Brian's Blogs

Hang Up Your Dead!

St Augustine of Hippo is a happy ship. I know. I’ve taken it many times and it is usually filled to the brim with cheerful tourists looking forward to their holiday breaks in Coron or Puerto Princessa. But if, like me, you actually live in Coron, 2Go is also a valuable lifeline for getting to Manila and – in my case at least – then escaping Manila as fast as possible and discovering some of the remote, and highly attractive, parts of Luzon.

One of my more recent discoveries is Sagada – a small town (though in European terms it might better be described as a large village) in Mountain Province in the north of the island, some one and a half kilometres above sea level in the Central Cordillera Mountains. Some visit for its cool and refreshing climate; yet others to explore the caves, but I am sure that not one single tourist doesn’t have their curiosity piqued by Sagada’s famous hanging coffins.

The journey to Sagada will take you about 12 hours all told – grabbing one of the very many buses that head for Baguio (4-6 hours); and then changing onto a bus that takes another six hours winding its way up steep hills, around crazy corners, over a scenic mountain range, and even passing the highest point in the Philippines’ highway system. Throughout the journey you look down on all manner of steep terraces filled with rice and vegetables.

It’s true to say that Sagada lives for tourism. Not only is every tourist required to sign in with the local tourist board (for the princely fee of 35 Peso) but everyone is also expected to hire a local guide to view the many local attractions. But with overnight accommodation for two unlikely to set you back more than 500 Peso, and with the many restaurants also charging a mere fraction of what it would cost you to eat in Manila, no one is complaining.

Perhaps for lack of transportation, few conquistadors ever set foot in Sagada during the Spanish Era, and a Spanish Mission was not founded until 1882. As a result, it is one of the few places in the country that has preserved its indigenous culture with little outside influence.

To see everything in Sagada would take you a good two days; to see it superficially will take a mere half day; but with the first buses arriving after midday, and with the last buses departing in the very early afternoon, you are likely to be spending at least 24 hours here, whatever your timetable.

The town is right in the heart of a pine forest. The smell of the pine is wonderful, as are the wild flowers and shrubs that greet you at every turn.

But what most people come to Sagada for are the hanging coffins which are everywhere – if you have a sharp eye.

Echo Valley is the most accessible for these coffins and is so named because you can stand on one side and call out a hallooo-a-lo-a-lo-a-lo – with the return sound coming at you from all directions.

Don’t see the coffins? It takes time for your eyes to get adjusted sometimes – but take the path downhill and you should eventually end up with a worm’s eye view from the very best vantage point – right beneath them!

The Igorot practice of attaching the coffins to the mountain comes from a belief that underground burials isolate a person from the natural world. This is a traditional way of burying people that is still used to this day – but only for married people with grandchildren; and only if the deceased specified this way of burial before they died. Some of these coffins date back hundreds of years. They appear small as the corpses are laid in a foetal position. The chairs hanging with the coffins are those on which the dead were sat during their wake, before the bodies were placed in the coffins.

Head down the hill from the village centre instead of uphill to Echo Valley and you will soon get a wonderful view of beautiful limestone rock formations.

Wait for your eyes to adjust and sure enough, there is another group of coffins, making you wonder how on earth anyone actually managed to place them there!

Go further down the hill to the 2000-year old Lumiang Cave and here’s another resting place for Igorot tribal elders. These coffins – the oldest being some 400 years old – are simply laid down against a cave wall; and you can actually go up to them and touch them if you have a mind to.

Some of the more intact ones have carvings on their lids.

But don’t be surprised to see one or two of the coffins broken open with old age, complete with the remains of a body inside! This is earthquake country, and more than once the pile of coffins has collapsed to the other side of the cave, from whence they have been retrieved and re-piled against their original wall.

Sagada, of course, offers much more than coffins. If you are into caving, and don’t easily get claustrophobic, then you will probably want to attempt to get through the Sumaguing Cave – but be prepared to get wet… very wet! Rock climbing and white water rafting are also on the menu of things to attempt to do before you die – but be warned; if you’re not from the locality and you don’t survive the Sagada experience, you won’t be allowed to be hung up for the next couple of hundred years to be admired by Sagada’s tourists.

Hmmm – I wonder if there’s a great new business opportunity to be explored once I’m back in Coron?

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