Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spelunking in Sagada

The journey from Coron to Sagada was a long one. A really long one. We flew into Manilla early, made our way straight to the bus station, took a long bus journey to Baguio where we stayed overnight before taking another long bus journey to Sagada the following day. Fortunately the bus journeys passed relatively quickly as the scenery kept getting better and better the further north we went (although difficult to capture from the moving bus).

Sagada is a teeny tiny town in the mountain province of Luzon. I knew as soon as we arrived that I was going to like it; the weather was good, the air was fresh and the view from our balcony wasn't bad either.

The town is so small that just a few minutes' walk from our guesthouse took us into the stunning surrounding countryside.

For Monique, the highlight of Sagada was right next door to our guesthouse where the family's pet dog had recently had a litter of adorable puppies. Monique wasted no time in heading down to make friends with the puppies, and thereafter visited them at least a couple of times a day to check on them and play with them. Monique made a particularly strong bond with the runt of the litter whom she named Runty Rascal and who, after initially being a bit scared of us, started to come scrambling up the steps when Monique called him. Put it this way: I felt the need to check Monique's backpack when we were leaving Sagada to make sure that Runty Rascal wasn't joining us for the remainder of our trip!

Despite being so remote Sagada is popular with tourists for a couple of reasons, both of which we experienced on our second day there. We arranged to take a caving trip; for reasons that would soon become clear it is essential to take a guide into the caves. Our guide's first words to us were “So what made you decide to come to Sagada to die?”. On the assumption that this was a joke we followed him to the caves that are just 10 minutes walk from the town. On the way to the cave that we would be exploring our guide took us to a different cave entrance where we were met by this sight:


In Sagada it is a tradition that when certain people die, instead of being buried or cremated, they are placed in coffins which are either hung from cliff-faces or placed in the mouth of a cave. The tradition continues to the present day. The sight which met us was numerous real coffins stacked up on top of each other over and around the mouth of the cave. It was completely surreal. It was possible to see into some of the coffins and see the bones inside.

The coffins are small because it is also traditional for the deceased to be placed in the fetal position as they were before they entered the world. It's certainly an interesting way of treating people after they pass, and another example of how Asian countries seem to have a more healthy attitude to death than Western countries where death is a bit of a taboo subject (the other most striking example on this trip being India where the dead are cremated in elaborate public ceremonies). Just in case there was any doubt, a sign let us know what type of conduct was unacceptable.

We also saw some more coffins on the way to the cave.

We then made our way to the cave entrance which we would be entering. The first part of the cave was an extremely slippery descent down treacherously smooth and wet rock. Our guide lit the way using a gas powered lamp which was surprisingly effective at lighting up the otherwise pitch-black cave, and also made for a cool photo of him when we took a rest break.

After we had carefully negotiated the slippery descent the rock completely changed to a sandpaper-type texture. The cave we were exploring is part of a long cave system, but we were only going part way before looping back on ourselves. This meant that we were able to take off our footwear, leave them for us to collect later, and continue barefoot which allowed us to take full advantage of the high friction of the rough rock. After having to be so careful with every step to not slip over it took some time to gain confidence in our footing, but the sandpaper-type surface meant that our feet almost stuck to the rock on landing. This proved to be extremely useful as our tour was about to get a little more extreme.

What followed was more like an obstacle course than a guided tour. We balanced across narrow strips of rock, jumped across water-filled holes (the water wasn't that deep, but it sure was cold so I was keen to avoid taking a bath) and scampered on all fours down steep slopes with freezing cold water gushing down them (no chance of staying dry this time. We appeared to have reached the end of the accessible portion of the cave when the cave floor turned into a vertical drop; however our guide had different ideas and showed us how easy it was to lower yourself down in between two parallel sections of rock wall about 3 feet apart from one another. I have since learned that this technique is called chimneying. I'm not quite sure what I did but it was very different to what the guide did, and was definitely not a great example of chimneying, but I did safely lower myself down the 15 foot high drop. Monique followed in much more graceful fashion.

Virtually any cave tour in any country will involve a section where the guide asks you what you think certain mineral formations look like. Every single time I have played this game I have had to bite my tongue and try not to say the purile thoughts that immediately spring to my mind. This tour was no different, except that this time the purile thoughts that immediately sprang to my mind were the correct answers. Highlights included the King's Jewel's and the Queen's Jewels. Photographs of these...erm...remarkable structures do exist (courtesy of our guide who took it upon himself to take photos using our camera when we declined to do so), but I will save you from them. Instead you'll have to settle for the much more savoury “birthday cake” formation.

After exploring the deepest part of the cave for a while we took a different route back up. At one point our guide balanced precariously with one hand braced against an overhead ledge whilst hauling us up with his other hand. Filipino men may be small and skinny but they are much stronger than they look! At another point we pulled ourselves up a steep slope using a knotted rope. This is a good example of how “sticky” the rock surface was.

It was a really remarkable tour, and one which would NEVER be allowed in any country in Europe or North America. In fact, there are plenty of other Asian countries where they would draw the line before letting inexperienced tourists do that sort of caving. Apparently the extended tour through the cave system is even more extreme and involves crawling through extremely small passageways and swimming through the icy water. Apparently it used to include a section where you had to lower yourself down a rock face using a rope before pushing yourself out and swinging across a long drop to the ledge on the other side, but this is no longer part of the tour because too many people died doing it (NB: that's right “too many” people died, not one or two people, but “too many”!) I wasn't tempted by the full cave connection tour as it sounded a bit claustrophobic for my liking, but Monique was keen on doing it the following day until she woke up with a variety of aches and pains from our tour and decided against it.

As we rested after exiting the cave Monique befriended yet another local puppy.

The following day we took a walk to the nearby Echo Valley. The valley itself was fairly picturesque, and does indeed have an echo, but the purpose for going there was to see some more hanging coffins. Once again, it was a surreal experience, not least because this time the coffins were inexplicably joined by some hanging chairs (were they expecting guests?!). That said, I quite like the idea of being left somewhere with a nice view and a fresh breeze when my time comes.

 Apart from our caving trip Sagada was a really peaceful stop. However, even in the most peaceful of places we are extremely capable of creating drama and Sagada was no exception. We were aware that Sagada had only one ATM and that it is not always open, however what we didn't anticipate was that when it is open it does not accept foreign cards. We were left without enough cash to pay our guesthouse bill and so we had to take a jeepney to Bontoc, a larger city about an hour's drive away, where on the third attempt we were able to take some money out. The upside of this was that we discovered that Bontoc has an extensive range of extremely cheap DVDs (which may or may not be legit), and so we stocked up on a few tv series to catch up on once we arrived the US.

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Sagada. It is a place where I could happily have stayed for longer just chilling out on our balcony and enjoying the views and pleasant climate. We also had some really great food there, thanks in part to the climate being suitable for growing a range of fresh vegetables. Unfortunately we had to get back to Manilla in time for our flight to Hong Kong (although we had been able to put our flight back by a few days after our original flight was cancelled) and we were keen to fit in one more stop before leaving the Philippines.

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