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Unraveling the stories of caves & coffins of Sagada

Unraveling the stories of caves & coffins of Sagada

The Philippines is known for their many islands, beautiful beaches and world class diving but if you drive nine hours north of Manila you will find that this diverse country also offers plenty for the active traveler and adventure seeker.

In the province of Ifugao you will find the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Batad where you can take a challenging trek through the famed rice terraces and swim in the waterfall. These incredible feats of engineering were carved into the mountains by hand by the Ifugao people. Their ancestors have been cultivating the fields and living among them ever since.

Go another 3.5 hours north of Banaue and you will find the small, tranquil town of Sagada. This town in the middle of the Mountain Province has a charming Bohemian vibe to it and offers some rich heritage along with some adrenaline pumping excursions for the adventure and nature lover. Here you can explore caves, trek to waterfalls, visit hanging coffins and hike up a mountain to watch the sunrise.

A visit to these provinces will show a side of the Philippines that many visitors do not get to see due to it’s rather remote location. However, making the effort to get there is well rewarded with unforgettable scenery and a chance to get a taste of the culture in the beautiful northern Philippines.

Note: The following itinerary is based on a DIY approach using the Ohayami overnight bus from Manila to Banaue which is the only public transportation available. At the bottom of this itinerary there is an option for hiring a private driver or taking a full tour out of Banaue.




Day 0 in Manila, Philippines

Manila Airport & Bus to Banaue

Depending on what time your flight arrives in Manila you will either go straight to the bus depot or will have a few hours to kill in Manila. Either way taxi will be your best option. There will be a taxi stand outside the terminal where the agent will call you a yellow “airport taxi”. These taxis will have a higher pick up tariff but they will use the meter and you will be given the taxi ID by the agent at the stand.

Once outside of the airport you will more likely be using the white taxis which have a lower pick up tariff. Whatever color taxi you use it is always best to confirm that they will use the meter before getting in. You can flag down a taxi on the street but the best place to get one is at a hotel as the staff will make sure you get a meter and will record the taxi ID for you. Taxi prices in Manila are very reasonable and a trip to Intramuros will cost around $7 USD and straight to the bus depot will be about $10 USD.

Note: Traffic in Manila is notoriously terrible so make sure to allow 2 hours from the airport or from Intramuros to the bus depot.

If you have extra time in Manila, Philippines

If you have a few hours to spare in Manila the best place to explore would be the walled city of Intramuros which is the old historic part of the city. The word Intramuros is in fact Latin meaning “within the walls” The defensive wall was built by the Spaniards in the late 16th century to protect it from foreign invaders. The wall, along with much of the old architecture, was damaged during World War II but was later restored and became a National Historical Monument in 1951.

From the airport take a taxi to the Bayleaf Hotel which is in the heart of Intramuros. Depending on how full the storage room is you may be able to leave your luggage for a fee (best to email or call ahead to confirm). Otherwise you will have to tour the Intramuros by Calesa (assuming your luggage fits in the carriage). The Bayleaf is a good spot to enjoy a meal and/or drinks at one of several restaurants and bars and is a good spot to book or start a tour.

The Intramuros is quite compact and can be explored on foot, by bike or by Calesa (horse drawn 2 wheeled carriage). You can ask at a hotel for a map to navigate your way around or hire a guide for a  more in depth look at this historic area. Walking tours are available through Old Manila Tours or you can cycle with Bambike.

Top sights to see in Intramuros, Philippines

– Circle Intramuros by walking atop the city walls themselves
Fort Santiago built by the Spanish in the late 16th Century
– Manila Cathedral which has been damaged and rebuilt several times since original construction
– Governor’s Palace
– San Agustin Church, the oldest stone church in the Philippines

Where to eat in Intramuros, Philippines

As mentioned the Bayleaf Hotel offers several restaurant options right on the premises. If you’re in the mood for pizza try Raffaelle Woodfired Pizza. For a meal and/or cocktails with a view the Sky Deck View Bar is a great option. Undecided on what you want to eat? You can find something on the menu from almost every nationality at Coco Bango Cafe at the White Knight Hotel.

