A Sanctuary Called Sagada
- Ann Corvera () - January 14, 2007 - 12:00am
Each of us has our own little sanc-tuary–a favorite beach, a bench in the park, a church, a lover’s arms, a shopping mall even, or the office lobby in cases when Lent is the only time in the year the office shuts down.

When you remember that leave credits are there for a reason, you naturally yearn to search for a place where no one knows your name and where life slows down to give you more than just fleeting peace.

Sagada is that sanctuary to many people, locals and foreigners alike, as I came across their testimonials on the Web three years ago when I knew nothing of the place except that it is nestled between the sky and the mountains up north.

Sagada is the perfect haven for a weary soul, and for someone who, for once, wants to hear the winds drown out the noise of urban living perpetually ringing in her ear.

The winds did just that when I revisited Sagada last month. It didn’t matter that the temperature was almost freezing as my friend and I– with double layers of clothing–hiked to Echo Valley for an afternoon of serenity, with a bottle of wine to keep us warm.

Echo Valley is only 15 minutes away from the town that passes through St. Mary’s Episcopal compound and a small cemetery on Calvary Hills. On the other side of the limestone cliffs overlooking the valley, hanging coffins hug the cliffside where the remains of very important persons are placed, an old custom that to this day, is said to be being practiced still by non-Christian Igorots.

Tranquil and mystical are how I see this wondrous place. On our very first day, we found peace. That is, until we remembered that night comes fast in Sagada and as early as 5 p.m., our eyes had to adjust to the darkness as we tried to find our way back to town.

Sagada is a fifth class municipality in the Mountain Province located 275 kilometers north of Manila.

People cringe when they learn that it could take as long as 14 hours to get there from Metro Manila. But that includes stopovers and some sightseeing, I quickly add. If you have a sturdy enough vehicle to take the jagged mountain roads, there’s a lot to see along the way, like how Dalton Pass just outside Nueva Vizcaya opens up to an awesome view of the Pampanga River Valley and the Cagayan Valley.

Getting to Sagada means at least an eight-hour bus ride to Banaue passing through the famed rice terraces, then a three-hour jeepney ride to Bontoc, where you take another jeepney–for 45 minutes at most–to the final destination.

There’s also a way via Baguio, the longer yet more scenic route, passing Halsema Highway for a breathtaking ride along the Benguet countryside with an alpine-like view of the mountains as they touch the sky. This route is what visitors usually take going home, as there are daily bus trips from Sagada to Baguio from morning until 1 p.m.

A voyage to Sagada brings new meaning to the term "rough road." The first lesson I learned from the experience was never to over-estimate one’s dri-ving prowess, even when navigating around potholes is a skill that every Metro Manilan possesses.

The entire Sagada trip takes you across four to five provinces–from the plains of Central Luzon to the zigzagging roads of the Cordillera Range until your ears start popping. The road to Sagada is long and most of the mountain roads are unpaved, but there are no other words to describe the experience except to say that it’s worth it.

In spite of the long journey, this small town of more than 10,000 people stretches out in remarkable directions, offering an adventure in its caves, a hike to the falls, underground river or further up the mountains.

A guy named P.M. Stephens drew a map of the town, calling Sagada "A Special Place." He copyrighted the map that has become a must-have for anyone who wants to get to know this slice of heaven.

Foreigners are an everyday sight in Sagada–Asians, Americans and Europeans alike–and certainly the natives, who speak impressive English, welcome their presence. History has it that in the late 19th century, American missionaries settled in the land of the Kankaney, one of the indigenous groups in the Cordillera.

During my first Sagada experience in 2003, our tour guide named Poclis did not escort us down to Lumiang Cave as they were forbidden to go there at the time. "It isn’t the time of year yet to pay respects to our dead," he explains, while gesturing toward the trail we should follow through waist-high grasses.

Twenty minutes later, we stood in awe at the entrance at the sight of the small coffins piled up to the top. One coffin lay oddly on the ground by itself, a lizard figure carved on it. It is said that to the natives, lizards bring good luck.

"Please don’t take any bones," pleads Poclis before our short hike, relating how some tourists get too eager to take home a piece of Sagada. They too sometimes desecrate the caves, unmindful of the fragility of stalactites and stalagmites in the popular Sumaging Cave.

