The hills have lemon pies.
In February last year, my friend Emily and I decided to flee Manila for a dose of mountain air. At the time, we were working in the city and were keen to cover a lot of ground while in the country. We had always hoped to visit the northern parts of The Philippines, particularly Sagada, but it was only until we saw an ~incredible~ online travel deal that our fate was sealed.
Soon enough, it was the weekend of our trip and we were contorted into positions we’d never imagined. If I was describing another run-of-the-mill Friday night orgy there’d be no issue, however, we were on a tour “bus” – a Hello Kitty themed mini van – crammed into the back seat with two other passengers.
Legend has it that you don’t risk taking a nine-hour journey with the poor man’s version of Groupon. If we only knew.
If I could unfurl my arm from the angle it was broken into, I would’ve photographed our seating/mummification arrangement. It was like the scene in Titanic when the plebs are trapped in the ship’s basement, except they had a greater chance of survival than we did.
Despite the booking process being in English, our guides only spoke to us, and the thousands of people in our vehicle, in Tagalog. At this stage nothing surprised us.
After kilometres of absolutely blitzing through mountain roads and being snatched from a half sleep every time my paralysed face smashed into the window, we reached Sagada. It was a sight to behold. If you’re smart and don’t book a $99 budget tour, here are some tips to get you started in Sagada…
Length of stay
Do what I did, treat yo’self to a long weekend and spend three days in Sagada. This should be the perfect amount of time to see it all and fit in some side trips.
Finding your abode
While accommodation was arranged by our hell-on-wheels tour, we quite liked where we got to lay our throbbing heads. Emily and I stayed at Sagada Homestay Inn, a charming timber lodge with a cafe, snack shop, outdoor fireplace and oh yeah, HOT water – a rarity even in the city. Our cabin window even opened to an incredible vista of the surrounding highlands. My pastoral heart sang.
Most of the accommodation in Sagada is a similar set up to this, and usually you don’t need to book. We saw many solo backpackers strolling the village streets, ducking in and out of lodges to find one which suited them best.
Wake up in time for first light at Kiltepan.
Break your fast and then get to Bomod-Ok Falls. Most sites say it takes upwards of four hours to complete the hike, but this is false. If in reasonable shape, you should complete it in under two hours. The journey on foot is fascinating, you’ll pass a farming village, paddocks of carabaos, rice terraces and also traditional footbridges, these are good for ‘gram photo ops.
You might like to allow extra time to swim in the beautiful yet chilly waters like we did. Most tourists and locals won’t go in because of the temperature, so you should have plenty of room to lay some sweet bombs and spread out into floating starfish position for the ‘gram.
If you’re feeling adventurous, climb up and around the falls for great vantage points, jumping spots and hidden rock pools.
You can even ride a Jeepney back into town once you reach the end of your hike.
For the spelunkers and problem solvers, check out the Lumiang-Sumaguing cave connection and do it the hard way. This vast network of caves boasts subterranean rivers, grottoes and huge cathedral-like rocky chambers. It’s a good three hours of climbing, rappelling, wading and crawling, so basically the standard Friday night orgy I mentioned previously.
Provided your guide is up for it – you’ll need a local to show you through – this caving experience is Choose Your Own Adventure. You can extend your journey however way you’d like. If you’re a fiend for side quests, you’ll love this experience. Tip: Go early. It gets busy and most of the other cavers are slow.
After all the grunt work, check out the Hanging Coffins in Echo Valley. It’s a laidback affair, you could do it with a San Miguel in hand. It is definitely a touristy spot but the peculiarity of the burials is worth it. Plus it’s always good to get fresh ideas for your funeral mood board on Pinterest.
For all of these activities you can book transport and a guide from Sagada’s tourism office in town.
If you’re a vegetarian like me, you’ll be eating eggs and rice for the duration of your stay. Chop suey if you’re lucky. This isn’t so bad considering your meat-eating companions will be crippled by not knowing whether the meat they’re eating is dog or not.
That’s right, in Sagada it’s normal to eat doggos. Sad, I know, but at least you’ve been briefed now and not later like I was. I only found out after I photographed over 20 pooches around Sagada and formed a sacred connection with every one of them. Woe is me.
So Sagada isn’t exactly a foodie’s delight. Nonetheless, it is situated in fertile mountain environments, so they do offer their specialties. The town is famous for its creamy yoghurt (see: Yoghurt House) a treat after being in Manila. They’re also obsessed with making lemon pies. There’s a two-storey restaurant dedicated to them (see: Sagada Lemon Pie House).
I wouldn’t particularly recommend either of those joints for eating anything other than their specialty dishes, so if it’s all-round goodness you seek give Sagada Brew a try. They have a selection of meals, takeaway desserts and a quirky owner who sold Emily fruit for half the price of what he sold it to me for. Right in front of us. At the same time. Also, the mountain rice they lump with everything is a delight. It’s the same colour as Willy Wonka’s snazzy purple suit.
Masferre is also great for its wonderfully friendly staff, variety of sandwich subs and their cheap and delicious fruit smoothies.
If you’re staying over the weekend, be sure to book in for the Saturday banquet at The Log Cabin. This place has the best ambiance in town.
Side Trips from Sagada
If you’ve been driving overnight you should be able to line up sunrise at the Banaue Rice Terraces. This 2,000-year-old agricultural delight is particularly invigorating when you’ve been in the fetal position in the back of a van all night.
Passing through the highland villages on the way down from Sagada is an entirely new experience in itself. En route to La Trinidad, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and wandered out.
We saw local farmers singing Pinoy opera in the fields, and we chatted to families as they walked to school. These villagers looked almost Peruvian with their dazzling russet skin, rosy cheeks and white smiles. One family we spoke to had a gorgeous little girl whose cheeks I wanted to squeeze until they plopped off into my hands and I could wear them as suave eye patches.
Stopping in La Trinidad is a great idea if you love strawberries. Here you can pick them from the fields, buy them by the kilo and browse the markets for strawberry themed souvenirs.
You can also stop in the town of Baguio, but I’d limit it to a pit stop. Traffic there is comparable to Manila’s, and didn’t you go to the mountains to leave all that stank behind?
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