Sagada, Philippines: A Gem in the Rough

Everyone has heard the expression, getting there is half the fun, right? Well, if you've done any traveling in Southeast Asia, you would probably be inclined to disagree. Poor roads, worse drivers, and overloaded vehicles are the hallmarks of transportation in most of the Far East. Many budget travelers consider buses and trains a necessary evil, and the bus from Baguio to Sagada in the northern Philippines is no exception.

The twisting mountain road churns the stomach, dust assaults the eyes, and the straining engine soon discourages even the most avid chatterbox. What results is a period of inner quiet, which soon turns to absolute wonderment at the beauty that is northern Luzon. Rugged mountains, steep canyons, and terraced rice fields provide enough eye candy to distract you from the rigors of the journey, but it is only a taste of what awaits you upon arrival in Sagada.

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If there was ever a true one horse town, Sagada is it. You could wander the main (and only) road for as long as you want without being harassed by traffic. The primary form of travel here is by foot or bicycle, and you don't need to look both ways to cross the street. After agriculture, tourism is the mainstay of the economy here, and as such, there is no shortage of accommodation. What is in short supply is hot water. Some hotels simply don't have it, while others proudly proclaim that they do. This traveler soon realized that the word "hot" is rather subjective. In most of the hotels in northern Luzon, any temperature above zero degrees is regarded as hot.

In any case, I soon settled into St. Joseph's Rest House and began to explore the town. Nestled in a valley, the majority of homes in Sagada are built into the side of Mount Ampakao. Rice paddies and pastures take up most of the available space, giving the feel of a town comfortably stuck in the past, without the clutter and pollution of today's world. The main strip is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, and the odd massage parlour, and while walking along I shared the road with wandering cats, dogs, and assorted livestock that lacked the feral appearance of street animals in other parts of the country.

Knowing it would soon be dark, I found the police station (which doubles as the tourist info center) and secured a trekking guide for the following day. I was told to ask for Lon in the morning, and he would show me whatever I wanted for a very reasonable price. On the way out of the station, the officer informed me that a curfew was in place after dusk, "for your safety".

Intrigued, I wandered into the nearest bar, hoping to find a local who would bring me up to speed on Sagada's secrets. Turie, the barkeep at Shamrock informed me that due to the lack of streetlamps, wandering the strip after dark was dangerous, especially for tourists. Noticing the cracks and potholes in the lone dirt road which lines the village, I wondered aloud if it was the danger of stumbling along the unlit strip and falling into the valley which prompted the authorities to forbid nocturnal wanderings. In the classic Asian manner, Turie smiled and nodded, and left me with the distinct feeling that there was more to the story, but it would not be coming from her.

After a cold San Miguel, I left Turie to her patrons and headed for the Yohgurt House, a funky little place run by a woman named Theresa. Over a bowl of fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal, I quizzed her on the curfew, and was surprised by her answer. "Very frequently we have brownouts after 8pm. This is the way it has been since the town began using electricity. So, everything closes at dusk, people eat their meals, spend time with their families, and go to bed. Besides, its dangerous at night," she said. I asked her if she meant falling into the valley in the dark. "I don't know of anyone falling into the valley, but it could happen."

Sensing that Theresa was waiting for me to finish so that she could close up for the night, I thanked her and headed out, wondering what had all the locals spooked when the sun went down. As I walked along the street, I noticed a large plume of smoke coming from the side of the mountain which loomed over the town. Knowing that fire is a common agricultural tool in Southeast Asia, I assumed it was the work of a farmer, preparing his fields for the next crop. The smoke descended onto the town, obscuring the emerging stars and reflecting the orange glow of the flames. It smelled great, like a big campfire.

My next attempt was at a neighbouring guesthouse, where my curiosity was briefly supplanted by the odd appearance of the barkeep. My eyes never left her as she silently took my order, glided to the fridge, and presented me with a frosty San Miguel. My fascination with her only deepened when she said, "Would you like to pay now, or run a tab?" in a husky, masculine voice. I sat speechless for a moment, as my tired brain wrestled with this new twist.

"Oh, I'll definitely run a tab," I said to her.

