October 28, 2013

Up in the North: Sagada, Mountain Province

Not much has changed since my first visit to Sagada, which must have been more than five years ago. Granted that most of the roads have already been cemented and that mobile signals are a bit more stable, the town proper and sights to see remained pretty much the same.

The main reason why I decided to visit Sagada again is that I recently learned that there is more to the place than the usual trekking and caving that it is known for. Due to its fertile mountain soil, there are various fruits and plants that you can harvest, depending on the month of the year. Colder months like February yield blueberries, while wetter months like August yield mushrooms. Supposedly, you can even find "medicinal" herbs and fungi in Sagada (if you know what I mean). What I was most interested in was the orange-picking season which happens during the latter part of the year.

How to Get There (from Manila)

There are two main routes going to Sagada from Manila:
  • Manila - Baguio - Sagada
  • Manila - Banaue - (Bontoc) - Sagada

The former route is the faster one, while the latter route is the more scenic one. Unfortunately, there is no non-stop trip to Sagada (unless, of course, you're bringing your own vehicle). While it is relatively safe to travel to Sagada via private vehicle, it is perfectly logical to travel via public transport. Drivers that travel to and from Sagada on scheduled trips are no doubt familiar with each curve of the roads that cut through the mountains.

We opted the Manila - Banaue - Sagada route going to, and the Sagada - Baguio - Manila route going from.

Manila - Banaue - (Bontoc) - Sagada

There are a lot of searchable public buses online that offer scheduled trips for this route, and for our trip we chose Ohayami Trans, the reason being the website of this bus line is by far the most comprehensive and informative. The website also details contact numbers wherein the staff actually respond to your inquiries in a timely manner, a big plus point for me. They were even kind enough to extend our reservation period as we were going to be a little late. To date, a ticket to Banaue costs 450 PHP.

Earliest trip from Manila is 9PM (usually during peak season), and the trip to Banaue takes around 9 hours.

When you reach Banaue, there are three options commuting to Sagada: via local bus, via jeepneys, and via private van. Some points to consider:
  • Banaue has a small town proper, and the jeep/ bus terminals are usually found at the side of the national highway. While it may be daunting at first to choose which mode of transportation to use, you can always ask around just as long as you are able to do you research beforehand.
  • You may opt for a cut-ride to Bontoc, then from Bontoc to Sagada. There are jeepneys that go this route.
  • Since travel to and from Sagada isn't that as hectic, travel schedules are spaced one hour apart, at the minimum. So make sure to schedule your time accordingly.
  • Related to the point above, most modes of transportation require a minimum number of passengers (i.e. 4 to 6 pax). If your travelling during an off-peak season, expect that there will be a scarcity of tourists, ergo you might need to pay more for the transport.

For our trip, we chose to hire a private van, since the schedules of the local bus and jeepneys start in the afternoon pa. The private van cost 3,000 PHP, and since we were travelling during off-peak season, there were only four (4) of us in the van.
So we just made sure that the van stopped at all the viewpoints possible, para kahit papaano masulit naman 'yung biyahe.

Travel from Banaue to Sagada takes around four hours.

View from the balcony of People's Lodge and Restaurant, where we had our breakfast.

Some local Igorots who are willing to pose for a photo, for a humble donation.

More views of the rice terraces.

The roads are quite scary especially during the rainy season,
where there is a high risk of landslides.

Sagada - Baguio - Manila
The town proper in Sagada also serves as a central jeepney/ bus terminal for public vehicles passing through Sagada. In here you should also find the local bus (i.e. GL-Lizardo) that picks up passengers en route to Baguio. The earliest trip is at 7AM and the last trip is 1PM. To date (buses come by the hour), a ticket to Baguio costs around 200++ PHP.

Where to Stay (and Eat)

Since our main purpose for the trip is orange-picking, we opted to stay in the inn that hosts the activity. The Rock Inn & Cafe has an orange orchard in its backyard, its own restaurant, and cozy rooms that can hold from 3 pax (1,500 PHP per night) to 8 pax (400 PHP per night). The Rock Inn & Cafe is far from the town proper, however, and they charge you around for hatid-sundo services outside the complimentary service they offer.

