Well camouflaged and hard to see, but the coffins are hanging midway down in the centre
Our trip to Sagada was part two of our travels in Northern Luzon last month, which I am unfortunately only getting around to writing about now. Sagada is about a 3 hour drive north from Banaue. Its not really that far, perhaps about 50kms or 30 miles, but the roads are long and windy along the edge of the mountains, and a fair section of them are unpaved, or partially paved, so it takes much longer to go a short distance. Originally we were scheduled to leave early the next morning to do the bumpy drive to Sagada, and then do the same 3 hr drive back to Banaue at the end of the day and then immediately take the 10 hour night bus back to Manila. Sounds exhausting, right? So with a little negotiation, we managed to turn our 3pm arrival back from the rice paddies into a 4pm exit for Sagada and started the journey out of town. All went well until a flat tyre en route, which was fixed pretty promptly, but the 30 minute delay meant we arrived in Sagada after dark. After quickly finding a room for the night, we managed a quick dinner before a local restaurant closed. The hotel was reasonably clean and the room big – or “too wide” as our hotelier had warned. We were the only guests in what had once been a fairly fancy governor’s house. Of course, the obligatory visiting cockroach just had to make an appearance, but this time I got him with my shoe!
Early morning Sagada had plenty to see. The Saturday market was in full swing selling everything from vegetables, to pig heads, to household items. Fresh local yoghurt seemed to be the thing to have, judging from menus on different walls. So we enjoyed it with fresh fruit, and very good it was too.
We were meeting our guide at 8.30am at the tourist office, but were still pretty vague about the day’s plan. Caving and hiking in some sort of mix, we hoped.
Sagada is famous for its hanging coffins. The local tribes didn’t believe in burying their dead, so they hung the coffins off the sides of mountains allowing the deceased spirits to be free. Sort of a nice idea actually, unless you’re the person assigned to get the coffin up there. Goodness knows how they managed it. Our guide explained that it was a community effort, starting with a long procession. The coffin was carried to the site and everybody participated in raising the body up to its precarious resting place.
Wooden coffins camoflauging into the cliff face
The alternative to a cliff-side burial was a cave burial. All over the countryside around Sagada are numerous burial caves, their locations kept secret. But one or two are opened for tourists to view and our guide took us on a short hike to one of them. This particular cave had many coffins piled on top of one another. As our eyes adjusted to the light, more and more coffins appeared.
Most were shorter than the average human height because the dead were buried in the foetal position. However, I noticed that some were a more standard shape, and our guide told us that coffins had also been brought in from different locations. Coffin construction was simply a hollowed out log with a plank lid, held in place with a wooden toggle. From the side, all piled up, they kind of looked like funny faces.
While we were discovering the coffins, at the back of the cave we watched a group of people gather with headlamps, kerosene lamps and ropes. Our guide explained that the group were going to do the cave connection – a 3-4hr underground scramble from this cave to another one a few kilometers away. I was curious. I would sort of like to do that next time, as long as it wasn’t too taxing.
- The stone steps at the cave entrance…about as far in as my camera would register
Our guide had a kerosene lamp too. A big one – about three times the size of the usual kind you might use as dinner table lighting. He explained that we were going into the cave and that after a while the steps would stop, and we would have to scramble over rocks to descend. All the while, neither of us really knew what to expect. I thought perhaps were being taken into a chamber to be shown a few stalactites and stalagmites and we would take pictures and come up. We had in fact booked to go hiking, so at this point who knew.. Down and down we went in the dark, lit only by the kerosene lamp. At the rear, Michelle was having trouble seeing the next foothold if the guide went a few feet too far ahead. My all-terrain river sandals were quickly dubbed “no terrain” sandals, as I felt the potential of every step as a slip. Sure enough, the stone steps stopped and the rocks began. We descended into a chamber. Our guide held his lamp above his head and we looked up. You could sort of hear a high pitched noise, but the bats were so high you couldn’t make out individual animals, just masses of bats clumped together. We descended further down and the smell of bat urine filled the air. I tried to grab rocks without bat shit coating them, but it was slippery (because of said bat shit) and I grabbed what I could. Better to be slimmed than fall… We went down further and further. You could hear voices and giggles from other cavers further down and the sound of running water. Next our guide told us to remove our shoes. We had now crossed the limestone and marble rocks and had arrived at the polished sandstone that was easy and safe to walk on with bare feet. We walked through pools of cold cave water and Michelle took pictures of weird and wonderful rock formations.
- Standing on a sandstone boulder in a rock pool in front of “curtains” – one of the amazing rock formations we saw.
Rappelling down a boulder with a rope. The only caving “convenience” on offer during the whole caving experience.
On the other hand, as my camera flash was dead, I managed to take zero pics. So without Michelle’s blessing I am
stealing borrowing some from her FB page to bring this tale to life. Thanks Michelle!
We were in the cave approximately 2 hours and descended about 200 metres. What made this cave experience unlike any other was that it was left completely natural inside. No gravel path ways, signs, concrete steps or taped music. And no lighting….save the kerosene lamp. Michelle had actually had the foresight to bring headlamps on the trip but then left them in the jeepney! But that always seems to be the way with these adventures. Its hard to know what to prepare for, what justifies the extra weight in your pack, and what to actually take out for the day. But that’s part of the adventure I suppose, the unexpected!