
After a three-hour RORO trip from Batangas Port and another three-hour van ride from Abra de Ilog, we rolled in to the quaint little town of Sablayan. This small town has its own touch of history and a handful of attractions, apart from Apo Reef Natural Park, that will definitely satisfy your thirst for nature and adventure.
Luckily, our Apo adventure did not start smoothly as planned when the Coast Guard did not allow our motorized banca to sail off to Apo Reef. It gave us the opportunity for a sneak peek of Sablayan.
Our group camped out at Sablayan Adventure Park. The park was good enough for that quick beach fix considering that we were taking our chances to Apo Reef the next day. The stretch of black sand and the view of the two islands of Pandan would have made a good backdrop for a sunset shot. But the gloomy weather did not give us that shot. We were able to explore the cove where we got a view of the inter-island zipline.
Too bad though that the rains confined us in our open huts in the afternoon but the sneak peek gave me the idea that I should check out Sablayan soon.
Off the coast of Sablayan are two islands - North Pandan and South Pandan. These islands are popular among travelers for their own unique attractions. South Pandan is the endpoint of the inter-island zipline that crosses from mainland Sablayan.
North Pandan Island is the more popular destination among tourists because of its unique tourism draw. The white sand shoreline of the island is inviting but the real adventure lies under its waters, just a few meters from the shores. This is one of the few Philippine spots where you can enjoy the amazing experience of swimming with sea turtles!
It is a very humbling experience swimming with these gentle creatures. I enjoyed observing sea turtles munch on sea grass before it slowly rises up for air. I enjoyed snorkeling and spotting four sea turtles during our run. I also chanced upon a small manta ray floating with the current.
Tourists have to be cautious when swimming with sea turtles. Make sure that you do not touch or disturb the sea turtles in their natural habitat. Observe them only from a distance.
Apo Reef Natural Park
We sailed early in the morning to Apo Reef Natural Park. We enjoyed the sun breaking out from the horizon. Midway through the trip, a rain cell loomed ahead. It was wonderful to view a rain cell in the middle of the sea. It literally had curtains of water that shielded Apo Reef from our view. The view of the rain cell was both amazing and scary.
As we passes through the cold rain, we felt the warm air blowing from the reef. The three islands and shallow reefs of Apo came into full view. Tinangkapan is a shallow reef where migratory birds transit through but it is off limits to tourists. Binanggaan is an island characterized by limestone rock formations jutting out from the sea.
The biggest island in the reef system is Apo Island. It stands out for its white sand shoreline that dot its coastline. Its towering lighthouse stands out from the green foliage of the island.
Guests need to register at the tourist center. Behind the center is a tourist facility being constructed where guests can rent rooms for those intending to stay overnight. If you want to rough it up, you can choose to pitch a tent. Chilling by the beach is the best way to enjoy the island. And to complete the Apo Reef experience, tour guides can give you a walking tour of Apo Reef to showcase the natural beauty of the island.
Apo Reef Mangrove Bridgeway and Forest
A 15-minute hike from the tourist center will bring you to a flourishing mangrove forest at the heart of Apo Reef Island. The mangroves thrive in the island’s lagoon. A bridgeway was built that allows guests to navigate through its lagoon waters to the central view deck area of the mangroves.
The viewdeck gives you a panoramic view of the still waters of the lagoon and the surrrounding mangroves. The saltwater lagoon is also the home of sea creatures and, if you are lucky enough, you might be able to catch ::a glimpse of a small shark gliding in the waters.
Apo Reef Rock Formation
A short hike from the bridgeway is another white sand beach cove that you can lounge around. On a good day, it is probably a good place to chill and take a dip... away from the weekend crowd.
The leftmost side of the cove are rock formations that you can explore. Do not expect towering formations as a backdrop. Rest assured that you get a dramatic backdrop of the rockies and waters crashing on its crevices.
American Barracks Ruins
We continued on with our island exploration, working on the other side of the island. As we headed towards the island’s iconic structure, we passed by the ruins of an American-period installation on the island.
