My First Solo Sojourn: Sagada

So, one day, I went to the nearest airport, luggage in tow, hoping to snatch me up a yummy JM-slash-Anthony look-alike. I positioned myself near the baggage check-in counter, arranged my bags so they look like they’re overflowing, took out my jacket, a couple of lacy thongs and spread them out on the floor. And I waited. And waited. Alas, no dashing stranger approached me to offer extra space in his luggage. Tsk. Maybe chivalry is indeed dead. Or all the good men are either already in Sagada, or buffing up in some fancy gym somewhere in the metro. Geez. Time for Plan B. I ditched my bags, went to Cubao and boarded a bus to Baguio.

Yeaaaah. About that.

The truth is, a solo trip has always been part of my 30-things- to-do-before-I-turn-thirty bucket-list kinda thing two years ago. What can I say, I’m a walking cliche, which is why I don’t entirely blame those “concerned” people who keep asking me if I went up there to fix whatever it is that’s broken in me. Wow, thank you ha. To begin with, I don’t consider myself  to be quite the voracious traveler, but I’ve been to places, just never really alone. Back then, I have considered Sagada, along with Ilocos, Cebu and Davao, but time, budget constraints and maybe just plain fear of going alone prevented me from checking off this item from my list.

Fast-forward to 2015 where yes, that movie did help inspire other people to trek over there, and made it easier for me to gather reliable information for rooms and such to plan my own trip. Also, I was able to get some useful tips online so I want to return the favor by sharing some of my experience.

Getting There

I planned to be there Thursday to Saturday, so I can avoid the deluge of tourists going back to Baguio and Manila on Sunday, since also a lot of agency-sponsored tours do the Fri-Sun schedule. I left Alabang Wednesday night at 8PM, got to the Victory Liner terminal in Cubao ten minutes before 10. Just ride the SM Fairview buses in Starmall, Alabang (PHP 60 pesos, aircon), then buy a ticket to Baguio (PHP 450 with insurance).  For their schedules (both deluxe aircon that travels for 6 hours, or the luxury liner that cuts the trip to 4 hours via TPLEX, for about PHP750), check here: http://www.victoryliner.com.

I believe there’s an alternate route that goes straight to Manila-Bontoc then another jeepney ride to Sagada, which offers a view of the famed Banaue Rice Terraces. You can search for Ohaya Transit, which has a terminal in Sampaloc, Manila.

I caught the 10PM trip to Baguio and arrived at the City of Pines at 4AM, where I had the obligatory strawberry taho amidst the superrrr early morning cold! I took a cab to the GL Bus Transit terminal (about PHP50), which plies the Baguio-Sagada route. Their first trip is at 6AM so the terminal was still closed. I hung out and watched videos and at 5:45, the terminal opened and the bus arrived. Ticket is for PHP220, the bus is smaller than average, seats are by twos, air-conditioned and looks comfortable enough. I got the aisle seat behind the driver, which gave me some pretty good leg room and I believe the safest spot.

 

Because, yeah, I came just for this! Strawberry taho for PHP 30.

Because, yeah, I came just for this! Strawberry taho for PHP 30.

Starting March 17, some liners (Victory included) are temporarily not accepting advance reservations for tickets so you buy once you get there. I was planning to already purchase my ticket home but was advised of this. The luxury liner accepts, though I was told it was fully booked until Monday.

The trip took six hours, with two pit stops every two hours, one at a regular bus stop with rest rooms and food stalls, another at a roadside gas station, with food and veggie vendors as well. I bought a carton of strawbs for PHP 20 pesos and took in the brisk mountain air. I wanted a smoke so badly but felt like I would violate some unwritten clean-mountain-air law. The whole trip offers  breath-taking  views of the mountains on my left, and a steep, cliff drop on the other side of the road, often with terraces of rice fields and vegetation. The endless sight of robust pines trees was a welcome change from the usual coconut trees and pavement of past road trips I’ve taken.

Wish I live where they sell strawbs at the side of the road like they do corn or peanuts.

Wish I live where they sell strawbs at the side of the road like they do corn or peanuts.

Touchdown, Sagada 

We arrived at the Sagada town proper at two minutes before noon. All tourists are required to register at the municipal tourist information center and pay the environmental fee of PHP 35. You are expected to present the receipt each time you do any of the tours. The people at the front desk are really helpful. Since I was alone, I inquired how to go about with tours and she said I can come anytime and ask for a guide, or tag along a group if they would allow it. I was given a map of the town, which also includes numbers for the inns, schedule of the bus trips and the tours they offer. You can definitely choose your own adventure here, depending on your length of stay, budget and courage!

