“We go back to the info center, ask specifically for places we can go nearby without a guide and transportation and explore those places first. Then we’ll hire a guide there after to go to places needing one. Ok ba yun?” I asked Joy. “Okey! Pero kain muna tayo”!
It was still raining when I woke up, and the cold weather is darn chilling my brains out! “Ang lamiggggg!”. “Coffee!!! Lets thaw our brains with coffee!” I jokingly shouted while waking up my prrr-ing companion. No freezer can chill our excitement on what lies ahead for us in this town. Sagada is too much of a temptation compared to the warm refuge of our beds! So, while still donning a jacket and a comforter, I grabbed my camera and went outside hoping I could catch a clear view of the town even if its still raining. It was our lucky day the rain stopped and the sky cleared up.
If you look at Sagada‘s roof tops and the backdrop of hills and mountains beneath, there is nothing spectacular about it’s landscape. “Yeah, I’ve seen better” I boasted to my shivering buddy, Joy. But I marveled on why this place attracted so many tourists, fascinating hordes of disbelieving travelers and captivating hearts of the uncanny ones. “So what really brought us here, huh?!” – is probably the question I am going to answer with our exploration of Sagada today. “The water heater in the bathroom couldn’t even warm the cold water”! Oh boy!”
We ate our breakfast at St. Joe’s asking for the towns delicacy of pinikpikan. Joy’s craving of egg pie too! “Wala po available ngaun” told the counter person. “Both can be ordered sa palengke though” she said in tagalog. I ordered tortang talong instead and Joy, relished on a salad sandwich of some sort. I ate like there’s no lunch. More coffee please. “Mga patay gutom” Joy laughingly whispered.
The info center receptionist told us we can “explore the Echo valley, Hanging coffins and the Lumiang caves without a guide, but will be much easier if you have a guide” said the receptionist in fluent English. “We’re mountaineers. I guess we can afford some walking and crawling” I sheepishly volunteered. Actually, we’re just cutting costs and such will give us more freedom to explore Sagada the way we deemed (financially) necessary. “Marunong naman tayo magbasa ng mapa di ba?” A very graphic map at that!. Though not accurate as it seems, we relied on this comical map to guide us. “Map nga eh!” came the pundit fire cache of Joy.
We went first to St. Mary The Virgin church, the first Anglican church established during the American settlement in Sagada. Though not in its original place now, it was built as a center of a self supporting community with mills and agricultural industries that was brought in by the American missionaries. The antique church bell still hangs at the church’s original site, more for tourists’ attraction rather than for liturgical purposes. There is also this wheel marker on the side of the church- a remnant of a once thriving community that was built before by the Americans. We passed by the Sagada Museum on our way to the church but it was close that day and there were townsfolk basking in the sun near the basketball court. Sun basking was part of their daily routine for non working days.
Surprisingly, the walls of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin is built with “coralline” rock. Unusual for a structure situated high up the mountains. I’ve seen such walls in the antique Miag-ao church and all the Hispanic era churches in the Visayas. But here in Sagada? Pretty interesting story huh?
“What’s the difference between anglican faith and that of ours?” I asked Joy since both of us were catholics. “I don’t know” joy replied. “Basta pray lang tayo inside, it’s all one God where praying to”! “Piso”! I got my first sermon for the day! So we went inside and prayed. It was my first time inside an anglican church and though not as spacious as any catholic church I’ve seen, their religious icons bear some semblance to those of the catholics. “Forget it. We’re like asking the wrong questions here. Let’s just marvel at the architecture” It is a different feeling when you’re inside. Somehow, I felt relaxed. “Tagal mo na di pumapasok sa simbahan kasi.” Joy chided me. “The homily I guess…”I silently whispered.
We then walked towards the Echo Valley which is just behind an old cemetery if we follow the map. But the map is accurate to say plus or minus 1 hectare. “That accurate huh?” Explorers as we are, we tried the map directions and ended up in a cliff where the only echoes are that of our whispers. “Nyet”. “Ano ba makikita sa echo valley?” Joy, already sick of my “clueless” questions, answered flatly “nakikita mo ba ang echo?” To which I replied raucously, “malay mo?” There was these cliffs and ravines facing each other, to which an echo ricochets whenever someone is sane enough to shout and wake the dead in the nearby cemetery. “Ayoko nga sumigaw. Baka ano pa magising dito”!
So we retraced our way and passed beside an old cemetery. Didn’t like cemeteries so we hurriedly run up the hill. “Tama na kaya to?” We saw a house on top of the hill and asked for directions to the hanging coffins. “Great! were passing a cemetery and there are hanging coffins behind the cemetery. Not in the cemetery yung hanging coffins?” Wished we had a guide to answer my senseless questions.
We have to get closer to see the hanging coffins , but the passage is steep and unfamiliar to us, we settled for a very good vantage point and rested there for a while before marveling at the site and taking our pictures. “Pano kaya nilagay yung mga yan? Binuhat?” All we know is that the newer coffins were just stacked on top, and the old ones are really inside the burial sites. “Sana may guide tayo to explain all of these” said joy. Next time.
We walked back to the town tourist center to ask for a guide. They gave us Jerick, a young man just recently out of college who is taking the job of a guide as a temporary source of income. An able bodied, smart and soft spoken guy, he is well versed in the history and spots of Sagada.
I hastily started a conversation to ease the aura of indifference sort of thing between guides and tourist. “Taga asa ka?” Joy only laughed out loud not only on my “useless” question but also my obvious bisaya twang. That at least started our warm conversation while we head towards the Lumiang Burial Caves.
