Friday, July 30, 2010

Sagada: The Hidden Gem of the North

September of last year was not the best time for me, despite it being my birth month. Good thing a spontaneous trip to this beautiful mountain town saved me. And that is why a year after that trip Sagada will always be close to my heart.

My godfather is an Episcopalian (the predominant religion in the mountain provinces) and is chairman of the board of St. Luke's Medical Center. Besides providing world-class healthcare, SLMC has also been very active in building churches in the northern parts of the country. I am Catholic, but it was during one of those Episcopalian church visits that brought me to Sagada and started my love affair with the town.

Ate Eden and I took this bus that looked like it couldn't even get out of their terminal in one piece. The terminal is along E. Rodriguez Ave. in front of Starbucks. It was this bus that would take us all the way to Besao, Mountain Province, and from there we would have to take a jeep that would go all the way up to Sagada. That was how the jeep we rode in looked. And it was so cool that people would actually go up the roof despite that bumpy, upward trip. Dangerous but something I'd love to try! :D

It was an extremely long trip because the bus driver didn't seem to have a schedule to follow, unlike the big bus companies who get timed the moment they leave their terminal. We were on the bus for about 14 hours. The jeepney ride took about 45 minutes due to the road construction.

Despite the long journey we had, Ate Eden and I didn't waste time lounging around. Oh and by the way, don't laugh, during our stay Ate Eden and I, along with some SLMC people, bunked at the newly built St. Theodore's Hospital, in the middle of town. Since it was newly built I didn't have any problems in getting contaminated by anything or sleeping in a bed which someone died on.

A Sagada trip will not be complete without conquering the complex cave systems. Since we did it late in the afternoon, we were advised by the trusty tour guide not to do the cave connection anymore. A cave connection would take roughly 6 hours, so we made do with the Sumaguing Caves which proved to be a toughie. Seriously not for the faint-hearted.

Sorry for the dark photos, it was pitch black inside, and the colemans used by the guide wasn't enough to light up the path. When the guide helped the other slowpokes who were tagging behind, he would tell us not to move because we wouldn't be able to see anything anymore. Good thing I already conquered my fear of the dark. :)

As you would see in the pics below, we were all wet. It was up in the mountains but we had an instant swim in the cold mountain spring. One important reminder: NO DRINKING PLEASE! The water is very clean, but the guide told me that the water had other elements that our bodies might reject.

TIPS: If you decide to do the cave connection or just the Sumaguing Caves, don't wear pants or any clothing made of heavy material. IT'S GOING TO BE A WET AND COLD ADVENTURE! Bring your own flashlight too so you won't be left grappling in the dark. Cameras are optional, the guides are 100% certified camera keepers. They do this everyday of their Sagada lives, and they have mastered taking pictures in the dark and keeping the camera very-much dry the entire time! :)

It was just ONE cave, but it took us forever! Now, I wonder what the cave connection would be like. While we were at the Sumaguing Caves, the guide would sometimes point out another group in the higher section of cave telling us that they were doing the cave connection.

After 2 long hours we emerged from the dark and back out into the light of day. We had to wash off bat poop from our feet. But it was so cool! Never mind the pain in my legs, I was happy that I didn't back off on that adventure, it would've been a pity!

Another tip: BE PREPARED TO WALK. Sagada has really narrow and steep roads. Cars could fit sure, but there aren't too many public transportation available. So dont' complain when the guides tell you you'd have to walk. Bring comfy walking shoes.

Getting back to the town proper, we were given snacks. We ate at the famous Masferre Restaurant.

The next day, we had the entire morning to ourselves. After a quick breakfast by the side of the road, we went off to see for ourselves other landmarks of Sagada. We went to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and the cemetery which will lead to the Echo Valley. But since Ate Eden was an unadventurous person, we got as far as the cemetery and went on back. Making me a bit pissed. But we did see the hanging coffins! And it still baffles me how the ancestors were able to put those coffins by the edge of the mountain! Simply amazing! :)

By that day, the pain in our legs was already beyond description. Walking, sittting, and standing up proved to be a difficult task for about a week for me. But I found out when we got back from the cemetery that my godfather dared us to go up this mountain to go the see SLMC's other church project. I didn't know if I was going to be thrilled by this, but I went, together with the group we did the Sumaguing Caves with.

The sights, just like the steep mountain climb, took our breath away. We stopped, huffed and puffed, and took pictures. As we went higher up, we had more to see, just like these rice terraces and the bridge over not-so-troubled waters.

When we came back from the mountain town, we were given snacks as a reward for conquering the trail. But just before we left, the Igorots, the ethnic group of the Mountain Province, thanked us by performing this ancient-old dance.

Despite it being a year ago, I decided to do this blog entry because Sagada has captured my heart in a really special way. I've been to provinces in our country, but nothing compares to Sagada. I am especially thrilled because this year in September, I'd be going back to discover more of Sagada's hidden treasure troves such as the Echo Valley and Marlboro Country, and conquer the cave connection. I can't wait!!

In the city where we try to keep up with the fast-paced changes, Sagada has proven that being stuck in the olden times ain't so bad after all. It is this back-ward culture that makes Sagada unique and mysterious. The Igorots take their ancestors' works seriously, they even think of it as sacred. And maybe that is what we need, to preserve the past, because taking a once-in-a-while glimpse at it will make us appreciate our present.

The world wide web has tons of info on Sagada, but these are the sites I highly recommend, especially the first 2 sites. You'd get the information you need by just clicking on the links below:
The same association also has a MULTIPLY SITE.
SAGADA: Your Philippine Mountain Paradise

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