7:30 pm | Head to the bus terminal

The only public transportation to Banaue is by Ohayami Trans and tickets should be reserved at least a week in advance to secure a good seat. Buses depart Manila nightly at 10:00 pm and arrive about 7:30 am the next morning in Banaue. On the return they depart Banaue at 7:00 pm arriving in Manila about 4:30 am.

Buses leave from the Ohayami bus depot on the corner of Fajardo St and Lacson Ave in the Sampaloc area. Without traffic it would take less than an hour to drive to the bus from the city center however Manila is rarely without dense traffic. It is wise to allow two hours by taxi at this time of day. If, for some reason, you have not reserved tickets you should plan to get to the bus office a few hours early to try and purchase them there. However this is not advised as they are often full.

Note: If you are going to the bus straight from the airport there are a few small shops and restaurants near the bus depot where you can eat or purchase food for the journey.

Day 1 in Banaue & Batad

7 am | Arrival in Banaue

The bus will bring you to the depot in Banaue from where you will be shuttled down the hill to your hotel or the town center. The shuttle will be there waiting so there’s no need to pre-arrange unless it is something your hotel offers on booking.

On arrival you will need to go to the Municipal Tourism Center in town and pay the 20 peso environmental fee. Here you can also get maps and information on accommodation if you haven’t pre-booked a room.

There are several options for accommodations in Banaue and there is often something available on arrival but to ensure your first choice it’s recommended to book in advance. Also as you will want to make the most of your first day it’s best not to have to waste time looking for a room.

7:30 am | Check into hotel, have breakfast & book your trip to Batad

Most of the hotels will offer breakfast and also “travel agent” services when you arrive. When you check in tell your hotel host that you want to arrange a guide and they will send someone to speak to you over breakfast.  Unless you choose to book a full tour out of Manila you will need to wait until arrival in Banaue to arrange your trip to Batad. As there are generally more guides than tourists it will not be a problem getting where you want to go.

Prices will vary and it’s best to negotiate, especially if there is a group of you, but an average cost will be about $35 per person for transportation and a local licensed guide in Batad. There is also the option to arrange transportation only but it is beneficial to have a guide who knows the best routes through the terraces.

Note: It’s a good idea at this time to also reserve your trip to Sagada the following day as transportation leaves early in the morning. They require a minimum of 4 people to do the run but that is not usually an issue. For a seat in a shared van the cost will be about $20 for a return trip.

8:30 am | Depart for Batad

When you arranged for the trip to Batad you will have been told exactly where and when to meet for departure.

9:15 am | Arrive at the Saddle

Vehicles can only drive as far as “The Saddle” which is about 3km outside of the rice terraces. The hike down to the start point can be a bit rough and muddy if there has been recent rain. You can rent good walking sticks at the Saddle for about $1 which can come in handy on the steep terraces.

10:15 | Stop at Rita’s Mountview Inn & Restaurant

By now you will be overlooking the amazing Batad rice terraces. The terraces are incredibly steep making for an awe inspiring view and wonderment at how they were carved by hand 2,000 years ago. At Rita’s Mountview you can pre-order lunch so that it is ready for your return a few hours later. This is a good idea as you will no doubt be tired, thirsty and hungry after the hike back up the mountain.

10:30 am | Hike down into the valley

As noted before, the Batad rice terraces are very steep and the walled walks are narrow in places so the hike down into the valley requires some focus on your footing. This means you’ll be looking down a lot so be prepared for lots of stopping. There is no rush and the views are so spectacular that you won’t want to miss out by staring at your feet the whole time.

12:30 pm | Arrive at the Tappiya Falls

Once down the mountain you will cross the valley to Tappiya Falls. Here you can soak your aching feet or if you’ve brought a swimsuit and towel you can brave the chilly water and swim over to the foot of the waterfall. Once refreshed sit and enjoy a rest and a good snack in preparation for the hike back up the mountain.

