I’ve got a bone to pick with the Lonely Planet. It describes Sagada as a misty mountain town that might be a nice place to curl up with a good book and hot drink by the fire. With this in mind, I arrived in the late afternoon on it’s steep, wet main road with one sunburnt arm and expectations of a subdued few days. The Game of Thrones has been burning a hole in my backpack for months, and I thought this might be an opportunity to catch up on hot chocolate and find out what misadventures Tyrion Lannister could jawbone his way out of. Wrong, Edwards. Quite wrong
After checking into some accommodation I registered at the tourism office, handed over a fistful of crumpled pesos for the environmental fee, and within the hour had tacked onto a caving tour with a lovely young Filipino/ Thai couple. But this wasn’t a stay-on-the-boardwalk-and-follow-the-rope kind of experience. This was something altogether different. Fred, our intrepid guide, explained that Lumiang was one of a series of traditional burial caves of the Igorot people that are scattered through the limestone karsts of Sagada. With no further warning than that, I found myself face to face with a crumbling, dusty stack of 500 year old pine coffins lined up against the wall of the gaping, black cave mouth. I worked my way down the steps – the only infrastructure on offer for the entire tour – and left the light behind. The occasional earthquake or flood had dislodged some of the coffins from the entrance, so the first few steps along the cave floor were spent picking through shards of pine, a stack of skulls and hemi-pelvises. My induction to spelunking completed, and with Fred insisting that this was his first time also, the real fun began.
The next three hours were spent contorting myself through frighteningly tight crawl spaces, rappelling waterfalls, spider-walking the walls of narrow ravines, wading subterranean lagoons and edging hand and foot along precarious ledges. I don’t have a particularly agreeable relationship with confinement or with heights. So the idea of feeding myself feet first through a narrow, twisting passage of rocks, getting momentarily locked tight while trying to negotiate a bend, or having my chest compressed with the weight of the mountain pressing down from above, had my adrenaline surging. Time and again I had to place blind faith in Fred’s gravelly voice, calling instructions as to where I might find the next toe-hold as I wriggled backwards and belly-up through the blackness, only to emerge on a narrow ledge edging a 15 metre drop-off into the dark. Fred would do his best to calm my nerves by looking around confused, insisting that he didn’t recognise anything and wondering if this was the right way. Of all of the things that I’ve done since I’ve been travelling, I can honestly say that this is the first time I have been scared. Really and truly scared. The potential for injury was everywhere. Fred, typical of the Igorot people seemed immune to the perils of heights, and the concept of slipping and falling is not even considered. He would nonchalantly perch himself on a narrow ledge, with half a thong’s width of purchase on the wet limestone, and happily take our full weight on his knee or shoulder to help us bridge the gaps. No ropes. No radios. No helmets. No maps. No back-up plan. Complete darkness. The Sagada caves are dangerous, and absolutely exhilarating. All of my concerns for the welfare of Tyrion Lannister evaporated – he doesn’t actually know what misadventure is.
Sagada obviously plays its cards close to its chest. The next morning I signed up for a trail walk with the same young couple as the day before. The main attraction was the opportunity to follow an underground river for 150m upstream, and emerge from the cave at the waterfall at its head. But between us and the water were the hanging coffins. Prior to colonisation of the Philippines by the Spanish 500 years ago and the arrival of American missionaries in the early 1900’s, the Igorot people were Animists. They were tightly connected with their environment, and believed that the spirits of their dead returned to form part of the natural world around them. To this end, they believed that the spirits of the dead should not be trapped beneath ground, but instead should be allowed freedom of movement surrounded by air. The coffin, traditionally a hollowed out pine log with a lid, would be fixed in advance to a cliff face reached by a bamboo scaffold, or sometimes by rappelling down from above. Some of these coffins are at a height of 60m, and it is considered that the higher the perch the greater the status of the family within the community. Although they are now mostly dull and grey, originally they were brightly decorated and clearly displayed the tribal name of the occupant. After a ceremony in which the body would be displayed to the community sitting strapped into a funeral chair, it would be wrapped, folded into a foetal position and placed within its final home. The folded posture (symbolizing rebirth) and consequent short coffin gave rise to the tightly held belief that the ancestral Igorot were a half-sized race. But our guides assured us that the mountain people are larger than average. These burial sites are scattered through the valleys and cliffs of Sagada, but the entrance to Lumiang cave and the trail through Echo Valley brought us irreverently close.
Two diverse experiences down, but Sagada had by no means played its trump card. The next morning I teamed up with a young American that I had met caving with his equally confused guide on my first afternoon. In his exhilaration on finishing, he had bought a bottle of gin to have a celebratory drink with his guide, and still fuelled by adrenaline, drowned the bottle. I wasn’t sure what sort of shape he would be in for our early start, but showing an impressive resistance to cheap booze, he was rearing to go with a spring in his step and grinning like a split watermelon. We set off in the back of a jeepney – the ubiquitous V8 diesel, brightly canopied trucks that are the beating heart of the Philippines public transport system – on our way to Sagada’s highest waterfall, Bomod-ok.
The trail led us down 9000 steps through rice terraces and a small village, to bring us to the river on the valley floor. Even though the river was not swelled to capacity, the noise of the waterfall was thunderous and filled the valley from halfway down. We edged closer and closer, leaning into the misty wind generated by the impact of the water cannoning into rocks from 50m above. We had been warned about the danger of swimming in the pool beneath the falls, but it was an opportunity too good to miss. Absolutely isolated, shockingly cold, unfathomably deep, we edged closer to the impact zone itself, wary of a down-draught that might impact on our travel insurance. The mist coming off the falls was like a heavy horizontal rain, making breathing a full body effort, and the current and cold were exhausting to fight against. After twenty minutes of whooping echoes into the valley, we clambered out and dried ourselves on the rocks in the sun, getting ready for the long climb out of the valley. Another incredible experience in this under-rated little town.
I had already stayed longer than I intended and the Game of Thrones still lay neglected, but decided to extend one further night to take in the ‘sea of clouds sunrise’. A handful of other visitors braved the cold at 4.30am to reach the lookout point. This high spot in the ranges gives a spectacular view of the morning fog trapped in the ribbed valley below. Even in the pre-dawn darkness the clouds give off a pearly iridescent glow, but as the they are warmed by the rising sun, they roll and boil through the hills, looking very bit like a slow motion wave breaking on rocks. The colour is impossible to capture on camera. The movement of the clouds mesmerizing. What an incredible finish to a visit to a remarkable town.
So, Lonely Planet, lift your game. I realise that there is only so much information that you can cram into 1000 pages on South East Asia, but Sagada deserves a far better wrap than it is given. Everyone that I’ve met raves about it, and paying it forward, I’ve been recommending it to everyone that I meet.
Sagada, but I think that you got dealt all of the aces.