Have you heard about Sagada, the small mysterious town in the north of the Philippines? Let’s go on a journey to this remote place, deep in the mountains. Let’s do something crazy and travel to Sagada by car, through summits, valleys, forests and local villages- an uncommon adventure in the Philippines. Are you ready?
The Philippines are best known as an island country, and most popular with their tropical paradise looking beaches, lagoons, waterfalls, caves, and forests. But there is another part of the Philippines, which has a different face. This is the northern part of Luzon Island and its mountains. They reach more than 2000 m altitude and their higher forest zone is much more like a European forest, rather than a tropical jungle.
And there, scattered around those mountains, can be found many interesting places to visit, hidden gems, most of which still quite unpopular for the mass tourism. Cool cities, built on mountain summits among pine forests, rice terraces, gorges, caves, are only some of these places.
So we decided to make a trip into this part of the Philippines, as a part of our Philippines itinerary. Looking for some featuring destinations to visit, we chose Sagada as a main goal, and Baguio, located on the way to Sagada. Thus we made a few days itinerary, in order to penetrate deep in the mountain areas and visit these places. And the best way that we chose to do it was by rent a car.
What kind of place is Sagada?
Sagada is a small town, located in Central Cordillera mountains, in Mountain Province of the Philippines. It is built on 1550 to 1650 m altitude, which makes its cool mountainous climate.
What makes it unique is its history, culture and natural sites. Here are only a few of its features:
– It is one of the few places in the Philippines, which has remained almost untouched by the Spanish colonial rule, thus preserving its original local culture.
– It is famous for its karst formations- caves, underground rivers, forests, and gorges.
– And the most unique of its features: its Hanging Coffins, a special way of burying the dead, that can’t be found almost anywhere else.
Our trip to Sagada
All this woke up our curiosity and we built our itinerary in the northern part of Luzon Island, with Sagada as the main destination. We rent a car from Clark, north of Manila, in order to avoid the terrible traffic of the Philippines’ capital. Then we made our trekking to the famous Mount Pinatubo and proceeded to the north.
First, we traveled on the new highway from Clark to Saitan city. Then we got the road to Baguio, a city in the mountain, located at 1450 m altitude, famous with its cool climate and pine forests. We spent a night in Baguio, then on the next day, we explored some of its main attractions- the central Burnham Park and the main downtown of the city- Session Road. Then we visited the calm Camp John Hay park with its museum, “Adventure Tree” amusement park and other places for relaxing.
The road adventure from Baguio to Sagada
Then, in the afternoon we proceeded to Sagada, on a 164 km mountain road. I have made a reference in Rome2Rio website, showing 3h 10 min driving from Baguio to Sagada. I can say that Rome2Rio is a very good and useful website, providing a lot of valuable information. But here, in the Philippines (at least in most of the country), the information about the driving time is unreliable. Our travel on the mountain road was not 3 hours, but more than 8 (eight!) hours. And the reason was just that there are a lot of slow trucks, tricycles and other vehicles causing a traffic jam.
From the middle of the road onward, there were two long sections in repair, where our queue of cars had to stop and wait more than 30-40 mins the upcoming queue. And the second time we had to park our car inside a yard of a village house and wait there.
Finally, around 9:00 pm, gradually all trucks and other vehicles disappeared and we were alone on the empty and dark mountain road. Suspiciously alone. And no wonder, because we have missed a road sign, saying “the road is closed”. So we traveled around 8 km until a place, where the road just finished in road ruins.
Fortunately, exactly at that moment, a jeep came back from the road ruins and its driver was so nice to guide us back to the missed road sign, from where we had to take another road, which was longer. Finally, we arrived in Sagada around 11:00 pm.
Everything was ok, but after this road adventure, we had to change our itinerary. Initially, we planned to proceed to Pagudpud, on the northern coast of Luzon Island, which was given a little more than 5 hours driving in Rome2Rio. However, I asked the locals and they said that normally from Sagada to Pagudpud is around 12 hours…
So, the next day we decided to explore the attractions of Sagada.
