I recently moved to Thailand to explore Asia. Every 3 months the school I work at has semester break, which allows us time to travel. A few months ago my friend Cynthia, who I met while living in Lima, Peru let me know that she and her family were going to the Philippines for vacation and asked if my husband Matthew and I would like to join them so we could all catch-up. Cynthia is half Filipino and Austrian and lived in the Philippines during her young adult life. We missed our friends from Lima and realized that it’s rare to visit a country with a local and welcomed this as a great opportunity! So right away my research began to determine if and when we would go and which places of interest we would explore on this exciting visit.
During my search I stumbled upon the town of Sagada, which provides the opportunity to go spelunking. Matthew and I enjoyed spelunking when we visited the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.
I ran across a few websites that were truly helpful in planning this portion of our trip:
The only thing that needs to be updated on each of these sites is the bus company that you can take from Manila to Sagada via the Banaue route is Ohaymi Trans; however, they never responded to my email and I didn’t end up traveling with them in the long run. But while in Banaue I did see their bus.
The planning ended up being more difficult than I expected because our trip was to take place during the peak season. I wanted to be there for SAGGAS (Sagada Genuine Guides Association) annual bonfire that I read about in the blogs mentioned. I phoned recommended hostels in the area; to my dismay not one had a vacancy. Finally while on the SAGGAS website which has a chat box someone let me know about DNA Travel, a tour company that had inclusive packages with rooms and transportation to Sagada. Eventually I booked with DNA but only for the room and transportation package. I found the inclusive tour to be overpriced.
The SAGGA’s website has all the prices for hiring tour guides (this includes entry fees). It ended up costing us maybe 25% of the cost to do the tours on our own and as a private tour than doing the tours with DNA Travel with a group of 30 or so people. The advantages of booking the hostel and transportation through DNA Travel were:
we able to get a room for the night of the bonfire.
they were able to secure bonfire tickets for us.
direct bus service to Sagada (rather than 3 or 4 modes of transportation via the traditional route)
a great buffet dinner at the The Log Cabin (I understand reservations must be made well in advance for a place at this buffet).
Christmas in Manila
We arrived in Manila on Christmas morning to hear “Merry Christmas” from everyone we came across! This was very nice and a huge contrast from Bangkok which is majorly Buddhist but for some reason celebrates an artificial/commercial Christmas holiday with decorations and music in all the stores and malls without the true sentiments. While in Manila we stayed at our friend’s place in Makati which is a really nice section of Manila close to some of their best malls. Our friends hadn’t arrived yet so I logged on to couchsurfing.org to find some instant friends and something to do for the evening. We ended up meeting a Manila couch surfer at Greenbelt Mall, eating Filipino food at Kitchen (pretty good stuff), and then going to another’s house for an impromptu couch surfer Christmas party. The host had actually hosted a Christmas Eve dinner before so there was food and drinks available for everyone. He made bacon from scratch, brined in salt and seasoned with basil among other things – it was delicious! While there, we spoke with a few people who had been to Sagada before, they gave us great recommendations; the restaurant and bar Kimchi and a definite -The Log Cabin’s buffet!
The next day we were off to the SM Mall in Makati and Greenhills, which is a large mall/market similar to other Asian markets and the typical American flea market where you can price haggle. The good thing about shopping in Manila is that the prices are low and they have clothing in our sizes. In Manila I purchase medium size clothes, while in Bangkok sizes large and extra-large.