Pine trees and rainbows. Yes please.

Pine trees and rainbows. Yes please.

I did not reserve a room, but peak season was starting so it was only at the third inn – Indigenous Inn – that I got a room. The owners – Ate Wanay and Tita Josie – readily gave me key for a room with my own bath. It had three beds, heated water and cost only PHP300/night ,because Tita Josie said they count by the head, not by room. If you want to save more, they also offer rooms with shared rest rooms at PHP 250. Most of the establishments along South road (which has most of the popular lodgings and restos) offer rooms from PHP 250-500. You can easily search for them online and reserve. I inquired at Salt N Pepper and Residential lodge but they were both full.

Where I stayed.  You can contact Tita Josie or Ate Wanay at 09216455679 for inquiries and reservations.

Where I stayed. You can contact Tita Josie or Ate Wanay at 09216455679 for inquiries and reservations.

My room. Actually I ahd three beds, my own batch and hot water. All for 300 bucks a night. Yasss.

My room. Actually I had three beds, my own batch and hot water. All for 300 bucks a night. Yasss.

After settling in and finishing the rest of my strawberries, I walked up and down South road, which was semi-deserted at that time, finally settling at Salt N Pepper for some late lunch. I had beer and some pan-seared rosemary chicken inutom with rice for PHP 170 ( a bit pricey for the simple fare but delicious nonetheless). I went back to my room and lounged around then decided to check out some activities. I wasn’t really planning to go the adventurous route – I foolishly didn’t even pack my running shoes – but I realized you can’t go to Sagada and not try any of the activities they offer.

The interior of Salt N Pepper. Had the place to myself that time.

The interior of Salt N Pepper. Had the place to myself that time.

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Activities and Food Trip

I went back to the tourist info center and asked if there we any tours going on. Most of the activities have a standard rate, but if you go in groups, you can split the rate. For example, the Echo Valley hike to view the hanging coffins cost PHP 200 for 10 visitors or less. Luckily, a fellow solo traveler also inquired so we decided to split the fee for the tour. Our guide was Mang Dangwa – named after the bus line since he was reportedly born inside the bus – an affable and quietly humorous Igorot old timer. He speaks fluent English and seems more comfortable talking to us in English rather than Tagalog. He led us through the Episcopalian Church of Mary the Virgin, the modern cemetery (where one of the Fallen 44 rests) and through the trail. He gave history nuggets about how religion and the tradition of burial had evolved with the arrival of the Spaniards, Americans and Japanese.

Episcopalian Church of Mary the Virgin

Episcopalian Church of Mary the Virgin

The modern cemetery we passed on the way to Echo Valley.

The modern cemetery we passed on the way to Echo Valley.

 

 

Hanging out by the hanging coffins at Echo Valley.

Hanging out by the hanging coffins at Echo Valley.

Looove the backdrop!

Looove the backdrop! O di ba, mukhang napadaan lang sa outfitan!

After the hike, which lasts for less than two hours, we tried the famous lemon pie at The Lemon Pie House (PHP 30/slice, PHP 200/whole) with some mountain tea (PHP 15) and coffee (PHP 30). The place was cozy and quiet. I loved the flaky crust, tarty leemon filling and moussey top of the pie. They also offer egg pies and other hot and cold drinks, which I would find out is pretty standard in most of the eateries there.

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The buko pie girl tries the lemon pie.

The buko pie girl tries the lemon pie and their mountain tea.

 

For dinner, heeding recommendations, we headed to Mesferre Country Inn and Restaurant. Their menu consisted mostly of pasta, burgers and salads and cost anywhere from PHP 150-500+ depending on the size. I originally ordered an apple chicken salad plate (PHP 170), but the server served me a huge cheeseburger with potato fries and side salad (PHP 220) so I had that anyway.

The yummiest mistake I've had so far.

The yummiest mistake I’ve had so far.

The next morning, we were picked up by our tour guide Kuya Satur at 5AM for the sunrise at Mt. Kiltepan Viewpoint. The van ride costs PHP 500 so best to split it with other poeple. The ride up is about 15 minutes (3 KM) which you can hike, but I wasn’t going to do that all alone at 5AM. At the site, we found other tourists already there, some set up camp the night before, pitching tents, pouring coffee or setting up their fancy cameras and tripods.

 

A lover of beach sunrises, I quickly fell in love with mountain sunrises too!

