Sagada is a pretty mountain town nestled in the Cordillera mountains of the Philippines. If you’re making a trip up north of the island of Luzon, be sure to plan a stop in Sagada. This mist-shrouded town is blessed with a quiet and serene atmosphere, cool and refreshing mountain air, gorgeous scenery and amazing natural wonders.
Despite all its wonderful qualities, Sagada is actually most notable for its funeral practices and burial customs that are still practised by the minority tribes in the mountains. Many locals and backpackers make the trip here to witness its unique traditions and to escape the heat and the chaos in the city.
There are no major hotels in Sagada, just simple inns and guesthouses that look similar to the local houses in the village. Life is simple and people are friendly in this small mountain town; you’ll get a glimpse into life as it was, way back when.
Unlike many other places in the Philippines that is filled with touts and tourist guides shouting in your face from the moment you arrive, Sagada has none. The town has a guide association and only one tourist information center, and they charge an Environmental Registration Fee of PHP35 (US$0.8). Tours are booked directly from here, with a list of fixed prices. No haggling and no overpaying. Just choose what you want to do and a guide will be selected for you. Or if you prefer, explore the attractions on your own.
To help you decide on what to see and where to visit, here’s a list of my top 10 things to do in Sagada.
1. Explore the Lumiang Burial Cave
There are about a hundred coffins with mummified bodies stacked and piled at the entrance of the Lumiang Cave. The cave was once used as a burial site for the Ifugao pagans and some of the remains are almost 500 years old. The entrance of the cave is approximately a 300-meter hike into the jungle, and connects to the Sumaging Cave.
Honestly, I didn’t notice the coffins at first glance because they looked like rocks; time and nature have blended these small timber coffins into its surroundings. The coffins are small as the bodies were placed in a fetal position, leaving the world in the same position they came in. I was intrigued by the burial traditions of the Ifugao people told to me by my guide, but was spooked out being in the cave, so I didn’t stay long.
2. See the Hanging Coffins
The hanging coffins can be seen on several mountain cliffs in Sagada, either hung by ropes or nailed into the mountain sides. It is an Ifugao believe that hanging the coffins up high brings them closer to their ancestral spirits; but it is also to provide the dead with wind and sunshine, and keep wild animals and enemies away from their bodies. It is a tradition practiced for thousands of years.
Most of the coffins hanging on the cliffs belong to the higher-class families and important people in the Ifugao tribe. These days, this burial custom is still practiced by the tribe elders, but is slowly dying out.
3. Shout Out Loud in Echo Valley
I hired a guide to take me along the trail to Echo Valley as I didn’t want to get lost. Though there is a footpath, it isn’t always easy to find. The trail goes around the edge of the mountain, offering fantastic views of the town and the valley down below. You can also spot several hanging coffins along the mountain cliffs. The walk takes about an hour or two.
Echo Valley is named so for a reason. Shout out really loud to the other side of the hill and your voice will echo throughout the valley. It entertained me for a couple of minutes!
4. Go Spelunking in Sumaging Cave
Caving in the Sumaging Cave was the best adventure I had in Sagada. The cave is absolutely gorgeous and the rocks are the most unique ones I’ve ever seen. It’s nature at its best, artfully sculpting these rocks for thousands of years. Try and spot the phallic rocks, aptly named ‘king’ and ‘queen’; as well as the animal-shaped ones in the cave.
What awed me the most about Sumaging Cave was the water. The pools in the cave gave a whole new meaning to the words ‘crystal clear’. The cold water sparkled and rippled like hundreds of little diamond stones.
Maneuvering the cave is dangerous– it is slippery and dark, so caution is needed. I went in with proper shoes, but eventually took them off and went bare-footed the rest of the way. My feet provided excellent grip on the rocks. I only did half of the cave connection; but there is the option to continue the underground adventure to the Lumiang Burial Cave. After my 2-hour journey, I was exhausted, sore and wet… but it was an experience I will never forget.
