I was never an outdoors person. I’d never camped in my childhood, not even once. (The only required camping trip in school, during senior year, I missed because of a speech competition. Nerd.) While I very much loved beaches, forests, and lakes, I’ve only had a few casual hikes – nothing close to serious, and absolutely nothing dangerous.
So it is quite out of character (or maybe part of my evolving character) that I asked two of my friends to go with me to Sagada, a small mountain town 12 hours away from Manila. I had never been there, so together with Caroline and Paul, I proceeded to willingly throw myself into physical harm’s way.
We signed up for the “Conquer Sagada” tour, organized by a group of young adventurers called Travel Factor (TF). I’d never met them, but their website looked legit. Before the tour, they gave a detailed primer of the activities involved and what we’d need to bring. The primer made me realize that I owned absolutely no piece of outdoor gear – no trekking shorts, hiking sandals, not even a big backpack! I ended up buying all my gear at R.O.X. and borrowing a pack from a friend.
Then, four days before we were scheduled to leave, I woke up with a medium-grade fever and had to stay in bed almost all week. As Friday night approached, I was only feeling mildly better, and still had no energy or exercise. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if the trip was such a good idea. But thank God I am a stubborn pony, and went anyway 😀
The red-eye bus ride to Sagada was about 12 hours long – Travel Factor rented its own bus. If you have been to Baguio, you are familiar with the zigzag roads up the mountain; the road to Sagada was much, much worse! It was a demonstration of ragdoll physics, and nobody got any sleep (I was clocking at 26 hours awake by then). But when we stopped over at the Banaue Viewing Deck, we forgot all of our discomfort – I stepped out of the bus into a full view of the world-famous rice terraces. They are called the Eighth Wonder of the World for a reason, and they are every bit as gorgeous as you think.
That afternoon, we had our first outdoor adventure – a four-hour trek through the Banga-an rice terraces and the Bomod-ok Big Falls. Up close, the terraces were just as magnificent; the cool air and wide expanse of green were a beautiful combination. “I’m so glad it’s not raining,” I cheerfully told Paul and Caroline as we made our way down the mountain.
Of course, it rained. Poured. HARD. And what had just been a peaceful nature trek turned into a complete nightmare! The stones we were walking on became very slippery; even with umbrellas or rain jackets, we were all soaked to the bone; the sun was setting and the biting cold was freezing up all of our sore muscles; etc. We got to the waterfall and I had been planning to swim, but the cold made me decide against it (I didn’t want to get sick again). The climb back up to the road was grueling; Paul and I weren’t saying anything at the time, but it turned out we were both miserable and wondering what the hell we were doing there 😉
That night, I prayed desperately to the Universe that I would be in a good enough condition to do the caving adventure the next day – which TF described as requiring “good mental and physical condition”.
Of course, the Universe has a very wicked sense of humor (one that I, unfortunately, get). The next day, I woke up with unbelievable muscle pain! My knees were constantly hurting, and I could barely stand, let alone walk. Paul and Caroline were very worried that I wouldn’t make it through the caves.
I had no time to worry about it; it was 4 am, and soon we were hiking up a relatively short but steep climb to Kiltepan viewpoint. Wincing in pain, I went up the hill with the others to watch the sunrise.
I stared into the sun and made a deal with the Universe, right there. I acknowledged that it had gotten me through the fever, the transit, and the trek, and instead of whining about it, I decided to declare to the world, “I am glad to be here.” At first it was difficult to say, but I said it again and again until I realized that it was true. I loved the weather, the view was beautiful, and I was on top of a mountain watching the sunrise. Life was good.
So, I didn’t back out – and we forged ahead with the Cave Connection Adventure.
The adventure was estimated at 5 hours; the route would take us through the Lumiang Cave, and then exit at Sumaguing Cave. Entering the caves was easy – some slippery rocks and a slow descent into darkness, but with plenty of local guides to light the way with gas lamps (one guide for every five people).
Then things got progressively harder. Pretty soon, we were crawling through small holes, or gingerly making our way down rocky slopes. By the middle part, we were doing shit I never thought I’d do – real rappeling and rock climbing. I traversed a cliff face and climbed down walls, sometimes while holding a rope or the hands of a guide, but most of the time on my own.
