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Sagada Travel Guide: A Journey to the Mountains

Monday, February 10, 2014Ryan Mach

Sagada, Mountain Province
I'm not going back to Sagada again anytime soon, that's for sure.

Let me set the record straight though that I absolutely love Sagada - it's one of the best places I've been to. It's nothing short of awesome to say the least. It's got a perpetually cold weather, enchanting caves and stunning mountain panoramas. But getting there can be a painful ordeal especially for an acrophobic like me. If your fear of heights is as acute as mine, then there's absolutely no way you can sleep off the grueling road trip when you know you're rolling down and clambering up the highway with deep ravines left and right - not to mention the aggressive bends and twists, unless of course you pop a pill that will send you to oblivion for the entire journey.
Bound for Sagada
That was my plan, sure. An antihistamine should do the trick. Take the pill before getting on the bus. Yeah, I do consider myself a big wuzz when it comes to heights, but I just couldn't afford missing the chance of seeing the breathtaking views along the way. So even if I was palpitating like mad, fidgeting in my seat as if suffering from a bad bout of diarrhea, I still had a swell time marvelling at the incredible scenery we passed by.
Photo credit: Lira de la Cruz

But hey, don't let my personal issues with traveling on high roads ruin your plans of going to Sagada. It's an incredible destination, that I can tell you for sure. And so here's a long overdue travel-guide-cum-travel-experience that will hopefully help you plan your trip to this laid-back town.

Getting There
There are no trips that will directly take you to Sagada but there are three available routes you can choose from if you're coming from Manila - these are bus lines that ply via Bontoc, Banaue or Baguio. Bontoc is a 13-hour ride from Manila give or take (including a 1-hour jeepney ride to Sagada); Banaue is roughly 9 hours (3-4 hours of travel via vans or jeepneys) and Baguio, approximately 6 hours (and another 6 to Sagada). See what I did there? Giving you estimates because transportation system in the Philippines is a bit flaky and inconsistent.
Photo credit: Lira de la Cruz

We opted for the Manila>Baguio>Sagada route because it sounded more comfortable. My travel buddy was not a fan of long bus rides so I reckoned it would be a great idea to do a stop-over in Baguio. Cut the travel time in chunks, it felt relatively much shorter. And the upside? We got to spend a night in the summer capital of the Philippines, stroll along the crowded Session Road and bring home a slice of strawberry shortcake from Vizco. (Although, by taking the Manila>Banaue>Sagada route, you're also in for a visual treat as you'll pass by the magnificent rice terraces that Banaue is known for.)
We arrived at the terminal quite early.
After taking breakfast at some eatery near the terminal (oh they serve great tapa!), we embarked on a 6-hour journey aboard a non-airconditioned bus that zigzagged in a long winding road, passed by at Halsema Highway, the highest highway system in the country, and finally arrived in Sagada at mid-day just in time for lunch. I practically heaved a sigh of relief right after stepping out of the bus.
Sagada, finally!

It was a heady trip - something I never want to experience again. But who was I kidding, I was bound to take the same route back to Manila.

Coming to Sagada, we didn't have any idea where to stay. A friend suggested this nice inn along Stauton Road - Indigenous Inn that's what it's called. Located right beside the street, you couldn't miss it. We tried placing our reservation through the phone hours before our arrival in Sagada but the woman who we talked to said there was no available room and that we could still try our luck regardless.
Traveller's Inn, one of the many guest houses in Sagada

I told my travel buddy to do a random picking at any of the inns we saw down the road - the street is lined with various inns, I don't think anyone who goes to Sagada will end up sleeping out in the cold. 
Indigenous Inn

We enjoyed walking down the slope that is Stauton Road, laughed at how we were both chilling literally until we spotted Indigenous Inn, its yellow facade peeking out in the distance. Turned out there were still available rooms (the woman lied but it's a good marketing ploy). The lady ushered us to the second level of the building, showed us our room which had twin beds. For 250/night per pax, it was really a steal. There are shared bathrooms with heater at the end of the hallway, we've got our own little veranda and two comfy beds covered in yellow, freshly laundered sheets.
Comfy bed

"Could have been more perfect if there was TV," my friend suggested. "You don't go to Sagada to watch TV," I retorted in a falsely vehement tone. "We'll just probably use the room for sleeping and taking a bath," I added. But that's just not true. We liked hanging out in our room, snuggling under the sheets in our own bed, sleeping the afternoon off when we could have visited a few more attractions in Sagada. We felt bad for not making the most of our time in Sagada, but what could we do? The weather was just too perfect for huddling up. 

