Sagada: The Hidden Jewel Of The North

Experience small town charm and big-time adventure in Sagada

By Jan Michellardi
December 24, 2010

Jan Michellardi sets out on an adventure in one of the most remote yet picturesque spots in Luzon: Sagada. This mountain province combines stunning views with unique adventures.

The bus came to a halt and I, together with three of my closest friends, awoke.

Fresh out of college and in search for adventure, we had gotten on a Florida bus in Manila to take us up north. Nine hours, several provincial stops and an aching behind later, we reached Banaue. Our adventure (almost) begins.

After a traditional Filipino breakfast at the Halfway Café & Restaurant and taking in the view of the majestic Rice Terraces, we, together with a solo female traveler from London and a couple from France, hopped on our rented van and began to make our way to our destination--Sagada.

Day 1

Misadventure was with us for the ride, with a flat tire and a few road problems delaying our journey. But thankfully, after four hours, we had finally arrived. Hello, Sagada.

Flat tire halfway through Banaue-Sagada
Photography: Jan Michellardi

Nestled in Luzon's Mountain Province, Sagada is a small town home to the friendliest of people. Even in the middle of summer, Sagada is cloaked in cool, fresh air and endless rows of pine trees, a charming town perfect for a mountain retreat. Behind that charm however, is a thrill-seekers' playground. With cavernous caves and rock formations scattered across the area, Sagada surely gets the adrenaline pumping.

After settling in at the George's Inn extension, a three-floor guesthouse with stunning window views of the mountains, we met with our guide and headed to the town hall to register. After that, the adventure truly began.

Sagada cemetery
Photography: Jan Michellardi

First on the itinerary was Echo Valley, a treacherous rock formation that, as the name implies, provides the best echo in all of Sagada. On our way, we passed by several sites of interest, such as the rustic St. Mary's Church and the Sagada cemetery. Situated on a hilly expanse, the cemetery's white tombstones contrast beautifully against the greenery. Trekking further (slipping and tripping along the way), we stopped at the famous Hanging Coffins. From there, we made our way to Echo Valley, where we shouted all our whims and dreams out to Mother Nature.

A view of Echo Valley
Photography: Jan Michellardi

Around mid-afternoon, we began our trek to Bokong Falls, a.k.a. Small Falls. Passing by the Masferre Gallery and several privately owned rice lands, we soon reached the falls and the small pool surrounding it. A few local kids were jumping in, and we decided to take a dip fully clothed in our t-shirts and shorts. The water was bitingly cold, and it took a while for our bodies to acclimatize. Not expecting the depth of the water, especially near the waterfall itself, we swam bravely to the mouth and ended up nearly drowning thanks to the raging water that pushed us further into the water every time we came up for air. A little help from the local kids and a vise grip on the surrounding moss-filled rocks, we came out unscathed, laughing our nerves away.

By late afternoon, we started the trek back to the town proper, passing through the rice paddy route. Still wet from swimming and losing our balance along the way, we finally reached the concrete with thick chunks of mud on our soles.

Day 2

With the cave connection and Bomod-Ok falls on our itinerary, we deemed this day "death day". Waking up to a still-dark and very cold Sagada morning, we powered up with a carb-packed breakfast and stretched a little to prepare our bodies for the day's activities. Pumped and buzzing with energy, we then met up with our guide and our designated van driver, who drove us to the opening of the caves.

The famed Hanging Coffins
Photography: Jan Michellardi

Descending Lumiang, with its rocky terrain and coffins hanging and piling the caves' walls, was an eerie experience. Once inside, the smell of earth replaces the fresh aroma of trees. Darkness engulfed the vast cave as we went further in, and the only source of light came from the yellow aura emanating from our guide's gas lamp. The cold is multiplied within the cave, the trek long with obstacles along the way. It would've been terrifying, but the jovial nature of our guide and my companions made it fun and challenging.

Locals getting ready to jump in Bokong falls
Photography: Jan Michellardi

Upon reaching Sumaguing, stunning rock formations and magnificent stalactite and stalagmite formations welcomed us. It was more challenging than Lumiang, with its steep climbs, vast chambers and slippery terrain. Some areas required crawling and a little rappelling, others require heightened balance and a tight hold so as not to fall into the dark and rocky unknown. A few hours later, light finally started to show, signaling the closeness of the cave's exit. The last few meters of the trek out of the cave was an exhilarating walk, like crossing a finish line. Once outside, our eyes took the time to adjust to the light before we cheered, congratulating ourselves for making it. Then we took in our appearance - wet and covered in both mud and bat poop. We needed a bath. Badly. And food. A large serving of rice, chicken, vegetables, and a bowl of Tired & Weary Soup from St. Joseph's did the trick.

After filling our stomachs, we headed to the drop-off point to start our trek down to Bomod-Ok Falls, a.k.a. the Big Falls. Going down provided the most magnificent views of the mountains--tiers and tiers of rice fields and cerulean skies, a mix of green and blue. It took more than an hour to go down, passing by barrios, streams and a slew of cheerful locals.

Bomod-Ok falls
Photography: Jan Michellardi

The sound of a river flowing and the narrowing of the trail was the indication that we were already there. Surrounded by boulders and a river running from where we came from, Bomod-Ok thundered as water from the falls' mouth slammed into the river water, enveloping the area in a fine sheet of cool mist. We went as close to the falls as possible, sat on boulders, took in the view and relaxed, preparing ourselves for the trek back up.

As expected, going up took us longer and was more grueling. Along the way, we passed by a wedding feast in a barrio and were invited to stay a while and watch the traditional dance. We would've stayed longer if it wasn't starting to get dark, but we had a long way to go so we went on our way. We reached the drop-off point with our legs at full protest. Tired, we drove back to the town for a late dinner in Masferre.

Sagada at night is a sight to behold. Completely dark, especially after the curfew bell tolls at 9 PM, our only sources of illumination while walking back to our guesthouse were our flashlights, the fireflies and the plethora of stars in the night sky. 

Day 3

With no more adventurous activities left, we devoted our third day completely to eating and relaxing. A brunch at Yoghurt House was a good way to start our day, their yoghurt a definite must-try for travelers planning on going to Sagada. With full tummies, we checked out the souvenir stores lined up along the town's main road for pasalubong.

Rice paddies and concrete trail to Bomod-Ok
Photography: Jan Michellardi

By mid-afternoon, summer rain started to pour. With our makeshift ponchos, we headed to the old village of Demang, eager to see traditional houses. However, we found out that they were all gone, replaced by modern homes. Walking back to the main road, the rain picked up, so we sought refuge in Lemon Pie House. A searing cup of mountain tea and a slice of lemon pie never tasted so good.

The rest of the afternoon was spent indoors before going back to Lemon Pie for a traditional pinikpikan dinner. Good food was coupled with good conversation. To cap off our last night, a massage and a couple of bottles of locally produced pear wine were in order. The combination easily lulled us to sleep, relaxed and wanting to stay longer.

Sagada afternoons
Photography: Jan Michellardi

But as the sun peeked through our windows the next day, we had to face the music. It was time to bid this lovely town goodbye--the green and blue, the cool mountain air, the hidden adventures and the people. We came to Sagada with a thirst for adventure; we left wanting more of everything. 

And as if the weather knew how heavy we felt leaving, the rain poured as we boarded the van taking us away, to Bontoc and back home.