19th-20th February, 2015
Sagada was a bit of a surprise for me. It was one of the places I had ringed in my travel guide as a somewhere to visit – mostly because it sounded like there were some interesting caves to see there – but it wasn’t a location I had been expecting too much from. The Ifugao Rice Terraces had always been the principal reason for visiting the north of the Philippines, and Sagada was just an afterthought.
Well, I visited. And, as expected, the caves were quite interesting. On our first morning there me and my three companions – James, Chloe and Pedro – started off the day by visiting Lumiang Cave, which was home to over 100 coffins.
The coffins were filled with skeletons, and some of them even had carvings of lizards (symbols of fertility) on them. The people of Sagada have a tradition of ancestor worship which is hundreds of years old.
We then ventured to the next cave; Sumaging. The travel guide never mentioned how the road which runs between these two attractions has stunning views of a plateau.
Sumaging Cave itself was a little bit mediocre. We wandered around inside it for a few minutes and then turned back – none of us had a very powerful torch, and it didn’t seem like there was anything in there which was interesting enough to warrant hiring a guide and spending a couple of hours of our day scrambling around a series of dark chambers. We wandered back up to the town, stopping at a lovely vegetarian cafe called Gaia for a lunch, and then making a little detour through a chain of small villages: Ambasing, Demang, and Dagdag.
In the afternoon we went for a walk around Echo Valley, which was, like most of the terrain around Sagada, covered in beautiful pine trees. It is also home to more coffins, which had been hung from a series of limestone karsts – a tradition which is still in practice today by some of the Applai people who have remained faithful to their animist roots.
The following day James, Pedro and myself caught a jeepney to a nearby village called Banga-an, with the intention of taking a leisurely stroll to the nearby Bomod-ok Falls.
With it being Chinese New Year there were typically lots of tour groups being guided along the path, and the ladies who were escorting them kept asking us where our guide was. Which confused us, as the path in question was paved and we had been told by the Tourist Information Center in Sagada that a guide wasn’t needed for it.
We ignored them and carried on walking, but a few of the ladies we walked past got out their phones and called their friends, and thus, when we reached a small hamlet and at the bottom of the hill a group of them were waiting for us. They blocked our path and were very insistent that we could not venture any further unless we hired one of them to lead us.
At first they claimed it was because of safety – what if we got lost or hurt? – but then James told them that he had GPS on his phone and the trail was marked out on an App he had downloaded. They then said it was possible for us to walk it without a guide if we paid them a handsome ‘ordinance fee’ of 300 pesos. Each. We immediately pointed out the logical flaw: that, if they were prepared to do that, then this really wasn’t about our ‘safety’ at all. I asked them how long this new procedure had been in place for – at what point, exactly, was it decided that guides were mandatory? – but they wouldn’t tell me, so I am guessing it was very recent change. After I asked their ringleader three times, if there was any law against foreigners walking down that trail without a guide, she, very reluctantly, admitted it was just a ‘policy’ decided by the ‘Banga-an Tourist Center’ (aka, the village mafia).
The argument went round and round in circles, and I got very frustrated. Eventually I just walked away.
“You taking a guide then?” she said, siding up to me with the registration book and a pen.
“Why not?” she asked, looking incredulous.
“Because I think what you lot have got going on here, is very weaselly.”
I know what you are probably thinking: that I am just a privileged person from the First World and they are just trying to make a living. Why didn’t I just pay up?
It wasn’t about the money – I would have paid that much as a conservation fee and not thought much about it – it was the method they were using to try to get money out of me which vexed me. Schemes like this keep popping up all over Asia, usually in places which are quite touristy, and they are nothing more than institutionalised scams. Walking people up and down a paved pathway is not a valid job, and forcing such a service upon someone, when they neither want nor need it, isn’t all that different from begging – in fact, in many ways it is worse, because beggars are not usually plump middle-aged women who own mobile phones; they can be ignored, and they will not block you from somewhere you want to go if you don’t pay them. Guiding is a profession which I have the upmost respect for, and I quite often employ the service of one when I think they can provide me with some information about an area I am venturing to or escort me to a place where I actually need to be guided but, as far as I am concerned, those ladies back there were not guides, and predatory way that they stalk around Banga-an, leaping upon any foreigner they see, lacks dignity.
Forced to turn back, by the time I reached the road in Banga-an again I was feeling very grouchy and I decided I needed some time alone to clear my head, so I began walking in the direction of Aguid; a nearby village which I could remember being described as quite scenic in something I had read.
On my way there another three more ‘guides’ jumped upon me from the roadside, suspiciously asking me where I was going – obviously hoping that I was going to the waterfall and they could ‘guide’ me – but I didn’t even credit them with a response. I just ignored them and carried on walking.
The views I saw from the roadside as I walked to Aguid were great, and my mood soon lifted. When I reached the main village where I was greeted by a few wide-eyed locals who seemed surprised to see a foreigner wandering around their neighbourhood. This surprised me, because it was probably one of the most picturesque places I had seen in the Philippines so far. I would certainly recommend it to any future travellers who end up reading this. Hoards of people come to see a waterfall which is just a stone’s throw away every day, but yet it seems that not many visitors make it here:
I walked down some steps, past a few more houses, and around the terraces for a while, enjoying the quiet simplicity of the setting and the wonderful scenery.
I eventually realised that I was going to have to go back to Banga-an, as I had been gone for a while and James and Pedro were probably waiting for me, so I started to navigate my way back up to the main road. The villagers I passed were all very happy to point me in the right direction, and none of them asked for any money.
For more photos from Sagada, click here.