Sagada itself is actually a settlement, built around two roads, connected in T-shape, as the point of their connection is the center of the town, with a market, the police station and the tourist information office (which is a very important place to visit before you explore Sagada). There are a lot of restaurants, as well as hotels and guesthouses along the two roads, most of which you can’t find in Booking, Agoda or other accommodation websites.
And from the center of the town, you have two main directions for the places of interest to visit- the road to the east, and the road to the south. We first got the south road to Sumaguing Cave, but when we arrived there, they told us that we can’t enter the cave before we register in the tourist information office and hire a guide (actually we could, since nobody checked us, and the cave is not difficult to explore for spelunking professionals, but it is not advisable for a few reasons).
The tourist information center- your “first” destination
It may sound inconvenient, especially for independent travelers, but it has its reasons- the local government just wants to protect the inheritance of Sagada from damage, pollution, and other harm, so I can agree with their policy of control of the tourism there. We back to the town, registered in the tourist information center (actually there are two centers, the bigger is beside the police station, and the smaller is on the south road, some 200-300 m below the center, and we registered in the smaller one).
The basic price for a guide is 600 PHP. Then, for different destinations, they give different prices. Depending on the number of pax, for Hanging Coffins the price is 200 to 300 PHP, and for Sumaguing Cave- 500 PHP. We paid totally 1450 PHP for Sumaguing Cave and Hanging Coffins (plus 10 PHP environmental fee on the entrance of the Hanging Coffins)- for 2 adults and 2 children.
The tourist information office and the guides use their own car to guide visitors to various places. So, we just parked our car (for 50 PHP) in a parking lot, just some 150 m south of the police station in the center.
The main places of interest in Sagada
We visited Sumaguing Cave and Hanging Coffins (with the main church of Sagada). But there is much more to see in and around the town if you have time:
Sumaguing and Lumiang Caves
These two caves are located on the south road, some 3 km from the center. They are connected by a small natural tunnel, and there is a 3-4 hours route, exploring both caves through this tunnel. We made only a Sumaguing Cave tour. There are many groups of tourists with their guides, bringing oil lamps in the darkness.
The cave itself has 3 stages. The first stage is the descending stage. It can be steep and wet in some places, but with the help of the guide, you should not have a problem. Then, before the second stage, everybody puts off their shoes and proceeds barefooted. It is the most beautiful and exciting part, where you can see many rock formations, such as “The Pregnant Mother”, “Birthday Cake” and more. And you will often walk in water pools (the water is not very cold, so this is not a problem).
Finally below is the third stage, which is optional and not everybody goes there (but we did). It is short and noisy by an underground river. Somewhere in this place is the connection with Lumiang Cave, but we couldn’t see it.
St.Mary Church and the Hanging Coffins
Since caves, underground rivers and other karst phenomenons you can see in many places in the world, the Hanging Coffins are unique only for Sagada and it is the town’s symbol. It is a local tradition, which is alive to the present day- to put the dead body in a coffin and hang it on a natural rock wall. Thus, according to the desire of the person before his/her death, he/she would not rest underground, but in a better place, easier for the soul to be free (or to be closer to the “gods”)
Actually, it is a quite pagan tradition, with some Christian mix. Only some more wealthy people can be buried in this way, and they also must be married, with children and grandchildren. There are many rituals during the funeral procession, like bringing food for the dead (which the men eat without washing their hands before the farewell), chanting, touching the dead body and waiting if wild animals will come to the coffin or not before it is hanged.
There are a few places with hanging coffins, but the main and the most spectacular one is on the route, starting from the St. Mary Church, built at the beginning of 20th century (we visited it again on the next day, on its 6:30 am service). Then the route proceeds through the church cemetery, where some notorious church pastors, as well as most of the people of Sagada, has been buried. After the cemetery, the path descends into Echo Valley, revealing a lot of breathtaking views of the landscape around. Finally, it ends under the rock wall with the hanging coffins.
Other places of interest in Sagada
We haven’t visited other places in Sagada during our trip, but there are many more which are really worth to visit:
The Underground River of Sagada
It is a part of Echo Valley. The river, passing through the karst terrain, flows underground in some sections, forming a spectacular canyon and rock shapes. It is located just on the east road of Sagada.
It is a mountain summit, some 4 km east of Sagada, famous with its sunrise watching. But as far as I know, it is closed from December 2018, until further notice in the unknown future.