Where to Eat
Apart from the main attractions, I was excited to try the food in Sagada. I've heard and read about the variety of food choices in Sagada and that they were excellent. So I guess one of the driving forces why I chose Sagada for the Thanksgiving was the food. :D We started out by trying their karinderyas located at the basement of a building near the market. My friend chose sinigang, and I, bagnet. We found their rice interesting. 
Bagnet and kangkong
For the next meals, we laid out some plans on where to eat. The goal was to try every restaurant in Sagada and leave well-fed without burning a hole in our wallet. I don't think we were very successful because most of the restaurants weren't exactly cheap. I'm not sure if we just made bad choices on a few meals we chose but there were some that really did disappoint.
Breakfast platter
Take Bana Cafe for instance where we had dinner on our first night. Their pork chop was not properly fried and tasted weird. My friend had the same issue with her daing na bangus. But they serve delightful breakfast. Sure, we were not pleased with that upsetting supper, didn't mean we wouldn't give Bana a second try. Turned out their specialty was breakfast. And their platter sure looked appetizing!

A stone throw away from Bana Cafe is Strawberry Cafe whose bacon was quite good I think I might have developed a temporary but strong affinity to it. It's just across Indigenous Inn so getting there was a cinch. It's got real strawberry plants scattered around its lawn, a hearth and fish sharshadow!
Personal favorite: bacon!

Further down the block, on the way to Sumaguing Cave is Sagada Lemon Pie House - famous for its tangy lemon pie and red chicken with overflowing sauce the color of blood.
Nice ambiance at Sagada Lemon Pie House
It's a nice, cozy place where you can eat while slumping on the shiny wooden floor. A little improvement has to be done on its small washroom which gets long queues from its customers wanting to have a wash or a pee. I didn't get to see what the interior looked like because I was like the 10th person waiting in line.
Wooden chairs and tables at Sagada Lemon Pie House

Going uphill, it's hard to miss Yoghurt House whose primary offering - yoghurt, what else? - draws customers in. I heard their baked chicken served with veggies and potatoes are really good. What a shame we didn't try it.
Yoghurt from Yoghurt House
We also didn't try Gaia Cafe because we didn't think we'd enjoy being served with food which consisted only of vegetables, especially that we had to walk a few kilometers just to get there, and walk back up to the inn again by foot. It's got a unique character to it though, looked peaceful and hidden under the canopy of towering trees. The dogs were not just very friendly.
Gaia Cafe

Things to Do
If like us, you've decided to go to Sagada but don't know what to do apart from pigging out, the tourist information center is the best place to start. They'll help you select a tour and hook you up with guides. Doesn't matter if you're alone or in groups. The tours are standardized and as long as you're not picky about who you go along with, you won't pay more than you should.
Descending in Sumaguing Cave

The first thing we did in Sagada was spelunking. It's perhaps a mainstream activity but it's never boring. The Sumaguing Cave is a fun place to explore and offers a lot of surprises. Just don't forget to wear sturdy footwear - the way down is a bit tricky and slippery.  
Bomod-ok Falls
Then there's Bomod-ok Falls. Getting there involves trekking. You'll pass by a beautiful village with fog rolling in, meet locals clad in winter clothes and do some balancing act to tread along narrow trails in rice paddies.
Trek to Bomod-ok
Crossing the rice paddies

It's worth-noting that the views are breathtaking, I couldn't count how many times people in the group muttered "ang ganda" (how beautiful). I too would stop every now and marvel at the beauty of it all. I felt like I was inch closer to the heaven.
Fog rolling in
We missed witnessing the sunrise in Kiltepan because the mornings were always foggy and we were told that there was no sunrise since the past few days. We were too lazy to get up at four in the morning anyway so it goes without saying that we didn't try hard enough.

We didn't feel bad missing the hanging coffins either. We felt guilty standing up two trek buddies who we broke bread with during the Sumaguing spelunking. We told them we'd meet them right after lunch but we ended up sleeping the whole afternoon off. My excuse? Toes were sore from all the trek to Bomod-ok. Lame I know but true nonetheless. The funny part was, we were too abashed to meet them again. We didn't want confrontations! Haha.

Why Should You Go to Sagada?
Without sounding redundant, Sagada is a lovely place. There are hundreds of things to love about this town and it's no wonder why a lot of people keep coming back. If not for the state of the road and my fear of heights, I'd come back there again and again.  
Rice fields in various states
Sagada effortlessly bewitches and befuddles outsiders accustomed to living their days and nights in the city.  The otherness and unfamiliarity of it can hit you harder than you expect. Everything is new, high, green and blue. There are sweet surprises and daunting possibilities, exciting panoramas and deep ravines. The cool, clean air in your lungs, the purity of it, is a welcome respite and a perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of the city where you spend most of your days. The cold can be unforgiving but you will hardly mind it. In fact, you will long for it. You welcome it with excitement, the same way you welcome summer.

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