1:00 pm | Hiking back up the mountain

Since you’ll likely be moving more slowly for the return trip back up the mountain take the opportunity to appreciate the vistas and views of the terraces and the village below. You will see locals working hard in the rice fields, kids playing or coming back from school and grandmas creating lovely fabrics to sell to the tourists.

3:30 pm | Lunch at Rita’s

As promised you should now be tired, thirsty and ravenous and right on cue your pre-ordered meal of Pancit or fried chicken will be served to you at a table overlooking the incredible landscape you just traversed.

4:15 pm | Hike back to the Saddle and board the Jeepney to Banaue

4:45 pm | Arrive back in Banaue

Take a couple of hours to shower and relax before dinner.

7:00 pm | Dinner

Uyami’s Greenview Lodge & Restaurant is right in town and serves basic but good local food, has a lovely view and friendly atmosphere. They also have some good vegetarian options such as chow mein and vegetable curry.


Day 2 in Sagada, Philippines

7:00 am | Breakfast

8:00 am | Drive to Sagada

When you reserved your seat in the van to Sagada you will have been told the place and time to meet for pick up. Generally this will be in the center of town and will be departing at 8:00 am with arrival in Sagada about 11:30.

Note: If you didn’t reserve transportation there is also the option to take the public van or Jeepney departing from the Banaue market. However this form of public transport only goes to Bontoc and from there you need to take a bus to Sagada which usually leaves about noon. Check at the bus depot in Banaue for exact times.

11:30 am | Arrive in Sagada

The van will drop you in the center of town and will tell you exactly where and when to meet for the return journey the following day. Usually this will be about 2:00 pm so you are back in Banaue in plenty of time for the 7:00 pm bus back to Manila.

Once you’ve checked into your hotel your first stop will be to the Tourism Office where you will pay the 35 Peso environmental fee. You can also get information and maps here and book yourself on the Cave Connection tour. Try to get on a tour leaving about 1 pm or shortly after so you have time for a light lunch first.

12:00 pm | Lunch at Yogurt House

Most of the eateries in Sagada are small mom and pop establishments with good old fashioned home cooking. Because of the Bohemian atmosphere that attracts yogi types you will find plenty of healthy and vegetarian options.

The Yoghurt House is one of the most popular restaurants in town for good reason. Friendly and efficient service, delicious and fresh Filipino and International food and a prime location with a little balcony overlooking the main street make the Yoghurt House a winner.

1:00 pm | Cave Connection

This tour is about 4 hours long and is suggested for people of a reasonable level of physical fitness and courage. You will be guided through an underground passage that links Sumaging and Lumiang Caves where you will be crawling through tight tunnels and swimming through underground pools so it’s definitely not for the claustrophobic or timid and is not suitable for small children.

The cost is about $10 USD per person with a minimum of two people required. You are advised to wear waterproof trekking sandals and a headlamp if possible and of course don’t wear or carry anything you don’t want to get wet.

Option: If the Cave Connection sounds a little too challenging there is also the option for the 2 hour short course of  spelunking at Sumaging Cave. The cost varies depending on how many people but it will start at about $15 for 4.

Note: In both caves you will see beautiful rock formations and towers of stalactite and stalagmite.

5:00 pm | Shower and rest

6:30 pm | Dinner at Sagada Brew

Sagada Brew is one of the newest and most modern restaurants in town with tasty savoury offerings and even tastier desserts.

Day 3 in Sagada, Banaue & Manila

7:00 am | Breakfast

Depending on where you are staying you may opt to have breakfast at the restaurant in your hotel but if not then Bana’s is a good choice for your morning meal and they have great coffee.

Note: It may be best to check out of your hotel now and have them store your luggage so that you don’t have to return until it’s time to head back to Banaue.

8:00 am | Bomod-Ok Falls

Known as the “Big Falls” they are one of the popular sites to visit when in Sagada and the hike there is equally as scenic as the falls themselves.

