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I left Banaue and Batad feeling physically exhausted after three days of intense trekking through the Cordillera rice terraces. But as I boarded the public Jeepney that would take me three hours to Bontoc where I would transfer for another three-hour public Jeepney to Sagada, all for less than five dollars, I was filled with excitement. I was on my way to meet Heather, who has become one of my favorite world travel buddies. Long term readers will know Heather as my photography mentor in Grand Cayman, where I worked as her assistant for a summer, my wedding date in Philadelphia, where we met up to celebrate our island friends’ marriage, and Oahu and The Big Island, where we terrorized Hawaii together for two weeks before I went off on my own.

This had been a very last-minute trip on Heather’s part. We frequently chat on Whatsapp, and before I left Thailand I was going through my upcoming Philippines itinerary while she was lamenting island fever — she still lives and works on Grand Cayman. I think I jokingly responded, “Why not come to the Philippines?” A few days later she had booked a ticket.

I love having friends as crazy as I am.

Traveling from Banaue to Sagada

Traveling from Banaue to Sagada

Traveling from Banaue to Sagada

Lonely Planet Philippines describes Sagada as “the closest thing the Philippines has to a backpacker mecca,” warning that it can at times be “packed by travelers” and even mentions the “wide consumption of cheap local pot.” The latter of which I have no interest in, by the way, but it does point to a certain, er, traveler culture.

This was not the first nor the last time that my usually trusty guidebook brand left me scratching my head on this trip. Sagada was a tranquil mountain town indeed, that part they had right, and it had loads of appeal — cool air, quaint atmosphere, one major quirky attraction, and one major adventure activity (to be revealed!). But a backpacker mecca it was not — the entire town was fast asleep at 8pm (in fact our guesthouse locked us in at 9pm!), the usual barrage of internet shops, comfy cafes and travel agencies was non-existent, and there was nary a dreadlocked or singlet-wearing or backpack-toting vagabond in sight. The only other white faces we noticed at all in our few days there were the Irish couple and the Israeli couple that had been crammed into my Jeepney on the way in.

But we didn’t mind — we’ve both had heavy doses of backpacker culture in our travels — and it was quite nice to have the place to ourselves. We checked into the sweet and homey Residential Lodge and set off to explore.

Sagada Town, Philippines

Sagada
Sagada

Photo on left by Heather Holt Photography

Sagada Town, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Our first stop — and soon to be daily addiction — was the one nod to the backpacker atmosphere that Lonely Planet had promised. Yoghurt House became our home base in Sagada thanks to an inviting balcony and  a menu of delicious homemade yoghurts. Had there been wifi, we might have moved in.

Sagada
Sagada

Photo on right by Heather Holt Photography

Post fuel stop, we set off to explore the town. With just two roads making up the heart of Sagada, we didn’t have to go far. But we did enjoy seeing the provincial staples of village life anywhere in the world — a fire station, local transport, a school, a house of worship.

Sagada Town

Sagada Town

Sagada Town Church

Sagada Town ChapelPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Wild Flower in Sagada, Philippines

One of the things I love about traveling with Heather is our shared love of photography and being able to indulge in long photo walks and shoots together that might leave less artistically inclined travelers tapping their feet. However, we end up with a lot of shots like this. Here’s my version:

Blue Door in Sagada, Philippines

And here’s Heather’s. Love it.

Blue Door in Sagada, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

One thing that we were really tickled by in the Philippines was the proliferation of silly signs, many of them instructing you not to do things that, well, you’d think might be common sense. However, based on the amount of public urination that I witnessed in my three weeks there (hint: it was a lot), I guess they really are necessary.

Funny sign in Sagada, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Funny sign in Sagada, Philippines

Funny sign in Sagada, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Funny sign in Sagada, PhilippinesPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

And of course, almost any city in the Philippines will hold a fleet of colorful, overcrowded Jeepneys and tiny, brightly painted trikes.

Filipino Jeepney

Filipino TrikePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

We skipped the motorized transport in favor of our own two feet. Sagada is on a mountain slope, meaning a serious glute workout is required even for a short walk up or down the street. Heading down the road, literally, we soon left buildings and exhaust fumes behind in exchange for lush rural rice paddies.

While I wouldn’t say these compared to the rice terraces I saw in Banaue or Batad, they were beautiful in their own way — gently sloping, verdant green, and backed by untamed mountains.

Rice Terraces, SagadaPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Rice Terraces, SagadaPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Rice Terraces, SagadaPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Rice Terraces, SagadaPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

In the opposite direction, towards the highest point of town, we set off on another adventure. Following vague directions we climbed a set of stairs behind the church, cut through a graveyard, and then looked in vain for paths down into the overgrown valley below. We had a few false starts at first and I had visions of us emerging covered in sweat, dirt and blood after hours of crawling through the thorny brush in vain, but eventually we heard voices and followed them to a clearing in the base of the valley.

