I do not have a death wish.
Sagada is best known for its hanging coffins. It is located in the mountain region of the Luzon Province in the Philippines. The town is a popular tourist destination for spelunkers, hikers, nature lovers, adventure enthusiasts and inquisitive persons like me. The community is not very large, but they are welcoming and friendly.
I arrived in the Philippines excited about executing my DIY itinerary to Sagada. It took 12 hours by overnight coach to arrive at my stop. As we pulled out of the station, curtains were drawn, and I along with other passengers settled down and prepared to sleep as best I could in my seat.
TIP #1: If your time is limited and you want to maximize on sightseeing, opt to travel overnight. Though it may be uncomfortable, you will save one night’s hotel expense and cover the distance to your destination while you sleep.
Through the night we rumbled along. I awoke to the first signs of daylight and drew back my curtains for a better look. We had stopped in a small village where the first stirrings of life were evident by the vegetable hawkers and a few sleepy dogs. Vehicles drive on the right side of the road and as we made our way along I saw many signs that said: Sharp Turn, Check Your Brakes, Slow Down, Steep Incline, Winding Road, etc. I was captivated by the views I could see in the distance, rice terraces, mountainside, local villages, raging rivers and rapids.
I arrived in Sagada and alighted from the bus to walk a few meters to the town square. In less than an hour after arrival I arranged with a couple (Sopiya & Matt) to go on our first adventure of the area. We chose to hike Echo Valley, visit the hanging coffins, trek through the subterranean river and finish at the cascading waterfall. The ground was wet, muddy, slippery and at times we were knee deep in water. Our guide clambered deftly over rocks wearing only rubber slippers, but the three of us moved much slower to maneuver over the rocks, slipping and sliding all the way. The tour took us two and a half hours, double the time to complete.
It is rainy season in the Philippines, and not to waste time, I moved quickly to arrange the tours I wanted to accomplish. I joined a different group the next day to go spelunking with Danica & Greg, Nico & Kim. We arranged to visit the Lumiang and Sumaging caves, respectively. Along the way our guide identified points of interest. We got to know each other a bit as we went along: where we came from, our professions, and our travel ambitions. Our first stop, the Lumiang Cave has a few hanging coffins. This tradition is no longer practiced. Also, this cave is connected to the Sumaging Cave. To walk the course would take approximately four and a half hours, but experienced spelunkers do it in less time. After a photo session there we headed over to the entrance of the Sumaging Cave. This is where things got real interesting.
We descended the tiny steps into the cave. Our guide armed with a lantern and feet clad in slippers (slippers are the preferred footwear) advised us to change our sneakers for slippers too.
Tip #2: When spelunking travel lite. You will need to use both hands to help hold, pull, grab or steady you along the way.
We were all excited as we followed the leader, but that excitement turned to disgust when we had to hold onto rocks covered in slippery bat poop. I know bats live in caves and that I would encounter such things, but who thinks of those things when expecting to see wonders they have never seen before? Trying my best not to touch anything I eventually gave up because the rocks were slippery and refusing to hold on would mean a hard fall (that would come later, :)). We slowly made our way down, down, down into the cave. We were shown formations of stalactites and stalagmites that resembled one thing or another such as: pig sty, elephant trunk & ear, turtle, chocolate cake, king’s curtain, and parts of the human anatomy.
At one time I pondered, “What on earth am I doing in the belly of the earth?” Trying not to panic or to allow foreboding thoughts to take hold, I focused on scaling slippery rocks, wading through pools of water, and at times sitting down in the cold cascading water flow to better transfer from one level to the next. At the site where all groups turn around to climb back to the top, a few implements are used for the ascent: a thick knotted rope and a tire-ladder. Every step needs to be sure and steady otherwise you will land firmly where yours truly landed with a heavy thud – on your backside. No injuries were sustained except to my pride. The two men in the group rushed to assist me (thanks Greg and Nico), to make sure I was alright as we continued our journey to the top. The climb out of the cave seemed to go faster than when we first went down. No one commented on the bat poop as we exited, relieved to see the daylight at the mouth of the tunnel, and to wash our hands and feet. To cap off the experience we ate a hearty, delicious lunch at a local vegan restaurant.
Tip #3: Wear light clothing and water shoes. Be prepared to get wet.
Tip #4: A flashlight would be handy.
Tip #5: Use sports camera strapped to head or chest for your photos.
Tip #6: Spelunking is more fun when done in a group.
Tip #7: Follow the guide closely and obey instructions. They have done it numerous times and are more experienced.
Tip #8: Pack wipes for easy clean-up.
Tip #9: If you must carry items use a water-proof bag.
Two and a half days of exploring and experiencing life in Sagada gave me memories more than I anticipated. The cool fresh mountain air, the slow laid-back life, the beauty of the valley polka-dotted with rice terraces, rivers, waterfalls and lake presented an idyllic lifestyle that is addictive and one I could easily adjust to. I truly didn’t want to leave but Manila beckoned.
At the beginning I told you I do not have a death wish. I was not being facetious. Such a morbid concept seemed to loom large, consciously or unconscious, at every turn. First, in the hanging coffins, then a real possibility in the slippery descent and ascent into the cave, and lastly the drive from Sagada. I recall Greg saying the road to Sagada was considered one of the most dangerous roads in the world. He was not lying. I was not fully aware of this fact until my departure.
As the bus drove away from the town, my thoughts were of taking the last photos of spectacular views of the area. This time we are driving on the other side of the road where I could clearly see the dangers ahead. Deep ravines, precipices and gorges lay below. At every turn it seemed to me the bus was about to drive off the edge of the road. I looked around and most passengers appeared to be doing alright (their window curtains were drawn, probably for good reasons I’m sure). Two girls, one behind and the other sitting across from me were sick. I wanted to take photos but could not look and at times felt like vomiting myself. I prayed, “Lord, this is not how I want to die.” Seriously, you may laugh, but that ride was terrifying. It made me wish to be back among the regular traffic jumble I’d observed so far. To me it would’ve been better than navigating a road where at certain points there were no guardrails or barriers, the barriers that were in place where either not high enough, a thin metal sheet or the height of it not even a foot tall. Also, in some parts the road was eroding and unpaved. There is a lot of roadwork going on causing the road to become even narrower.
To tell you of my dread is an understatement. The driver hardly blew his horn going around the hairpin bends which were plenty. I sat on the edge of my seat and held onto the seat in front of me for 12 straight hours. I could not sleep on the way back to Manila. Even when we got closer to the city, the driving was scary. When I told the conductor, how scared I was, he laughed and said they are used to it.
The trip to Sagada was great, but I am glad it is over and checked-off my to-do list. I made new friends, got to see and do cool stuff like: exploring the area, spelunking caves, walking through the subterranean river, meeting and chatting with locals, and eating the local cuisine. I especially enjoyed drinking their mountain tea. However, I do not think I will be driving there again.
Tip #10: My experience may not be yours. You can’t know what it is like until you have tried it. Go see it for yourself.
Community Peeps, this has been a long post, and still the half has not been told. I have more than 1000+ photos to organize and arrange of my Southeast Asia tour for future postings so stay tuned. Next will be one last post about Manila. You don’t want to miss that one.
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