We spent half of our first day in Mt. Province on board a non-AC bus speeding along the snaky and meandering path of the Halsema Highway. It would have been a scenic drive, but the valleys were shrouded in mist, so I ended up dozing off for most of the trip. I was oblivious to the bouncy ride and the crisp wind blowing in through our half-opened window, while our worn out bus throttled its way up through the mountains. After all, I was worn out after having to take yet another 6 hour bus ride immediately after the 5 and 1/2 hour overnight bus from Cubao.
But at least we made it on the first bus trip from Baguio to Sagada at 5:30 in the morning, which was a great consolation for taking the expensive deluxe Victory Liner bus – the regular bus trips were booked out and the next available one was departing very late, and we didn’t fancy waiting around in the bus terminal for so long. It gave us enough time in between our bus rides to have a much needed stretch and some hot steaming noodles, which was just what we needed to rouse us from the early morning lethargy. One thing I learned from this trip is to reserve a ticket ahead of time, peak season or not to avoid all the hassles and to leave at your preferred time.
We made it to Sagada around 11am, which gave us ample time to look around for accommodation and rest a bit before lunch time. The town is small and the lodges and restaurants are huddled close to each other, so it was easy to hop from one place to another even with our backpacks and gear in tow. The standard rate now for most backpackers’ lodges is Php200 per head so it was just a matter of choosing the place with the nicest room at that value. We ended up staying at Olahbinan’s Rest House and Café because it was one of the two guest houses we found that offered hot and cold shower for 200 pesos, and the view of the pine forest from its back terrace wasn’t too shabby either.
Come lunchtime, we headed to the legendary Yoghurt House, which has become famous among foodies through good reviews online, in print, and through word of mouth as well. Normally, we scrimp on accommodation and food when backpacking for a longer period to have extra money for adventures and fun stuff, but after tasting their mouth-watering vegetarian open-sandwich and pesto pasta with zucchini smothered heavily with cheese, we decided to make the Sagada leg an exception – food tripping here is an adventure itself.
After lunch, we decided to do a DIY walk to the Echo Valley. It is one of the most popular walks in Sagada, and for good reason. It is a pleasant hike through a lush and picturesque valley, and gives the opportunity to see the famed hanging coffins of Sagada up close and personal. For the adventurous, it’s also possible to follow the river as it dives underground through a long (100m+) cave.
The Echo Valley walk starts from the church, near the Sagada Cooperative Store and the basketball court. A slice of the cheap but tasty cakes and hot coffee from the Cooperative store is a good side trip after the walk if you are going to trace your steps back to the town or you can pack some to snack on while walking. A guide is not really necessary. A map is available at the information centre in town and the trail is fairly well worn, which should allow most parties to self guide themselves on the walk.
After passing by the elegant church and the graveyard behind it, the trail winds down into the valley below. A short side trail leads to a cave on the left where you can see many coffins stacked high. On the left side, you can see a clean cliff with some bolts in it – this is where the Sagada rock climbing tour is conducted. Further along the trail, on the right side, you can walk to the base of a cliff with some interesting hanging coffins suspended above, including one with a living room chair attached!
After this, the trail starts to become a little less travelled (returning the way you came in might be the best option at this point if you are only looking for an easy walk). I was only relying on Charles’ knowledge of the trail when he explored the area on his own a few years back. We continued walking up the valley and followed the trail upstream, past a point where it passes through a cave on the left. The truly adventurous can enter this cave and follow it upstream to where the river enters, although there are a few tricky climbing sections required to negotiate this route.
Further along our walk, we found the path to a large cavern, through which the river flows. There were a few locals gathering some wild ferns near the stream, which looked like something I had eaten before in my salad. The “subterranean river” flowing through the cave is quite remarkable and can be followed for 100 meters or so. If you choose to explore this cave, make sure you have some light and shoes that you don’t mind getting wet, as you need to wade through the shallow water in some places. After following this cave upstream for a while, progress is blocked by some large boulders. There are a few options here – turn around and hike out the way you came, swim past the boulders and out of the cave, or climb up and over/around the boulders (can be a bit difficult) to gain the exit. Be aware, however that it is difficult to climb out of the valley and back to the road once you have completely traversed the subterranean river – you may need to continue along the river to the small falls before you can find an easy way out. Be sure to allow plenty of time if you undertake this part of the trip.
Echo Valley is a good introductory walk in Sagada, and a must for anyone visiting the town for the first time. It gives you a good introduction to the area and it is a nice walk taking in some pleasant scenery, including, of course, the famous hanging coffins.