Some thoughts when choosing a place to stay:
  • Sagada is a mountainous region and requires a LOT of walking (if you did not bring your own vehicle), so consider checking in at a place near the town proper as most activities happen there.
  • Most inns do not offer A/C rooms, but this should be okay since Sagada has a relatively cool atmosphere.
  • Be mindful of the amenities the inns offer. There are inns that do not offer hot/cold water in the showers, which might be uncomfortable considering the climate in Sagada.
  • As Sagada isn't the most accessible place to go around, also check with the inn if there are additional services that they offer and if there are extra charges for that (for The Rock Inn & Cafe they charge 200 PHP one way).

Orange trees in The Rock Inn & Cafe. 
Separate fees for entrance to the farm (50 PHP) 
and taking home oranges, by the kilo (60 PHP per kilo).

As for food, Sagada is actually a pretty safe place to explore (gastronomically speaking). Most of the restaurants are trained to cater backpackers from other countries, and you'd be surprised how well they are able to converse in English. The food is prepared with the freshest ingredients, and the servings are HUGE. Prices are a bit high, though, but quite reasonable I guess since they live so far from the next town.

My favorite restaurants are Masferre's Country Inn and Restaurant (they make really good sinigang), Yoghurt House (for their breakfast), and Shamrock Cafe (for the fried rice). A map of Sagada town proper can be found here

Breakfast at The Rock Inn & Cafe.

Chocolate Chip Yoghurt (100 PHP) at the Yoghurt House.

What to Do (Weekend Itinerary)

The first thing one should do arriving in Sagada is to register at the Tourist Information Center. Everyone should pay an environmental fee of 35 PHP (as I recall), which I think is fair since most of the activities in Sagada involve interaction with nature.

Most of the activities can be done in half a day, but they can also be exhausting since they involve trekking while you are breathing the thin mountain air. Ideally it would be nice to pace the activities in the morning and spend your afternoon resting or food-tripping, but if you only have a weekend off (meaning travel from Manila is on Friday night and arrival to Sagada is on Saturday morning, so considering your check-in and rest from travel, your only free day is on Sunday), I suggest that you take the Echo Trail in the morning and the Caving in the afternoon.

Other points to consider:
  • DO NOT GO TREKKING UNSUPERVISED. Tourism is one of the major livelihoods of the locals, so do not rob them of the opportunity to earn something for the day.
  • Consider the weather when planning your activity. This is kind of a no-brainer, actually. Dry season is a good season for trekking and caving, since there will be no muddy obstacles to go through. Rainy season can still be okay for caving, as long as the water levels don't go too high.
  • Wear appropriate clothes and shoes. The proper attire will mean the world, especially if you have to go through slippery slopes and cold temperature.
  • Stay properly hydrated and energized. You WILL tire sooner than you expect, because of the thin mountain air. So pack your provisions appropriately.

Echo Valley Trail

This tour involves trekking down the Echo Valley, where you will find the hanging coffins, the entrance to an underground river, lots and lots of small creeks, coffee plants, and greenery, and ends at the Bokong waterfall. Guide fee is 600 PHP for a group of up to 10 pax.

Pamphlet at the Tourist Information Center
IMG_8794  IMG_8798  IMG_8848
Trek starts at the back of the Church...
...and through a cemetery.
Hanging Coffins, a burial ritual still being done by some of the locals today.

Bokong Falls, AKA "Small Falls"

Caving (Beginner's Level)

There are three levels of caving/spelunking in Sagada.

The first level takes you to the Sumaguing Cave, where trekkers descend into depths of up to 163 meters. The first phase of the trek involves navigating through limestone rocks that are slippery with bat droppings. The second phase of the trek involves walking barefoot on smoother rocks, where the soles of your feet provide surprisingly efficient traction, especially if the rocks are wet with fresh cave water. Expect a lot of climbing, tunneling and rappelling in this level.

The second level is the cave connection, where you enter from the Lumiang "Burial" Cave and exit from the Sumaguing Cave. I haven't tried this one, but the trek here is supposedly steeper and more dangerous, and would take an approximate six hours to finish.

The third level is the Crystal Cave, supposedly the most difficult cave to explore. Our guide told us that the Crystal Cave trekking involves a lot of crawling through tunnels and tight spaces, where only one person can fit through at a time. Rock formations are more exotic in the Crystal Cave, and the sight to behold is supposedly worth the effort.

We only availed Level 1. Guide fee is 500 for up to 4 pax.
Pamphlet at the Tourist Center.

One of the rock formations in Sumaguing Cave, I believe this is the Shark's Head.

Another group came before us; here's a picture of them taking a picture of themselves.

A view from inside the cave to the outside.
It is still a steep climb from where I stood.

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