I could feel it spreading through me like a heat rash — my stomach twisted, my throat tightened, and my pulse quickened. I tried my usual coping mechanisms of deep breaths, visualization, and repeated mantras. I was in a battle with my own mind — logic was trying to prevail, but panic was winning by a landslide.
I was 2,500 feet underground with nothing more than a kerosene lamp.
Somehow, I had let Heather do it again. First, she convinced me to jump out of a plane 14,000 feet above Earth. This time, she had talked me into going beneath it, deep in the web of caves that lie beneath Sagada. The “Cave Connection” is an epic 3-4 hour underground journey that takes brave spelunkers between the famous Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves, and strikes fear into the heart of the claustrophobic, the still-afraid-of-the-dark, and the generally-prone-to-panic. I am all three of those things.
I am also, unfortunately, very easily talked into things — call it a product of being a Yes Girl.
My anxiety levels had been fluctuating throughout the day — high when we signed up, lessening throughout the short but sunny walk to the starting point, even lower as we fascinated about the stacked coffins at the mouth of the cave, and then right back up again as I watched on of our two guides struggle for forty-five minutes to light the lone kerosene lamp we were taking. When we inquired for the first time if we had any backup lamps or torches, we were met with a giggle. The second time, we got a smile. The third time, they admitted that there was no backup light whatsoever.
So, great then! Let’s just submit ourselves to the possibility of feeling our way for several hours through a narrow cave network in total darkness, shall we?
We had started out slow, getting used to the slipperiness of the cool rocks, the repelling backwards down rocks, the squeezing of shoulders sideways to slip through narrow passages. We were now picking up speed, but I was still busy fighting off anxiety. As we slid down a particularly deep and vertical passage I realized that there was no turning back, an I wondered how I would survive hours of what felt like a low-grade, walking anxiety attack.
How had I gotten myself into this?
Heather kept up small talk with the guides, and I felt myself being calmed by the casual tone of their voices and laughs. The openings in the cave started getting a bit larger, and I grew used to the rhythm of our path. My mantras (I am adventurous, I am physically capable, this will all be over by tonight….) started to wiggle into my consciousness, and I felt my tensed jawline start to slack.
Somewhere deep with the Earth, I started to enjoy myself.
I cannot even begin to imagine how the convoluted route we took was discovered. At times, we squeezed through passages so tiny that they made me think this trip should come with a weight requirement, while at others we trekked across underground rooms so large they felt like cathedrals. In a few places, we used ropes to rappel downwards. In others, we used a human elevator — stepping on the legs and shoulders of our guides and being catapulted upwards.
As we started to approach Sumaguing Cave, we took off our shoes to avoid soaking them in the increasingly present pools of water. At times we were trudging through knee-deep, and I tried to remember if I had ever seen any Discovery Channel specials on Filipino Underground Cave Snakes — but I came up empty.
After so many hours of isolation, we were surprised to see the flashes of others’ headlamps and hear the sounds of others’ voices. We were nearing the mouth of the cave, where less
insane adventurous tourists popped in to see the famous stalactite and stalagmite formations. We took our time enjoying the beautiful designs of nature, and marveling at what we had just done. Our guides were very excited to tell us that we were some of the fastest customers they had had, completing the entire route in just 2.5 hours!
I had just one thing to say to that: fear is a great motivator.
As we emerged into the daylight I was so grateful, once again, that Heather had talked me into something I didn’t want to do. The Cave Connection had tapped into some of my greatest phobias, but I had conquered it. I truly believe that it’s important to do one thing every day that scares you — sometimes it’s just harder than others to put into practice.
Have you ever gone spelunking? Would you sign up for the Cave Connection?
Ahhhhh how did I not know about this? I too would be absolutely freaking out at the beginning but it looks so breathtakingly surreal. Amazing!
We read about it in Lonely Planet and it was actually quite easy to arrange. There’s a local guiding association and considering the remoteness of the location they were very professional!
I’ve always wanted to visit Sagada! Seeing your lovely photos certainly solidified that desire. What local guiding association would you recommend and how did you get to Sagada?
Hey Dia! I got to Sagada by jeepney from Banaue. There is just one local guiding association, everyone in town will point you there!
Alex, that looks amazing!! You’ve inspired me once again!
Thanks Lena! What a sweet comment 🙂
Wow, what an experience. And beautiful photos as always! 🙂 I’m a Filipino and I’ve always wanted to do this. I’m still summoning enough courage to take this challenge on.
