The spiritual highs and the deep dark lows of Sagada

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April 1st 2015
Published: May 4th 2015
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Leaving for Sagada the following morning was confusing to say the least. Were we going via Jeepney or private bus? Should we take the cheaper Jeepney option or join the others in hiring a private minivan which costs more? Were we going to opt for the day trip, an overnight stay or a couple of nights? After hearing bus services had been stopped in Banaue on Good Friday, we did not know if there would be any bus services on that Friday in Sagada and our flight leaves Manila for Cebu on Saturday so we eventually agreed just to stay the one night in Sagada.

To be honest, we were not fussed about the jeepney but as others in our newly found group had limited time in Sagada and could only do a day trip, their options were limited in a jeepney and so we opted to accompany them in the minivan to increase comfort and reduce costs.

After a 3 hr bus ride we arrived in Sagada and went straight to the tourism office ready to book and begin our tour to see the caves and hanging coffins. All tours must be booked here due to the knowledge and expertise of the local guides.

We loved the motto here.
'Whilst in Sagada... Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time'.

Not really knowing what to expect from the tour apart from the expectation to see a cave and hanging coffins, we arrived at the cave entrance and were greeted by a few dozen hanging coffins. All wooden and small in size, some coffins were broken and clearly aged from their dull weathered appearance. Positioned on top of each other in different directions like a jenga tower with many perched at the top of the cave entrance, it was a strange sight for us coming from a country where coffins are all buried out of sight.

We were given information about these hanging coffins from our guide and were informed that the coffins contain people that are buried in the fetal position thus explaining the small size of the coffins. A practice that is mainly done due to spiritual as opposed to religious underpinnings and is something that continues to take place today. Although away from the curious tourist eye, that is.

The guide went on; most people have their coffin made free of charge before they eventually pass away. When they do pass away the body is carried to the cliff hanging sight. It is believed to bring success and luck on the people carrying the body if the bodily fluids fall onto them (that had us there).

A major expense during and after the funeral therefore falls on the family. There is an expectation that the family will slaughter a certain number of chickens and pigs at the ceremony and throughout the year all in memory of the person who passed.

Unfortunately, although many coffins remain intact, many have been destroyed by earthquakes and looters breaking inside them hoping to find treasures such as gold & silver that were once placed beside its owners.

We then proceeded into the cave. Our 2 guides gave us a quick safety lesson about following their instructions, taking our time etc and then lit their kerosene torches and off we went. Not really aware of what lay ahead we all entered deeper into the cave in single file chatting happily whilst one of the guides played reggae music on his
phone. Little did we know at the time that this would be a full blown 3-4 hours of caving going 150 meters deep down into the cave. We were in for a treat. Having both experienced the ATM caving tour in San Ignacio, Belize; Something we really enjoyed in the past, we couldn't believe our luck that we had stumbled upon something similar again.

As soon as we entered the cave, the social chatter stopped and the groups nervous excitement began which transpired into many "wows" "no way's" "thats not possible" and "I cannot do that". Nevertheless we were clambering down huge rock faces, watching where the guide or the person in front stepped whilst at the same time mentally telling ourselves we could do this. Some areas required us to climb huge rock faces, lower ourselves through tiny holes, crawl or squeeze ourselves through tiny crevices whilst watching our heads on low rock and any sharp edges that could cause injury. Going up, down and across rocks with many steep drops we knew at any point a single mistake leading to a fall could cause serious injury or even worse.

Fortunately, no one was hurt
Chris trying not to slipChris trying not to slipChris trying not to slip

Only the guides had lights
as we were all too acutely aware of the lack of health and safety regulations that we are all to accustomed to back home. We carefully took our time, listened intently to our guides, often sitting down to shuffle down a rock and used the guides support wherever possible.

They were not human our guides. In places where were 15 feet high, our guides would perch themselves midway, sometimes locking themselves into a split like position with their legs so we could climb on them to climb down the rock. They were super human but as the guides said, these caves were their playground as children. Very brave guys.

The most difficult part was the wet areas of the cave that we had to travel through as this was the most slippery areas. As it is only dry season, at most the water only reached Chris's waist and P's stomach in the deepest areas. Climbing up rock with water running down was difficult to say the least although at a few points there were pre attached ropes to help us climb up or absail down.

