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Travel and Tourism

That Town Called Sagada

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
That Town Called Sagada
Sunrise view atop of Marlboro hills in Sagada, Mountain Province on July 17, 2022.
Philstar.com/Kristine Joy Patag

SAGADA, Philippines — The quiet little town of Sagada in the Mountain Province beckons to the busy with a respite from the bustle of the city; to the lonely with sceneries healing the soul; to the adventurous with culture; and to the weary with refuge.

For people from cities where a 2-kilometer travel to a coffee shop means 30 in traffic and a P250 fare, Sagada offers you a bracing walk as the cold air soothes tired bones while friendly neighborhood dogs provide escort.

Before boarding the bus along a station in EDSA and preparing for an 11-hour bus ride (10 hours if you’re lucky), make sure you have booked accommodations at hostel accredited by the municipality. Your lodgings will send a code that you will use for registering at their Umali Kayo! tourist registration portal.

Travelers who have been inoculated against COVID-19 need to show their vaccination cards or certificates. Unvaccinated tourists who cannot show a negative rapid antigen test result which is “valid one day since date of release” will have to turn back.

After boarding the bus, ready your heart for a vacation filled with food good for the body and soul. Watch the 2014 romantic comedy “That Thing Called Tadhana” that endeared the quiet town to more tourists. Yes, you will be allowed to shout at the top of your lungs when you hike.

When the bus drops you off near the town hospital—from where you will see the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a Sagada landmark—head to the town’s tourism information center and register for a fee worth P100. Tours may be booked in advance through the Sagada Tour Packages Booking Portal.

Getting back on its feet

The COVID-19 pandemic that forced countries to shut its borders did not spare Sagada, where tourism has been a source of livelihood for many decades.

Since its reopening to tourists in March 2022, the small town saw a huge volume of travelers retreat to its arms. But the town had to be strict. Tourists with no registration are sent packing home.

Although alert levels have been lowered, COVID-19 still poses a risk. The town needs to implement safety protocols to keep the virus out and to keep the local healthcare system from being overwhelmed with cases.

Months since allowing tourists to visit and with the rainy season coming, the number of travelers coming to Sagada is back to normal.

Tour guide Jory Janyondong has been helping tourists enjoy the cold sceneries of Sagada town in the Mountain Province for 15 years.

Kuya Jory has been telling the stories of Sagada for more than a decade now. Philstar.com/Kristine Joy Patag

He has seen how tourists started to discover Sagada since 2007 and during its peak, when actress Angelica Panganiban spent the night at Kiltepan mountain for a movie, despite her doubts that the morning view will be worth it.

Her character, Mace, broke down into tears upon seeing the sea of clouds as she shouted her heartbreak and pain into the mountain air.

“First 'yung bago dumami tour guide, 'yung mga kasama po namin, sila 'yung nag-gagarden. Now nung bago magpandemic, makikita mo 'yung mga palayan, ano siya lahat may nagtatanim,” Jayondong tells Philstar.com in a July interview.

(Before many of us turned into tour guides, most of my colleagues tended gardens. Before the pandemic, you can see the rice terraces here… all of them were being used for planting.)

But when tourism grew, many shifted their livelihood to become tour guides, he said.

“Noong nagpandemic naman, 'yung ibang guides bumalik sa dati nilang ginagawa, 'yung iba naman naghanap na ng ibang trabaho,” he adds.

(When the pandemic happened, some of the guides went back to planting. Others looked for other jobs.)

More than two years since the pandemic closed doors everywhere, Janyondong says the tourists coming to Sagada are the same type who used to visit them — trekkers, artists, writers and others sick of the city;.

The Philippines only opened its borders to international tourists in late February.

The sunrise trek

A popular tour you may book is the sunrise trek. Although the view will be different from what Angelica Panganiban's character saw, there may be others who want to pour out to the mountains of what has been wearing them down: Be it money or romance or even both.

The famous Kiltepan peak has long been closed to tourists, after it was brought off as a private property, locals tell Philstar.com.

After booking your tour, tourists may retreat early to their accommodation, preferably after getting a meal of Sisig Etag at Salt & Pepper Diner. Etag is a cured pork that the restaurant orders from Baguio City. It may be a little salty to some, but there is also a cold beer for balance.

Salt & Pepper Diner's specialty dish is Etag sisig. Best paired with cold soda or beer. Philstar.com/Kristine Joy Patag

Do not worry about the calories: You will burn this by trekking the four peaks of Damagan, Marlboro, Kaman utek and Maduto, and will be rewarded with majestic views for your effort.

Kaman utek mountain, which means brain, is where the Blue Soil area is located. It is called by that name because its ground is squishy.

The sea of clouds is always a treat for the early morning risers willing to start their trek in the dark. And who wouldn’t want a sunrise for a view from atop of mountain while warming yourself with a cup noodles or coffee?

While trekking, you can hear your fellow tourists shouting for the need for money, a partner, or just out of exasperation because the trail is not the easiest. But the risk of having our trekking shoes or your body giving up is the price we have to pay in exchange for the view of pine trees, the limestone cliffs and rare pitcher plants.

Coffee, please

Sagada knows not all tourists are keen to explore Sumaguing Cave to get up close to the hanging coffins. There are offerings for those looking for less strenuous activities.

After registration, a tourist may opt to just choose to have a staycation and trawl the town for food and coffee — affordable but really good coffee.

Souvenir shops, restaurants and eateries, and coffee shops sprawl across Sagada, where a café two kilometes away is still within walking distance.

The Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization, in November 2019, reported that the Sagada Arabica Coffee Growers Processors Organization (SACGPO) has been processing coffee since 2012, around four years since they began planting their own.

“The SACGPO started in traditional processing of coffee using mortar and pestle in pulping, and drying of coffee beans in winnowers or burlaps under the sun,” the report reads. But coffee growers have since been given with technologies that reduce spoilage and improve bean quality — a win for coffee growers, brewers and enjoyers.

Probably one of the most famous shops is Gaia Café and Crafts where actress Angelica Panganiban and actor JM Rodriguez went to get their coffee. This is where the iconic scene of Rodriguez's character named Anthony gave his jacket to Mace while sipping her Sagada brewed coffee was shot.

Old and worn out shoes are home to these plants lining the perimeters of Gaia Arts and Crafts. Philstar.com/Kristine Joy Patag

That café area is still closed for renovation, but you do not have to go to Gaia just to recreate the scene. The real draw is the view of rice terraces while sipping on hot coffee or a tablea shake.

Rust ‘n Woods Café, a stone throw away from Gaia, offers café lattes that taste like marshmallow (heavenly, even). As you enjoy your coffee, you can feast your eyes on souvenirs while listening to the calm snipping of the grass lawn in front of the café.

Another shop and award-winning at that is Bana’s coffee. The shop, which was given a Gourmet Award during the 3rd International Contests of Coffees Roasted in their Countries of Origin in 2017, offers the famous civet coffee and has renovated its space to give primacy to views of green mountains and a line of succulents in tiny pots.

Enjoy a cup of flat white coffee while reading your favorite book or writing on your journal at Bana's coffee.
Philstar.com/Kristine Joy Patag

Sasha Martinez, a 32-year-old writer and artist, went to Sagada for the first time in July. Having had little contact with the outside world since the pandemic in 2020, her first venture for a vacation was the mountain town.

She summed up her experience this way: “There's a kind of peace with the unfamiliar, and whatever that costs—fatigue, hyperventilation, searing cold—matters nothing when you realize there's no people you'd rather be with in the exploration, in the search for quiet in a strange place.”

Sagada has something for everyone, even if that something is the luxury of having no thoughts and not a lot to do.

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