Best of luck in conquering it! It will be there waiting for you when you’re ready 🙂
Wow! This looks fantastic! What an experience it must have been! I daresay you’re probably more brave than I am!
Ha, I can’t decide if I’m a wimp who’s easily talked into things or just a slightly hesitant adrenaline junkie 🙂
I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Those rock formations are amazing how could you not want to go all the way?
I bet the water was pretty cold, lol.
It definitely was chilly…. but I was more concerned about what might be living in there! Ha.
Wow!! Really really brave to do this!
Ha… I didn’t feel brave at the time! But thank you 🙂
This looks incredible! You always seem to find the most adventurous adventures!
I got a little scared going in the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam so I may fair the same as you did! The larger caves though- that would be fun.
The Cu Chi tunnels were definitely intimidating…. if I had thought about that before I signed on for this I might not have gone through with it!
Creepy and badass! I must know, were flip flops the recommended footwear for this activity??
Ha, well the guides went barefoot! We asked if we should wear trainers and they actually said no, as they can be slippery and get wet. So they recommended athletic sandals, which we didn’t have — flip flops were the next best thing!
Who needs backup lights when you can just flash your way through the darkness with your cameras?
Although that would still be pretty creepy… who knows what ancient subterranean creatures might appear in front of you when the flash goes off!
Sounds like the script for a good cheesy horror flick. 🙂
Believe me, I thought about that camera flash when I was trying to fight off panic! I have used that as a way to find my way back to my bungalow on an island with no electricity at night!
Wow, that looks incredible – though your post will be the nearest I get, even the thought of being that closed in makes my palms go sweaty!
Thanks Lucy! Glad I could give you a little peek into the scarier side 🙂
Scarey stuff! I can completely relate to the mind taking over and imagining the worst! Good on you for pushing through and not letting it control you!!
Thanks Sarah! I’ve had lots of practice with using mind control to quell my anxiety… but of course a situation like this is kind of mental thunderdome! Maybe as you know now with skydiving 🙂
This definitely looks like an adventure! I remember going on a cave trip like this on a class trip in sixth grade – I wasn’t feeling anxious about it back then, but nowadays I’m not so sure anymore: I have fears now that never would have occured to me when I’m twelve!
I’m loving your ‘Yes Girl’ attitude. It’s something I try to incorporate in my life as well and one of the best philosophies to live by! 🙂
It’s amazing how fearless children are, isn’t it? I remember skiing when I was a kid and just FLYING down those hills! Now I’m terrified when I’m on the slopes!
Wow, this looks scary but exciting! I love the fact that you’re giving us all these great ideas for things to do in the Philippines when we visit. How much does it cost to do the cave connection tour?
Hi Amy, sorry I spaced and didn’t include that very vital info! Just go to the SAGGAS office and they have printed prices for all the tours in the area, which is so helpful. For the Cave Connection it’s 800 pesos for one person, and for any number more than one it’s 400 per person. Hope that helps!
This looks like so much fun! But I can understand that you felt a bit claustrophobic at first. Love the fact you are wearing your flip flops. 😉
I have worn flip flops for a shocking number of adventure activities around Southeast Asia…. do as the guides do, I say 🙂
You ladies are looking so happy, adventurous, and fit!! Truly looks like an amazing experience… scary, yes, but most times the scariest things make for the best memories.
Okay, you win top commenter of the year for calling us fit 🙂 Joking aside, I agree — pushing our limits is what makes us better and braver people!
Hi Alex! I absobloodylutely enjoy reading your travel stories, especially those that feature my home country, the Philippines. It’s more fun in the Philippines! 🙂 Thank you for including it in your travel list. Have a safe and fun travel always! 🙂
Thanks Jessica! I really enjoyed The Philippines. Thanks for reading!
Wow! I’ve never heard of this place in Sagada! Now I’m thinking of visiting it some time next year. Thank you for writing about this. I’m glad you liked your stay here in the Philippines. =)
~ Your new reader Li XD
Thanks Anna Li! Glad I could introduce you to something new in your own country — a country I loved so much 🙂
Wow! Been reading a lot of entries in your blog and noticed something you do consistently: you take really amazing photos! And what? You’re using only a point and shoot camera?! Awesome!!
Actually, I alternate between a point and shoot and my dSLR! Check out my Gear and Products page for more info 🙂
Wow! That’s amazing and I envy you! I’m aware that the caves of Sagada are beautiful but I never heard about the Cave Connection before. Would you mind if I put a link to your article from my blog post? I already wrote about Sagada and I’d just like to tell my readers about this wonderful article that you wrote if they want to know more about the Cave Connection.
