Going beyond the drama and into the rugged beauty of this northern gem
Roughly 11 years ago, back when I was still in college, I remember going to a computer rental shop just to read more resources and see more photos of this far-flung town called Sagada—revered by the few intrepid travelers who have set foot in this part of Mountain Province.
Fast forward to 2016, Sagada is no longer this small remote town where few dare to tread. Thanks to a local rom-com movie and sensationalism, tourism in Sagada boomed beyond imagination. Traffic became a thing (especially in the summer), more hotels and restaurants opened, roads were paved and widened (sometimes at the cost of decades-old trees), crowds of tourists became the norm—even on weekdays.
However, despite all that has changed, Sagada is still best explored for its rugged beauty hidden behind limestones and trees.
No pretensions, just seriously good food
The stunning mountainscape, captivating views and the literal breath of fresh air Sagada offers will always be its main draw, but you know what else you can find in Sagada? Great food!
Sagada’s staples such as homemade yoghurt from the Yoghurt House and lemon pie from the Sagada Lemon Pie House are always recommended for very, very good reasons, so make sure you don’t miss out on those. But for those who are looking for something else to try, check these out.
A trip to Sagada won’t be complete without tasting their local dishes. Without a doubt, Pinikpikan and Etag are on top of the list. Back when they still used smaller native chicken, it was called “killing-me-softly chicken” because of the slow—and painful—way of preparing the chicken. But today, the chickens available in the market are more plump and meatier, so there’s no need for the old method. Pinikpikan is so simple yet comforting. The chicken is cooked with pieces of etag (salt-cured smoked pork, think of it as Sagada’s bacon cubes) with ginger and other local herbs. Locals insist that the simpler the recipe, the better. We suggest joining a sunset tour to Lake Danum and ask the guide if they’ll prepare Pinikpikan with Etag on site. They usually do, but it has an additional charge. The warm and hearty soup is perfect for the cold Sagada weather.
Thriving in the highlands, ‘Pinit’ (‘sampinit’ in lowlands) is a red berry that tastes like a cross between strawberry and raspberry. They call it “wild strawberry” (since most people in Sagada are fluent in English) and you can find it along the trails of Marlboro Mountain and Mount Kiltepan.
Misty Lodge & Cafe is about 10 to 15 minutes away from the town on foot (five minutes by car), but it’s definitely worth the detour because of their Trio Formaggi Pizza. Now, this isn’t really a native dish, but believe me when I say that this is unlike any three-cheese pizza you’ve ever had before. We’re not exactly sure what three cheeses are involved in this piece of pizza heaven, but there’s something sweet, something salty, and something creamy. It’s perfect whether piping hot fresh from the oven or cold and folded between aluminum foil. How did we know it’s still good when it’s cold? Because we ordered an entire pizza for the 12-hour drive back to Manila.
Misty Lodge & Cafe is located along Staunton Road (on the way to the town), Sagada, Mountain Province. For more information, contact (0926) 123-5186
Before famous French chef Aklay retired, he shared his recipes with his staff. Today, Log Cabin Restaurant and Bar is operated by Chef Franz. We weren’t able to try everything on their menu, but we highly recommend the Creamy Alfredo Penne. Get it with “Menu 1” which comes with pieces of breaded pork and Log Cabin’s house salad made of fresh Sagada produce. Reservations are highly encouraged because they do not accept walk-in guests. Be sure to make a reservation before 3 p.m. on the day you intend to have dinner.
Log Cabin Restaurant and Bar is located at Poblacion, Ato, Sagada, Mountain Province. They also have accommodations. For more information, contact (0915) 671-7949
No time for drama, too busy with adventure
When I first did the adventure trail in Sagada, my joints were more lubricated, my muscles were more tolerant to physical exertion, and I was several pounds lighter. This year, when I visited the same places I saw back then (plus a few more spots), I’ve proven that Sagada’s demand for physicality is not for the weak. More than the physical torture of traversing the steep trail, I had to motivate myself to keep on going.
The adventure trail started with Marlboro Mountain for sunrise. While more people opt for the closer Mount Kiltepan, we chose Marlboro Mountain for the promise of a jaw-dropping sunrise. We left at 4 a.m. and drove to the foot of the mountain. We trekked in the dark for about 40 minutes, accepting the fact that we could be stepping into mud or crap from the wild horses roaming around freely. We reached the peak at around 5 a.m. and was surprisingly greeted by vendors. They were selling coffee, hot chocolate, and cup noodles. I was too tired to be surprised, but I was glad we could eat something after that challenging trek. The weather wasn’t so good the past weeks before our visit, so we didn’t get to see the sun actually rise.