The hike to the falls begins 4 km away at Banga-an and is an easy 45 minute walk. However as it is a fairly strenuous hike from there as since time is of the essence it may be best to hire a van from the tourists center in Sagada for about $14 for a return trip (generally seating 4 people).

Once at Banga-an information center you will need to hire a guide at a cost of $13 USD for a group of up to 10 people. If you are just 2 people try to arrange a group to go with and share the cost. The hike is fairly easy on the way down and should take just under an hour but coming back is all climbing steps so will likely take a bit longer. Take a swimsuit and towel if you want to brave the chilly water. Allow about 4 hours for the whole trip to and from Sagada.

Note: It is best to check with the tourist office in Sagada before going to Banga-an as the hile to the falls traverses rice fields and is sometimes closed for ceremonies.

12:00 pm | Lunch at Gaia Cafe

Gaia Cafe & Crafts is another favorite in Sagada. This vegetarian restaurant offers great service and spectacular views of the Pine forest and is a great place to relax. They also have some tasty local treats and crafts you can browse after lunch. It might be a good idea to pick up some snacks for the overnight bus back to Manila.

1:00 pm | Explore Sagada

Use whatever time you have left before the return to Banaue to explore the town of Sagada. Here are some suggestions:

– Echo Valley Hanging Coffins (guide recommended)
– Visit Sagada Pottery where you can view the labor-intensive earthenware that takes 30 hours to fire
– Stop for a piece of delicious homemade pie at the Lemon Pie House
– Go to Ganduyan Museum where you will find sculptures, jewellery and other Kankanay artefacts and be sure to seek out the owner Christine Aben who is a wealth of information
– Shop for souvenirs including local tea, weaving and other handicrafts

2:00 | Return to Banaue

5:30 pm | Dinner in Banaue

You should have just enough time for dinner at Uyami’s Greenview Lodge & Restaurant. It’s right in town and serves basic but good local food, has a lovely view and friendly atmosphere. They also have some good vegetarian options such as chow mein and vegetable curry.

6:30 pm | Go to bus

There will not be a shuttle picking you up but you can hire a trike or just walk 10 minutes up the hill to the bus depot.

Day 4 in Manila, Philippines

Manila Airport

Since the bus arrives back in Manila about 4:30 am the best option is to have the first flight out booked so you can just taxi from the bus depot to the airport. At that time of day it should take less than an hour by taxi.

If you weren’t able to get an early morning flight you may have to consider getting a hotel room for the day as nothing will be open at that time of morning and the Manila airport isn’t the best place to spend multiple hours. The only hotel right at the airport is the Manila Airport Hotel. Starting at $60 USD the rates are very high for what you get but you are paying for the convenience.

If your flight is not leaving until late afternoon/evening you can opt to go and explore Intramuros as noted on the arrival day. However once again you will likely want to have a room to use until everything opens. See the Bayleaf as the best option for Intramuros.

There is a very basic hotel down the road from the bus depot in Manila that rents rooms by the hour however the cost for 4 hours is almost as much as a room at the Manila Airport Hotel. The rooms are very basic and you get charged for sheets and also additional cost for every minute you go over the hour. Just ask at the bus depot when you arrive in Manila and they will direct you to the hotel.

Note: Should you decide to pay for a room for the day you will need to reserve it for the night before so that you can check-in early in the morning. Depending on your flight time you may also need to pay an additional fee for a late check-out.




Where to Stay

Banaue

Accommodations in Banaue are fairly basic, you will not find any luxury hotels here. What you will find are guest houses, lodges and home stays with simple rooms and usually on site restaurants for a quick and easy breakfast and dinner.

Budget –Banaue Homestay is a popular budget choice situated right in town for easy access to everything. They offer shared and private rooms and have a lovely viewing balcony and restaurant. Rates start at $25 for a private room.

Midrange –Native Village Inn and Restaurant sits on top of a hill overlooking the Banaue rice terraces. It is a unique and atmospheric accommodation where you stay in individual native Ifugao huts. The huts are clean and comfortable, the views are stunning and the restaurant serves some of the best food in town. Rates start at $45 for a private hut with a shared bathroom.

