Jun 2, 2011

Misty Mountains, Treacherous Roads and Hanging Coffins: Sagada

Hanging Coffins
It’s typhoon season in the Philippines right now (which explains the cheap ticket we got!) and when we were in Baguio City on Wednesday, we learned that Typhoon Cedeng was headed our way on Friday and had the potential to be larger and more devastating than the one in September 2009.  As we were headed to Sagada anyway, we decided that we should leave sooner rather than later to try to stay ahead of the inclement weather.  But no one warned us about what sort of trip we were exactly in for!

In order to get to Sagada (and later Bontoc and Banaue), we first had to travel on the Halsema ‘Highway’.  The original highway was first carved along the sides of the Cordillera Mountain range back in the 1920’s but in the late 1990’s the government allocated millions in order to upgrade it, including paving and retaining walls.  Unfortunately due to corruption, the money ran out on the last 10km stretch before Sagada, which was still a single lane of unpaved road with no landslide barriers or guard rails. Due to illegal logging, landslides along all sections of the highway are prevalent, especially in the rainy season (May to October).  The road itself twisted and turned along the ridge tops and the trip would take 6-7hrs, if we were lucky.  The Halsema ‘Highway’ is also rated #6 in the Top 10 Most Dangerous Roads in theWorld.  We didn’t know any of this before we actually boarded the bus.

Do you see the road on the left side of the river?

Recent Landslide on Highway
Not long after we left Baguio, we encountered the first landslide area.  It took our bus a bit of maneovering before we could make our way around it.  This one seemed quite recent, although later we were to pass others that had clearly happened much earlier.  Jim and I have been on many questionable roads on our previous travels, most notably the road to Dharmasala (India), and in Bolivia and northern Chile, but this road was by far worse and it really began to get us wondering what we had gotten ourselves into and why no one we spoke to had warned us of the actual condition of the road!  But on the other hand, the scenery was utterly breathtaking.  Almost every inch of the steep mountainsides were farmed in terraces, and the areas which weren’t, were dotted in pine forests.  In fact, this region is a primary producer of much of the vegetables found in Manila's markets. Among the terraces and clustered at the tops of ridges were simple tin-clad farmhouses.  

The Final 10km before reaching Sagada

Just over 6hrs later, we arrived safely in Sagada in a light misty rain.  The girls were keen to get out and expend some energy as all they could basically do during the trip was to either nap or look out the window.  They had been remarkable on such a hard rough journey though.  We found a guest house somewhat easily as its technically low season, but accommodation is very basic here despite it becoming quite a tourist hub for Filipinos and foreigners alike since the mid 1990’s due to its cool mountain air and lots of natural attractions nearby that involved hiking or trekking.  Our room was very small (the girls were on the floor again) and we had to share a common bathroom, but it had a nice warmth and cosiness to it.

The next day we learned that the typhoon had dissipated but the accompanying rains and cold front that would be with us for the entire day still left us seeking somewhere indoors to hide.  We ended up parking ourselves at the Salt and Pepper Diner from 10:30am until 7pm, eating both lunch and dinner there.  The girls drew, played cards, played with the iPod, and watched a DVD while Jim and I took turns using their cable internet and I got caught up with my blogging.  The owners of the diner were so nice and hospitable—they even brought us out some popcorn and a carafe of hot coffee at one point—and the food there was delicious, hearty and home-cooked albeit a bit more expensive than what we were used to in Baguio City, which was a fast-food haven.  

Rainy day in Sagada

Hiking Down to Echo Valley
On the second day, we set off after breakfast to search out the ‘hanging coffins’ in the nearby Echo Valley.  The people of this region were/are highly superstitious and used to believe that by burying once-powerful people in this valley and in other nearby spots, their spirits would guard Sagada.  In Echo Valley, the coffins were ‘hung’ or actually supported on the side of the rock walls on top a set of iron spikes.  A chair would also be hung so that the spirit could sit while overseeing the valley.  Very unique.  Someone was actually ‘buried’ here just a year ago. We had to hike down some slippery rocks to reach the valley then back up again, which took us about 1.5hrs due more to the fact that the terrain was so tricky for the girls (although the Filipinos did this in flip flops!).  After a well deserved break for lunch at the Salt and Pepper Diner, we set off in the other direction in search of the Sumang Cave, which we were told would be about a 30min walk away downhill.  In actuality it took us closer to 1hr to reach it, and it was very large, although we didn’t go very far into its cavern, again due to the physical difficulty for the kids.  Of course, when you walk downhill, you must walk back up!  On the return trip, we stumbled across the Lumiang Cave which also served as a burial spot for some of the ancestors of the area.  Here the simple wooden coffins were wedged high in the caves’ crevasses or just stacked on the floor.  With this detour, it ended up taking us nearly 3hrs roundtrip, and we returned to Sagada just in time for dinner and some pie at the Lemon Pie House.  Needless to say, the girls fell asleep very quickly that night.  It had been a rewarding day, with great scenery and local history, although the mountainous terrain, coupled with the previous day’s rains, did make things slippery and tricky, particularly with 2 preschoolers.  But we were so proud and amazed that they handled this, and without much complaining either and only a slight injury when Yasmine fell and bruised her tailbone (ouch)!  

Hanging Coffins, Echo Valley, Sagada

Sumang Cave

Lumiang Cave--Can you see the pile of coffins on the right??

Can you see the coffins?

We ended up spending 2 full days in Sagada, which we were to later learn is listed as one of ‘5 of Asia's Most Overlooked Cities' according to CNN.  It certainly has a certain charm about it and reminded us of what Pai (Thailand) was like 8+yrs ago, yet Sagada has much more to offer with its beautiful quiet setting, virtually non-existent traffic, rich local history and friendly laid-back locals.  And as far as we could tell, there were no guns here.

Segada Rice Paddies



  1. That is so amazing that your girls can walk for such long distances! Could they do that before or have they built up stamina from traveling?

  2. Amy,
    Prior to this trip, our 5yr old used to complain at the mere mention of even walking around the block, although when she was not quite 3yrs old, she walked all around Melbourne Zoo for about 4hrs! yasmine can walk for ages, although at her own pace ;) Both kids have the ability, but what happens when you are at home is that they get lazy from routine and are their own worst enemy re psychological. I'm sure that they have built up stamina from the trip too, but what we've been doing lately has been as much 'hiking' as just walking, and we've never done ANY hiking with them before as it just wasn't accessible where we lived. the hiking has been a great opportunity to exercise their gross motor skills, their coordination and muscle development, and they actually really enjoy the challenge--it certainly takes their mind off the length of the trip!

    At the same time, walking with the kids takes 2x as long to cover the same distance. in sagada, we probably only covered about 1-1.5km in the morning, and about 4.5-5km round trip in the afternoon!

  3. Around our home, our just-turned five year olds don't like to walk that much either, but when we went hiking in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada three months ago, they hiked and climbed for three hours straight with no complaining at all! I think it has to do with a sense of adventure and changing scenery. Plus, we've been taking them on hikes since there were 20 months.

  4. Yes, i agree that its as much to do with a changing scenery as anything. Also, we find that we have better luck with a bit cooler weather (Sagada was perfect for it)--the girls hate walking when its hot out--can't blame them!

  5. Oh my gosh - are they really hanging coffins??? No way! That is one incredible country to visit. How amazing that they have them hanging on the side of the hill, and a chair for the people to sit on and rule the world (even as a spirit!)

    Gorgeous photos - your girls did well to walk that far!

    Incredible. Thanks for sharing