Even with the rush of adrenaline as you descend to Sumaging, a deep sense of tranquility embraces you that not even the shrill squeals of thousands of bats on the cave ceiling high above could take away.

The only time I felt my calm slip was when we had to squirm our way out of a hole then scale the rocks with only a rope to hold on to for dear life, where one slip could mean exploring the chasm of water below.

We took our guano-covered gloves off as we reached varied limestone formations, which resemble drapes, a pregnant woman, an elephant’s trunk and circumcised male genitalia. "German cut," Poclis joked.

Included in our Sagada agenda were the res taurants where we would feast on each of its best-known foods.

Yoghurt House was on the top of our list, which is only a short walk from the municipal hall. The meal of pancakes topped with homemade yogurt paired with the famous Sagada coffee or mountain tea defies description.

The restaurant of Masferre Country Inn is also a favorite, featuring mouth-watering lemon chicken, salpicado, large cheese-burgers and other hearty meals.

We stayed at St. Joseph’s Resthouse where comfortable beds awaited our weary bodies at the end of the day. The place has a good view of the town and is close to the market, St. Theodore’s Hospital, a rural bank, the bus stop and the municipal hall where guests register and tour guides are available.

Although Sagada is a small town, you need at least three full days to appreciate what it has to offer. There’s Kiltepan Tower, a 45-minute hike from the town with a superb view of the rice terraces and mountains stretching out to the sun as reward. Don’t miss too the Latang Underground River and Matangkib Cave, and Mount Polis and Lake Danom, a couple of hours away.

On our previous visit, Poclis was patient as ever when he took us to one of two famous falls in Sagada: the 300-meter Bomod-ok Falls, simply known as the "Big Falls."

Our journey to Bomod-Ok began with a half-hour ride to Banga-an town and from there, a grueling one-hour hike through a maze of rice fields, which at the time showed the early growth of rice seedlings in the season of Yabyab (he names of the seasons in Sagada are defined by climate and agricultural phases; our last visit in the cold days of December is called Inana, which runs until January), then through the mining town of Fidelisan, more trekking under the blazing sun until we finally heard the thunderous cascades of Bomod-Ok.

At the foot of the falls is a pool that runs to a cool stream amid huge boulders, and there we had our picnic while Poclis wandered off somewhere.

Last month, my friend and I did not get the chance to ask if Poclis was still around, for he had told us before that he was planning to work in the Middle East, much to our chagrin. All we thought of was how could anyone want to leave this place? But times are tough and sometimes we need to leave behind what we love for practical reasons.

Without a guide and only a full day to enjoy Sagada, we thought of hiking to the "small falls" called Bokong ourselves. With the afternoon sun still up and only 25 minutes to get there, it couldn’t be that difficult–or so we thought.

Not having learned our Echo Valley lesson, we found ourselves rushing against the creeping darkness as we descended to the falls. By the time we got there, it was time to go back, and for the first time we felt the mystical aura of the mountains.

"Look at the pictures," my friend said, showing me the digital preview of our shots in front of the falls that we just had to take even with the looming nightfall. An eerie white cloud with two finger-like forms seemed to crawl from the bottom of the shot, while the other picture was in near total darkness.

It was really time to go.

No one talked as we struggled to find our way back. But the sneaking sensation of someone–or something–following us made me look back. And there it was, a mist hovering above the ground five paces behind us. I swore that wasn’t there when we passed a few seconds ago. I kept quiet until we noticed that the trail we were following wasn’t the same one we took earlier.

After what seemed like an eternity of wandering in the uninviting company of tall grass and trees, we heard the rumbling sound of a car nearby. We were near the road! A small wooden gate later came to view, the gate we should have taken that would have cut our hike to 25 minutes, just as the villagers told us.

We had a good laugh about it on our way back to Manila the following day. I thought, what’s a trip to Sagada without experiencing a bit of its mystical atmosphere? In the Mountain Province, it is believed that spirits dwell in nature.

Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, but it was both a thrill and a lesson of respect learned by an outsider for a mysterious land. This surely won’t be my last visit to this sanctuary of my soul.

A SPECIAL PLACE ALTHOUGH SAGADA ECHO VALLEY FALLS ONE POCLIS SAGADA TAKE TIME TOWN
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