A Sagada holiday

CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren

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The lovely St. Mary the Virgin Church is Sagada’s rustic landmark.

There is nothing cooler than spending the holiday season up north, where the scent of pine makes one yearn for a simpler, greener past. Baguio, unfortunately, is off most people’s lists. It is now a crowded blighted mess, and its scent is one of diesel rather than fresh mountain air. When my wife Twink suggested Sagada as an alternative, I quickly said yes.

I’d first heard about this mountain refuge from friends in college and remember images of it from the classic Mike de Leon film Kakabakaba Ka Ba? I knew getting there was a long trek, but a search on the Net yielded options for “first class” buses boasting reclining seats, Wi-Fi, toilets, and blankets to keep us comfortable for the 11-hour all-night run. My wife also convinced three other couples — Oli and Penny Laperal, Dindo and Aileen Litonjua, Ed and Moi Francisco, plus a stray French friend, Sylvain Mignon — to give the adventure a try.

We made all met at 8 p.m. at a bus terminal in Cubao. We found our bus, which was new and clean enough, but the terminal itself was awful. It essentially was a large tin shed with five buses squeezed together and little space for passengers to wait. The messy toilets, ticket booth, and a small sitting area were at the rear, strategically located where exhaust from the buses’ running engines was accumulating. We could not wait to get going.

 

 

The trip was less than enjoyable. The seats reclined a bit but there was no Wi-Fi, the in-bus toilet was a disaster area, and there we were not provided blankets to keep us warm (the air-conditioning was on full blast for the entire trip). The mid-trip stop was a provincial way station with unkempt toilets we had to pay for to use.

Before dawn the bus was winding up the mountains and we reached Sagada just before eight in the morning. The beauty of the destination, the exhilarating mountain air, and the scent of pine made up for the agony of the journey up.

We got down just meters from our accommodations, Martha’s Hearth, a charming bed and breakfast overlooking one of the several lush glens around the main town. There were only five rooms in the cottage but they were well appointed and the toilets were new, hotel-class, and with hot water. We felt at home.

The first thing on our agenda was to register at the tourist center (a requirement) and book our tours for the next four days. The center was a short pleasant walk uphill; introducing us to a world we all thought had disappeared decades ago. The colonial-style structures, stone church, and small-town feel reminded us all of Baguio of our youth (we were a group of 50-somethings).

Lunch on the first day involved first picking oranges at the Rock Farm Inn orchard. Our meal was our first taste of upland cooking and the local wine. After a short siesta we visited the Ganduyan Museum in town, a quaint but packed anthropological exhibit of Kankanay culture. We slept early to recover from our bus ride and to prepare to wake up early to experience sunrise up a nearby mountain ridge called Malborro Country.

We were all up at four. Our van was late. The driver had had one-too-many the night before, but we managed to get to the starting point for the hour-long trudge just in time to reach the sunrise. The view was breathtaking of course. A little tienda at the ridge served hot coffee. Wonderful!

The next day we visited Bomod-Ok falls in the northern part of Sagada. We were told that it was a pleasant walk. It was, but only if one had trained for mountain climbing. The trek took two hours. Being the least fit of the bunch, I took an extra half-hour to catch up with the group.

The meandering path through rice terraces and little clusters of mountain homes were a good distraction from the challenge of the 30,000 or so steps up and down foot-wide pathways. I wish I had trained six months beforehand.

The reward at the end of the “walk” was a magnificent 200-meter waterfall. Again it was worth it. We all made up for it at lunch, gaining back the calories we lost.

Other thankfully shorter jaunts spiced up our stay. This included Calvary Hill (a cemetery), Echo Valley, and the requisite viewing of the hanging coffins on a cliff face nearby. These lovely spots were accessed through the site of another Sagada landmark, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

The Episcopalian house of worship was a favorite stop of mine. I visited almost every day. The century-old church is of stone, beautifully dressed, and assembled to frame rosette windows. Damaged in the war, the roof and interiors apparently took a more mid-century modern look, but the whole composition still is exemplary.

Most of our meals were prepared at Martha’s Hearth. We hired a local chef to prepare key meals, which was great also because two of the group, Aileen and Penny, celebrated birthdays on the trip. Dinners were prefaced and ended with good wine and warm conversation in front of the fireplace.

On the penultimate night we booked a private dining restaurant up a nearby mountain. We heard some good things about Sagada Cellar Door and their resident French chef. The ambience was great. We had cozy cocktails around a bonfire. Unfortunately the chef was standoffish and what we were led to believe (and had booked) as a private dinner was not. The management opened the dinner to at least 20 more people who arrived later than us and filled up the place. The food was good but we had to queue for it. Paradise was not perfect.

Our remaining two days made up for this one aberration. We had a sunset picnic at picturesque Lake Danum, a short ride from the town center. Try the yummy yogurt sold at a makeshift kiosk at the lake’s edge. A charming Indian fellow sells the treat. Nearby is another inn that serves delicious pizza and not far from there is the Sagada Pottery and Training Center, where you can unleash your inner Demi Moore.

Sagada is well worth a visit and should be in everyone’s must-see list. It is also best to travel, as we did, with good friends. Sagada, though, would be perfect if better transport options were available. Heading back down we chose to hire a van.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com. Thanks to Oli Laperal and Dindo Litonjua for some of the pictures in this article.

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