5. Hike to the Waterfalls
There are two waterfalls located within hiking distance from the town of Sagada. The bigger and more majestic waterfall, the Bomod-Ok Falls (or Big Falls), requires a 4 hour hike; so I settled for the smaller and nearer Bokong Falls instead. It is only 2km from town and a relatively easy half an hour walk.
The small Bokong Falls only has a mere 5 meters drop, but makes up for it with the deep pool just beneath the falls that is perfect for swimming. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a swimsuit or extra clothing so I couldn’t jump in. I did however, dip my feet into the cold waters; and had a lovely time watching the village kids leaping off the top of the falls.
6. View the Sagada Rice Terraces
If you’re not planning to stop by Banaue (Read more about Banaue: Banaue and its Rice Terraces), then admire the beautiful rice terraces that can be found in Sagada. Though smaller in size, the terraces here are equally as stunning; shaped with rocks piled on top of each other.
While in Sagada, I saw a few clusters of rice terraces– one is called the Kapay-aw rice terraces that can be seen when walking towards the Sumaging Cave; and the other one was on the hike to the Bokong Falls. Just before reaching the falls, I had the opportunity to walk along the muddy terraces too.
7. Visit St. Mary’s Church
The St. Mary’s Church in Sagada is an old stone-walled protestant church, built in 1904 by American missionaries to spread Christianity to the local people. Almost all of the population in Sagada are now Christians.
There are several other notable landmarks around the church– the Centennial Wheel was placed in Sagada in 2001 to mark 100 years of mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines; and the Centennial Bell, placed in front of the church in 1921. There is also a Christian Cemetery at the back of the church with a path that leads to Echo Valley.
8. Mingle with the Locals
The people in Sagada are really friendly, always smiling and waving whenever I passed by. I talked to a few school kids walking home from school and joined the little children playing outside their houses. Most of them are used to tourists coming and going, and were giggly and welcoming. I also hung out with a friendly local couple in one of the cafes around town. They introduced me to the local beer ‘Red Horse’ and offered me a cup of their local Bugnay wine, while sharing interesting stories about Sagada.
9. Buy Souvenirs at Sagada Weavers
Weaving is one of the main industries in Sagada. Drop by Sagada Weavers to watch the local ladies at work and to check out the woven products sold at the shop. I noticed that the woven patterns on most of the products are distinctively similar. Many locals can be seen carrying around backpacks, sling-bags and pouches with the same designs. The patterns are obviously uniquely Sagada’s and would therefore make fantastic souvenirs.
10. Have a Meal at Yoghurt House
The Yoghurt house is a popular eatery in Sagada, famous for its fabulous homemade desserts and yoghurt. The pretty and quaint restaurant has a cozy interior complete with a library of books and a fireplace, and has excellent views from the second floor balcony.
I dropped by the restaurant in the evening and was their only customer. I ordered the baked chicken with potato rosti, which was delicious… but the star of the meal was the amazing banana, granola and strawberry yogurt. It was just the right consistency of sweetness and sourness; and the creamy yoghurt simply melted in my mouth. The hype is justified; that bowl of goodness was exceptionally delightful.
Getting to Sagada involves a long ride through steep cliffs and mountainous roads. I was coming from Banaue (Read more about Banaue: Banaue and its Rice Terraces), and took the 9:00am jeepney from the town’s public market heading to Bontoc. The journey took almost 2 hours, and cost about PHP150 (US$3-4). From Bontoc, it was another jeepney ride to Sagada, which took another hour or so for PHP45 (US$1).
Both rides were so crowded that several local people had to sit on the roof or hang onto the sides of the vehicle. It was a gut-churning experience as we were traveling through several unpaved roads, inches away from the edge of the cliff. Just a small slip up and we’ll be falling down into the deep depths of the mountain.
The only thing that made the bumpy and life-risking ride worthwhile was the glorious view of the mountains, lush forests, rice terraces and villages… and of course, at the end of it, the adventures in Sagada.