BLAME it to the recent indie movie about tadhana or destiny. Suddenly, broken-hearted people are trooping to Sagada, climbing to Mount Kiltepan and shouting Ayoko na [I quit]. They are the recent addition to the long list of people who have discovered Sagada. From the hippies and artists, from the adventure-seekers to the weekend warriors and to the stressed-out urbanites, they all come all come to Sagada to enjoy its natural attractions, its cool weather and its even cooler people.
Sagada is the cool place to chill out for a few days, literally and figuratively. Go spelunking and trekking if you’re an adventurer, do some immersion with the unique rituals and traditions of the Kankanay tribe if you’re a cultural buff, get inspirations from nature if you’re an artist, and find peace if you’re stressed out from the humdrum of routine life. Oh yes, if you need to “find yourself” after a painful break-up, Sagada is the place for you.
Be warned though that the locals do not like it when people go up at Kiltepan and start shouting. Sagada is a quiet place so just enjoy it in silence.
How to get there
Going to Sagada is now a lot easier to reach than it was more than 20 years ago when I started backpacking around the Cordilleras. Back then, the only mode of transportation was those rickety Lizardo buses that you have to board at dawn at the central terminal in Baguio City. Then you have to endure the more than eight-hour bus ride along the unpaved Halsema Highway before you reach the junction leading up to Sagada. I still remember how it was riding on a jam-packed bus filled with locals, supplies and even live animals. During those days, it was common for all passengers to get out of the bus and help in clearing the road blocked by landslides.
Nowadays, going to Sagada is much easier. The 160-kilometer road from Baguio City going up all the way to Sagada is now well paved. Those with private vehicles can take that route in four hours. But driving along the Halsema Highway, with its specular view of the Cordilleras, is already part of the adventure. So there’s no point in driving fast.
Those going there by public transport can take the overnight bus to Baguio and then the early morning bus to Sagada. The best connection is the 10:00 pm bus from Manila that arrives at Baguio at 4:00 am, and then the 5:00 am bus in Baguio that arrives at Sagada before noon. There are also buses that go directly to Bontoc. From Bontoc, take a short jeepney ride to Sagada.
Another alternative is to take an overnight bus from Manila to Banaue at 10:00 pm. It arrives at 6:00 am at Banaue. You may either explore Banaue first and hop on a jeepney going to Bontoc the next day. You can also take the jeepney to Bontoc immediately. Either way, there are regular jeepneys from Bontoc to Sagada.
Those who wish to try the off-the-beaten trail to Sagada can try Tagudin, Ilocos Norte to take the scenic Besang Pass passing thru Cervantes, Tadian and Sabangan. This is actually the old mountain trail and it takes three to four hours from there to reach Sagada.
What to do, what to see
First-time visitors may want to do everything on the Sagada adventure list: caving, trekking, exploring waterfalls and so on. But the first that one must do when he or she arrives at Sagada to head straight to the Tourism Office located at the municipal hall and register. Environmental fee is P35 a person.
Should you do adventures in Sagada, you have to check out the packages being offered by the two guide associations SEGA and SaGGAs. The most popular adventure activity is caving. With the aid of a guide, visitors can see the over 100 wooden coffins stacked together inside the Lumiang Burial Cave and proceed to some cave exploration inside the Sumaging Cave (Big Cave). Those who want to do some extreme activities can try the five-hour cave connection experience between these two caves. There are also several waterfalls that can be explored with the help of a guide like the picturesque Bomod-ok Falls (Big Waterfall) in Banga-an and the physically challenging seven waterfalls in Pongas.
There are also several peaks that can be conquered with the help of a guide. A favorite trail is the one that leads to Mount Ampacao and descends to Lake Danum. Another popular hike is to the summit of Mount Kiltepan where one can get panoramic views of the rice terraces and the surrounding mountains.
One can actually explore on his or her own the more established trails along Echo Valley to get a glimpse of the hanging coffins high on the limestone cliff. However, should one wish to take a closer look at them, it is wise to ask the young boys waiting at the cemetery to take you there for a small fee. These young guides can also lead you to the trail going to the underground river and to the small, but post-card pretty Bokong Falls for a refreshing dip.
Where to stay, where to eat
There are now several dozen guesthouses in Sagada and finding a place to stay for several days is not a problem unless you arrive during the long holidays.
Most of the guesthouses offer basic lodging (P350 per person, shared bathroom) or private room (P1,000-P1,500 twin-sharing, with private bathroom). The most popular are St. Joseph’s, Ganduyan Inn, Misty Lodge, Kanip-Aw, Isabello’s Inn, Alapo’s, George’s, Sagada Guesthouse, Bilza Lodge, Mapia-Aw, Olahniban, Rock Inn and Shamrock’s. During peak season like Christmas and Holy Week, the locals offer homestays or guests may opt to stay at the local hospital, school and even the rectory.
The local food is also one of the reasons why people troop to Sagada.
Try the pinikpikan but avoid watching how this soup dish is prepared. A native chicken is beaten to death in the Cordilleras in the process called pikpik. Beating the live chicken with a stick is supposed to tenderize the meat and improves it flavor.
Or how about some etag, their native ham. The pork is prepared by curing the meat with salt, smoked and then dried for months. The result is a dark, smelly dried meat rotting with maggots.
But if you are not into the local food challenge, you may opt for the vegetarian fares available at Gaia Café. You can also try the locally-made yoghurt at the Yoghurt House or the lemon pie at Lemon Pie House.
Whatever adventure you try or food you take in Sagada, the best way to cap your day is to enjoy it with a hot cup of native coffee. Shouting Gusto ko pa is optional.