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.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.