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It was five in the morning on a Tuesday. The air was cold, the sky a deep blue. Everything was quite still, and for most of the uphill, winding drive, rows of pine trees and nothing more rose above us.
And then, out of nowhere, we reached what was unmistakably a café in the middle of the forest, and beside it, a clearing already half-full with vehicles. This must be our destination.
We walked to the other side of the café, to a nondescript cliffside that gave way to what looked like a deep valley. By this time, a faint tinge of orange has already appeared from the mountaintops. But apart from this, the early morning was still cold and dark and covered in fog.
We were at the peak of Mt. Kiltepan in Sagada, Mountain Province. A Tuesday, according to our local guide, Robert Pangod of Sagada’s local tourism, would have meant that we had the place to ourselves. But what was obviously the best vantage point in the area was already abuzz with a congregation of bundled-up early risers who had arrived before us.
Perhaps it was because we were still within the summer months — peak travel periods in the Philippines — which explains why this mountain town seemed to be hosting more visitors even on supposedly non-peak weekdays. Maybe it was also partly because of the popularity of the local film, That Thing Called Tadhana, which used Sagada as one of its locations. One particular scene in the film had the lead actress shouting her frustration at Kiltepan, right where we were. True enough, right before we left, we heard two girls shouting the very same line from the movie, and recording themselves on video.
But even before the Tadhana film, Sagada has already enjoyed its fair share of visitors. Most would head the eco-cultural way: spelunking at the majestic Sumaguing Cave; trekking to Bomod-Ok Falls north of the poblacion; and seeing the wooden coffins hanging on the many limestone cliffs around town — part of a traditional ritual that requires remains of kin to be put to rest where they are near elements of nature instead of being buried underground. There’s also the yearly Panag-apoy on November 2, where locals troop to the cemetery to burn saleng (thin strips of pine tree firewood, which can burn for hours) for their dead. The Panagapoy is also a big crowd-drawer, as the entire Sagada cemetery lights up in little tongues of fire.
But this does not make travel to Sagada any shorter, or easier for that matter. From Baguio, a bus ride usually takes six hours along the dangerously winding roads of Halsema Highway (Baguio, furthermore, is a good six-hour commute from Manila).
So for the traveler who has seen and experienced what everyone else seemed to have done already, what else is there to do in this town, touted by Lonely Planet as a backpacker mecca? After all, the guidebook says in its 2012 edition, “in terms of vibe and temperature, [Sagada] is as cool as the Cordillera gets.”
The Sagada You Didn’t Know Yet
The answer: the Southern Sagada Traverse, a new series of outdoor activities that will take travelers trekking on hills and rivers, squeezing through caves, and treading along mud and gushing current — all in one day. The adventure, which we had done with the help of the Department of Tourism- Cordillera Administrative Region, was easily one of the most physically grueling I have ever had to do — just a few sore muscles shy of the climb to Mt. Pulag, the country’s second highest peak which was a couple of mountains away.
Leisurely: Marlboro Mountain & Blue Soil Hills
Leaving the two screaming girls at Kiltepan, we drove through the hilly terrain deeper into the forests of Sagada, the 4×4 crunching its way across the rough, uneven road. We saved considerable time (and sweat) driving all the way to a narrow clearing in the middle of the forest, where we started our trek to the peak of Marlboro Mountain—the first part of the great traverse. As all hills of such name would go, the place had grazing free-range cows and majestic views of the Cordilleras, silhouettes of varying shades of blue in that early morning. But it was also something else entirely: closely clumped rows of pine trees towered from all sides, and ferns curved their way from the ground, forming a path that was as scenic as nowhere else. As we reached the peak, one side opened up to a vast limestone mound, the rough gray interrupted by lush greens creeping out of all its corners.
The further downhill we went, the terrain changed from lush to rocky, from paths of bare earth to those entirely covered in pine needles. About three-fourths of the way, we emerged at Blue Soil Hills — an odd assemblage of blue-hued rocks at a clearing. After passing by pine-covered forests and rough limestone mounds for hours, blue-colored hills (which from afar looked like concrete blue hills) were the last thing I expected to run into.