Sagada

Accommodations in Sagada are primarily on the budget end of the scale but they all tend to be clean and friendly.

Isabelos Inn and Cafe is right across from the tourist office in the middle of town. Rates start at $15

Hidden Hill Inn is a basic but charming B&B just outside of town. Contact directly for rates

Flights to Manila, Philippines

– If you want to be most time efficient, Philippine Airlines and AirAsia depart Singapore at 2,30pm and 2,10pm respectively every day in time to catch the bus on the same day.
– If you would like to spend some time in Manila and visit Intramuros as suggested, Cebu Pacific, Jetstar, Air Asia, Philippine Airlines and Singapore Airlines all offer flights departing in the morning at various times.
– On the return, since you will arrive at 4,30am in Manila, you could connect with Singapore airlines at 7,40am, Philippine Airlines at 10am or Jetstar at 10,30. Or you could spend a few more hours in Manila and fly later in the day with all the abovementioned airlines and catch some rest in the hotels provided. Traffic at 5am should not be as bad as later in the day although Filipinos do wake up early and traffic jams start as early as 7am

Transportation in Manila, Philippines

Taxi or private driver is the best way to get around Manila. It is not advisable to rent a car and drive in Manila unless you are used to it and also be sure to allow plenty of time to reach your destination because the stories of terrible traffic congestion are not exaggerated.

Other transport options to Banaue, Philippines

Option 1: Hiring a private driver from Manila is possible for a substantially higher price. This will give you more flexibility on departure time and allows you to drive during the day rather than at night but as they drive the same roads as the bus there is not much time saved. Of course driving during the day would also take daylight hours away from the itinerary for exploring Manila. If you choose to hire the driver only you will still need to book accommodations and guides for the rice terraces once in Banaue. There are several reputable companies you can choose from for private transportation such as Tourist Driver Manila. Rates vary drastically depending on the number of people, season, number of days etc so you will need to contact them directly for a quote.

Option 2: It is also possible to take a full tour inclusive of accommodations in Banaue with a company like Banaue Tours. Packaged tours that include Banaue & Batad start at $400 per person based on 2 people for 2 nights and 3 days. Longer tours that include Sagada start at $500. All tours have multiple optional add ons so you can essentially create your own custom tour.

What to pack

– It is advisable to pack as light as possible and use an easy to carry bag or backpack due to the tight space on some transportation and also as the roads and walkways in the north will not be suitable for rolling luggage.
– Long sleeves, long pants and waterproof jacket as Banaue often gets rain and the weather can get chilly, especially at night, any time of year.
– In the warm seasons bring shorts and T-shirts as well as the layers for weather changes
– Non-slip waterproof footwear for trekking the terraces and caves
– Light backpack for clothes, food and snacks while trekking
– Towel and swimsuit for waterfalls
– Insect repellent
– Umbrella and/or rain coat with hood in case of rainy weather
– Bring warm layers and something to use as a blanket and pillow on the overnight bus

Things to note

–  The aircon in the bus can get quite chilly and the buses are not luxury so bring some warm clothing and something to use as a blanket and pillow. Also be prepared for a rather scary ride as the roads are quite windy. There will be a stop for food but as it will be late in the night it is advised to bring some snacks and drinks along.
– Carry small bills for taxis as they often won’t have change
– There will be environmental fees charged at each site you visit that are rarely included in the cost of a tour
– The traffic in Manila is famously horrendous so allow 90 minutes to get from the airport or the city center to the bus in low traffic (generally 9:00 pm – 6:00 am) and a minimum of two hours during peak times (generally 6:00 am – 9:00 pm)
– USD is taken almost everywhere
– Take plenty of cash to Banaue as there are few bank machines and rarely are credit cards accepted
– If you have special dietary or medicinal needs be sure to take enough for your stay in Banaue
– Good mobility is required to visit most areas on the itinerary

Sav

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