Philippines: Sagada

The weather was getting better by the day – blue skies and sunny today as me and a couple of other guests left Randy’s and headed to Banaue’s public market to catch the 8am jeepney to Bontoc and then on to Sagada. The colourful truck had a sign in its windscreen and, though it was supposed to leave at 8am, we of course didn’t leave until around 9am as they wait for it to fill up with enough people. It cost 150php for the hour and a half ride.

The ride is truly stunning and you get more than your money’s worth in spectacular views, especially if you’re brave enough to sit on the roof. After our scenic drive, we arrived in Bontoc and transferred to the next jeepney which was parked right in front of where we stopped. About half an hour later we were on our way again with a much shorter (45 minutes, 45php) but equally incredible ride which spanned across lush green vistas. Luzon’s scenery is some of the best I have ever seen on my travels.

I really liked Sagada’s vibe when we arrived. It has a quaint, lost-in-time feel about it with its old-fashioned buildings and bustling Saturday market. The jeepney dropped me off just a two minute walk away from my accommodation (Isabelo’s Inn, opposite the municipal hall) and with the beautiful weather still out in force, I wasted no time in getting going and seeing Sagada’s most famous attraction.

DSC_0362The hanging coffins were what attracted me to Sagada in the first place and, having written that, I’ve now realised how morbid and creepy it sounds. There’s just something quirky about hanging your dead on cliffs in coffins which are slightly too small. Apparently the corpses are wrapped up in the foetal position so they exit life in the same way they entered. Also, the coffins are really tiny.

The most accessible place to get a look at the coffins, which are more spread out than I imagined, is to head down to Echo Valley. It’s a beautiful valley which gets its name from the fact it will amplify your shouting for all to hear (as many people tirelessly demonstrated). To get there, head past the Church of St. Mary’s (which is just to the left of where the jeepney drops you off), go up the first steps near the patch of grass and turn left, then pass through the cemetery. You can either traipse through a steep drop and chilling buffalo (as, of course, I did) or walk through the cemetery and there’s a paved pathway which leads into the valley.

From this vantage point, you can just about see a few coffins but you have to head right in if you want to get up close. I meandered down, opting not to take a guide which I think makes sense – you don’t really need one. I got a bit (very) lost but that’s all part of the fun. I eventually found a cluster of coffins which resembled small boats. They were pretty cool to look at. On my way back up, I of course slipped in the mud and fell on my arse, but it was a much more satisfactory tumble having seen the coffins.

Back in Sagada, I enjoyed a delicious meal at Sagada Brew which is right the way down the main road which passes through the town. It was a tasty and very filling meal and they do a mix of Filipino and European dishes plus a host of yummy cakes. I finished my evening in one of Sagada’s only bars – pretty much a Bob Marley tribute bar. I discussed the disappointment of warm beer with a Kiwi couple who had seen and done it all before I headed back to get some rest before another hike the next day.

The hike in question – up Mount Ampacao – was stunning though I perhaps bit off more than I could chew. To get there, you simply walk down the main road in Sagada until you reach Ambasing Elementary School then take the path on the right and follow it all the way up until you reach a massive field with amazing views. It only took about 2 hours to get up there and the weather was perfect. For the whole climb, I only met two other people – one of whom was a cheery Irish man who was trekking the Luzon mountains for two months. We had a nice chat and he encouraged me to take the next climb up to the summit of the mountain. I should never have fallen for his Irish charm.

The view from Mt. Ampacao
The view from Mt. Ampacao

The trail was muddy, slippery and practically invisible. It coiled every possible way so you ended up climbing and climbing but not actually getting anywhere. When I’d been dragging myself up for about half an hour, looking like a mud-soaked post apocalyptic zombie, I noticed I wasn’t even halfway to the top and savoured the admittedly brilliant view from the midway point before heading back down.

Heading down was like a funfair ride, only with mud and thorns and the possibility of breaking your neck. When I finally made it back to the field, I was relieved to have made it back in one piece (albeit a muddier and bloodier piece). If I’d had the energy, I’d have skipped through it Sound of Music style.

The last perilous section aside, it’s a nice easy climb which rewards you with great views. Just think long and hard about going to the summit. And certainly don’t do it to impress hardcore Irish hikers who have buggered off over the next mountain before you’ve even managed to clamber over the first hill.

I had a more relaxed afternoon which basically involved stuffing my face. Sagada’s got some cracking eateries. I ended the night more or less sitting in someone’s kitchen (it’s a tiny restaurant called Shanghai Hauz down an alleyway shortly after Yoghurt House) eating home cooked, hearty Filipino food and being ogled at by the cook’s daughter before being told amongst fits of giggles that she had a crush on me because I was ‘very handsome’.

Too much mulled wine in that household I reckon…

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