And that’s where we found the hanging coffins that have made Sagada famous.

Hanging Coffins, Sagada

Hanging Coffins, SagadaPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Rather than bury their dead underground, the people of Sagada have traditionally chosen a rarer path — suspending the coffins up on the area’s famous limestone cliffs, or stacking them at the entrances to the region’s many caves. Today, most people are buried in the nearby cemetery, but there have been coffins added to the wall as recently as the last decade. Locals believe the suspension provides an easier path for the spirits to reach their eternal resting places, as well as a more practical reason — it kept the wild animals away.

Either way, they do make for a surreal afternoon in the heart of a pine forest valley in the middle of the largest island of the Philippines.

Sagada
Sagada

Graveyard, SagadaPhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Sagada Philippines

Hanging coffins and all, what I’ve detailed here might not be enough to justify the incredibly uncomfortable twelve-hour bus ride from Manila to Sagada for some people. But my next post? Adrenaline junkies, hold onto your screens.

Things are about to get wild up in Sagada — stay tuned!

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19 Comments...
  • memographer
    May 20 2013

    Heather got some nice shots!
    The Sagada’s hanging coffins look creepy! Brrrr
    memographer recently posted..Atlanta Skyscrapers

    • Alex
      May 20 2013

      I love traveling with Heather… she’s actually a professional photographer, so even when she’s just playing with her new Olympus point and shoot (like in this post), her photos are amazing!

  • Melanie Fontaine
    May 20 2013

    I think the thing that is so appealing to me about the Philippines is that it’s seemingly untouched by western tourism in comparison to a lot of other Asian countries – this is the first travel blog where I read about this country! 🙂
    But those coffins are a bit strange – I wonder how the combat smell? It’s an interesting tradition, though!

    xx
    Melanie
    Melanie Fontaine recently posted..The Joy of Doing Absolutely Nothing

    • Alex
      May 20 2013

      I feel honored to be the first blogger to show you my take on the Philippines, Melanie! As for the smell of dead bodies (ha, strange segue…) the bodies are embalmed beforehand!

  • Kaitie
    May 20 2013

    The hanging coffins are so interesting and the signs are hilarious. Love the lousy music and warm beer sign…was that the case?

    • Alex
      May 20 2013

      The place never seemed to have a single customer nor employee in there… so we never found out!

  • Kaitie
    May 20 2013

    The hanging coffins are so interesting and the signs are hilarious. Love the lousy music and warm beer sign…was that the case?
    Kaitie recently posted..Off to Dublin!

  • Steve McKee
    May 20 2013

    The Talking Dead?
    “[E]ventually we heard voices … and … that’s where we found the hanging coffins …”
    BUT YOU NEVER EXPLAIN THE VOICES!!!

    • Alex
      May 20 2013

      HA! Great catch, this is what I get for writing my posts at the airport and pressing “publish” at final boarding call!

  • Laura
    May 21 2013

    Ohhh I think by now you have definitely convinced me to add the Phillipines to my itinerary when I go to Southeast Asia! It looks so beautiful in your pictures, can’t wait for the next posts 🙂

    • Alex
      May 23 2013

      Laura, wait until you see the beaches! Then you’ll really be booking a ticket 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Preeti
    May 21 2013

    I’m planning on visiting the Phillipines at the end of the year. Now I know what to expect!

    It looks a lot less touristy than a lot of the countries on the SEA trail
    Preeti recently posted..Airline Review: Flying Business Class on Air Pacific

    • Alex
      May 23 2013

      Preeti, it without question is less touristy. Perhaps certain areas like Boracay and Palawan see a fair number of travelers but many of the places I visited were practically abandoned!

  • James Shaw
    May 21 2013

    Wow! Hanging coffins!? How cool can they get? What if there’s an earthquake and the coffin breaks or something? Now, my imaginations have gone wild, need to see that place as soon as I can!

    • Alex
      May 23 2013

      Wow, I didn’t even think to ask about earthquakes! The Philippines are certainly prone to them, so I’m sure they’ve thought about it before…

  • TammyOnTheMove
    May 23 2013

    Oh wow, the coffins on the mountain cliff are an interesting concept. If I wasn’t scared of heights I’d probably prefer being buried up in the sky rather than deep in the ground. 🙂
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Can an Englishman fall in love with Germany?

    • Alex
      May 23 2013

      I agree… this sounds like a much more peaceful (though I do admit precarious!) final resting place than six feet under!

  • Jasen
    November 28 2015

    Great shots…

    • Alex
      November 28 2015

      Thanks Jason! I loved this trip!

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