It took a kooky tour guide named Tracey, the dire need to escape Manila’s scorching summer heat, and twenty-something years to finally get me into a bus en route to that place high up in the mountains called Sagada.

If anything, my trip was one grand production. The stage was set twenty years ago, I was a young girl whose sole idea of traveling was going to Disneyland because somebody (Mickey Mouse) told me that it was “The Happiest Place on Earth”. I remember it was hours before our San Francisco flight when my then-alive (and sorely missed) Auntie Char called me into her room to give me a Philippines Travel Book. But why?? Upon seeing the puzzled look on my face, my ever patriotic aunt told me something I would only grasp the meaning of ten to fifteen years later. She said something along the lines of “Before you go off making your mark in the world, take a look at where you come from. Go around the country. Find a place, a something, that you will proudly talk about with the people you meet along the way.”

I only saw one page of that green book—I lost it before I even got to browse through it. It was the page she personally showed me and it was the rice terraces of Sagada and Banawe. I didn’t know then why my Aunt was so keen on getting my Disneyland-set ass to the place—fast forward to twenty years later and I finally understand why.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

My good friend Tracey (read: the kooky tour guide) knows Sagada like the back of her hand. She’s been there a whopping twenty-seven times and she invited us to tag along with her tour group of UP Architecture students. We left Manila 11PM on Thursday and arrived in Sagada (after transferring buses in Baguio’s Dangwa Station) a little over twelve hours later. Apparently, the first value I am to learn (and acquire) in Sagada was patience. If you think the six-hour-long bus ride to Baguio is eternity, the additional six hours to Sagada will change your mind. The view along the road, however, will be worth it. Every hour or so, you will be greeted with idyllic town scenery and the picturesque rice terraces of the province.

Countless bus stops and rice terraces later, we finally reached our destination. Tracey had everything laid out the moment we stepped out of the bus. We stayed at the Sagada Guest House where a very cordial staff welcomed us into their town. Later I saw that friendliness extended beyond our modest accommodation—if there was one thing that amazed me about Sagada, it was how forthcoming the locals were. I think when it comes to Filipino hospitality, you will experience the best of it here. It was definitely a refreshing change from the city.

Two words—SPACE OUT.

That aptly describes our first day there. Seeing as how we were all tired from the trip (I could no longer feel my butt), Tracey had an easy afternoon planned for us. We started our tour in the middle of town at the St. Mary’s Church, an Episcopalian church where Sagadans go to worship. It is prime real estate—located right on top of a hill overlooking town and, as with the rest of town, has a mystic vibe to it.

Further along the road is what I think one of Sagada’s most hauntingly beautiful places—Calvary Hill and Echo Valley. It is among the many places the locals bury their dead. Sagadans, we quickly learned, regard the spirits of their deceased ancestors whom they call anitos as the most important category of the supernatural. They are very particular when it comes to where they bury their dead. One of the locals explained to us the many intricacies surrounding their burial practices. There were different burial sites for different kinds of death—women who died in childbirth, suicides, children, babies, and even people unable to marry while alive. Raffy, a Sagada native who joined us the following day on our visit to Sagada’s caves, shared that suicides were buried and sealed within the deepest parts of Echo Valley to keep their spirits from coming out of their coffins and haunting the people they left behind. Suicides were said to be bad spirits and most of them were buried in Echo Valley where, just that afternoon, we were shouting our “HELLOs” towards the mountains to hear them echo our words right back. Nice!

The day ended with the perfect sunset and an incredibly filling meal at St. Joseph’s Café—a lovely prelude to the next day’s adventure.

Adventure Central.

Unlike my fitness-conscious boyfriend, I have never gone on a hike that lasted longer than thirty minutes. But hiking (endless hiking) was what we did the following day. It started out pleasantly enough—walking downhill was a breeze. But then came our forages into the caves of Sagada. We first went on another downhill hike toward the mouth of the Lumiang Cave where we were greeted by the sight of wooden coffins painstakingly stacked, one on top of the other, against the walls of the cave. Caskets were carefully preserved save for one that had the deceased’s skull open for viewers. A treat for this self-proclaimed praning.

