MANILA, Philippines – During the Holy Week, tourists flock the lackadaisical town of Sagada carrying digital cameras, backpacks, a few bucks, and their most adventurous behaviors. The peak season, however, is the worst time to find yourself in this picturesque town.
The locals will agree. As a matter of fact, the groups started a campaign to encourage visitors to come to Sagada on non-peak seasons. Inns are full and have been reserved as early as four months ago, tables are hard to find, and most of all, sites are shared with, let’s say, 20 or more other people.
“We advise people to avoid visiting Sagada during the peak season,” Gareth Likigan of the Sagada Genuine Guides Association said. “There’s heavy traffic everywhere, not just on the roads but also on the sites. Kaya hindi masyado enjoy.”
The main town of Sagada can be explored in less than 30 minutes. With an more than 5,000 tourists visiting on the same dates, this ideal holiday can easily become a nightmare.
The best times to visit Sagada are on less harried days, where you’re sharing the town with very few backpackers. Guides are not hard to come by, buses are not crowded, the streets are hushed, and there are no lines in Sumaging Cave.
It’s a travel cliché but if you want to enjoy the solitude, avoid the crowd.
Long, long road
Even before the call of tourism reached Sagada, it has been a secret getaway for artists and writers. Although Halsema Highway had long been cemented to ease the trip from Baguio, its rustic allure remains as some roads still cover visitors in dusts and sweat and sun.
“Some locals don’t want to fix the road because it comes with the thrill. If you noticed, some parts are cemented while some remained potholed and dusty. Sagada is not Sagada without the long jarring trip,” Percival, our hired driver, explained as we moved on another dirt road, the wheels of his FX barely a few inches from the cliff not barricaded from the road.
Tucked between the Cordillera and Ilocos mountain ranges, Sagada is an oasis after a 12-hour long craggy trip on squiggly roads sandwiched between pines and gorges.
Un-airconditioned provincial Lizardo buses ply the route from 6 a.m. until 11 a.m. On peak seasons, buses disappear as early as 9 a.m. And if you still want to get to Sagada, like my group, the best option would be to hire a Baguio taxi for a larger sum.
When my friends and I decided on Sagada as a Holy Week destination, a colleague advised me to call inns ahead for a reservation. I listed down more than 20 establishments and it took me more than 3 hours to find a vacant room—and the one I found requires a 15-minute walk from the main town.
“Most rooms have been reserved as early as December,” Derrick Piluden shared as he ushered us into a room in Yabami Lodge, a ranch-style inn.
Outside, vehicles whizzed by, scouting for free rooms before the sun settled for the night. There are inns that don’t accept reservations and instead prefer walk-in tenants.
Homestays are popular options, too popular that almost all residents have extra houses they rent out for willing visitors at cheaper rates. Most inns have restaurants but better dining choices are still in the main town.
Less dining choices
Sagada is a food-lovers haven, one that will not disappoint even the pickiest eaters. Vegetables are still crunchy, coffee beans and tea leaves are picked from backyard farms, and almost, if not all, establishments serve the staple Sagadan red rice.
During peak seasons, however, tables are very hard to find. One of my trip’s biggest disappointments was not finding a place to eat at 2 p.m. right after our 6-hour trek on Mt Ampacao. We literally had to walk around town in search for food!
My special favorite is Shamrock Café, a small inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall dining area located under the city hall. Cooked by Manang Graal, the hearty Shamrock Meal comes with adobo chicken, rice, stir-fried vegetables and desserts.
Another interesting spot to hang out for karaoke is Rock Café, a dining area hidden under large boulders. To enter, guests have to literally walk down a dimly-lit stone stairway that leads to a bohemian-inspired den. They don’t serve lunch, though.
One of the most-visited is Log Cabin but you have to call months ahead to reserve a table especially on peak seasons. They have Saturday night buffet where the bread, the cheese, the pasta—everything—are made from scratch. They also offer a vegetarian plate and Chef Aklay personally cuts the meats for you, in exchange for a few stories. The place shuns the cold and it’s easy to exchange pleasantries with the other guests by the fireplace.
I also found some bizarre food choices you should not miss. During my visit, strawberry shakes are served warm and the local halo-halo (mixed sweets in shaved ice) has steamed macaroni. I have yet to try the Sagada Lemon Pie House for its famous lemon pies, which according to some friends, takes days to make!
Lines ruin the fun
Every visit to Sagada includes caving in Sumaging but the downside on a peak season visit is you have to literally line up in the caves. Sometimes, you have to wait for 15 minutes just to climb down a rope!
Some groups are also too noisy, you’ll literally hear them screaming while crossing a limestone formation, while avoiding bat feces, while taking a dip on the pool of freezing water, while taking photos—what a nightmare!
Sagada was one of the few areas Spanish conquistadors failed to reach in their conquest of the Philippines, giving it the leeway to preserve its culture and traditions. Hanging coffins are the must-visit areas in Sagada. No trip to Sagada is complete without the coffins.
“They are hang so they are close to the heavens and close to the earth to help the locals,” Vien, our local tour guider, shared as he point to a group of coffins a mile away. Below the limestone cliff where the coffins are placed, a large group had been taking photos.
“The ritual is no longer being practiced but there are still some—especially the elders—who want to be buried that way,” he continued. “There are many requirements and corpses had to be sit for 15 days before they are finally brought to the cliffs.”
On our last night in Sagada, we did the pinikpikan, a ritual of killing chicken to foresee the future. It's done by the tribe leaders before the harvest season to predict if the harvest would be good or bad.
Pinikpikan shows omens through the innards of the chicken, whether the liver had been cooked or not, or the gall bladder burst through the beating. Very few locals knew how to translate the signs although guides usually help visitors replicate the ritual on their visits.
Covered in the thickest jackets we brought and with cotton bonnets bought in town, we watched as Percival taught us how to do the ritual. He pulls the chicken wings back to cover the head, and with a 20-inch stick, started to beat the different parts of the chicken.
“We call this ritual ‘Killing me Softly’ because you beat the chicken until it dies, it’s a very slow and long process,” he hit the chicken in the head and we stared aghast as the chicken convulsed and clucked, struggling for life.
“You hit the chicken in the neck and in the wings—these are the most delicious part once you cook them because the blood clots in these areas,” he explained. It took him another five minutes of continuous beating before the chicken finally died and it was thrown into the fire.
Once the feathers had come off, the thin native chicken was brought inside the house to be later boiled with cabbages and smoked pork and served to a group of trembling visitors not used to a Sagada night.
But before the chicken lands on the table, Derrick’s wife cuts the lower part of the chicken with a paring knife, careful not to sever the innards. As she cracked open the lithe body, our video cameras rolled and we awaited the prediction.
“The liver is half-cooked but it’s still in good shape, though it would have been better if its facing the other way. The gall bladder did not burst which is a good sign,” she said while scrutinizing the chicken with her thumb and fore finger. “This means your trip back home will be uneventful but good news will wait for you in Manila. These news will change your lives.”
The reading seemed general and we laughed it off as we ate. But true enough, our lives changed drastically when we returned home.