A newbies guide to Sagada, Mountain Province, Philippines

So yep, that picture right there is indeed the Philippines. I KNOW. I’m surprised too. The view overlooks Sagada, Mountain Province, a scenic and sleepy town perched in the central Cordillera mountains of Luzon, the northern island of the Philippines.

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Sagada is special for many reasons, not only due to the incredible sights and activities it has on offer, but that their indigenous practices are kept alive to this day. The area was unaffected by early Spanish influences, namely due to resistance from the Igorot people and because it was too damn hard for the Spaniards to access the area. And difficult it is to this day – we made the three-hour trip there from Banaue by jeepney, but if you want to come or leave (as we did) from Manila, it will take about 12 hours on a nauseating scenic road via the bus.

From Banaue, a jeepney departs from the public market in the centre of town every morning. It costs about 300 pesos. They drop you off at the Sagada tourist centre where you need to pay a small visitors fee before doing anything in the village.

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An adorable stack of pooches near the tourist centre.

Sagada manages their tourism industry in one of the best and fairest ways I have seen in the Philippines. All tours need to be organised through the tourist centre, and you have to go with one of their guides.

The best thing you are able to do without a guide is to walk to the outskirts of Sagada, and take a 5 minute trek through the bush to peek inside the entrance of the burial caves. You’ll probably have to show your tourist ticket to the people in the shop near the area where you turn into the bush, but if you let them know you’re just going to the entrance it’s fine.

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The village butchery, where the town dogs crowd daily. The desk in the back corner is where you have to purchase your bus ticket back to Manila.

Our accommodation was in a big pine house on a hill, with an inbuilt campfire overlooking a beautiful view of the village, which was lovely to return home to on the cold nights.

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We only had two days, so when it came to food, we focused on the popular places. Sagada Brewery and Masferie are good places to eat, and the Lemon Pie House has – you guessed it – mountain tea. But the second time we went there they actually had lemon pie which was damn good.

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The Yoghurt House is great, with the downside that when you peep over the rails you may notice cutlery has fallen into the gutter – which is often covered by a steady flow of sewage. I would assume they clean them well when they pick them out of the water but bring a spoon along if you feel so inclined!

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It is as if Sagada has a mandatory ‘one adorable dog per 5 metres’ regulation ❤

Additionally, Sagada is not the place to expect flushing toilets. Scooping water from the water bucket into the toilet and will eventually flush everything down. Water scarcity is an issue in the town due to increasing populations and flows of tourists, so you may often find yourself stuck in the bathroom with no water left and no personal bottle of water to flush it. If this happens I can only suggest that you run away as fast as you can and then act like nothing happened.

Whilst we are on the lines of poop I should mention here that Sagada has the most expensive coffee in the world: civet coffee. Coffee plantations grow all around the area, which the nocturnal, cat-like civet eats at night, enticed by the soft berry coating of the Arabica beans. Instead of digestion, the bean undergoes a fermentation process in their stomach and is defecated into neat little coffee parcels literally worth their weight in gold. The coffee beans are collected and processed through various washing and cooking procedures, and the result – coffee without the normal diuretic effect and a more mellow taste.

I want to make it clear that generally, civet coffee production across the Asia Pacific is a horrific and unsustainable industry, where many are kept in cages under high amounts of stress and forced to eat the coffee beans.

This place in Sagada is one of the few places in the world that engages in ethical processes, where workers head up to the mountains in the early morning to collect it from the ground. One of the guides admitted that some places in the town cage the civets. At the time of my trip the place I went to was legit, priding themselves on being sustainable super nice guys, but I won’t endorse here it lest they change their practices in the future. Make sure you quiz the tourist centre about where to go and get the café to talk to you about how their beans are sourced before you hand over your pesos.

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Not my cup of tea. Well, coffee.

If you’re into spelunking – there’s some seriously challenging caving tours you can go on, such as Sumaguing Cave (nope-nope-nope). We took the adventure tour instead, which included a three-hour hike through rice terraces, a waterfall, through a ‘small’ cave and past the hanging coffins of Echo Valley.

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Our guide Eddie, who looks strangely like my dad,  held my hand as we waded through a river and climbed through a cave. Just like a pseudo-dad should.

When we asked how long the coffins last up there he pointed to a few far away near the top of the cliff, and told us that many of these were in place when his grandparents were children.

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Some of the hanging coffins near the walking track.

