Sagada: A Place to Behold!
- Liv G. Campo () - April 26, 2009 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines – Since it was a Holy Week, and a Good Friday at that, and we learnt that trips to and from Sagada were limited, so to ensure that we got everything in order, we reserved a van for the visit.

Six long hours! It was like traveling from Bogo City to Santander. But hey, it was still a fun trip. I was with eight funny people who seemed to enjoy the long journey. It also helped to have a nice driver, Kuya Agustin, who knew when to stop the car for photo ops.

One of the “mandatory” stops is the Philippine Pali, the highest point of the country’s road system being 7,400 feet above sea level. The place is in Cattubo, Atok, Benguet, two hours from Baguio. This stop also allows the driver (and the passengers, too) to stretch some muscles in preparation for the next half of the trip. There are comfort rooms here.

At this peak, there’s a deck provided, where you can view the other side of the mountain and all the breathtaking view below. The scenery we had that day was amazing after a drizzle and a rainbow was out. We only had about 15 minutes to take it all in, then back to the car with a bag full of carrots, considered “rejects” from the last harvest.

It was past 9 in the evening when we finally reached the town of Sagada. I slept for the most part of it though, as it was already too dark, bumpy ride permitting while Benguet and the first part of the Mountain Province have developed roads, Sagada is still unpaved with some on-going developments. Hopefully in a few years, the ride wouldn’t be that rough anymore. I just hope that the government would do something to protect these roads from landslides as on our way home, we actually witnessed a few minor ones. As advised, we traveled during daytime to be able to see the movements of the earth especially during rainy days.

Hungry and exhausted, we finally reached Sagada Guest House, where our two rooms were reduced to one due to an “unexpected” arrival of some important guests. The owner’s daughter spoke in straight English, which was a relief. We were too tired to argue so we settled for that single room, which was supposedly for three people. All nine of us (the driver slept in the car) crammed in that room. Anyway, the owners and the receptionist were very nice, especially when they served us our first full meal of the day, making it a great nightcap.

The following day. The trip was supposed to start at 6 in the morning, but we were too tired to get up that early and there were not enough bathrooms for the nine of us. Besides, it was too cold to go out yet. It was actually freezing cold that we had to bring our jackets with us even if our guide told us that we would only sweat out later on.

Before going on a tour, all visitors should register at the town hall, just a few meters from where we were staying. After paying P20 per pax, we were set to see all what Sagada had to offer. No other fees after this. For our guides, however, (we had two, since one guide is for five people for all spelunking or caving activities), we paid them P400 each (the current rate of the Sagada Genuine Guides Association) for the Sumaging Cave spelunking (on another story). There are cheaper rates for other sights, about P200 per guide for a group of 10 people. For that day, we had Daniel, as our guide.

Our first stop was the Burial Cave. This is just a few minutes away from the municipal hall. We had to trek down the foggy mountain trail to reach this cave. We made it for about 10 minutes or so, since we had to stop every now and then to catch our breath. It was tiring, but, man, the sight was awesome!

At the entrance of the cave you can already see the piles and piles of centuries-old coffins. According to Daniel, the number of coffins is now down to 134. The 1990 quake had destroyed some of these treasures, he said. The part where the coffins are stacked is just a few meters from the cliff that leads to the inner crevice of the cave. Because of the movement of the earth during that quake, those coffins nearest to this gap were swallowed by the hole below. The town however tried salvaging what remained of the broken wooden caskets with the bones inside them.

But that was not all. We learned too that the place was once looted. Natives and even visitors plundered some of these treasures for souvenirs. Because of this, Daniel said they had to nail in place the covers of each of the remaining coffins to ensure that nothing of that sort ever happens again. We tried prying open one coffin, it was really shut off.

One sad note too is that these coffins, apart from the common lizard carvings on their cover (lizards to the old Sagada people was believed to help them get to heaven), don’t have identifications in them. Daniel said that this was actually because the ritual practices by their ancestors were part of the old “pagan” tradition.

Centuries ago, Christianity was still alien to Sagada. According to Daniel, their old people either hid their dead in the caves as part of the burial ritual or hang them at the face of the mountains to be closer to the heavens. 

Those in the caves are the ones being frequently pilfered or destroyed by the harshness of the elements, while those hanged in the mountainside, after so many decades of being there, are still in their glorious state.

One example are the Hanging Coffins in Echo Valley, just a short walk from St. Mary’s Church. Sixteen coffins are still hanging in a mountainside there. Although there are signs of vandalism in the wall, our guide told us it happened some years back and they are keeping the area in tight watch.Although the Sagada people have embraced Christianity a long time ago, there are still some who prefer to follow their ancestors. The newest coffin in this site was hanged in 2007, according to Daniel.

The coffins, which are made of hollowed out trunks of pine trees (reportedly done by the dead themselves, well, before they were about to die), in this site are situated about 15 feet above the ground. Visitors could only watch them from below. It was a tough task for those who actually hung those caskets. Daniel however told us that they had to raise the coffin first, make some braces to hold it, and the body would be placed into it afterwards.

The size of most of the coffins are actually smaller, enough to fit a child. But Daniel said the dead is forced to a sitting position, as was an old Sagada tradition. They also bring with them a chair each strapped to their coffins for them to sit on in the afterlife.

There are actually several burial caves in Sagada, I learned from our guide. Some of them only housed the females, but none was actually exclusively for the rich. He said, during the old times, there was no old or rich in Sagada. It could be true as the coffins are all made of pine trees, had no varnish and had no other accessories, not even a smudge of color.

So, these are treasures of Sagada. I’m actually glad to have seen them. I just wish they would still be there in the next century.

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