Second time in Sagada, and I’m still struck with awe.
My first visit was with my brother and we joined a group tour for an overnighter in this beautiful, distant place nestled on the mountains up north from Manila. Back then, I was asleep throughout most of the journey. I remember highlights of that trip included having a taste of the famous lemon pie, a very delicious strawberry cake, trekking the Echo Valley to the hanging coffins, and walking the stream leading to an underground river. It was a whirlwind of fun packing everything that needed to be done in those 2 days (side trip to Baguio and Banaue included).
This time was different: D agreed to drive, so we had the car just to ourselves and managed to do quick photo stops along the way whenever we came upon something spectacular. Plus I was awake throughout the duration of the trip (well, except for the first four hours because we left at 2:30 in the morning). We took the route that Google Maps recommended. It said 9 hours’ total travel time, and we were to skip the roads to Baguio or Banaue, and take the Cervantes, Ilocos Sur route. I’ve never heard of Cervantes. We drove near the sea at La Union and took the road less traveled.
I played navigator while D bravely drove through the long winding roads that connected Ilocos Sur to Mountain Province. It turned out to be a scenic route – breathtaking view of the mountains and valleys, clear streams, waterfalls, and rice terraces. The view kept getting better and better once we got to the Bessang Pass Natural Monument in Sigay, Ilocos Sur. It is a protected area and memorial commemorating the victory of Philippine soldiers over the Imperial Japanese army on 14 June 1945. The mountains were so beautiful, we saw birds of different kinds, the air was cool and fresh. It reminded us of Batanes and Switzerland. D was definitely impressed (yay!). Except when passing towns, we rarely saw other cars through that route. I wonder how the locals managed commuting…
So the route was very scenic, but it was also a bit scary. Several times I held my breath and asked D to speed up because we would pass signages that say ‘beware of falling rocks’. And those rocks that we saw on the road were boulders. We also passed by roads next to landslides. Some stretches were dirtroads as the lanes were being repaired from erosions from a recent typhoon (Ompong) that hit the province.
The 9 hours estimate by Google Maps was short by 3 hours. We reached our hotel, Labanet Lodge, at 2:30 in the afternoon. Our room was facing the town, and the hotel was walking distance to the restaurants and market. When we checked in I saw some ‘Sagada Do’s and Don’ts’ posted on the frontdesk. I also saw this list when we registered for a tour at the Municipal Information Center. These rules are:
1. Register at the Municipal Information Center and present the receipt when going to tourist sites like the caves, falls, Echo Valley.
2. Engage the services of local guides. Not children.
3. Respect all sacred grounds and sites.
4. Do not take photos of local rituals. Ask permission first.
5. No scanty clothing. No necking in public.
6. Use only designated parking areas.
7. No littering.
8. Bring your own bag (preferably eco bag) when shopping.
9. Minimize use of plastic bottles. Refill at water stations.
10. Inform the hotel of whereabouts past 10 PM.
I am all for these rules. I don’t recall seeing these during my first trip. Kudos to the municipality of Sagada for reinforcing these basics to tourists.
After the twelve hour drive I rewarded D lemon pie and tea at the Lemon Pie House. I rekindled my relationship with Sagada’s mountain tea. During my first trip I bought a bag of the leaves thinking I could brew it at home – but my version did not turn out good at all. So this time, I asked the staff at the restaurants as to how they brew their mountain tea because it was so good I just have to make it work at this time.
Around 4 in the afternoon we walked less than a kilometer from the hotel to Gaia Arts and Crafts Cafe, a quaint little restaurant that was featured in a local hit film ‘That Thing Called Tadhana’. Along the way we met a cute, friendly labrador. (I made a mental note to say hi to her again on our way back to the hotel). We also saw a couple of hanging coffins – these were different from the ones I saw at the Echo Valley. Just as a background, people who die past the age of 100 are buried in the hanging coffins. We were told by a local that the hanging coffins could be seen at different places coming from the Echo Valley to the Sumaging Caves. Our destination, Gaia, was near the caves.
Gaia serves vegetarian food and offers a nice view of rice terraces and fields. This is where we had our early dinner. I got the vegetarian adobo and D had the fried breaded tofu. I was giddy with excitement because I was looking forward to the side salad and the red rice. You see, only in Sagada do I get to eat red rice. I have to learn how to cook it properly, so it won’t end up too dry.
When we got back to the hotel it was almost dark. For the first time in a long time we went to bed very early – 6 o’clock in the evening. Boy, did we have a long good night sleep.
Day 2 was a big day: we had a healthy, filling breakfast at the Strawberry Cafe. Afterwards, D and I registered for a tour and did a 3 hour trek to the Bomod-Ok Falls. It was a good cardio workout and a sight to behold. Our guide was also engaging and she provided a lot of educational information about the culture and traditions of the local community.
After the tiring trek we had lunch at the Sagada Brew. I’ve raved about this restaurant in TripAdvisor because I loved their breakfast. Lunch was good, but I didn’t enjoy their lava cake this time. It just looked good, but it was stale and dry.
In the afternoon we checked out the market and the Sagada Weaving store. Was able to get my stash of fresh greens for salad, and the award-winning Sagada Bana coffee from the market. At Sagada Weaving we got to watch the weavers in action. Got myself a belt bag as a souvenir.
That night there was a bit of a drizzle but the cold air was quite nice. We had dinner at the Yoghurt House. And then for the second night in a row we slept early.
On the third day we had an early breakfast at Bana Cafe. Their coffee was indeed a hit! It’s a good thing we were able to buy the coffee from the market because there we were able to negotiate for a discounted price.
On our way back we were able to see the sea of clouds. We tried to deviate from Google’s recommended route because we planned to pass through Baguio. It was a mistake! Thirty minutes in to the new route we came upon a dead end because the roads were closed due to a landslide during Typhoon Ompong. Needless to say, we retraced our steps and heeded what Maps told us to take. So we passed by the long scenic road again. Come to think of it, it wasn’t so bad.
I asked D what he thought of Sagada and he loved it. It can now compete with Batanes, his favorite destination in the Philippines. I doubt he would want to drive back though. The way to and from Sagada was an adventure on its own. It was just too long – longer than a plane ride from the Philippines to another country. I’ll try to convince him again maybe in a couple of years.
Sagada – it was nice to be back! Hope to see you again soon. Maybe next time I will bring my folks and relatives so they can also get to appreciate you. It definitely is more fun in the Philippines!