The Bus to Sagada
That evening we headed to Queszon City to board the bus to Sagada. We all met in a restaurant to wait for everyone to arrive and board the bus. THE BUS — what can I say about that bus? These were the smallest seats on any bus that I’ve ever been on. The seats were not made for Filipinos or westerners they were only for people from Asian countries like Thailand. Matthew filled up a seat and a half so this left me with the aisle arm rest down and pushed into my waste to prevent myself from falling out of my seat. On top of that the air conditioner only had an off or on setting – it was on and freezing cold Joseph forewarned us of the bus being cold so I had a blanket. Joseph, the organizer of the trip kept saying this was a charter bus so we could stop if we needed to. I spoke up and asked about the air- conditioner. For some reason it was understood that we could stop but controlling the air was not something he thought about being under his domain, thus I kindly asked the bus driver to turn off the air. Because we were then in the mountains and it was colder on the bus than it was outside. The bus driver turned off the air-conditioned for the remainder of the trip and it was a much more comfortable ride. I did inquire about the size of the seats and was told that the small bus was the only bus that could drive on the small town streets up to Sagada. It was decided to prevent changing buses a few times this small bus was the best option. Had I known this I would have gone with the latter option of changing buses; but I might have had a more difficult time getting the air-con (that’s what air-conditioners are called in Asia) turned off. So after spending 12 hours on the most uncomfortable bus I’ve ever been on, we arrived in Sagada.
Sagada is a small town in the beautiful mountains of the Northern Philippines, I am told that about 10,000 people live within the various barangays (neighborhoods) there. The area for tourist consist of one main road lined with restaurants and hostels/inn (don’t expect to find any fancy hotel here). Joseph arranged a room at Kanip-aw Pines View Lodge, a hostel/inn at the far end of the town (about a 10 minute walk to the main part of town). Kanip-aw is a nice lodge, it is clean, and has private bathrooms, the small Asian type, all in one no separate shower deal. The owner, Oscar helped with getting a tour guide (meaning your guide will meet you there instead of you having to walk to the SAGGAs office). Kanip-aw Pines View Lodge is built with pinewood so it feels very cozy, with a scenic mountain view.
Echo Valley, Echo Valley Coffins, and Bokong Falls
Our first day there we headed to Kimchi for coffee, a nice place to go just chill out. They play reggae music and there are tons of Bob Marley pictures and recycled artsy decorations (bottle caps, plastic, and cigarette containers) you feel as if have been instantaneously teleported to Jamaica! However, they serve Korean Barbecue and Filipino food. While there we decided to go to Yogurt House for lunch, our destination of choice. Yogurt House has great food and a warm atmosphere. They have large meals as well as smaller options such as a meat and potato meals, a ham and apple sandwich a triple-decker and of course yogurt!
After lunch we went on a site seeing tour with a SAGGAs guide. They offer a choice of three different places. We chose the hiked to Echo Valley including, down to the Echo Valley Hanging Coffins, then a longer hike to Bokong Falls aka Small Falls. Hiking to Echo Valley is pretty easy, getting down to the coffins is another story- there are some pretty steep and tricky paths, which is all part of the adventure. Remember once you go down you also have to get back up, then hike to Bokong Falls. Bokong Falls is really small but there are rice terraces to view along the way there, I found them most scenic. There is also pool that you are welcome to swim in but as you can see I’m wearing jeans and a sweater in my pictures. I was not about to strip down and jump into near freezing water on a cold day.
Honestly, Echo Valley and its coffins (for some reason treated as two separate tour destinations) is a good hike and destination but I could have done without the Bokong Falls potion of the tour.
Side note: this was our guides second tour, thus he did not have much information. I believe this is because we booked our guide around 2pm – later in the day. Make sure you ask for an experienced guide, others were treated to a more informed and interesting tour.
Dinner at The Log Cabin
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” this is what The Log Cabin felt like. It was a warm and cozy log cabin with a fire-place of course, just what we needed to feel a sense of home at Christmas time. The food was a family style buffet that consisted of pork loin, roasted chicken with string beans, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, pasta salad, broccoli, a tomato and zucchini dish, dessert, and coffee. ALL DELICIOUS! After dinner we headed back to Kimchi with our new Filipino friends who were part of the group (but not part of the tour like us), to drink a bottle of rice wine and enjoy a snack.
