What to do in Sagada, Philippines
A city guide full of adventure & discovery
When I bought my flights to an island that houses one of the world’s top 10 largest cities, I had no idea I would be visiting a town so isolated it was one of the longest standing tribal strongholds against the Spanish conquistadors! Sagada, Philippines is culturally unique, geographically beautiful, historically quite important – and a total contrast to the bustle of Manila.
They often say it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey. Located 400 kilometres north of the hectic mega-city of Manila, passed winding highway roads, high in the mountains and jungle, surrounded by rice terraces, Sagada certainly takes a journey and a half to get to. It’s no wonder the Spanish Missionaries left it off their list for several centuries. In fact, it was almost completely unvisited until the 1800s when the first catholic mission was set up. This is in contrast to much of the rest of the Philippines where this was happening as early as the late 1500s.
Because of it’s isolation, it was able to hold on to much of the original tribal practices and beliefs. Even headhunting was happening in this region until only a couple centuries ago. The ancient tribal differences still linger in modern Sagada, some of which being the main attraction to those wanting to visit.
My first impressions upon arriving was that it was a beautiful village up in the mountains. A few guesthouses and restaurants lined one of the main narrow streets, along with some tourist shops filled with hiking gear and handicrafts. Shops all typical of a town with a tourist driven economy – though the tourist population seemed quite low. There was still a strong sense of novelty in being here. Most of the shops were still located as street side markets selling local produce, of which there are many. The streets were stained with red Filipino moma spittle, often the signs of a rural culture not yet attuned with ‘modern city standards’.
The air was fresh, and you could tell instantly that the main attractions to Sagada lay outside the town’s limits. A self guided Sagada tour could easily be accomplished in a few hours. The wonders that await you outside the township could quickly fill up several days to get a full encompassing Sagada itinerary of sites.
Some of our highlights were the legendary and curious ‘Hanging Coffins of Sagada’, which are an absolute must, Echo Valley (in which the coffins were found), and spelunking in several of the caves around Sagada.
After spending a few days there, we had done the rounds and seen some of the main attractions (see the “Do” tab for a list of options), though we could have easily stayed longer, and hiked further, and cave-dived deeper. Sagada is a nature & history lovers paradise. Sagada is truly a beautiful site with so much to offer. I’m surprised it has not gained more popularity as of yet, though I’m sure this will eventually happen as soon as visitors discover that the Philippines is so much more than just Manila and Borocay.
Remember, “It’s more fun in the Philippines!“
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Getting to Sagada is not overly difficult, though many buses coming and leaving prefer to start very early in the morning (what most still would consider middle of the night) as it’s roads go pretty off the beaten path, and the drivers would rather have full sunlight for the drives through some harrowing passes in the mountains.
We opted to take a bus from Baguio City, which is only a few hours away from Sagada, cutting down our travel times, and still making for a very scenic drive. This is definitely the quickest and most frequent way of getting to Sagada from Manila. Buses leave Manila for Baguio almost 50 times a day. Much more than any of the other destinations or methods.
If you are coming from Benaue, you have several options. The fastest would be hopping in a bus to Bontoc, and then transferring into the back one of the Philippines legendary transports, the “Jeepney”. The journey from Manila to Benaue is about 12 hours by bus, then another 2 hours to Bontoc, and another hour or so to Sagada. If you go this route, you may also want to plan a day or two of recovery!
Do – Activities & Attractions
There’s a number of things to do in Sagada which will quickly fill any adventure lovers itinerary!
Here is a rundown of some of our favourite experiences of the numerous Sagada tourist spots:
- St Mary’s Episcopal Church of Sagada – one of the first places you’ll pass as you’re leaving the centre en route to Echo Valley and Sagada’s Hanging Coffins. This is a humble historical element. The size of this small church may be reflective of how late Catholicism was introduced to the village. It holds some nice historical values to the type of architecture found at the time, and is accompanied by a small graveyard to it’s rear.
- Ganduyan Museum – A beautiful collection of historic and cultural items from the area around Sagada. The owner and curator has thoughtfully collected items in which they feel add to the better understanding of the region and its inhabitants. Shoes off, no photos and donation based entrance are the small prices to pay to become rich in knowledge of your surroundings.