A lover of beach sunrises, I quickly fell in love with mountain sunrises too!

This is Rio! Choz.

This is Rio! Choz.

Kuya Satur took us to a higher vantage point and I reveled at the lush greenery, the relative silence (occasionally punctuated by laughter or “tadhana” hiritans by some of the younger tourists) and the sight of fog covering the rice terraces below. The infamous sea of clouds was nowhere to be seen, it was mostly fog and smoke, as Kuya Satur explained that it’s better if it rained the night before. Still, the sight of the fiery ball of sun rising over the mountain skyline was no less breathtaking. We took turns standing over a rock perched on the side of the click, while elsewhere we can hear the cheers and applause of a group of friends, where apparently a marriage proposal happened. Kuya Satur said it’s common. He also shared some personal experiences and a bit of history as well. He recommended to get us a guide for the cave connection. “Wag kang kukuha ng basta pogi lang na guide tapos di nagsasalita. Dun ka sa marami matututunan.” Agree!

Breakfast was at Bana’s Cafe and Restaurant back on South Road. For PHP 150, I had banana pancakes, fruits, eggs, bacon and their famous Sagada coffee. It was a small place but also had a great view of some of the other lodges and more trees.

 

Bana's also sell their own ground coffee, which I bought to take home.

Bana’s also sell their own ground coffee, which I bought to take home.

Breakfast at Bana's.

Breakfast at Bana’s.

Kuya Juri, Kuya Satur’s brother in law picked us up at 9AM. He showed us the Sugong coffins placed at the side of the mountain. We walked until the end of South Road to the entrance to the Lumiang-Sumaging Cave. The tour costs PHP 800 and max of 3 persons per guide. We were told it will last for 4-5 hours. Kuya gave me props for wearing a trusty pair of cheap rubber slippers, since I didn’t want to wear shoes that would get wet and make me slip. Though if you have proper hiking boots, might be a better idea.

 

Sugong coffins.

Sugong coffins.

The descent starts here. Wooh!

The descent starts here. Wooh!

We started with a brief history lesson about the rest of the coffins placed at the mouth of the cave, the traditions involved, the rock formations and stalactites we were going to see inside, as well as some safety reminders. Kuya Juri lit up the kerosene and led the way in.

 

More coffins placed at the entrance. They still practice this, as the latest burial here was in 2012. Some coffins and bones were spotted a few meters away, washed away by rain and floods.

More coffins placed at the entrance. They still practice this, as the latest burial here was in 2012. Some coffins and bones were spotted a few meters away, washed away by rain and floods.

Traditionallyy, they regard lizards as bearer  of good omen.

Traditionallyy, they regard lizards as bearer of good omen.

I’m afraid of heights, and at some points during the spelunking, we had to go up and down slippery rocks, squeeze our way through small crevices by the help of ropes and the tour guide, or wade through knee-deep ice cold water. Though I was huffing and puffing a bit, I barely broke a sweat as it felt like the entire cave had the air-conditioning up on high.

Some of the wee spaces we had to squeeze opurselves into. One of the few times I'm glad I'm a stick. Kuya Juri jokingly says for healthier people, the rocks "adjust" and move around. :)

Some of the wee spaces we had to squeeze opurselves into. One of the few times I’m glad I’m a stick. Kuya Juri jokingly says for healthier people, the rocks “adjust” and move around. 🙂

Since it was already summer, the water in some places weren’t as deep. The tour guide showed us some places where the water would go up to the chest during rainy season. The cave the really beautiful and Kuya Juri kept up a steady stream of chatter filled with bits of history, geology, weather, showbiz trivia and jokes.

The latter part of the spelunking would take us to the deepest part of the cave, where interestingly, we found shells embedded in the rocks. Sagada is made up of limestone formations, and it really cool to think billions of years ago this place (and the rest of the Philippines) was underwater. The short course spelunking tour would actually just cover mostly the Sumaging end and lasts for an hour or so, while the cave connection we took is 4-5 hours. We were able to finish in less than 4 hours, with me taking about half the dirt, mud and bat crap on my hands and clothes, but yeah, totally worth it!

The King' Curtains. Some of the amazing sights inside Sumaging cave.

The King’ Curtains. Some of the amazing sights inside Sumaging cave.

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They look like silky caramel formations.

 

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Smiling yet super scared.

Smiling yet super scared. See that deep dark crevice where I came from?

At first I was afraid...  after almost 4 hours, keribelles na!

At first I was afraid… after almost 4 hours, keribelles na!