Lumiang Burial Cave and Sumaging Cave
On our second day we had a slower start. I was a little sore from the hiking the day before. So we slept in and enjoyed the comfort of our cozy pine lodge. We lunched again at the Yogurt House because when something is good you stick with it. Next we headed to the SAGGAS office to get a guide to go spelunking. This time our guide had over 30 years of experience and a tad bit too talkative! But he knew his way around the cave. We decided to just do a single cave Sumaging Cave, which takes about 2 -4 hours rather than the cave connection – Lumiang Burial Cave and Sumaging Cave which can take 4 -8 hours. Joseph told us that you don’t see much more in Lumiang Cave, and we really were not up to a possible 8 hour journey. Our guide was nice and took us to the Lumiang Cave entrance to see the coffins and try to get us to do the Cave Connection (more expensive of course). Then the cave said to me “DO NOT ENTER”!
Its opening looked like a huge drop into nothingness, just plain scary, ok!
We continued our trek to Sumaging Cave. Sumaging Cave is filled with bats, as you know, bats cannot see and they fly very high so you don’t see them above you. But what we could see and feel is the bat sh*t droppings. This made the floor very slippery in the first part of the cave tour. I’m thinking those Five Finger shoes or Teva’s might be the best thing for this situation, flip-flops are the recommended option? I wore Crocs because they have a sling back and would stay on my feet, but then their insides got “muddy” and made it very difficult for me on the climb out. I ended up cleaning off my feet with my tank top. Our guide felt obligated to assist me most of the time, he held an oil lantern in the air in the palm of one hand while climbing and held my hand with his other to help me keep my balance. The cave tour has 3 stages; they are muddy, dry then water. Stage 3 is optional and the water is cold but I wanted to go for the full experience so we did all 3 and we didn’t think the water was too cold. The cave involves rock climbing, sliding, climbing with a rope, and walking in water that is chest deep. Yes, we are brave like that when it involves fun!
The SAGGAS Bonfire
The SAGGAS Bonfire was a nice set up, the entrance was great fun and the bonfire was stack well. The food was a little disorganized but OK. After eating the fried chicken our friends told us that it was Pinikpikan, the Filipino chicken that they beat before it dies- they do this so that it has blood clots throughout the meat so that it tastes better – poor chicken, I could have done without that. The entertainment OK. In the end we all agreed it was a 250 peso ticket to a bonfire and a bonfire it was. I would just suggest they start the bonfire when everyone arrives, then people can enjoy eating around the bonfire. I do believe it was for a worthy cause, the guides don’t get paid much and the guide association is doing its best to help tourism in the area.
Our last day in Sagada we decided not to change-up the routine and headed back to Yogurt House yet again. This time we had a breakfast of yogurt and bananas rolled up in a yummy fluffy pancake topped with strawberry preserves; and beef tips with rice and eggs. Get the pancakes! Get the yogurt! And while you’re at it get the beef tips too =) Then we jumped back in our “fabulous small bus” and were off to Banaue.
Banaue Rice Terraces
Unfortunately it was raining when we reached Banaue. Our original plan was to stay in Batad overnight which is near Banaue but with all of the spelunking and hiking we really weren’t up for the 1 hour hike in the cold rain to Batad. When we reached there Joseph shouted “zero visibility might as well keep going,” to the bus driver. I was extremely upset, this was a place I originally wanted to stay over and have the full experience of and now this man is saying we aren’t even going to stop. I kept looking out of the window, found a glimpse of the rice terraces, and kindly asked Joseph to have the bus stopped because there was some visibility. He complied and we got off the bus at an alternative lookout point in the rain. Yes, it was foggy but we got a chance to see and experience the grandness of the Banaue Rice Terrace – which meet many of the UNESCO World Heritage Site qualifications http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/722. We also had the opportunity to take photos with an Ifugao person who’s’ ancestors built the rice terraces. I am grateful for having had that opportunity of cultural exchange, after all that is what traveling is about!
After a short time we were back on the road back to Manila.
Pictures of good times in Sagada
To be continued — New Years Eve in Manila, Boracay, and Tibiao