Discovering the Caves and Coffins of Sagada
Sagada was our next stop after having explored the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad. People we met raved about how beautiful Sagada was and how we should spend time there, so we booked a three-night stay without actually having a clear idea of what to do there. Indeed it was a good decision, the little mountain town did not disappoint. Here’s our guide to discovering the caves and coffins of Sagada.
Entrance to the Sumaguing Cave
Discovering the Caves and Coffins of Sagada
Getting to Sagada
Vans to Sagada via Bontoc run from Banaue every day. We were charged 300 PHP (€6) each for the full trip. Beware though! When we arrived in Bontoc, the van driver insisted that we get out of the van and take a jeepney to Sagada. With the help of a French couple who were riding with us, we insisted that this was not what we had arranged and an argument ensued… luckily we had our receipt which clearly stated that he should take us all the way to Sagada, which eventually he did.
A van from Banaue to Bontoc costs about 150 PHP and a jeepney from Bontoc to Sagada costs 45 PHP so the journey can actually be made for around 200 PHP per person with some waiting time and discomfort thrown in. The advantage of riding jeepneys is that the driver might let you topload (ride at the top) to take in the fantastic views en route. That said, when Michelle tried to do it on the jeepney going the opposite direction, the driver would not allow her to do so!
The view on the way to/from Sagada
Overnight Coda buses from Manila (Cubao terminal) run to Sagada daily. They can be pre-booked here.
Well, you can probably walk it too!
What to do in Sagada
Sagada is packed with adventure activities for those wanting to explore this part of the Cordillera region. Hanging coffins, rice terraces, burial caves, hiking & trekking and good food – there’s adventure catering to everyone’s taste and budget in Sagada. The first step is to register at the Sagada Tourist Office and pay a fee of 35 PHP (€0.70). You will need to carry your receipt around with you thereafter – you will be asked for it at entrances to many of the attractions. We suggest to take a picture of it just in case it gets lost or forgotten.
Tourist Environmental Permit of Sagada
The tourist office provides pamphlets of various activities in and around Sagada. You can take a look at them and decide on what you want to do. Hiring a guide is totally recommended especially for exploring caves, which is impossible to do solo unless you are already familiar with the cave.
All the notices in Sagada state that you MUST have a guide with you to explore any of the attractions and that you will not be let in unless you do, however recent information has shown that this is not a legal requirement. Guide fees for activities are standardised.
Exploring the Cave Connection
There are various options to descend into Sagada’s inner depths if you so wish. The most popular caving experience is a 2-hr hike into the large chambers of Sumaguing cave also known as “The Big Cave”. Another popular cave is the Lumiang cave or “the Burial Cave” which houses over 100 coffins at the entrance to its dark depths, some of which have been there for over 500 years.
Coffins welcoming guests at the Lumiang Cave
One way in which to explore both caves is to do the Cave Connection, a 4-hour hike starting from Lumiang Cave and ending in Sumaguing Cave which are, in fact, connected. The spelunking tour costs 800 PHP (€15) for 1-2 persons. At the cave entrance we met a group of three Filipino tourists from Puerto Princesa who had not hired a guide but quickly realised that there was no way they could do this alone. They joined us for the tour which made it all the more fun.
Our companions on the tour.
Our guide carried a kerosene lamp so I wondered just how adventurous this caving experience would be. We have explored caves in many parts of the world and we really hoped that this would not be just a “walk-through” but that there would be some climbing involved too.
As we started moving in, the guide looked apprehensively at Nikki and laughed explaining that he was doubtful as to whether Nikki would be able to make it through some of the tight openings in the caves. “But how will he get through otherwise?” we asked. “Oh we will find a solution no worries”, the young guide answered. Okay, we weren’t very reassured, but reassurance is never guaranteed in the Philippines!
Michelle making it through a tight spot. Nikki on the other hand ….