Our guide said that the remains was once part of a barracks that the American built in the island. The structure deteriorated in time with its exposure to natural elements. Unfortunately, the local government moved to construct new structures in the island. This left the structure to deteriorate further.
Apo Reef Light
The towering lighthouse is the iconic structure of Apo Reef Island. It is the most visible man-made structure as you approach the island. The lighthouse serves as a guardian for seafarers traversing its waters.
The 110-foot lighthouse is quite a challenge to climb for those who have fear of heights but the 360-degree view on its deck is absolutely amazing. You can get a full view of the island’s lagoon, limestone rock formations, mangroves, white sand shores, and the blue waters that surround it.
I struggled heading up and moving around the view deck but the view was something that I could not miss out. It was just awesome!
An Underwater Treat
After trekking and hiking around Apo Reef Island, our group was treated to an amazing underwater exploration. We were first asked to don our snorkeling gears for a “guided snorkeling tour”. By that, we all took our own space along the motorized banca’s “katig”. We were asked to hold on to the rope handles and for the next 30-minutes were treated to amazing underwater views.
The underwater scene of Apo Reef was colorful and was just teeming with marine life. The view of its coral reefs and underwater cliffs kept me amazed during the guided tour. Our guide said that if we are lucky, we might be able to catch a glimpse of a shark. That thought lingered in me and it added both excitement and fear.
Our tour ended along a coral garden where we had a grand time snorkeling with the resident schools of fish in the area. It was fun swimming around with these sea creatures in their natural habitat.
And then luck rolled in when a small shark swam in to join the fray. It was then that I realized that one of the boatmen used an empty water bottle to create a sound underwater that attracts sharks. Again, we kept our distance while observing the shark in its natural habitat.
A “Come Again” Surprise
You could really feel the energy of everyone as we headed back to Sablayan. Everyone was elated with the adventures and the encounters that we just experienced. We were tired but everyone in the group kept sharing how good they felt about the experience. This was definitely one for the books... except for one thing. We were all looking foreward to meeting the dolphins. Unfortunately, the waters were a bit choppy when we came in so the dolphins were not anywhere to be found.
As we were about to exit the reef, a pod of dolphins gave us a sweet farewell show. They raced alongside our motorized boat in three’s. A couple of dolphins knew how to impress us by leaping out of the water. This had us excited and cheering and the dolphins returned our cheers by entertaining is more.
And as quickly as they appeared, they went on with their usual routine, leaving us with smiles and excitement. It was definitely the best way to end summer and I could not ask for more.
Post Travel Notes
As we dashed towards the RORO that was about to leave, I recalled how our Apo Reef trip was full of turns and curves. It was a trip that had everyone anxious because of the weather and yet it was interestingly fun. We knew what we were in and that we all found our ways on coping up with the situation. I mean, trips are not bound to be perfect and it is all about properly handling the situation. Kudos to FB travel organizer, Penguin Backpackers, because they pulled it off nicely.
Apo Reef Natural Park is a charmer. Its diversity above and below is enough to excite any type of traveler. What makes Apo Reef stand out is the experience of being one with nature. It is the experience of having to see God’s creation at its finest in their natural habitat. Our joy is also experienced by them just like the joy that we shared with the dolphins. The calm nature of sea turtles evokes the same to those who watched it glide. It makes you realize that we all have to work together to keep our world better and that our actions impact even the smallest creature in our world.
Getting there: One can take a 3-hour RORO trip from the Batangas Port to Abra de Ilog. You can then take a bus that passes through the town of Sablayan. Once you are in Sablayan, you need to coordinate with their tourism office for your trip to Apo Reef. You can also contact Kuya Jovy at +63920 8879370 to assist you.
You can also check out the FB page of Penguin Backpackers for their scheduled organized trips to Apo Reef Natural Park. Rest assured that they will handle all the arrangements from Batangas Port and back. All you have to do is enjoy the whole trip.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.