Now this was an interesting development. In Thailand and Cambodia, "ladyboys" (men who dress and live as women) are as common as panhandlers and are tolerated without question, largely owing to the "live and let live" philosophy of the Buddhist culture. However, here in the Philippines, one of the world's great bastions of Catholicism, one would expect that such alternative lifestyles would only be found in the seediest corners of Manila. Yet here she was, patiently waiting for the next question. After a few minutes of polite conversation, I remembered my initial reason for coming in here. I asked her about the curfew, and was once again told about the concern for my safety. "Is this town very dangerous?" I asked.

"Oh, no. Very safe." she said. "Everyone here is very nice, so you have a nice time, ok?"

This did little to satisfy me, so I pushed further.

"How long has there been a curfew?" I asked.

"Since the trouble," she replied.

"What trouble is that?" I asked.

"Oh, no trouble anymore. Sagada is very safe now. Very happy. Do you want one more San Miguel before we close?"

I looked at my watch. It was 9:00pm. Sensing again that I was asking the wrong person, I declined and called it a night.

The following morning, I met Lon outside the police station. Kindly and quiet, he looked much different than your average Filipino. He explained to me that he was from a tribe called the Ifugao, who resemble the sturdy, barrel-chested Polynesian peoples. He bought us some water and fruit for our trek, and then we set out. The path up Mount Ampakao is moderately steep, and the sightseeing began immediately. We passed through terraced rice fields, steep pastures for livestock, and finally entered a meadow which marked the tree line.

Lon took a pair of binoculars from his pack, scanned the slopes of the other side of the valley, and then handed them to me. Peering through, I spotted a group of horses grazing in the grass. "Wild horses," said Lon. "It is considered very good luck if you tame one and ride it often." I asked how often horses are caught and tamed. "Not often," he smiled.

We continued to climb until we came within sight of a microwave tower. Lon informed me that this was the highest point we could reach. "Beyond this is a military-controlled area. This installation has been attacked in the past by guerrillas who oppose the government, so no one may approach it."

I asked him who the guerrillas were, assuming the answer to be the Moro National Liberation Front, or Abu Sayaf, or any one of the myriad resistance groups operating in the Philippines which get international media attention from time to time. As we made our way back, he explained to me the position Sagada finds itself in. He told me about the different tribes who live in the area, and the struggle between the government in Manila and the people who have lived here for hundreds of years. With the appearance of tourism to this area, most of the locals have adapted and now live relatively prosperous, if simple lives.

However, a group called the NPA, or New Peoples Army, refuses to acknowledge Manila's authority and has fought a low scale guerrilla war for control over the area. Ten years ago, the NPA's ranks numbered in the hundreds, but today lies somewhere in the dozens.

"In the past, they used to have a real political agenda," Lon explains. "But now, they are nothing but the uneducated and unemployed young men of the area who use vandalism to get their point across."

At this point, we stop at Lon's place, which is a cabin built by the local council to house members of the forestry and conservation industry. I realize that this place is directly above the area which was burning the night before. I ask him about the fire, and he clucks his tongue and shakes his head.

"Last night I thought I was going to be homeless," he says. "The NPA tried to set the mountain on fire, in the hopes that this house and others would burn. My friends and I had to put out the fire with buckets of water."

I wandered downhill from the house, and sure enough, the trees and ground were black, some areas still smoldering.

I stood for a moment, recalling last night's stroll through the town, being charmed by what had turned out to be an attack against the inhabitants of Sagada. "Why would they set fire to the mountainside?" I asked.

"Because if they were caught breaking the law in town it would be the end of their guerrilla days. They are cowards."

I asked Lon if Sagada was a dangerous place. "In my opinion, Sagada is the safest place in the Philippines. We take precautions here which may make outsiders nervous, but if everyone follows the rules then all will be well. We would much rather have our visitors complain about the curfew as opposed to being robbed or intimidated by thugs."

This writer spent 3 days in Sagada, spelunking through caves, visiting the hanging coffins of Echo Valley, exploring St. Mary's Church and its cemetery, and soaking up the calm natural beauty of this truly serene place. But it was the people of Sagada and their story of overcoming adversity which will leave me with the fondest memories. A people who refused to be swayed by a problem which has plagued so many other parts of this diverse country. There are literally dozens of places in the Philippines I have seen and eventually forgotten, but I will never forget Sagada.

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Jody White is a travel addict who supports his habit by any means possible, including technical writing, teaching english, and showing rich people how to drive their sports cars really, really fast. He lives in Toronto and is currently attempting to survive the Canadian winter

Updated: January 2, 2017

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