The relationship people have with death in the north of the Philippines is fascinating. When a person dies they are propped on a chair outside the front of the house, and people can walk past and interact with the deceased as if they are still alive. If they are buried on the cliffs or cave, they are wrapped in a special woven blanket and carried to the area. It is said to be good luck if blood leaks onto whomever is carrying the body. They are then moved into the fetal position and placed into the short wooden coffins.

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The photos I took of the coffins hanging up high didn’t turn out, so these are the ones from the lowest point of the cliffs.

It is believed that the higher people are buried, the closer to the heavens they are.It is really overwhelming trying to figure out how they managed to get some of the coffins up there, and I am sure that people have risked their lives to do it.

The family will then slaughter thirty pigs within a twelve month period. If they do not do this and become sick, it is said that this is because they have not looked after the deceased properly, so they must go back home and complete the ritual.The tour took us to St Mary’s Cathedral and to the nearby cemetery, which has just as interesting practices.

Should you die in Sagada and are unable to be repatriated, the community will bury you in the cemetery and tend to your grave as if you were family. For All Saints Day, a celebration occurs where fires are lit on top of each gravesite, and the tombstones may be repainted by the families.

We arranged to see the sunrise at Mt Kiltepan and arrived a little early. I expected to see other tourists, but was surprised to see about 80 of them show up. As the sun began to rise everyone stood up and frantically began posing for selfies, and I mean frantically – as if Ellen had just turned up for pizza and a group photo – it was kind of comical to watch everybody looking at themselves and not the actual view!

I decided to ditch it and grabbed my guide who took us to another mountain, completely empty with the most awe-inspiring views.

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It was a pretty bumpy 15 minute 4WD up there, but it was so worth it. There were wild cows, and this amazing panorama of Sagada and the valleys below.

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The silence was also a wonderful reprieve from the area we had previously left – loud and giant groups of people is not my thing at 5 in the morning.

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Picture perfect.

The guide pointed out surrounding tribal boundaries and found some wild strawberries (well I hope that’s what they were) for us to eat.

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A big highlight was finding and purchasing a hand-woven blanket. Sagada Weaving is a big deal, and you can even visit a factory to watch people using the looms. There is a café on the outskirts of town that sells blankets that are woven traditionally by the old ladies there.

The blanket I purchased is a made in a different way to the textiles you can buy from the Sagada weaving factory. For starters it takes about two months to make by hand, and as a result there are more imperfections on mine and no hidden seams. The lady spent some time with me explaining what all of the patterns meant. The first image is a weapon, like a spear, the second is a shield and the third pattern symbolizes farming and the harvest. The four panels form together to make this gorgeous blanket.

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So nice that I’m too scared to sleep on it

We took the 12 hour bus ride back to Manila, which was a little too much for me. The bus was nice and modern, supplied with blankets, they only put on ONE movie so bring other entertainment if you don’t want to look at the boring view outside. Kidding – the scenery is incredible, and you get a few stops to stretch your legs and buy local fruits and vegetables.

The best thing for me about Sagada is a little unconventional – the street dogs stole my heart! There were so many of them that I have made a new side quest – to meet every animal in the Philippines. Watch me.

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Little tips

  • Don’t take photos of workers, particularly the weavers and the women on the rice terraces without permission. You may distress people, for cultural reasons also
  • Bring a waterproof bag for your gadgets and a pair of thongs/sandals/flip flops as most tours take you through rivers and caves
  • Pinikipan is chicken that is beaten before it dies, so maybe avoid that
  • The ATM runs out of money all the time so either get your money early morning or withdraw more than usual before you arrive

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  • Globe SIM works better in the provinces but you can get SMART reception near the tourist info centre
  • Book your return ticket back to Manila as soon as you get to Sagada (stall is behind the Tourist info place near the open butchery) because spots fill up fast. You leave Sagada at 3pm and arrive in Cubao at 3am. We planned to have a little snooze at the bus terminal and get an early check in at our hotel, but unfortunately the bus driver made us all get out on a random street. I don’t think anyone on the bus was prepared for that – we ended up wandering around for a bit not knowing what to do and eventually winged it and got an Uber back home.

Anyway, that’s all and as usual – Here are some of the friends I made along the way.

C xx

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**The cultural information provided about Sagada is from the Igorot people whom I met on my travels. I’ve kept accurate to the people I have spoken to, but as with many places – customs, stories and beliefs may differ slightly between families, areas, and the storyteller providing information with English as their second or third language.
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