I’m not going to spill too much about the stuff we saw there (hint: they have rocks they call “porn formations” and there is a royal family residing inside this majestic cave) so I’ll leave it up to you to imagine or better yet, come and visit them.  🙂

After parting with our guide, we decided to get lunch at Gaia’s, since it was on the way and looked deserted at that hour (around past 1 PM). The small, two-storey eatery had a nice, rustic feel to it, with the tables set to offer a nice view of the mountainside. The dainty kitchen and rest rooms were below. The place offered all organic, vegan fare and once again I was delighted at the delicious yet affordable selection. I had their pasta with roasted tomatoes and red pepper sauce, strawberry smoothie, a chunky blueberry muffin and their famous camote (sweet potato) fries topped with muscovado (raw sugar), paprika and lemon.

A little cottage perched at the edge of the mountain road.

A little cottage perched at the edge of the mountain road.

Pasta with roasted tomatoes and red pepper sauce.

Pasta with roasted tomatoes and red pepper sauce.

Camote fries, blueb muffin and strawberry smoothie.

Camote fries, blueb muffin and strawberry smoothie.

Cozy! No wonder they used this resto for that movie.

Cozy! No wonder they used this resto for that movie.

It was a very peaceful, quiet lunch and it was an effort to get up (especially since my calves were starting to scream bloody murder). We walked back to South road, with plans to hit up the museum later, but I guess the unplanned exercise and crisp mountain air did me good and I feel asleep and woke up past 5PM.

I met up with a friend who came to Sagada for a wedding and we had lemon pies and had dinner with the family. There, we were told how weddings in Sagada is basically a town activty, with everone pitching in the preparations, as well as the celebrations the next day. We had dinner amidst huge vats of chopped vegetables, meat and other condiments, since they were expecting a turnout of about 4000 people. They’ve already prepared 16 pigs and a cow and are actually receiving more for the feast. Wow!

My manang tendencies got the better of me and I called it a night early. The next day, I got up around 5 and walked around the town. It was market day and already, the side streets were filled with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, fish, dried meat, ukay-ukay, toys and pasalubong. I scored some more strawberries and blueberries, the obligatory coin purses and magnets, a pack of coffee, a jar of wild blueberry jam and two maxi skirts from a roadside ukay for only PHP 120 each. I took a leisurely walk towards the direction of Echo Valley though I went back and sat inside the church, already decorated for the wedding, and finished my coffee and quiet time.

Lovely views like this almost everywhere!

Lovely views like this almost everywhere!

The church all spruced up and ready for the bride and groom.

The church all spruced up and ready for the bride and groom.

Market finds!

Market finds!

More tourists were also arriving, and they came in droves of vans, cars and buses. Kinda made me thankful to be leaving that day and avoid the crowd, though I felt my stay was really bitin. The museum was still closed, and I’ve already spent a couple of hours buying stuff so I had a quick breakfast of chicken noodles at one of the eateries then went back to my room to pack.

HEADING HOME

I caught the 10AM bus going down to Baguio; last trip was at 1PM. Same way going back, just ride the GL bus to Baguio, take a cab to Victory and from there you can catch a bus to Cubao or Pasay. I chose Cubao since Victory’s terminal is just a few steps away from HM Liner, which plies the Cubao-Sta. Cruz route. After a three-hour interim in Baguio, since I had to wait for a later bus so I don’t get to Cubao at midnight, and another 8 hours from Baguio to Cubao to Los Banos, I finally got home at around 4:30 AM, tired physically, but still wide-awake from the short yet eventful trip I had.

I definitely missed a lot of activities I still wanted to do, and there were other out-of-the-way spots that tourists don’t frequent that I wanted to check out. But hey, all the more reasons to come back, right? Probably when everyone’s over their tadhana obsession, I can go back to a quieter, less crowded Sagada. For me, my first solo trip was a success. I was able to brave through long bus rides alone, lived within my budget, spent a lot of quiet, munimuni moments, ate a lot, met some new people and discovered a really great place.

Me, myself and I.

Me, myself and I.

One thing I realized during this trip is that I don’t need to be sad or broken to find time to carve out a trip for myself. One shouldn’t have to be. I went up their with really no concrete plans or expectations, except to eat and think, and yet I came out of it with more wisdom and experience (at least I like to think so haha!). Though I came for a myriad of reasons – curiosity, adventure, stress, budget – my sister summed it up when she shared one of my photos shortly after she, my other sister and mom spent the morning berating me for going up all alone.

I went because I want to and because I can.

You should try it.

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