The sight of macabre burial grounds, trekking and spelunking are some of the wonderful things to do in the high-altitude province of Sagada in northern Philippines, about 450km north of Manila.
Burying their dead in hanging coffins nailed to the side of cliff faces or inside caves, high above the ground, is a practice in Sagada although it’s not as popular now as it was 2,000 years ago. You can see the hanging coffins set against limestone rocks from the main town. To get a good view, take a 10- to 20-minute walk from St. Mary’s Church in the town center to Echo Valley, a great vantage point to see the coffins as well as a popular place to let out a primal scream if you’re so inclined. As its name suggests, Echo Valley has great acoustics, producing an astounding echo.
Another must do is exploring Sagada's caves. Go on a six- to eight-hour spelunking tour from Lumiyang (burial cave) all the way to Sumaguing. Expect to get wet. At some point you’ll have to pass through narrow rock tunnels. Tour highlights include the stalagmite formations inside the cave, and a natural pool with clear waters, perfect for swimming in. For easier caving, try Sumaguing, which offers one to two hours of manageable trekking.
If spelunking is a bit too physical for you, trek Sagada’s two mountains — Kiltepan and Marlboro Hills (Kaman Baneng to locals) – instead. You can drive or go on a one-hour trek to Kiltepan. Marlboro is a longer trek, but will afford you a 360-degree view of the whole Mountain Province area, including Alab in Bontoc and portions of Halsema Highway, a 150km scenic road, the highest altitude highway in the Philippines.
For tours, book the Sagada Genuine Guides Association (SAGGAS ), one of two established Sagada-based tour operators. Tour guide rate for spelunking at Sumaguing Cave is P500 (US$11) for a group of one to four people; tour guide rate for spelunking at Lumiang Cave is P800 per head; and for a sightseeing tour, with option to choose three sites to visit, the rate is P600 for a group of up to 10 people. Recommended guide is Gareth Likigan, tel +63929 556 9553.
Stay at Masferre Country Inn & Restaurant at the main town center of Sagada, which has clean, comfortable rooms.
To get to Sagada, take a Florida bus from Earnshaw Manila to Banawe, a nine-hour ride. From the town proper of Banaue, take two-hour Immanuel bus ride to Bontoc, from where you can take a 45-minute jeepney ride to Sagada. You can visit Sagada all year-round but the best time to go is November-December to see the Festival of Lights on November 1, when locals light bonfires at the tomb of their departed as a ritual of remembering, or the first week of December during the Begnas festival, a thanksgiving ritual celebrated before the planting season, a time when all locals don their native garments.
Ferdinand Decena is a blogger with 10 years of backpacking experience behind him. He won the grand prize for the travel photography category, The World Around Us, at the 18th TNT Travel Writing and Photography Awards in 2008. His blog Ironwulf.net won several awards locally at the Philippine Blog Awards in 2008, and the Nuffnang Blog Awards held in Singapore in 2009. Visit Decena’s blog, www.ironwulf.net.
For more adventure tour ideas, read Experts' top 18 backpacking holidays in the Philippines.
Originally published in InFlight Traveller December 2015 to February 2016. Updated September 2016