Sagada Homestay – check out anytime you want but you can never leave

Posted: April 30, 2011 in The Philippines
Tags: , , ,

We had a thoroughly enjoyable jeepney ride from Banaue to Sagada though it took some organising. We had arranged to travel with the Matej, Maya and Lucas, our Slovenian friends. We stood at the departure point for buses and jeepneys but it was a national holiday and in the midst of the local festival. Conflicting stories emerged, from there being no transport out of Banaue, to there only being the Baguio bound van for which we’d have to pay for an extra 4 seats to cater for our big bags.

Given my legendary morning patience, I marched back to the guesthouse to speak to the affable guide leader with whom I’d struck up the semblance of a friendship. I explained our dilemma and he then ushered over somebody whose boss runs jeepneys to Sagada. Moments later this chap whizzed me up the hill in his tricycle to an empty jeepney. The driver, a lovely chap called Michael, was awaiting 11 other passengers and agreed to take the 5 of us as well. He proceeded to drive me, now in my own personal jeepney, down to where the others were waiting, unsure of their ability to get out of town. I rolled down the window and shouted to Muneeza, “How about our own private jeepney then?” She shot me a look of amazement and they all piled in the back. We returned to the top of the hill and picked up the other passengers and set off around 9am, slightly later than planned but relieved to have found transport. Muneeza said it was typical of me to just turn up out of nowhere with a solution. I don’t like to take no for an answer.

Our fellow passengers were a motley and fun crew. There was a lone Israeli, Noam, who was fascinating to talk to because he was widely travelled and had a balanced view on the politics and cultural challenges in the Middle East. He was patriotic but also sympathetic to the Palestine cause and critical of his country’s political leadership. We engaged in deep debate for nearly 2 hrs. The other passengers were Filipino, a family from Cavite (just south of Manila) on their holiday, visiting The Cordillera for the first time as well. As with most people here, they spoke very good English so conversation was easy.

We rocked up at Sagada around 13.00 – the last leg of the journey an arduous climb into the mountains along a battered mud road that took nearly 1hr to achieve the princely distance of 18km. The road sign announcing a warm welcome to Sagada was misleading. The actual village was 20mins further up the road.

We checked in with the Tourist Information Centre (visitors must register and pay a compulsory 20Php fee, for your own protection apparently!) and then got Michael to drop us off at Sagada Homestay where we had made a reservation. We lucked in – the only private room with ensuite (as per our booking) was in The Cottage, a separate building with 2 bedrooms, large lounge/dining area and bathroom. As there was nobody else taking the second room, we had the place to ourselves for 2 nights. Sheer bliss. Add to that the location; the homestay is at the top of town, overlooking rolling hills and as peaceful as you can get backpacking. We sat down outside our cottage and sighed a sigh of immense satisfaction. Our Slovenian friends decided to stay in the same place and came to find us so we could organise an afternoon trek; trekking is the primary attraction in Sagada and the options, both physical and cultural, are bountiful.

Mountains of Sagada, The Cordillera

The Hanging Coffins

Muneeza had told me she wanted to see the Hanging Coffins long before we arrived here but I knew nothing about them, so was naturally intrigued. We found a local guide, Egbert, and set off on a 3hr round hike.

After passing through the town cemetery, containing a few poignant WWII memorials, we arrived in a small canyon with steep rock walls and hidden by trees. Egbert told us this was the place of the coffins but I was nonplussed. He then pointed out what my eye had so blindly missed; columns of wooden coffins supported by metal rods drilled into the rock faces, climbing up the cliffs. It was a surreal moment. For some reason I had expected mummified bodies hanging from trees; I hadn’t anticipated actual coffins hanging from the cliff face.

Hanging Coffins of Sagada

I asked Egbert to explain the reason for this type of burial. Many of the local tribes have practiced animistic beliefs for centuries. Whilst the modern day Philippines reflects most of the major world religions, animist traditions persist in most of the rural areas. Luckily, the country is quite tolerant, so organised religion coexists peacefully with animist and pagan tradition. The ancestral village elders believed that by hanging the coffin of the deceased, the body would be in commune with nature and the spirit would pass more easily to the afterlife. The family of the deceased will try to find a place near other dead relatives and first bring the coffin, then the body. The logistics of some of the burial sites are incredible – some coffins are wedged in cracks hundreds of feet from the cliff top or bottom. It would have taken time, patience and great concentration to bring the coffins and bodies to these resting places. Not to mention a touch of personal danger to those still alive.

