2011 is almost over. In the midst of the BER months comes the chill which reminds Filipinos of the year-end holidays to come. December is the busiest travel season. If you plan to visit any local destination during December, you should have booked at least two months ahead. When you have confirmed your reservation, you can relax and your Christmas countdown will be as exciting as ever.
Our trip to Benguet was rather an irresistible impulsive decision when hubby and I were visiting Pangasinan. I never thought about the long lines at the terminals but my vision of a special holiday season supported my enthusiasm despite lack of sleep and travel fatigue - what you get when you've been on the road for more than 18 hours. During holidays, everyone is buzzing to be with the family. It is also the best time to schedule an office leave and spend quality time with the people who matter most.
The distance and 'isolation' of Sagada appealed more to us so we decided to move farther up North. After our long wait at the Tarlac Bus Terminal, we were able to catch seats in a Baguio-bound bus. Bus Terminals in Tarlac are open 24/7 because Tarlac is a major stopover for many North-bound buses. Buses to Sagada leave between 6 and 8am. Not sure if they have later trips now. Average travel time is 6 hours, not including traffic when passing by La Trinidad. La Trinidad is a busy district where one can expect local buzz. The Bell Church and Strawberry Farm can be found in La Trinidad. There used to be a gigantic strawberry monument which marks the Strawberry Farm. Though I didn't see it last February.
The bus passes by the highest point of the National Highway. It used to be unpaved and driving around the steep, rugged Benguet mountains need special driving skills. Public utility vehicle drivers regularly plying the route have acquired these. You have to trust them despite the haggard look of the old buses. We had a few heart-thumping and hold-your-breath stops where the driver and his assistants maneuver tricky terrain. I wouldn't recommend travel to Sagada during the rainy months although I have survived one luckily. It was an unavoidable business trip which I could've taken with travel insurance. Don't leave home without one!
You can feel it when you're almost there. The scenery is so lush, nature lovers will fall in love - like we did! We actually extended our stay for 2 more days. We didn't get a guide but we got a map from the local tourism office. You can hire guides there and arrange for trips to the falls and neighboring towns.
|Map of Sagada|
It was probably bad timing, but the Sumaging (big cave) was closed during the 2x I've been to Sagada. For safety, they close the big cave during rainy season and sometimes during December. You'll need big lamps inside to navigate the caves. It's best to hire a guide (500 per group of 10) when you want to go spelunking. We walked through most of the site in 4 days (including some 3-4 hours traversing from Kiltepan Tower). Villagers are very friendly, don't hesitate to ask for directions.
|From Kiltepan Tower|
When we were in town, we left our mobile phones in the room so we had no idea whether the mobile signal was good or not. But yes, there is network coverage for both Smart and Globe when we arrived. Its best to go around town with a buddy so you don't freak out. I almost did when I thought a wild boar was nearby. I went ahead to get a closer look at the hanging coffins and didn't notice that hubby was on his way back. There were other people on the trail so he thought I was following him. On my way back, I missed a turn so I went through more hanging coffins in another side of the cliff. I was basically left on my own for almost an hour. Kinda creepy to keep hearing your own call for help at Echo Valley.
|Sacred Mountains: Hanging Coffins|
We dined at the Country Inn, Rock Valley Inn, Shamrock Cafe and also tried the local 'turo-turo'. We had intimate snacks at the Yogurt House, though they didn't have yogurts when we came. Meals range from 75 to 200. Local deli can be bought at the town plaza and the public market (open at designated time/days only). There are also small stores where you can get spreads, batteries and energy bars for your hikes. Just don't forget to bring enough cash as the next ATM is about 5-6 hours away and the chances of a same-day return trip is small unless you have your own vehicle.
I heard you can rent as low as 300 per room at the St Joseph's Rest house. But it was almost always full. The usual lodgings include the Ganduyan Inn and Sagada Guesthouse. During peak season, you can ask around for homestays. They range from 150-300 per bed. Those who open their homes will also accommodate cooking your meals. A few have hot and cold showers, while most have water heaters. Do ask before finalizing your stay. December temperature can get as low as 10 degrees C, bathing in cold water can be dreadful.
Some interesting Filipino deli (Ifugao) we've tried:
|Etag, naturally preserved tapa|
|Strawberry Preserves and Candies from BSU|
Despite the chill, take time to watch for the sunrise and sunset. There's none like it when you leave Sagada. They've left us mesmerized and speechless for minutes. The long drive was worth it. We both wished it wasn't a 12-hour drive from Manila. But perhaps, that's what has saved its beauty so far. What travelers can do is stop by Baguio City for a day before moving on to Sagada and Banawe. There's so many worthwhile things to do in the city. You probably need to decide prior. I regretted spending 6 hours at the hotel in one of my visits. While in Baguio, you can appreciate Ifugao culture at Tam-awan Village. Support local artisans by buying their masterpieces. I would've loved to take home a few. Many reflect ingenuity and Filipino craftsmanship.
|Tam-awan Village Cafe|
I highly recommend you visit BenCab Museum for traditional and contemporary art infusion.
|BenCab Museum Lobby|
Don't forget to haul goodies from the local market. We get broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries (seasonal) and souvenir items from the public market.