Starring three babies in a jeepney and a very shy guide who couldn’t get enough betel nut.
The jeepneys from Banaue to Sagada are supposed to go at 8:30 but the reality is that no one goes anywhere until there are enough people squeezed in to make it worth their while. I think it was about 9:30 when we finally set off loaded up with passengers, bags of rice stuffed under the seats, and having agreed to pay a bit extra to leave not completely full. And there’s a lot of stopping along the way as people wave from the side of the road to get picked up. It took about three hours to get to Bontoc on the rather hazardous roads but the views were so spectacular that it hardly mattered.
There after a quick trip through the town (where I passed a doctor who was walking around in his green coat with his name written on in felt tip)we changed to another jeepney to take us the last uphill bit on dirt roads to Sagada. The jeepney was full of babies most of whom seemed to be perfectly content with travelling like this and weren’t even bothered by the huge clouds of dust that billowed in the windows every time we slowed down or turned a corner.
By the time we got to Sagada I had teamed up with a Jana and Jakob a couple from the Czech Republic and Christine from Germany so it was easy to book an outing for the afternoon. You just turn up at the tourist office, tell them what you want to do and they construct you an itinerary with prices varying depending on how much you want to walk and how much you want to go by car. There are two main things to see in Sagada – coffins and caves. We constructed an itinerary that wrapped these all up in a heady two hour tour and then, having read a set of instructions in our guesthouse turned up dressed for getting wet wearing flexible footwear.
Our shy guide looked out our feet and didn’t really say very much, off we went to the first stop – was the Lumlang Burial Cave which you walk down to through a pine and bamboo forest (rather odd combination of flora!). The walk down was on a steep rocky path and the entrance to the cave was a sand slippery slope. We definitely were not wearing the right footwear. The coffins are simple wooden boxes which, having been here around 200 years, have lost their paintwork. They’re piled in heaps around the entrance of the cave (which is big enough to spend a few hours in and there were a group of tourists snaking their way in by gaslight as we arrived) because it’s important for them to be out of the rain in the light (though we couldn’t get the reason for this out of the guide). We were heavily encouraged to go closer and peek under the slightly lifted lids to see “the real bones”.
After a brief stop back at the guesthouse to change our shoes, we stopped at a viewpoint to see some of the suspended coffins – roped onto the cliff face. The families use vines to climb up the cliff faces and then cut them down afterwards to prevent other people from reaching the coffins. I mostly silent guide wasn’t able to tell us why it was done but I’ve since learned from Wikipedia that the belief is that it prevents the bodies from being stolen by beasts and blesses the soul eternally.
Then there was a brief stop at a rather dismal looking waterfall that emptied into a grubby pool before we were driven much further down river to see the same water flowing out of a cave. “Underground River” said our guide, pointing at the water.
We then walked through Echo Valley a lush, muddy river floor between towering limestone cliffs to get to the main site. The trail wound through a coffee plantation from which the harvest must surely be rather low as of course, we were encouraged to pick and prise open the little red berries. “Is that what you’re eating?” we asked our guide who had been steadily chomping something read since we set out.
“Oh no,” he said in horror, “this is betel nut!” and gave us a red-toothed grin.
Echo Valley was the most spectacular site with about 8 coffins strung high above the forest floor, catching the afternoon sunlight. Nowadays only about 10% of burials take this form and the last coffin at this particular site is from 2010. There are also chairs strung up and apparently (from what we could make out through the betel nut) these are used to place the body on outside a house for three days after death. In some cases they are then brought here and hung up with the coffin.
The walk back was through the ‘regular’ cemetery – a combination of western style graves (introduced by the Spanish and Americans) and more traditional Filipino graves where a cement tomb is built above ground to house the body. In some cities I’ve seen these built on top of one another in a higgledy-piggeldy pile.
Sagada is more a village than a town – with only about two or three guesthouses and a couple of places to eat out and there’s a curfew of 9pm (again – we struggled to find someone who could tell us why!). The next morning there was a fresh produce market in a the dustry triangle in front of the police station. I sat on our terrace (wrapped up in a woollen scarf and warm jumpers) watching everyone arrive by jeepney with their goods tied onto the roof.