- Rice terraces – welcome to South East Asia! Rice terraces will be common sites for you in many countries in this part of the world, though northern Luzon is known for having some of the most beautiful.
- Echo Valley – A gorgeous and deep valley with tall limestone cliffs bordering it. If venturing out to the valley, be very mindful of your footing, as it’s a long, rigid way down. Probably not best to test the valley’s name if by screaming for help – though if careful, a trek here makes for a lovely day, and it’s very close to Sagada’s centre.
- Sagada Hanging Coffins – This is one of the biggest cultural highlights of your trip to Sagada, and one of the main reasons most people will find themselves there. Though similarly found in Indonesia and China, the history is often unique to each place. The ancient Igorot ancestors in Sagada believed that the higher their body is laid – the closer they will be to ‘heaven’. Another reason was to protect the bodies from natural disasters like earthquakes and floods and also to keep the corpses away from wild animals. This practice is more than 2000 years old, though is slowly being replaced by modern Chinese burial plots, and Sagada’s newer hanging coffins are often reserved for the town’s people of significant importance. It is jaw-droopingly beautiful to see the scattered hanging coffins along the cliffs and inside some of the bigger caves.
- Sagada Underground River – with the entrance near the end of the trodden path in Echo Valley, it’s fairly easy to find this place. It’s mouth has a stream flowing into it, and it descends nearly 100 meters throughout. Be cautions and careful entering, as with any river, the floor can be slippery, and as with any cave, it will be dark inside.
- Sumaguing, Lumiang and Balangagan Caves – many of Sagada’s caves need guides, which can be recommended at the Info Centre in the town centre.
- Bomod-ok and Bokong Falls – These falls are both walkable, though Bomod-ok is at least a 2.5 hours walk, so it may be best to rent a scooter for this one, whereas Bokong is only 25 mins by foot from the centre of Sagada.
- Pongas Falls – A wonderful cascade of waterfalls after a fairly intensive hike up through farmlands and rice terraces. From a jump-off point, the hike to the base of the falls takes about 45 mins – 1 hour at a moderate pace. If you choose to, at your own risk, you can bring guides who will help you scale the 3 tiers of the waterfall and go for a dip in the top icy cold pool. This option takes nearly 8 hours from start to finish, and involves rope ladders and vertical climbs. If you simply want a nice view, it is always beautiful looking up at a waterfall from the bottom and seeing the full scale of it – stick to the easier route (still moderately difficult).
- Kiltepan Tower – a very tall natural lookout over many of Sagada’s rice terraces and valleys. It may be best to get there with use of a guide, due to the obscureness of its location if you don’t feel comfortable making this kind of trek in the dark. Kiltepan is one of the most ideal spots for watching a sunrise or having an evening bonfire in Sagada. Be sure to bring adequate headlamps, shoes and clothing for jungle trekking and cold temperature drops. *Colourful sunrises are not always guaranteed – it is often foggy here too, so bring levelled expectations*
- Mount Ampacao – a relatively easy climb, albeit a bit long at about 1.5 hours each direction. This mountain is one of the best spots for watching a sunset in Sagada, and is quite close to Lake Danum if you’re making a day trip out of it.
- Mount Polis – One of the highest peaks in the area, it has some spectacular views of rice terraces. There are some shops to buy cheap local produce and a small restaurant near the viewpoint, though service is said to be slow at times.
- Marlboro Mountain and Blue Country – This is one of the longest, most photogenic hikes you can do in Sagada. It takes between 3 to 4 hours round trip from the town centre. Because of it’s duration, be sure you are well equipped with water, snacks, possibly a walking cane (or large stick crafted as such), light clothes and sunscreen. It would be best to have a heavy breakfast and leave early in the morning so you can do the round trip to and from Sagada before the heat of the middle of the day. Be sure to bring all your trash back with you and help preserve it’s natural beauty!