Okay, we do make it sound dangerous, and we can't gloss over the fact that it was. To do this we figured you have to be in good shape, healthy and be adventurous to say the least. It is not for everyone, especially not the faint hearted. We did read reviews afterwards that said that they turned back too weary of the danger. For us however, this was the most thrilling, adventurous, and challenging thing we have done on the trip. Putting it up their with trekking in Myanmar we rated this as one of the best things we have done so far. As P says it was immense.

Using every part of our bodies from our legs to push ourselves up, using our arms to hold on, our shoulders and backs to lower ourselves down holes we knew we would be able feel every muscle in our bodies the next day.

Surprisingly, our fitness may have improved from all the trekking we've done so far as apart from a few small aches, we were not in much pain the following day.

Finishing the tour for around 4:30 having only breakfast that morning we were all complaining of hunger, so as 2 of the group went back to Banaue (who we would see again tomorrow) the remaining 4 of us (the 2 of us, Dennis and Matt) quickly showered and were out on the streets of Sagada to hunt down some food. Well not literally hunt it ourselves, we just wanted a little local eatery food joint; we did however come across a pig that had just been slaughtered by some locals on our way. Not a pleasant noise to hear or sight to see; which brought us to the discussion that meat is so far removed from what it actually is back home. A slaughtered animal. I guess for children growing up in places like this, it just becomes the norm but growing up with pets and watching cartoons or animated films i.e. Babe the pig, makes it much harder to witness.

To our surprise, although this town was very quaint most eateries had over inflated tourist prices and we had to search far and wide for something reasonable. In the end we settled on a local joint with tourist prices and Chris ordered Shanghai Lumpia which is a cross between a burrito and spring roll, which was delicious but
too small of a portion to really fill him, while P ordered a chicken stew meal which was nice but again cold.

Afterwards we spent the evening strolling the atmospheric town, before settling down to a few beers and card games with the 2 guys we had met on the tour of Batad rice terraces and continued to travel with; Matt a Southerner now living in Australia and Dennis (a german guy). Both great company.

We played cards and spoke with each other easily about how we all came to travel, our lives back home and some crazy experiences we have had travelling. A lovely way to end a fantastic day.

The following morning, painfully early (our bodies needed rest) we all awoke to watch the Mt Kiltepan sunrise. Well not all of us as Dennis was feeling a little under the weather and stayed behind and had the room to himself.

Matt and the two of us met with the taxi driver Matt had been texting the night before (to arrange this) and after 15 minutes or so we arrived at Mt Kiltepan. Pitch black unable to see anything and slightly cold from the hidden sun we all waited in anticipation and what a treat. As the skies became brighter, the mountain tops revealed themselves with a cloud layer beneath them and the scenery was just beautiful. We don't think our pictures do it justice. Once the sun revealed itself the sunrise itself lasted 10 minutes or so and was a lovely calming experience. Happy with ourselves we all caught the taxi back. Chris opting to have breakfast with Dennis and Matt while P went back to bed. Soon after we all said our goodbyes as we all were heading in different directions across the Philippines. With the two of us going back to Banaue for our nightbus back to Manilla.

The last few days had been incredible made special not by the activities we took part in, the things we had seen, the feel of the towns we were in (with not too many tourists) but mostly the company we kept.

Transportation; private minibus to Banaue to Sagada 300pesos each (Jeepney cost 190 each)

Accomadation; Sagada homestay. 2 doubles, 4 people 300pesos each

Additional photos below
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4th May 2015
Finding out what Spelunking actually is

Quite an adventure!
The caving seemed very tricky and fun--glad you had the super-human guides. But ew--the hanging coffins and getting luck from bodily fluids dropping on you as you carried a coffin--yuck! However, glad you had such good company and got up for a great sunrise. Not at all what I thought the Philippines was about.
5th May 2015
Finding out what Spelunking actually is

quite an adventure
It was adventurous, not at all what we were expected either but we definately had a worthehile memorable experience there. Could not have done it without them guides they were soo skilled and the sunrise topped off our stay nicely. Thanks again for reading Tara.
9th May 2015
Dusk at Mt Kiltepan

I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the caving tour as much as you. Sounds like a great adventure and bravo for getting up the next day for this sunrise. Simply amazing. Glad you keep finding those great adventures and making memories. Happy travels
10th May 2015
Dusk at Mt Kiltepan

Thanks Dave and Merry. In hindsight it was really dangerous, but at the time we felt safe with our guides and the adrenalin made it more exciting. The Kiltepan sunrise was really special and the hanging coffins and their story was really interesting. Overall we really liked Sagada.

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