I enjoyed every minute of it. Maybe it was the problem-solving aspect of it that I loved – much of it was looking at a wall of rock and trying to figure out where to place my hands and feet. I found it almost meditative in its focus; every bit of that cave was a challenge. And even if I wasn’t entirely in good shape, I found that my normal daily exercise really helped. I needed upper arm strength to be able to hoist myself up over boulders and up walls (yay to push-ups!). I also needed a great deal of flexibility, to stretch my body over long distances of rock (yay to yoga!). Being able to climb down a rock face, look up, and wonder how the heck I got down there was exhilarating. I was having so much fun that at one point, I squealed, “Wheeee!” while running up a wall as a guide pulled me up with rope.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. The entire thing took us 7 hours instead of 5, because there were just so many other tourists in the cave (it was a long weekend, and peak season). We didn’t bring any gear with us so we could squeeze in through the small spots, so we were all hungry and thirsty, singing to keep our energy levels up. Instead of continuing into the main part of Sumaguing Cave, which would have taken another 3 hours, we decided to make our way out – and the only way out was to climb through a glorious wall of bat shit.
Now, I have nothing against bats or natural bodily functions. Bat shit is tolerable in small, isolated quantities – but when it is wet and slippery and covering every inch of the wall you are supposed to climb, it is a major piece of yuck. I was actually in such a hurry to get out of there that I hit my head against a sharp rock, and the guides made me stop and get my bearings for a minute.
People told us later on that the cave area we skipped was actually the best and hardest part of the route, but we didn’t mind – that just gives us a reason to come back 😉
Like everyone else, I woke up with muscle pain – but this time it was pleasantly manageable, so I was feeling good. It was our last day in Sagada (already?) and we started it with a jeepney ride to Lake Danum. The water in the lake should have been clear if it hadn’t rained the day before; instead, it was brown as mud. But the weather was pleasant and everyone had fun camwhoring around the lake anyway.
We took a short walking tour through the town, starting with St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and ending at Echo Valley (which got its name from the loud echo you get when yelling at its edge). Everyone took turns screaming at the top of their lungs; I didn’t want to ruin the scenery by saying something profane, so I just yelled: “Hello!” and heard it greeted back to me.
It is worthy to note that Sagada itself is very small – there is only one main road through town, and if you didn’t mind the cold and the uphill climb, you can pretty much walk through the main attractions. We fell for some of the local traps (lemon pie, oatmeal raisin cookies, and souvenir t-shirts) but we didn’t have time to explore the rest, like their legendary yogurt. Again, another reason to return!
An hour later, just like that, we were on the bus on our way home. We stopped at Baguio City for dinner, buying quick pasalubong (choco flakes!), and then made our way back to Manila. Most of us didn’t get any sleep again, but this time I sat in the back row and had a fun time talking with my new seatmates (who turned out to be gamers).
I will definitely go on an outdoor adventure trip again – and hopefully also with Travel Factor, who were a very nice and fun and understanding bunch. But next time, I will be better prepared. Here’s what I learned from our short three-day trip:
- Don’t get sick the week before. Seriously. I thank my lucky stars, the Universe, and the months/years of yoga and healthy eating that I got through the way I did. But others who want to go to Sagada but really aren’t physically ready for it may not be so lucky. I’d have spent more time sleeping and working out weeks before, had I known I would need it!
- Bring everything they tell you. Mosquito repellent, efficascent oil for muscle pain, band-aids, scarves, even ziplocs for your camera – all of those came in handy. TF was very specific about what to wear, such as shorts for caves and long pants for treks; believe them. The people who came in denim and running shoes had it bad.
- Bring lots of water. Even if you can’t take them into the caves, water bottles were always short in supply – especially during treks, and on the bus.
- Be prepared for a serious lack of hygiene. Sagada is not for the hotel-loving folk. The inn at which we stayed, Olahbinan, had a decent room and served decent food, but hardly any water for bathing – and when you are covered in grime and sweat and bat shit, being able to take a shower becomes a primal need. One thing I learned about adventuring, though: everyone is filthy, just like you, and therefore nobody cares.
- Take a small camera, one that you don’t mind scruffing up. I left my prosumer camera at home, bringing my dad’s Ixus instead – it’s tiny, but it still felt too big when I was squeezing between rocks. By the end of it we didn’t want to bring our cameras out at all, because we didn’t want them to get dirty or wet. This led to a severe lack of pictures. I wished I had a disposable camera, or an underwater one with a tough case, just so I would have more visual memories of the place.
- Make friends. I am antisocial by nature, and Paul, Caroline, and I stuck with each other most of the time, not bothering to talk to anyone else. But the tour group was actually really friendly, and apparently the TF crowd is mostly from IT (you know – stressed out, can only get away during the weekends, and has money to burn) . Some of them were already on their second or third TF tour, and recognized each other from there. I’m glad I was able to talk to some of our tourmates eventually – even ended up playing insult tennis with one of them, with me usually on the receiving end. I promised him I would blog about him, so… hello, bwisit* JayJay!
I came home with a few cuts and bruises and a new sense of courage. All in all, a weekend well spent. Thanks again to Travel Factor, and maybe we’ll see you in the Mt. Pinatubo trek 😉
*Filipino word for irritating/frustrating
PS All photos from Sagada are here.