- Lake Danum – a cute and picturesque little lake near Sagada, part way up the mountainside. This would be a great spot to watch sunset, though a bit tricky to get back to town on the dark, dimly lit roads once it has set. It’s not so much impressive as it is tranquil and serene.
- Rock Climbing – this is possible near Echo Valley and is quite cheap by international standards. Roughly about 400 pesos ($10 USD) for unlimited time in one day.
- White Water Rafting – If you brave the weather during rainy season, you will have some world class white water rafting available with rapids reaching classes of 3 and 3+ and some up to class 4! Often the course would start around Bontoc and work it’s way back towards Sagada. Prices, and water levels, will vary depending on the season.
Stay – Accommodation
Sagada has been dealing with tourism for long enough now to have built up a good assortment of guesthouses, lodges and bed & breakfasts to stay in. I wouldn’t put any of them in the exceptionally high end scale, as there’s no 5 star resorts in the area, but most of the options there are comfortable with a sense of home and very accustomed to true filipino hospitality and welcomeness. Depending on the time of year, it’s often best to hunt around online and reserve in advance, as some places can fill up quick during peak seasons or holidays.
Eat – Restaurants
Many fresh produce are grown in the area around Sagada, so many of the dishes you’ll be able to try around town are fresh and delicious. Much like the rest of the Philippines, the best Filipino food you can ever eat is in the homes of a filipino family (make friends fast!), and often the choices for tourists will be limited more to western influenced dishes (and prices). That being said, there was no shortage of wonderful options around Sagada. These options may come and go like the seasons, though some which have been there a few years already and have a long standing reputation would be:
Gaia Cafe & Crafts – a wonderful vegan restaurant with an incredible view over a valley and a fantastic example of genuine filipino hospitality amongst the staff
Yoghurt House – a long standing staple in Sagada that’s lasted the test of time. Homemade tart yoghurt mixed with fruit and granola – a great recovery food from a day of trekking and caving!
The Sagada Lemon Pie House – kind of a funny thing to find in a village such as Sagada, but it’s been here a while and has developed a bit of a reputation. Be aware, their pies do tend to sell out almost every day, so arrive early or preorder to avoid disappointment. If you’re a big lemon pie fan, this may be the spot you’ve been looking for.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
As with most of the Philippines, the best time to go is during the dry season between November to May, the most ideal time being in January/February. Keep in mind, this is also peak season, and could mean higher prices and fewer choices for last minute accommodations or transportation. We went in April, and it was great!
Typhoon season is between June to the end of October, and the northern islands, including Luzon, have a higher chance of being hit by a passing storm.
Safety – Possible risks
Sagada is likely one of the most safest cities in all of the Philippines, with regards to theft. Not that many of the others are overly dangerous mind you, but there is a certain feeling of security being here. It is likely due to the high percentage of tourists to locals, mixed with the kind and gentle demeanour of the mountain people that makes this place safer than most.
Physical danger certainly exists, especially to those hiking on steep hills or cliffs, or spelunking down dark caves. If at all you don’t feel confident with your own abilities, be sure to hire a guide and/or bring a friend along. It is best to always let family or friends know of your movements when you travel in case you go ‘off the map’ – and it is no exception in Sagada.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
It is currently free to enter most of the natural attractions, except for a few sites which require guides or drivers. Being a tourist driven town, prices can be slightly higher than rural areas, though are still relative to the general cost of the Philippines.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Reality Check – Be Aware
Sagada is an awesome place for nature lovers! There are so many great activities here, from caving, to hikes short and long. If you are physically incapable of moderate rigorous activity, you may be a bit disappointed, as the town is quite small, and most of it’s attractions are on trails or in caves.
For the most part, travel guides or tour guides aren’t needed for inside the town, as it’s so small. However, if you’d like to visit some of the outer Sagada tourist spots, such as spelunking in to some of the deep caves, or trekking out to Echo Valley to see the famous Sagada Hanging Coffins, it would certainly be recommended. Not only will you easily find the sites and learn all about their history, but you will put yourself in less risk of injury as there are many steep cliffs and drops both in the valleys and the caves.
Sagada is a wonderful destination in the Philippines and is certainly off the beaten path!
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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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