At around 6:30 a.m., just when we decided to head back down to move on, the clouds suddenly parted and the sun shined upon us—casting its warm glow on our frozen faces. The warmth and the wind blew the clouds off the mountain and we finally saw what was behind the veil of fog—an unbelievable view of Mount Pulag and the Sierra Madre mountain range, limestone formations, and a sea of clouds beneath us. Beneath us! We relished the view for 30 minutes, until the clouds started rolling back, obstructing the view once more.
We trekked down and drove back to the town for breakfast. After a quick meal of Etagsilog (etag, sinangag or fried rice, and itlog or egg), we went back to the adventure trail. We started at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, the very first Episcopalian (Anglican) church in the north. We then trekked up to the Saint Mary Cemetery, where esteemed historian and anthropologist William Henry Scott was laid to rest in 1993.
Through the cemetery, we made our way to Echo Valley. Yes, as it is called, you can yell whatever you want and you’ll hear an echo from the valley. The limestone cliffs offer a panoramic view of Sagada’s lush forests to the left and the town on the right.
We trekked further down through the somewhat muddy trail to the famous spot where the Hanging Coffins are found. The people of Sagada nowadays are mostly Anglican Catholics, but still perform certain Igorot ceremonies and rituals, especially in paying respects to the departed. While there is the traditional cemetery which they can use free of charge, if a person (or their family) chooses to be laid to rest in a coffin hanging from the mountain side, they will grant those person’s wish. This spot is teeming with tourists, so a photo op is quite challenging.
We moved on downward via this impossible- looking trail for a good 20 to 30 minutes until we reached the narrow shortcut through boulders going to the Underground River. At this point, it was only us and perhaps two other pairs of tourists on the trail. Gone were the throngs of tourists reaching over each other for the perfect photo. Cold, fresh water flows from the nearby waterfall and we followed it for three more kilometers until we got to the main opening of the cave. We crossed the Underground River, our flashlights (which I realized weren’t bright enough) cutting through the pitch black darkness. It took us about 15 minutes to reach the crude wooden ladder leading to the exit where you had to climb through boulders.
From the Underground River, we walked through rice paddies and fields to the last stop of the adventure trail: Bokong Falls, also known as Small Falls (the big falls is called Bomod-ok Falls). The cool, fresh water soothed our sore legs and throbbing feet. This is the perfect way to end the seven-hour adventure trail. The pool right under the falls is at least ten feet deep, but we simply laid on our backs in the shallow part leading to the river that irrigates the nearby rice fields. I almost felt sorry when we had to leave. We finished the trail and got back to town at around 2 p.m. We could barely move our legs the rest of the afternoon.
The next morning, after our legs have somewhat recovered, we visited Sagada Pottery and met ceramic artist Siegrid Bangyay. She gave us a quick tour of the shop, sharing the arduous and lengthy process of making pottery. She also demonstrated how to make a vase from pure clay taken from the mountains of Sagada. She made it look so easy, so we decided to give it a try. It was a very relaxing experience to unleash your creativity. Sagada Pottery also has a small showroom where you can purchase authentic Sagada pottery. The demonstration has a minimal fee of PhP100 and if you’d like to give pottery a try, it’s just PhP100 per person.
Of course there are more places to explore in Sagada, like the legendary Sumaguing Cave, or the historical Lumiang Burial Caves, or the bonfire-perfect Lake Danum, but there’s only so much you can do in a weekend… Rather, there’s only so much our city-living bodies would allow us to do.
Definitely, three days in Sagada isn’t enough to savor the uniqueness of this northern gem. There’s no doubt why this quiet town, the cold weather, and the warmth of the locals make Sagada the perfect getaway for those who are looking for clarity and adventure in their lives.
Coda Bus Lines has daily trips from Quezon City to Sagada and vice versa. Departure is at 3 p.m. (from QC) and 3:30 p.m. (from Sagada). Travel time is approximately 12 hours, which includes a stopover at Banaue to view the famous Rice Terraces.
Tickets can be bought online via PinoyTravel (www.pinoytravel.com.ph).
Coda Bus Lines is located at Cathedral Heights, E. Rodriguez Avenue, New Manila, Quezon City. For reservations and trip schedules, visit www.codalines.com.
By CHING DEE
Photos By LEOVIC ARCETA and CHING DEE