Mae Valdez | Travel & Lifestyle
Most people prefer to be with someone special during the holidays. If you are single during these long, cold nights, you are deemed part of the SMP (Samahan ng mga Malalamig ang Pasko). I have embraced being single for two years already and I try to refrain from being “emo” on Christmas eve, so when a friend invited me to go to the mountains for a vacation, I did not hesitate to say yes. I wanted to get away from stress and be close to nature, and Sagada was the best and most affordable place I could go to. True enough, it became one of the most remarkable trips of my life, giving a new meaning to this market of the SMP.
Sagada, dubbed as the Shangri-la of the Philippines, is a 12-hour ride from Manila via land. My body, used to Metro Manila and climate change temperature, shivered as we arrived in this gloomy town, a 5th class municipality of Mountain Province which welcomed us with a 12-degree temperature. After putting my backpack in our lodging, I eagerly looked for a coffee shop. Luckily, Bana’s Coffee, was beside our inn. I didn’t know if it was the climate, the place, or my mood then, but their coffee was the best I had in years. It was extracted from pure Arabica coffee beans grown in the mountains and served hot in a fine white cup. It did not have a sour aftertaste like those they serve in Dunkin Donuts. After finishing my coffee while gazing at the Cordilleras, I prepared for our first activity— spelunking.
Of death and stalagmites
Our guide brought us to Lumiang Burial Cave. Coffins pile up inside. There was one particular coffin which caught my attention because of its inscription of two geckos— an ancient Kankana-ey symbol for long life. The people of Sagada hail from the Kankana-ey tribe. They also call themselves Sagadans, like our guide. He said that their ancestors bury their dead by leaving their coffins inside the cave because they did not know the method of burying the dead under the ground. They also believed that the souls of their dead remains and lurks around the earth. These souls become part of the air, water, or the environment which can be called upon in times of need. I also believe that they become part of the environment, particularly the Lumiang Cave.
The Sumaguing Cave was huge and it smelled of guano (bat feces). Drops of water flowed and trickled everywhere making the trail slippery. We went through small holes and climbed a lot but it was worth it because of the many awesome stalactite and stalagmite formations. My favorite was the one that looked like a giant book. It reminded me of the huge Bible my lola owned.
Even though exploring the cave was difficult, no one in our group got seriously hurt. I got a few scratches and bruises like everyone else but nevertheless we went home very happy and feeling proud of overcoming the Sumaguing Cave challenge.
Too amused to care
My favorite part of the trip was the hike going to Lomod-ok Falls. We went through a trail of rice terraces, big stones, rosy-cheeked children, and colorful flowers, passing by two barangays that are Kankana-ey ancestral domains. I was too amused with what I saw that I fell off a rice paddy! But I was too happy to care about it. It even likened the experience to a mud spa treatment.
After an hour’s walk, we reached the Lomod-ok Falls. Angels and anitos seemed to be singing as we drew near the big rock formations leading to the wonderful waterfalls which spewed ice-cold water. It is a kind of place where Tinker Bell and Ina Magenta from Okay Ka, Fairy Ko hang out. It is also a place where I would want to sit in for a whole day, do nothing, and feel happy about it. But there were many people around the place that time because December is a peak season for tourists.
After our hike, we had lunch at the Pinikpikan House. I tried Pinikpikan, an Igorot dish of native chicken with sabaw. I thought it would taste like the delicious Tinola my brother cooks, but I was disappointed. It has no kind of seasoning except for salt. Later on, I found out that Pinikpikan was not supposed to be delicious because it is a ritual food. It is prepared by battering the chicken before cooking it. Yes, like torture!
Battering the chicken before cooking serves two purposes: to make its blood clot to make the flesh tastier and to make it cry out loud so that the dead ancestral spirits would come. A ritual food and not made to be delicious, it serves as an experience to tourists of local culture.
Bonfire, rice wine, brotherhood
Our last night in Sagada was also when the Sagada Bonfire Festival was held. It is an annual celebration where people gather in a night of eating, drinking, and dancing around a bonfire to celebrate the anniversary of the Sagada Genuine Guides Association (SAGGAS), a local organization of tour guides.
During the festival, locals presented indigenous cultural dances while an open dinner buffet of Pinikpikan, Adobo, steamed vegetables, Pancit, and rice was served. SAGGAS members also danced and played gongs. Before the celebration ended, everyone took part in a unity dance for the environment. I joined this, and I didn’t care what I looked like when I danced. I was like, “OK, if it’s for unity then I don’t care how stupid I could look like.” I realized then that no matter how solitary or independent I might seem to be, I have a strong Filipino kapwa spirit that would gladly take part in any collective endeavor. That, or I just had too much free rice wine.
Sagada Genuine Guides Association
As a tourism student, I was very impressed with the way Sagada’s tour guides were organized. From their hospitality, to how they ensure their guests’ safety and the way they explained their local culture, I find them ideal. So I asked around and was able to interview SAGGAS founder, Gareth Likigan, to learn more about this interesting group of young local guides that is shaping Sagada as one of the prime ecotourism destinations of the country.
Sagada Genuine Guides Association was formed in 2007 out of a need to revitalize the local tour guide industry in Sagada. It is a closely-knit group where members are friends and relatives from different barangays of Sagada. Aside from the fact that they only recruit locals as members, another interesting fact about SAGGAS is that they are not accredited by the Department of Tourism (DOT) as a tourist service provider. It is actually a non-profit organization that promotes livelihood for the Kankana-eys by means of tour guiding.
Although seasonal, tour guiding has been one source of income for the organization’s members. “[SAGGAS] is more on brotherhood and for creating part-time livelihood for locals. Being a guide is not permanent. Some members are laborers, some are farmers. So, while they don’t have work or while they wait for their vegetables to grow, they become tour guides,” says Gareth Likigan, one of the organization’s founders.
Aside from providing trained and competent guides, the organization also services micro-travel agencies through transportation and accommodation booking. E-commerce has become a threat to most travel agencies but not to an organization like SAGGAS. While the trend nowadays is the centralized reservation system, SAGGAS uses its websites and online forums to market Sagada while maintaining local stance. Yes, they have broadband up in the mountains. They also have a Facebook page.
When I asked Gareth about his dream for the organization, he said that he wants to increase its membership by recruiting members from different villages. He also added, “The Philippines is known for its beaches, but it is about time that our country gets to be known for its highlands.”
Looking forward to return
Gareth said that SAGGAS’s objective is to make tourists come back. After seeing and experiencing all the beautiful scenery, delicious coffee, awesome caves, memorable treks, cold weather (that permits you to wear scarf and boots without weird glances from people), I don’t mind celebrating another Christmas season as part of the SMP market.
Would I come back? Yes, definitely.