Race Across The Terrace: Sagada (Part Three)

Hanging Coffins of Echo Valley
The Applai people of Sagada entombed their dead in hanging coffins propped along limestone cliffs 


I never knew walking amidst the dead could be a pleasing experience. After all, Sagada is indeed the gateway to paradise.

To get to this highland Shangri-la rediscovered by European backpackers in the 1960s, the route departing Banaue surmounted rougher terrain where pine trees soon replaced tree ferns, as it ascended higher into the Cordilleran interior. Not surprisingly, a gazillion more terraces flanked the way, but unlike Ifugao Province’s steep steps, those surrounding Bay-yo, Talubin and Bontoc were low-lying riverine squares.

Sumaging Cave
Spelunking at Sumaging Cave

With Scandinavian backpackers I met atop the bus from Banaue to Bontoc, I took advantage of the remaining daylight in Sagada by exploring the nearest hotspots. Behind the quaint St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a craggy gorge concealed hidden treasures: famed wooden coffins suspending bones of animistic Applai people within limestone karsts that reached for the clouds, making the place the perfect departure terminal for the afterworld. Rounding the cliff, pearl-white headstones appeared down a mountain slope on the other side. Born: 1898, Died: 2005, a headstone declared. Solace hung in the cool air. Eventually, we found our way back onto pavement, cutting through the Sagada Cemetery, and finally bid farewell to one another as the sun dipped into the mist.

Sagada, Mountain Province
View of Sagada town from the road to Besao

Tessie, the Potter
Pottery workshop on the way to Lake Danum

True to its moniker, the distant din of gansa or flat gongs resonated through Echo Valley. Traditional wedding celebrations were taking place. And, apparently, “a Sagadan wedding is a wedding for everyone to enjoy,” shared a local at Ganduyan Inn and Café, a spartan accommodation conveniently located at the center of town.

Later in the evening, I followed the sound of gongs and laughter to the house of the newlyweds. It was 8:00PM, but the joyful, moonlit rumpus was in full swing. Guests danced in circles to the drumbeat of energetic percussion. Some of them wore tribal headdresses. And their shadows kept up with the accelerating pace to the flicker of orange flames licking giant woks cooking appetizing slabs of water buffalo on earthy pits. Soon enough, I found myself working out (or making up) some indigenous dance moves, but I quickly retired with a grin before I or someone else got hurt.  Otherwise, it was a beautiful night.

But Sagada’s wonders are not limited to those found above ground. A network of 60 known caves is egging thrill seekers of all skill levels. Descending more than 250 meters down, Sumaging Cave—aka “The Big Cave”—will test your foggy-breathed Spiderman maneuvers as you tip-toe, crawl, slide, swing and slip through majestic halls littered with stinky guano and waist-deep, refrigerator-cold water to be rewarded by awesome cave formations of massive mushrooms, royal drapes, timid turtles, human genitalia and, yes, cascading terraces that seemed like faithful models of those above.

This blog post is an excerpt from a travel feature I wrote in 2009 for ROAM Magazine, Issue No. 2.

Road to Ambasing
Foggy road to Ambasing

Over, under and beyond I’ve beheld the terraces of the Cordillera. Day four was winding to an end, and it was time to head home. As the bus from Sagada swaggered me up to the highest point in the country’s highway system and down to Baguio City via the Halsema Highway, Benguet’s own share of terraces sent me off bearing verdant patches—amusingly, not of rice—but of all sorts of vegetables, which I’d like to think were the very ones I relished with risotto at Café by the Ruins near Burnham Park on my last evening in Luzon’s rooftop: a fitting epilogue to a mission memorably accomplished.

Apple, Blueberry & Lemon Pies
Home-made pies at Lemon Pie House

HOW TO GET THERE: From Manila, one can go to Sagada either from Baguio or Banaue/Bontoc.

On the main road through Banaue, catch a bus (P120, 2 ½ hours) bound for Bontoc, a busy market town in Mountain Province. For a breathtaking ride in more ways than one, ride on top of the vehicle at your own risk. If you can spare a couple of hours, visit the Bontoc Village Museum (entrance fee: P40, hours: 8AM to 12PM & 1PM to 5PM), the best museum in the region exhibiting extensive photographs and artifacts of the Cordilleran tribes, which you can enjoy indigenous music. The most fascinating exhibits are the American period photographs of headhunters displaying their grisly catch, gansa (flat gongs) handles made of human jawbones, and the outdoor life-size diorama of a traditional Bontoc village.

From Bontoc, board a jeepney (P35, 1 hour) to Sagada. Dorm-type accommodations abound in the place. I stayed at Ganduyan Inn and Café (P200/night), right smack at the center of town. For a romantic getaway, St. Joseph’s Guesthouse offers an overlooking garden view (P500/night, room for two). After visitors register at the municipal hall, one can avail of easy guided hikes to the local hotspots like Bomod-ok Falls, Sumaging Cave (P400, 1-4 persons) and, for views of the Sagada Rice Terraces, Kiltepan Peak.

To leave Sagada, grab a Lizardo Trans bus (P220, 7 hours) at the center of town, in front of Ganduyan, to Baguio City. Threading the panoramic Halsema Highway, you will pass through “Philippine Pali,” the highest point in the country’s highway system at 2,250 meters above sea level in Atok, Benguet. From Baguio, you can take one the many hourly bus lines that drive down to Metro Manila like Victory Liner (P450, 5 to 6 hours) at their new station along Upper Session Road (+6374 6190000). Whew, finding your way back to urban madness is a long but relatively comfortable ride. After all that top-loading, it better be.

WHERE TO EAT: Don’t forget to try Lemon Pie House, Yoghurt House and Bana’s Café for intriguing kape alamid (civet coffee), made from beans excreted by a weasel-like animal.

For more details on Sagada, drop by Visit Sagada.



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