It is another beautiful mountain place- a small lake in a forest landscape, some 4 km west of Sagada. Similar to Kiltepan View, it is known for its sunset watching.
A spectacular waterfall with a pool under it, good for swimming and enjoying the views around.
It is the best hiking route around Sagada. Normally it can be done for 4-5 hours and you can see some of the most breathtaking views of Cordillera mountains in the area.
If you wonder if there something else inside the town to see, it is the pottery shop of Sagada. Proper for those, who are interesting in local craftwork.
There is also Ganduyan Museum, located exactly in the center, but when we were there it was closed, and as the locals said- seems closed forever.
As I mentioned above, there are many hotels and guesthouses in Sagada, most of which can’t be found in Booking, Agoda, AirBnB or other websites. We were in the high season there and we still could easily find a hotel. The prices are usually from 1500 PHP and above, reaching up to around 3000 PHP per room.
There are also many local restaurants and cafes, most of which well decorated, typically for a tourist place. You can find there mostly chicken, pork and beef meals, between 150 and 250 PHP, as well as the traditional Philippines breakfast- chicksilog, tapsilog, hamsilog, and others, consist of meat, rice, and an egg.
Internet, as almost everywhere in the Philippines, is a big problem. Mobile internet is missing in many places around the town, or if you find it, it is painfully slow. WiFi can be found in most of the hotels, but not all. And even you find it, it often doesn’t work, especially in the evening.
There is only one ATM, located in the center, at the tourist information office. But it also doesn’t work always, so it is better to bring more cash with you.
Here you can see more information about Sagada.
If you decide to visit Sagada with other transportation than a car, you can take a bus. There are buses from Manila (for about 11-13 hours), and from Baguio (for 5 hours, if the road is in good condition and not crowded, as in our case).
Other options are by hired van if you are in a group. You can go to Baguio, San Fernandes or Banaue and hire a van to Sagada. We have seen also large groups of travelers hiring jeepneys and coming to Sagada from these few directions.
Traveling by car to Sagada and the northern part of Luzon
If you choose the option to rent a car, it can be very comfortable, giving you more freedom and independence. But I will repeat again- driving on the roads of the Philippines is usually slower than you can expect. The roads are narrow, and sections in repair are not rare. Some of the sections are long, closing one of the two road lanes, and making long waiting car queues.
And what can seriously slow down the speed, are three main types of vehicles, which are often used in the Philippines, especially in the cities and villages- trucks, jeepneys and tricycles. They are slow and wide, and many of them go in the middle of the lane, making long queues behind. Traffic jams are also often, but fortunately, don’t last too long. Anyway, all this makes driving in the Philippines slower than most of the other countries.
So, bear it in mind when you plan your trip! When calculating distance and time, the average speed is not more than 50 km/h on straight and plain roads, and not more than 35-40 km/h on the mountain roads.
Don’t rent a car from Manila!
Yes, there are many car rental companies in Manila, some of which really good. But in case you haven’t heard- Manila is well known as the city with one of the most terrible traffics in the world. If you start your driving journey from the center of Manila, it may take hours until you go out of the city!
A rental car alternative
We rent a car from a small local company, which is quite unknown. It is called Gaano and is located in Clark. I can witness that their service is perfect and easy (without too many formalities).
Our experience with Gaano
I have booked our car from their website. They didn’t require a deposit in advance, only a copy of my passport and my driving license. Then, when we arrived in Clark, one of their managers was awaiting us (he was American), apologizing that the car I booked has a problem. I have booked a small Hyundai, which was enough for us, and the cheapest of their cars (only 990 PHP per day). But now, since it had some damage, their manager offered another car- Subaru, which was much more expensive on their price list- some 4500 PHP per day! However, he gave me this car for the same price as the Hyundai.
The problem with this Subaru was that it was too low and inappropriate for mountain and uneven roads. He had another car- KIA, which they offer for 1500 PHP per day, but it was still rent by another customer, who had to back it to them on the next day.
