Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Ah, Sagada...

Christmas day started at 4 am for me. I caught the Cable Tours bus to Bontoc, a trip that took roughly two and a half hours. Again, it was winding and narrow roads through the mountains. I saw several people on the bus throwing up in plastic bags. The sight of them puking their guts out was horrendous. The view along the route was spectacular and breathtaking however. I saw more terraces (smaller ones this time) and the fog closely clung to the mountaintops.

There was a dearth of jeepneys plying the Bontoc-Sagada route. It was Christmas day so I did not wonder why. I met this charming Czech family who was in the bus as well and were taking a side trip to Sagada. So we went together to the deserted jeepney station. Where we saw a few people waiting for a jeep as well.Finally a jeepney came and it took an hour for it to get full and leave.

About an hour later we arrived in the charming town of Sadaga nestled in a small valley with enchanting views. Upon registering at the municipal tourism office, I met the Chua family (a mom and three adult kids) and a couple (Miguel and Analyn). They were trying to arrange their itinerary for that day too. We agreed to go spelunking together to save on the cost for the tour guides, which totalled to roughly P800. We first checked in at the St. Joseph hotel where I took a despicable single room with a common bathroom (I don't recommend this hotel for their rooms, but the view is probably the best in the town).

After brunch we converged at the municipal hall where we met our guides Bob and Bryan. The latter is a 16 year old kid who had been a guide since he was 11. To save on the jeepney rental, we took the 40-minute walk to the Sumaguing cave, which is the most popular cave in Sagada. The hike was a good way to see the amazing rock formations that dot the Sagada landscape. In one section of the hike we also saw a sloping valley surrounded by pines. The breeze was definitely cool but not as freezing as Banaue.

We reached Sumaguing (a cave that President Arroyo would visit days after we did) where our guides pulled out their gas lamps. The entrance to the cave was bloody slippery, I was using my hands for support when we went deeper inside. (The lovely Analyn on the other hand made it look like a walk in the park for her.) The cave got colder as we descended, my breath was steaming. We reached a major chamber that was as high as a church's ceiling with bats hovering above us. We were surrounded by these amazing rock formations. Depending on one's imagination, the guide told us some of the formations look like an elephant, one loooks like a pregnant lady with a pussy to boot, another looked like a penis, or a curtain, and a turtle.

We prepared to get wet in the cave's freezing water… and I mean FREEZING, it was not even pleasant. We went deeper into the cave while I shivered beyond what I imagined, to think that I was only wet up to my waist so far. The guide took us to some cracks in the cave so we had to go crawling and ducking from the sharp rocks hanging overhead. One crack led to one smaller chamber to another. We encountered small brooks that ran all over the cave and swam in tiny and shallow pools. This time I totally got wet and unimaginably cold my balls were freezing. Eventually however I got used to it. We went through a chain of caverns, plunged in the water, used ropes to climb cave walls, and did more crawling… things I don't usually do but were exhilarated to experience with such a fun company. The guide finally took us to a chamber that had a very deep pool where we went swimming. The water was of course freezing but I managed.

After spelunking, we walked to the Echo Valley, passing through the Church of St. Mary and the town's lovely cemetery. We reached the valley and saw hanging coffins at the other side of the cliff just as the sun was setting. The guide told us that most of the coffins dates hundreds of years, with the last coffin installed in 2003. With hardly any daylight left, we went scouring the souvenir shops where I saw a few kids in the streets.

After having a shower without hot water (because the hotel could not bring it on time), the same group went out for dinner at Greenhouse. The waiter was doing everything himself - waiting, manning the cashier, cleaning the tables, and cooking the food - so we had to wait for an hour to finally eat. The food was not even nice. Fortunately, the company was great so the conversation pretty much saved us from starvation.

Later in the evening, I met the couple Kare and Biag, dancers from the Ballet Philippines who are friends of my sisters. Biag grew up in Sagada and was there for the holidays. We sat in the bonfire outside the hotel to counter the biting cold. Biag had insightful things to say about the culture of Sagada as well as the unchecked development that the place is being threatened with.

I woke up shivering early the next day because I was stupid enough to keep the windows open the entire evening. From the hotel I could see the fog envelop the whole town. Visibility was pretty low. Our group gathered again at the municipal hall where we met Bryan who would bring us to the small falls that day.

We again hiked a good 20 minutes to the small falls. The vistas were excellent as usual… pine forests, vegetable gardens, rock formations, and distant mountains. Along the way we had to descend a manageable hill until we reached the small falls. Bryan told us that the water was not strong that day because the nearby farms were irrigating their crops. We did not dare swim in what seemed like muddy water, but the sound of the water was refreshing already.

A jeep picked us up from near the small falls to bring us to Kiltepan Point, which was about 30 minutes away from the town proper. Kiltepan is popular for its vantage point of the marvellous mountains surrounding Sagada and the small terraces that rest at their foot. A little over halfway through the rough road going to the viewing area our jeep could not manage the muddy road anymore. So we hiked for a few minutes until we reached a clearing that was eerily wrapped in fog. Needless to say, we did not see anything from the viewpoint, thanks to the fog.

Disappointed, we went back to town and headed to the burial caves. Stacked at the cave's entrance were coffins that date hundred of years. The coffins look way too tiny for a human body. Apparently the corpses were cured like ham, folded into a fetal position, and placed in their coffins. After which they'd be tucked into their final resting place. The coffins have interesting details such as geeko embellishments or a human face adorning them. The caves had been restricted (you can't go inside without a guide) because some tourists have previously conveniently slip out a bone or two. Those mothefuckers!

We headed back to the town where we had brunch at the famous Yoghurt House. Words couldn't describe how the strawberry yoghurt melted in my mouth. Scrumptious!

The Chua family left for Baguio after lunch. (Note: Hey guys, it was such a pleasure knowing you in this trip. It was a joy sharing the experiences with you, you lovely bunch.) I milled around the Church of St. Mary while Miguel and Analyn had a nap.

In the afternoon, Miguel and I went looking for bikes to rent so we can go back to Kiltepan point. However, we did not find such a service (god, it's a business opportunity!). So we decided to walk all the way to Kiltepan, which took us about an hour or so. The walk was well worth it however because without the fog Kiltepan offered a phenomenal view of the mountains. Tucked in the valley was a small village, surrounded with tiny terraces.

Miguel, Analyn, and I had dinner at Masfere's Café where I had chicken sandwich and fries. I convinced the couple that we have desert at the Yoghurt House. This time I tried the granola yoghurt, which I think I liked better than the strawberry kind.

After dinner, it was time to say goodbye to Miguel and Analyn who were hopping to Bontoc the next day while I leave for Baguio the next day as well. (Note: It was amazing to discover Sagada with you guys. It could've been way too boring without you and indeed I'm happy to have met such a lovely couple. Wishing you all the best!)

It was a particularly chilly evening so I sat in the hotel's fireplace for a few minutes before going to sleep. And yeah, I left the window open again.

For more pics, click here.

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