Our next stop was Sagada’s famous Big Cave, a.k.a. Sumaging Cave—and it is spelunking central. While we were unable to go spelunking that day, Tracey told us that Sumaging was so huge that it would probably take one to two hours to explore it. It is also interconnected with Lumiang Cave and the other famed caves of Sagada. Sumaging Cave is said to be filled with exhilaratingly beautiful rock formations and an underground river. Spelunking inside the cave is definitely one more reason why I’m coming back again soon!

Trekking up and down towards the mouths of both caves left us feeling bone-tired and impossibly hungry by the time we arrived at St. Joseph’s Café. We thought we were done for the day but it turns out, Tracey had another half-day’s worth of climbing and walking planned for us.

Wonders of the world.

Indeed, the rice terraces carved out of the mountains by our Igorot ancestors are simply awesome to behold. And while the most famous of these terraces are found in Banaue, Ifugao, the ones in Sagada are, in my opinion, even more spectacular! I will never forget how overwhelming it was for me to finally walk along the pilapils of Ankileng Village’s sublime terraces. I have never experienced GREEN in so many ways and in just one breezy afternoon! It is one thing to look at a perfectly-captured photograph of the terraces—but definitely something else entirely when you are actually walking across it.

It was an incredibly humbling experience, realizing how we are, in the grand scheme of things, almost tantamount to nothing. I felt so small but at the same time I saw how truly powerful one can be—imagine, it took a flock of people probably as insignificantly small as I am, to build something this majestic. It was humbling and empowering at the same time. It was like being stripped back to basics. I saw and accepted myself for being the flawed human being that I am. And with this experience also saw my untapped potential and how I am a product of my own history—and I finally saw the reason why my late aunt wanted me to experience the sheer magnitude of Sagada.

The worldly wonders did not end there. Our trek into Ankileng Village gave us a preview of what life was for its residents. We got to converse with one of Sagada’s elders and he enlightened us about how strictly they uphold their culture and traditions. We spent around an hour here and when it was nearing sunset, we made our way up to Kiltepan Tower where we were afforded with bird’s-eye-views of the other villages.

Our last stop was the redundantly named Lake Danom—danom translates to water—to view the sunset the lake was so famous for. This was one of the highlights of our trip. The lake was more like a lagoon and upon seeing it, we felt like we were transported into a different country. I never thought I’d find a place like this in Sagada but apparently, Sagada is ripe with surprises. The lake, as promised, produced grand scale spectacular sunsets and during our visit there, we were not disappointed. It was, in a word, sublime. One of the most staggering I have ever seen.

While staring (and spacing out) at the sunset, I realized then that Sagada came at the perfect time. I was fresh into a new relationship and we both needed an escape from the chaos that is the city we fondly call home. It was a journey to the soul and it was one that put a lot of things in perspective. Sagada was like going back to the fundamentals. I felt it the moment the cool mountain breeze hit me in the face—everything was just so pure and untainted. The air is fresh and the smell of pine is everywhere. There was just an aura of authenticity about the place that I felt it was exactly the clean slate that I have been looking for, but could not find, in Manila. I am definitely not done with my love affair with Sagada. And I am counting the days when I go back and see what other wonders await.

Food Heaven
Yes, Sagada may be famous for its “Big Cave” and “Big Falls”, but I suggest you also bring your Big Appetites with you as it is home to the country’s best food experiences.

St. Joseph’s Café. Before the day’s grueling trek, drop by St. Joseph’s for a hearty breakfast that will satisfy your craving for a meal that’s laden with tasty meat and freshly-picked vegetables. Ask the restaurant’s staff for their freshly-baked bread and homemade strawberry jam—heaven in the mouth!

Yoghurt House. They serve one of the best (and freshest) yoghurts I’ve had the pleasure to taste—they use freshly-picked strawberries, banana and granola for toppings and it is enough to tide you over for a late-afternoon walk.

Saturday Dinner Buffet at the Log Cabin. Tourists and locals alike flock to the famous Log Cabin every Saturday for a taste of French Chef Aklay’s culinary masterpieces. During our visit, we were treated to a scrumptious buffet dinner that consisted of freshly picked greens, roast porkloin, mashed potato with cauliflower and broccoli, red rice, and a delectable desserts selection. It will make you eat like you have never eaten before.

And, of course, if you’re looking to take home fresh Sagada produce, drop by town central on Saturday morning for Market Day! The streets are lined with vegetables, fruits, fish, and everything else you need to cook up a hearty meal at home.

This was published in HIPP Magazine’s April 2009 issue.