Following our itinerary, on the first day, we had to make trekking to Mt Pinatubo, before proceeding to the north. So, their manager gave us the Subaru for one day and offered us to give back to them on the next day, replacing it with the KIA (which was more proper for mountain roads). And all this- for the same price as the Hyundai (990 PHP per day!). We didn’t have any problem with these two cars and with the only exception that we had to back to their office to exchange the Subaru with the KIA, everything else was perfect.
See more information about Gaano here, in their website.
Some tips about the car rentals
Most of the rental car companies in the Philippines, including Gaano, offer full insurance for their cars. But “full insurance” means that it covers the “big damages” of the cars. It doesn’t cover some small scratches or scars. Before you go, they make a drawing with all the existing scratches. When you back the car to them, they watch for new scratches. And if find such, you have to pay for it (as they say, usually such “damage” is not very expensive- some 1500-2000 PHP, but of course, it may cause you some “a little” worry during your trip).
When they gave us their cars, we had to give them 5000 PHP (or 100 USD, because at that time we didn’t change our money) as a deposit. Thank God, when we back our KIA to them, everything was ok, and they back the deposit to us immediately.
Gaano is a small rental car company and their car park is not big. They don’t have many cars, so I strongly recommend you make a reservation for your car in advance, at least 2-3 weeks before your trip, especially in the high season (December to March).
How to find Gaano
Gaano rental company is located in a modern industrial center in Clark, Angeles, called Philexcel. Proposed steps to reach them:
- Take a bus from Manila, from Philippine Rabbit Bus station. It takes around 2 hours to Angeles City, for 150 PHP.
- There are two bus stations in Angeles- Old Terminal (which is the biggest bus station) and Philippine Rabbit. You can take a taxi from any of these bus stations to Philexcel, but it may be expensive since the distance is around 6-7 km. The other (and more adventurous, but cheap) option is to take a jeepney or tricycle to Main Gate Terminal (jeepneys take 10 PHP per person, and tricycles usually require 150-200 PHP from foreigners, but you can bargain for 100, 80, even 50 PHP).
- From Main Gate Terminal, there are many jeepneys, going exactly to Philexcel, serving for the workers there- again for 10 PHP per person.
- When you arrive at Philexcel, look for building No. 35, “Clark Outsourcing”. Gaano are there.
More places to visit in Cordillera Region
With all the pros and cons of the traveling in the northern mountain areas of Luzon Island, a trip by car there is still very convenient, giving you independence and freedom to choose your time and place. If you have more time, here are some other interesting places in this region that you can visit:
A city, located in a beautiful mountainous landscape. It is the largest city of Cordillera Administrative Region. Baguio is known as the “City of Pines” due to the pine forests around it, and the cool tranquility that they offer. It is very proper as the first starting point for exploring the mountains of Luzon.
Banaue and Batad
It is another small mountain town in the Cordillera area. What makes it famous, is the spectacular rice terraces nearby, arranged beautifully on the mountain slopes.
This is the highest peak of Luzon Island, with 2922 m altitude above sea level. It is beside the road from Baguio to Sagada, but the best starting point is Badabak Ranger Station. Mount Pulag is a National Park, and offers great hiking opportunities and stunning views, especially from the main peak of the mountain.
It is another National Park, on the west side of the road from Baguio to Sagada. Although lower than Pulag, it is also great for hiking.
Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park
This is a protected area, located north of Sagada, known as the “Green heart of Cordillera”, due to its rich forests and wildlife. Reaching up to 2470 m altitude, it is again a mountainous place.
Bessang Pass National Park
It is another National Park, located on the road from Sagada to the west coast of Luzon Island. We passed by its entrance on our way west, back from Sagada. If you have more time, you can stop there too and enjoy the wild mountain nature.
And if you feel “too cold” in the mountains (because the temperatures are often below 20 C, and there is no heating in the hotels and the guesthouses), your next direction can always be the seacoast of Luzon Island.
We back from Sagada, heading westward, passing by Bessang Pass National Park, and finally descending to the seacoast at Tagudin. From there we wanted to proceed north to Pagudpud, but since our time was limited for other Philippines itineraries, we turned left, enjoyed the waves of San Juan sea resort and back to Clark. And our route in this part of the country remained as one of the most exciting trips that we have ever made.
Check out some travel books, maps and other info about Sagada and the Philippines!
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