Hoping to hear from you soon!
Hey Dee! Feel free to link to my post on your site — I appreciate it!
Done – Thank you!
Did the same last 2012 with a group of friends. Awesome experience, did you go to Pongas or Bomod-Ok Falls during your visit to Sagada?
Sadly we didn’t! We had limited time in Sagada… well, in the Philippines on the whole. So we had to prioritize!
Alex, I was in your position back in 2011 when we did cave connection. It seems that this adventure is not the more popular one among the tourist because it was really scary.. I had a buddy with me and a tour guide. The very first approach to the lower part of the entrance began to send creepy feelings to my spine. By the time we were on for 10 minutes, my anxiety, OCD, panic, paranoia and claustrophobia has taken over my body hahaha. It was like, why did I had to do this, it was such a nightmare, only that it was real. I seriously asked the guide “can we just please go back to the entrance?” hahaha, but I thought the trek can only be done in one-way, no turning back especially that reverse rappelling thing. I will never do this again for the rest of my life. But hey, the BEST part of the experience is when the 3 hour tour was over. That very second that we approached the exit was simply the life-changing experience any person would like to have. It was so amazing to breathe again normally after what I just went through. In short, I have conquered my fear LOL. Thank you for sharing this on your site.
Yup, it’s a very intense experience! I’m really glad Heather pushed me to do it though there were a few moments of panic in there! Glad you had an overall good experience as well!
I’m very much happy to read blog about Sagada of the Philippines from foreign blogger. Three year ago, I considered Sagada cave connection as my adventure of my lifetime…More power to you…
Thanks Albert! It was one of the highlights of the Philippines for me! You have a beautiful country.
now that’s one hell of a write up, enjoyed reading your article 🙂 im glad that you visited our office (SAGGAS) thank you for sharing photos and the experience almost all of our guests felt.
Thank you Gareth! The office was great and made us confident in finding a guide. Keep up the good work!
How could I be a Filipino and still not experience this side of our country? Ha! Thanks for showing (me) the world how beautiful Sagada can be. Hope to see you back on our shores sometime in the future! :))
Don’t feel bad, it’s a pretty big country 🙂 It’s also a beautiful one!
WOW. The Philippines just jumped several places on my (admitted very long) to-go list. I love caves, but I’ve never been in one so long or deep before!! That sounds absolutely incredible. Was it warm so deep underground? Was it wet from the limestone formations or mostly dry? Any animals down there? Sorry for all the questions haha.
Hey Martina! This was a while ago now and I have a horrible memory (part of the reason I started blogging!) but from what I remember it was pretty wet down there. No animals though! Just us humans 🙂 It was a super cool experience and I’m glad Heather talked me into it!
Just reading about your experience and seeing your pictures was enough to make me forget to breathe. I am far too claustrophobic to even think about attempting this, although your fabulous pictures make it look extremely appealing. You are incredibly brave!!!
I’m very glad Heather talked me into it 🙂 Not sure I would have made it otherwise!
I live in Sagada; I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the caves and I have a lot of friends among the guides. They are always supposed to have backup lights, quite irresponsible to not have them. I hope that isn’t becoming a regular thing, would be good for the guide groups to check more closely.
At the time we definitely shrugged and said, “When in the Philippines!” But you are right, it would certainly be best to have backups 🙂
I did cave connection with my lil bro in 2010. As soon as we got settled in Sagada, we signed up for it- but had absolutely no idea what we were in for. Since we were from nearby Baguio City, the guide assumed our feet and legs won’t be so new to the physical demands of Cave Connection. He was correct to assume that- but what we weren’t prepared for was the darkness and leeeeeeength of the journey! Haha. After that, I vowed never to do it again. It was fun, but a once in a lifetime activity for me! Oh and yes- we did it under 3 hours too! Welcome to the Hall of Fame! haha!
Nice work! I was surprised and relieved by our three hour time — I don’t know if I would have enjoyed being down there two more full hours!
nice journey <3 . I will come there in this summer 😛
It’s a really magical place… enjoy!
Wow ! Can you tell me where i can book this?
I’m sorry, I don’t recall the name, but it was an association of cave guides. Any hotel or guesthouse can point you there. Good luck!
I’m from the Philippines but it was only last year when I had the chance to visit Sagada and Banaue. It really an adventure because you had to walk on dangerous cliffs to reach some of the attractions. It great to see you guys come there on good weather because we were caught up by heavy rain in one of our tours.
It would be a hard trek in the rain, for sure! Grateful for our good weather.