But what can I say? Sagada kept surprising, as I would find out for the rest of the day.
The sun was already quite high up by the time we emerged at the main road, marking the end of our two-hour trek. Downhill though most parts had been, it was by no means a leisurely walk. I silently thanked the heavens I wasn’t nursing a hangover that day.
On All Fours: Balangagan Cave
We emerged at a tiny concrete bridge, and on one side, the entrance to another downhill trek to the base of our second stop: the Balangagan Cave. In hindsight, this 10-minute descent to the mouth of the cave was a fitting taste of what else was in store for us in the next 5 hours: countless steep descents and climbs, most of the time requiring the use of both hands and feet.
Another guide, Joey, met our group at the mouth of the cave, burning gas lamp on one hand, woven bag on his back, and two guide dogs sniffing their way around. Balangagan Cave looked humongous — or at least its entrance did. The game plan, according to Joey, was quite simple: we were to enter the cave’s three levels and emerge on the uppermost level at the other side, and then weave our way back to the entrance.
A few minutes in and I was silently thanking the heavens I was wearing non-slip rubber-soled shoes, because the ground was muddy and quite slippery. Sans helmets and with only a couple of lamps for guidance, making our way inside the cave turned out to be more challenging than I thought. We were on all fours most of the time, and at one point we also had to rappel down to move ahead. It was easily the most challenging caving experience I’ve had to do, and also the most fulfilling. Balangagan had some otherworldly formations waiting for us: coral rock formations, domes, and some burial spots. The cave, as in most caves in Sagada, was once used as the final resting place of local elders, including the grandfather of our guide. Once at the burial chamber, Joey led us to spots where wooden coffins are still found, undisturbed for decades. His grandfather’s was resting from very high up, raising a common question from the group how it ended up at what looked like a place impossible to reach by any man. “An earthquake has damaged part of this cave, bringing down parts of this chamber, except that small spot where my grandfather’s coffin is,” Joey said.
After what seemed like hours, we were emerging out of the cave and making our way back down — another two hours of heavy physical activity. I was quite sure of one thing after finishing this leg: I was content and tired, ready to rest what remained of the day in the confines of our comfortable room at Villa D’Familia in downtown Sagada.
But of course I wasn’t about to get that yet — lunch and the two final legs of our traverse were still in order. I checked my watch: it was just 12 noon. We were awake for more than eight hours already.
Lunch was filling and exactly what we needed to sustain us. I made a mental note to thank our kind hosts at Sagada Homestay for their superb cooking.
Home Run: Ubwa Canyon & Bangaden River
The next leg of the traverse came too quickly — starting right at the mouth of the Balangagan Cave, the Ubwa Canyon — a series of waterfalls with short drops — had us rock-climbing and scrambling along boulders that went steadily downhill, until we reached a big pool that signaled our transition to the next part: river tracing along the Bangaden River. I have experienced a similar activity only once before in Cebu, and although I was already beyond exhausted by this time, I felt a gush of excitement seeing boulders along the big-mouthed river, raring to be scaled. I am no outdoors person, but I love adventures like this once in a while.
This part took another two hours — two hours which left barely any time for sightseeing. Perfect though this was for beginners, it was nevertheless physically demanding. The river, though not raging, was not exactly the friendliest. An ongoing bridge construction made the water murky — a temporary situation that meant we had to keep to the boulders on the fringes. When we finally emerged at the end of the river and made our way along lush rice fields for another 30 minutes, every muscle of my body was screaming from exhaustion.
But then again, I am also beyond thankful for having made it past all the day’s precarious jumps and climbs alive. The traverse, after all, was no joke: it demanded agility and endurance, not to mention a great sense of adventure. It was so easy — tempting even — to quit the traverse halfway through, especially because the physical strain was very high, but seeing it from start to finish, and downing ice cold soda at the very end of the line from a small store that thankfully had enough sense to serve drinks cold, was undoubtedly one of the best feelings ever.