Part of the town proper is already teaming with tourist souvenir shops, specialty stores and dining restos. Along side the road , you can see some spectacular rock formations that I believe were coralline in nature. “Stalactites-like” said Jerick. This may have fueled the legend that says the whole place was once underwater before and was just jolted up by tectonic movements or God’s rage. “Whatever applies, I think”!
On the sides of the stiff cliffs you can see few of the so called “hanging coffins” beautifully nested on rock edges. It is quite errie though since it’s unusual for me to see coffins alongside the road! In our province, when you see “floating” coffins along the road, thats already “bagat”, a bisaya term for being haunted by some evil spirits who will show in so many forms of evil like forms, some in the form of floating coffins. “I don’t want to see any coffins in front of me in any trail or up in the mountains! Thats really scary!” Well, now, not only are we going to view coffins but were actually getting close to see so many of them, old ones for that matter, by going exactly to where they are hidden-Burial caves.
After around 45 minutes walk from the town and passing through several souvenir shops and restaurants, we go down the side of a mountain to a cave some kilometers deep and about twenty meters wide. It is a typical cave-the smell, the air, the darkness , except of course here, it is littered with coffins piled up on the wall to the ceiling!Hundreds of them!
Jerick told us there are hundreds more inside the cave, and will take us whole day to traverse the cave towards another burial cave, The Sumaging Caves. “No way, were going to do that now!We’re ill equipped!” I protested. This is more of my fear for the darkness rather than the lack of equipment. I’ve explored caves before but not burial caves!“Not my bat cave”!
The coffins, as Jerick as told us, is made of tree trunks, the length of which quite small for an average person. But it was made as such because of utilitarian reasons and cultural practices before. Most of the coffin covers were engraved with animal carvings such as lizards. We can see skeletal remains (commonly a skull) peeing on hole on the coffin. I don’t know if this is result of decay or was intentional, but in my opinion, this is largely unappealing and a disrespect to the dead, “Let’s go or that skull may just decide to come with us!”
More hiking. And more hiking uphill. This was all that I can remember on our way to our next stop, The Kiltepan Viewpoint. En route we passed by RJ specialty shop, The Green House Masferre Resto, TYH where we ate the nigh before and the town hall.
Our guide just told us that The Kiltepan Viewpoint, some 5 kilometers away, it just near and hike-able. I learned from my previous outdoor travels that guides usually underestimate distances and overestimate hikers stamina for trekking. “I was never wrong, but I’m rarely right either“. It was indeed a very long hike over alternating paved and rough roads, playing patintero against muddy trail and horse dungs. Joy and I wasn’t up to a long walk that time, judging from our pants and perspirations which we hide from Jerick. Jerick knew we were mountaineers (emphasis on were). “Tikalon abi!” Said the ever smart Joy.
But we were literally sweep off our feet with what we saw at the view point. Spanning several mountains that comprises three baranggays, are Sagada’s proud “stairway to heaven” or terraces. “Wow. As in wow!” Thats all I can say. Joy was spell binded by the scenic beauty unfolding in our eyes. Beautifully etched on mountain slopes were rice paddies reinforced with concrete and stones. Jerick told us that their kind of terraces engineering is different from those of the Ifugaos, since Sagada’s terraces is reinforced with rock concrete to prevent large earthworms boring holes on the sides destroying the terraces.
After we shamelessly pose for pictures “with the terraces” we headed to the Bokkong Waterfall, locally known as the “small waterfall”. We retraced our way back downtown up to the Masferre’s Photos center and Sagada weaving then went another uphill trail towards the entrance of the water fall. A Chinese looking guy with a big camera bag went with us downhill towards the falls. It was not much of a view but what caught me in the falls area was the lone concrete “waiting” shed just beside the waterfall. “Where there jeeps or boats passing here? Was my inutile question. To which Jerick haughtily answered that it was intended for tourists who view the falls as it was raining often here. Geez, the waiting shed was on th opposite bank. I caught the Chinese looking guy viewing the falls from a distance and is seem to have been composing his shot for the place “I call him the thinking man” Everyone just laughed.
On our way back, we dropped by Sagada weaving to see their crafts and weavers-perhaps Sagada’s best. Honestly, I’m not into bringing in pasalubongs, but I can say their products are work of art. But my tummy is all too busy complaining for our late lunch that I barely can concentrate picking a nice pasalubong. So we head off to E. Masferre Restaurant for our lunch. Legend says they serve the much publicized “pinikpikan”.
E Masferre Restaurant is quite good on what they cook. We initially wanted the Pinikpikan but the waitress told us it is only available on good-for-ten person servings. “I said i am hungry. But not that hungry!”So no, we’re eating something else”. I ordered pochero with fresh cabbage leaves submerged (another understatement of my food recipe ignorance) and devoured the meat hungrily. I never looked back on the plate thereafter. “Shucks, grabe ka kumain Doc” giggled Joy. Over lunch Jerick talked about his place and his family, of the restaurant business that he so wanted but had eluded him because of financial difficulties. We offered our help and advices (mostly connections in Manila) as we saw the sincerity in his eyes. We paid and thanked Jerick for the cordial service he extended to us.
Since it was already late in the afternoon, I and Joy decide to just end our location exploration of Sagada to those we already went to and leave the rest to our next trip back to this highland paradise. I think we just covered a fifth of what’s attractive of Sagada but there are always the second time I guess. We instead littered around the market and shop for souvenirs and stuff-food actually. When the rain started pouring again, we headed back to St. Josephs and rested for the night. We almost immediately doze off because of our tiring walks. “Good night Joy!” Hope we don’t find that peeping skull under our comforters!” I teased Joy. “Shut up Doc”