The hike wound its way through the canyon and along the riverbed. We had an amusing confrontation with a protective female water buffalo that resented our intrusion on her patch. We walked through parts of the village towards the small waterfall. The waterfall is surrounded by farmers’ fields and enclosed by mountains. As it was late afternoon, the local kids had amassed to play in the fresh water pool and make increasingly daring leaps from the rock ledges. I jumped in to test the depth and, reassured, proceeded to the rock ledges for some jumping and diving action. I made it up to about 20ft but was outclassed by a few of the more cavalier kids who leapt from a ledge a further 6ft above me. As my jump had made me hit the rocky bottom of the pool with ease, I opted out of increasing the height. Yes, I am gay.

Small Waterfall, Sagada

We headed back to town via the backyards of the local farmers and rewarded our energetic afternoon with a slap up meal at Francis Café, a cheap as chips local shack that served fantastic Filipino food. It was then back to Sagada Homestay to get drunk with the Slovenians. We bought what we could get our hands on; cheap flavoured vodka, rice wine and stomach stripping rum. It was all going well until I discovered that the rice wine that Lucas assured me was kosher, was actually rice wine vinegar. He still assured me it was wine, so I hit another mouthful and nearly gagged, much to the amusement of the others. On that note we decided it was time to sleep before we started drinking something worse.

To the mountains

On Friday 29th, after a leisurely morning enjoying a late brunch, I headed to town to organise a guide to hike in the mountains. Muni had decided it was time to be lazy and had no interest in putting herself through more physical exertion, so I ventured out alone.

I picked up a friendly guide called Acalay who spoke good English and we set off to claim the mountains. Having had a cold for the past few days, the climb was more demanding than I had anticipated and I was soon out of breath and sweating like a corrupt politician.

Despite the physical pain, the hike was wonderful. We passed through an alpine-meadow like landscape, past a half-full lake, and into the dense forest that clung to the side of the mountains. The colours of the flora were vivid and above us birds of prey circled. Hopefully not expecting my sudden demise. In places, as we emerged from the trees, I had a 360° panorama of the mountains that engulf the tiny village of Sagada. It was so peaceful that we sat down to enjoy the silence.

Sagada Mountains

We climbed and descended 3 peaks before beating a path back to Sagada village. Acalay imparted a great deal of local knowledge to me, gained from a life spent in these hills. As a child he spent a lot of time wandering the mountains to harvest crops such as tea and bring water from wells. The town now has a reliable fresh water source via miles and miles of piping but Acalay still harvests mountain tea every time he guides. Old habits die hard.

Perhaps the nicest part of the hike was the walk back through the lower part of town that I hadn’t seen before. We snaked across the small patches of farmland tended by the villagers and through the narrow alleys that intersect the houses. We stopped at a hut where local rituals are performed and animals sacrificed for a higher purpose. It was at this point that Acalay explained his love for dog meat. He offered to get me some but I explained that, because we love dogs as pets in England, the thought of eating them as meat isn’t our cup of mountain tea. He laughed and walked on.

I said goodbye to Acalay content that I’d had a wonderful afternoon and learned a lot about the local culture and customs. Muneeza was out when I got back to the room and when she returned she recounted her afternoon’s adventures. In the space of 2 hours, she had been harassed by a man wanting to get her into his house for some adult antics, scared by a dog that kept trying to bite her and befriended by an old female teacher who recited Shakespeare verses to her over a hot chocolate and croissant. My adventure may have afforded me the chance to absorb the finer gifts of nature but hers had definitely been more random and entertaining, for me at least.

The evening after my hike, I sat outside our bungalow, absorbing the spectacular view of rolling mountains in the early evening penombre. Muni joined me and pointed out the loud sound of screaming in the background. Jolted from my slumber, I realised that we could hear the high pitched and desperate squeals of pigs being slaughtered. It was a blood-curdling screech that made us feel a little uneasy. Yes we both eat meat, yes we’ve both eaten halal food but when you hear that noise and stop to consider the plight of the animal, it does make you feel a touch guilty. I still tucked into a tasty pork dish for dinner.

The perfect pace of life

Sagada is a mountain paradise. It’s a place where you can easily lose yourself for days, weeks, even months if you have no set agenda and no need to move on. The people are so chilled, no doubt thanks to the serenity of their surroundings. The air is clean and the town quiet thanks to a lack of vehicles and only a handful of passing tourists. Why this place is void of visitors amazes me – it has so much to offer. However, given the remote access and need for patience with transport connections, it’s nicely protected from the rabble. I’d love to come back here next time I find myself in the Philippines, it’s an adventure scarcely begun.

Love jamer & muneeza x

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