Savoring Sagada

"Sagada Sunrise" by Omar Paz

"Sagada Sunrise" by Omar Paz

At the top of this page is a photo of a spectacular sunrise in Sagada, Mountain Province, taken by and generously shared by the San Francisco-based graphic artist, Omar Paz, last March.

Omar tells us how this photo came about: 

Sagada is a remote town nestled in the Mountain Province that offers a glimpse of what, I imagine, Baguio City was once. It is famous for its hanging coffins precariously hung on sheer cliffs and cave walls that are still in active use today for deceased deserving townsfolk. A small but fast-growing town, Sagada has plenty to offer nature trippers: waterfalls accessed through terraced rice paddies, spelunking in caves with an underground river, mountain climbing and rappelling.

A six-hour bus ride from Baguio, the narrow, meandering two-lane highway provides mountain vistas lush with towering pine trees and vegetable garden patches carved out of treacherous slopes that are sometimes blanketed in dense moving fog. The long trip is as rewarding as the destination.

To catch the spectacular view of sunrise over a bank of clouds – aptly called “the sea of clouds,” we had to get up at five in the morning. Our tour guide drove us to the viewing point at the town’s edge, near the mayor’s grand, new mansion.

I couldn't help but notice ominous signs of the town's bustling tourism, multi-storied inns on the rise including the one we stayed in, the constant humming of diesel-belching buses and vans on the narrow main street, the selfie-obsessed Pinoy tourists who leave a trail of trash at the entrance to the cave or at the bus stop.”

Omar’s account brought me back to my own visit to Sagada with a group of friends in the early ‘80s, before all hell broke loose in our homeland.

Though we’ve heard about the unique hanging coffins, our group was more interested in soaking in the magic of Sagada. For that was what regular visitors to the quaint town told us – you don’t just go to Sagada, you experience it. True enough, today I don’t remember much of what we saw of the town but I can never forget the feeling of peace and serenity that wrapped around us when we were there. Sagada stilled the demons in my mind, however short our visit was.

We stayed with the artist Aster Tecson and his family. The house they were renting was about two kilometers from the town center and it was made entirely of wood that made strange noises when the frosty mountain wind blew through its crevices. We loved that house. We had to sleep close to each other to keep warm and had to coordinate our going to the outhouse in the dark, but somehow those “inconveniences” became part of the romance that was Sagada and we never for a moment wished it was otherwise.

Beth, Aster’s wife, had a constant supply of local tea – the best I’ve ever tasted even to this day. It was grown by the folks in another barrio, she said, and she led us to the edge of the precipice across the street from house and we, city folks scared of heights, held on to each other as we peered at the huts and the tea fields below us.

Dinner was always early and by candlelight since Sagada at that time had no electric power. After eating, we would walk to the town, briskly, to beat the oncoming dusk and the swiftly descending fog. Every night we would hang out in a coffeeshop-cum-folkhouse owned by a woman given to easy, vibrant laughter. Somehow the beer that was the same brand in Manila tasted different in Sagada. It freed our minds and made us open up to each other, allowing our friendships to be sealed by the sharing of our deepest soul secrets.

It was in that coffee house while we were singing our hearts out with other guests who became our instant friends, when the only guy in our group fell head over heels in love with one of the women with us. Sagada, we were warned, does that to people.

On our last night, we walked the long trek home lighted only by moonlight and fireflies. We savored every breath we took knowing that we were about to leave the pure Sagada air. We decided not to sleep so we could go up one hill at dawn, where there was a cottage beneath the pines and the large tomb of a previous owner in the garden. From there we watched the Sagada sunrise, more glorious than anywhere else because it had as its backdrop the pure blue of the smog-free sky.

When we returned to Manila, I discovered that all the pictures I took were ruined. All I had brought home from that trip was the Sagada in my mind. Somehow I didn’t despair. It was enough.

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino