Hanging Coffins, Shaky Ground

Hanging Coffins, Shaky Ground
The main display in Echo Valley, Sagada

After bidding farewell to Tess and the dogs in La Trinidad, I ease my way down the hill. With my heavy backpack strapped on, it's challenging in a different way than going up. It's tougher on the knees than on the lungs. I thought it would be easy to hail a taxi, but each one that I see whizzes past me, already occupied. I find a spot in the shade and try Grab with no luck. I start walking back toward downtown and then pause again at a bus stop. Even the jeepneys and public buses headed to Baguio have too many people crammed in already. Finally, about half an hour after leaving my room, I flag down a free taxi driver and pile my bags in, reaching the terminal just after the 9:30 bus to Sagada has left, which leads to another hour of waiting for the next departure.

We finally hit the road, going right past the alley where I had been staying in La Trinidad – exactly two and a half hours after I left there. The bus climbs even higher, passing a marker for the highest point in the Philippines highway system, then slowly winds back down again. The main road is closed for roadwork, forcing a long detour down a narrow, mostly unpaved road through rolling hills of farmland. Small advertisements that resemble political yard signs for various brands of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides line the road like some sort of bizarre election. Vote Delta King. Elect Dragon Humus.

The detour route is also under construction and in no way prepared to handle all the additional traffic from the primary road. The bus has to pull over to the shoulder numerous times in order to let vehicles going the other way pass. When we encounter another bus, both have to stop and inch past each other. A passenger in the back shouts to warn the driver that there's no room. We creep forward a bit more and I hear a loud crunch as the two buses clip sides. I sigh, thinking this will cause a major delay, but we just continue on as if nothing happened.

The detour likely costs us at least an hour. Finally back on the main road, we descend down switchback roads into the Chico River valley. This entire area was nearly flooded as part of a proposed dam project by the Marcos regime, but the plan was abandoned and the region was spared. I am charmed by the little barangays of Sabangan and think I'd like to stay a day or two there.

We finally roll into Sagada around 5:00 in the evening. I'm not sure how much distance the detour added, but the optimal route from Baguio to Sagada is only 90 miles, yet it has taken over 6 hours.

Tourism in Sagada is tightly controlled. All visitors must register with the tourism office, pay an "environmental fee" of 100 pesos, and then be ready to show the receipt for that fee when they visit any of the main attractions. Hiring a guide is mandatory to enter each site. Tour prices are set and a list of approved guide companies is provided.

After checking in with the tourism office, I walk to my inn, which I'm relieved to find is downhill from the main junction. I'm surprised by how small and empty the town is. Calling it a town might not even be appropriate. It turns out Sagada is only the 5th largest of the 10 municipalities that make up the unimaginatively named Mountain Province, which only has a total population of around 160,000. Despite being a tourism hotspot, the amenities are still very basic. Toilets here are still the manual kind where you pour a bucketful of water into the bowl to flush it.

I drop my bags in my room and head out for dinner, having not eaten anything all day except some broad beans I bought at the 7-Eleven next to the bus station in Baguio and part of a siopao (steamed bun) at one of the bus stops. From my previous research, I have learned that lemon pie is oddly a thing here. Sagada was mostly spared from Spanish influence and instead pioneered by American missionaries, which helps explain the prevalence of Western food on local menus. Lemon and orange trees are plentiful here and their fruits are featured in the local cuisine.

I thought a place called the Sagada Lemon Pie House would be a good place to sample the local delicacy, but I left very disappointed. While the meringue was good, the crust was rubbery and the filling was somehow neither tart enough nor sweet enough. At least it only cost around $0.75 for a slice.

In the room next to me at the inn is a Taiwanese man who goes by "Kenny." He has been traveling around Luzon for almost two months and liked Sagada enough to finish his time in the country with a second stay here. He gives me some advice on where to go and where to skip.

The next morning, I hire a guide to take me to see the hanging coffins. It's the traditional method of burial of an indigenous group called the Igorot. I had planned to only see the main area, called "Echo Valley," but get talked into upgrading to a tour that includes a coffee plantation, more burial caves, and an underground river. My guide's name is Edward. We make a quick stop at the stone church built by American missionaries in the early 1900s, then rebuilt after World War II.

After showing my receipt and paying yet another fee to enter Echo Valley, we come to a cluster of above-ground tombs. The very first one is Edward's father. He points out that it has a window. Edward Sr. apparently wanted to be buried in a coffin in the valley, but as a Christian, he was told he should follow the way of his own religion, so he requested a window be built into his tomb to at least let some sunlight in.

We walk down into the valley to see the most prominent display of coffins, which are tied or nailed to the cliff. We also see a small cave with a few coffins and skulls. Edward tells me about a time when he brought a tourist here in the late afternoon and it started raining, forcing them to wait in the cave until the downpour stopped, which was after dark. He takes me off the trail to a single coffin hidden in a crevice. "It's a loner," he says. "Like you."

Elderly Igorots carve their own coffins, provided they are still able to, believing it extends their lives. Traditionally, after death, the corpses were smoked for preservation and then placed upright in a chair for several days while their relatives and friends came to pay their final respects. Bodies were buried in the fetal position because they believed that humans should depart the world in the same way they arrived, which explains why some coffins are so short. Sometimes bones had to be broken in order to achieve this. For those who transported corpses, it was considered desirable to have blood or other liquids spill out on them, bringing good fortune. Edward tells me that families slaughter 21 pigs in the year after burial, but isn't sure of the significance of the number.

Aside from the coffins, it's a rather disappointing tour. The coffee plantation turns out to be just a few rows of coffee trees, while the underground "river" has barely a trickle in some parts. Edwards informs me that the water was diverted to nearby rice crops.

It seems everywhere in Sagada lacks water. After having lunch at a local cafe, I use their restroom and try to wash my hands, but nothing comes out. There's also no water in the bucket to flush with. The owner lets me go into the kitchen to wash up, getting just enough water before it also runs dry. She tells me she's praying for rain.

I spend the night in awe of how many stars are clearly visible from the rooftop of my inn. With its remote location and relatively little light pollution, it feels like I could count them by the thousand in the Sagada sky.

Although I'd like to visit the rice terraces of Batad, getting there is quite an ordeal and I've got work obligations that require a decent internet connection. Batad, from what I've heard and read online, can not provide that. I opt for Vigan as my next destination instead. Unfortunately, there's no direct bus from Sagada to Vigan, so I arrange a ride in a van back to Baguio. It's frustrating since Sagada is much closer to Vigan than Baguio is.

I say goodbye to Kenny as he prepares lunch for himself. He asks if I need any food for the trip, presenting a plate with raw potatoes and eggs to me. I'm not exactly sure what he expects me to do with that, but I appreciate the gesture.

The van driver warns me that if we encounter any police, I am to tell them that I did not pay anything for the van. They are just one big family who let me hitch a ride. Obviously, this is not a properly registered service. We pass through a police checkpoint as we approach Baguio. I try to look inconspicuous. Luckily for the driver, we just roll right through.

I spend the night back in Baguio and head to the bus station first thing in the morning. Getting a taxi again proves to be a challenge, so I walk there in just under 30 minutes. By 10:00, I'm on another packed bus, barreling down the mountainside. There's a man holding a child in the seat next to me, and the boy gets motion sickness. Guiding a small child to puke into a plastic bag on a bumpy bus ride isn't easy, and it spills all over both the man and the boy.

After another 6-hour ride, making it over 12 hours in the past 2 days, we arrive in Vigan. The people immediately strike me as especially friendly here. Many smile and say hello to me as I walk to my hotel.

I make a beeline for the famous cobblestone Calle Crisologo. It's not as crowded as I expected, even after the sun sinks low enough to cast shade across the entire street.

Whereas Sagada has little, the Spanish influence is unmistakable here. It's obvious in the architecture, the way the people look, and even the local Ilocano language. One of the best-known local snacks is empanadas. I avoided eating snacks on the bus to save my calories and appetite for the deep-fried treat.

Casa Jardin offers a footlong version called "The King," but I opt for two regular-sized ones instead. The 30-minute wait after ordering is worth it. The crust is flaky and crispy. They are served with vinegar, onions, and chili peppers separately for you to mix on your own. I resist the urge to wash them down with a Mountain Dew or Sprite served in old-fashioned glass bottles.

Bougainvillea blooms along many streets. Mango trees are so plentiful that nearly everywhere I go I smell souring mangoes that have fallen off the branch, left to rot in the heat.

Earthquakes are common occurrences here. A 7.0-magnitude temblor with an epicenter not far from Vigan struck in July 2022, damaging many historic buildings. There's scaffolding still up at the Vigan Cathedral. Guests are no longer allowed inside at the nearby Bantay Church. Part of the Bell Tower collapsed in the quake. Both the Arce Mansion and the Syquia Mansion, two of the best preserved homes from colonial times, remain closed.

Nightly light and water show at Plaza Salcedo in Vigan

Despite the blemishes, it's hard not to be smitten with Vigan. It's clean and calm compared to Manila or even Baguio. I have serious thoughts of settling in here for a while. I extend my hotel reservation, hoping to find a suitable room for a longer stay. With Holy Week approaching though, finding one available proves to be nearly impossible.

I wake up just past 5:30, swaying back and forth in my bed. In my grogginess, it takes a moment for me to realize what's happening. It's the first earthquake I've ever experienced. I eventually remember that the best safety practice involves me getting out of bed and running outside, but by then, it's already over. After giving up on going back to sleep, I scan Twitter and see that it measured 4.5 on the Richter scale – and occurred just 4 kilometers outside Sagada.

Sometimes when you pray for rain, you get earthquakes instead.