If we had any doubts about the tour being adventurous, these were quickly put to rest right at the beginning. As we slipped and tried to find our footing around several sheer drops, pushed each other through tight holes and waded through icy-cold water, the adrenaline started to kick in and we excitedly moved on to discover more of the cave.
We literally clung to the cave walls using our nails sometimes; letting go meant falling into deep crevices… there was a time when we pushed ourselves down through a black hole following the guide’s advice to move to one side immediately. There was a little ledge on the left where we could rest our feet. The rest of the passageway was indeed a hole with no bottom; had we not moved left immediately we would simply have fallen down a seemingly bottomless crevice.
Calcite formations at the Sumaguing Cave
Alertness is needed at all levels. Do not attempt to do this if you are unwell or if you don’t feel up to it. It really can be very dangerous and accidents are likely to result in fatalities. Health and Safety Standards (as many are accustomed to in the EU and US nowadays) do not seem to be a priority in the Philippines as we have already noted in our tips. Our guide however, was excellent and took great care of our wellbeing! Even more so when we approached the tightest hole in the cave and realised that indeed, Nikki could not go through (I myself JUST made it through). By the end of it, he really managed to find another way for Nikki to climb down the route via a steep wall, with the guide himself acting as a human ladder. We only have the highest of praises for this guy!
Besides, the sheer steepness of the falls from the narrow slippery routes we took, there are various points where you need to climb up and down ropes, wade through underground rivers and use your legs or hands for support to stop yourself from falling into oblivion. We loved it and we were glad we managed to survive it without any accidents! We do not recommend the experience to anyone who does not have adventure at heart, it is quite extreme!
Visiting the Hanging Coffins
During our walk to the caves the guide pointed out a distant area with some hanging coffins. These did not look at all like the coffins we had seen in photos before getting to Sagada.
Hanging coffins on the cliff face
In fact the more famous Echo Valley Hanging Coffins are closer to town and can be accessed by taking a path by the church, just behind a cemetery. On this other route you can get close to the coffins and observe them properly.
But first, let us start with a little bit of history about the hanging coffins of Sagada. The Igorot tribe, indigenous to Sagada bury their dead in coffins which are nailed or tied to the side of cliffs so as to be closer to the sky and their ancestral spirits. Only those who die of natural causes due to old age can be buried in this traditional manner. The small coffins do not hold children as some might assume; they are this size as the dead are placed in the coffins in the foetal position, due to the belief that a person should exit the world in the same position that they entered it in.
The Hanging coffins at the Echo Valley in Sagada
In some cases you can observe a chair also hung with the coffin. This is the same one on which the body was placed right after death as part of the ritual. The Igorots still practice this funerary custom until today although it has become very rare due to the introduction of modern burial practices.
The sign outside the path to the coffins warned us that we needed to get a guide, which only cost 200 PHP (€4) so we didn’t bother to argue against it, although it is very easy to make your own way there. We cannot claim that the guide provided any particular value vis-a-vis a non-guided trip though!
Sagada is quite a typical Asian backpacker hangout meaning that backpackers are well catered for. Accommodation is affordable and restaurants serve both vegetarian and meat based meals. You can even find brewed coffee and yoghurt in Sagada!
We stayed at Kanip-Aw Lodge which is located down a hill about a kilometre away from the centre of town. Our room with a private bathroom was very clean and we had a whole floor to ourselves the whole time we were there, so we were pretty pleased with our choice. The room overlooked the valley so we enjoyed wonderful views of the forest. Once we needed to leave it was a kilometre uphill carrying our heavy backpacks though!
The view from the Kanip-Aw Lodge
Our absolute favourite (and everyone else’s it seems since it was always packed) was Yoghurt House. Although we did think that the place was a bit pricey, we had one of the best pasta dishes ever here! If you’re craving western food, this is the place to get it.
We had our breakfasts at the Sagada Lemon Pie House. A meal of (very good) omelette, rice and sausage cost 100 PHP (€2) each and was filling enough to keep us going until dinner time.
Group photo of the caving team!