Sagada’s Hanging Coffins and Caves Are To Die For

Posted by on Jan 25, 2013 in Asia, Philippines, Tribal | 0 comments

According to legend, Count Dracula slept in a coffin and could change into a bat at will.   In Sagada, such notions find practicality via the infamous “hanging coffins.” If there ever was a one horse town, this is it. Stephen King had his visit to “Salem’s Lot.” I had my Sagada.

 

Sagada is a mysterious village in the Mountain Province of the Philippines, 165 miles give or take, from Manila. It’s just under a mile above sea level and situated near the Chico River. Much of it on switch back mountain roads. On my visit I went by bus from Manila to Banaue, and then six hours by private jeepney to Sagada. It was a long and tortuous trip.

Pine forests in Sagada

Pine forests dominate the scene in Sagada.

Sagada immediately exuded a different feel or vibe than the rest of the Philippines. To be more specific, instead of a landscape dominated by palm trees, there were pine forests here. It is a lush region and many agricultural products grow here.  Arabica coffee, brought by the Spanish colonialists, is one of my personal favorites. (The Spanish also brought it to a town in Cuba called Trinidad). There’s also green peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and Valencia oranges.

 

Such items were brought to the Philippine Islands by a man named Jaime Masferre, who sought to feed American missionaries working with the Mission of Saint Mary the Virgin. It was called an “ili” or a “village” and was established in 1882. Yet it was the Americans who brought the pine trees.  More than pine trees, the Americans brought apples and strawberries which flourish here because of the climate. It’s lowland and can get cool. If you were an apple, you’d love it here.

 

Rice terraces in Sagada

Rice terraces on the outskirts of Sagada rival those in neighboring Ifugao province.

Moreover, there were mountains, and many caves. The climate was cool and refreshing. There are also rice terraces that rival those found in bordering Ifugao province. But what is most notable about this place are the hanging coffins that can be seen hanging precariously from the sides of mountains and in the caves that seemed to be everywhere.

 

A later visit to Torajaland in Indonesia made me feel there must be some ancient link between these two cultures.

 

Placing coffins within caves or hanging them on the sides of mountains is still practiced today. We in the West would be concerned with the epitaph on the headstone or how to leave flowers.

 

Dozens of coffins are stacked in this cave.

Coffins and bones seem to be everywhere in Sagada – filling caves and hanging off the sides of cliffs.

How many scary beyond the grave movies would Hollywood have produced if there were hanging coffins? True Blood on HBO comes to mind as a premier series on the vampire genre and the producers would do well to take a visit to both Sagada and Torajaland in an effort to learn more about spookiness and life beyond the grave. We are such a media driven culture that most of what we know, or think we know about death comes from the mass media. In places like Sagada, you have the opportunity to experience an authentic culture dealing with death free of Western media influence, which of course can leave one jaded and biased.

 

Hanging coffins

The Igorot people have been hanging coffins for 2,000 years.

Regardless, to be buried in this fashion, one must have been married and have grandchildren.. The coffins are normally carved by the elderly Igorot people themselves before they die. And you should know that they have been doing this for 2,000 years.

 

The accommodation in Sagada is very basic. The guesthouses are One or Two Star at best. However for those willing to rough it for a couple of days, it is a very interesting experience. My guesthouse had no hot water. In fact it had no shower at all. There was only a big bucket of cold water you had to pour over yourself in the freezing morning air. The town is popular with local tourists and foreign backpackers.

 

This was still NPA, or “New People’s Army,” country at the time of my visit, and the town of Sagada was under a curfew at 9p.m. each night. Not that you had anywhere you could actually go at 9p.m., mind you.

 

Sagada coffin

Many coffins are open, with the bones scattered about.

What’s also interesting though is a local legend that seems like it was spun by vampire hunters. You see, Sagada was originally founded by Biag, a man from a place called Bika. The people of Bika were driven from their established ili by headhunters. What were these headhunters searching for? Another irony is the fact that in a country that is 90 percent Roman Catholic, Sagada is 95 percent Protestant, due to the world of the Protestant American missionaries.  I spent my two days there visiting many caves which were stacked with coffins. I also went on a trip to an underground river and had my first spelunking experience in Sumaguing Cave. It is aptly named “Big Cave.”

 

There are apparently 60 known caves under Sagada and I naively decided to go check one out, not knowing what I was getting myself into. We don’t have towns and cities built over caves in the United States – except for St. Louis, where famous cowboys hid out from the law in caves, and the New Madrid fault created the largest earthquake in the history of the U.S. back in 1812.

 

Sumaguing cave, also known as "Big Cave".

Rock formations in Sumaguing cave, also known as “Big Cave”.

We entered the cave with our guide, who was holding a gas lamp. We immediately climbed down deep, and it was obvious that there was “no going back.” It was like that film Journey to the Center of the Earth.  In fact, I asked and was told there was only one way out. The cave was beautiful and was filled with stalactites and stalagmites. But to be honest I had a sense of uneasiness. I’m not a cave man per se. Tight spaces and water under the Earth can be daunting.  We were walking through water that was often up to our waists, with only one gas lamp, and no obvious way out. The water was freezing. We climbed deeper and deeper though narrow passages like Indiana Jones on a mission. There’s lots of bat guano, which is smelly and can also cause you to slip and fall.

 

There are more than 60 caves beneath Sagada.

There are more than 60 caves beneath Sagada.

One passage was extremely narrow — probably two and a half feet wide, and it had running water pouring through it. To make matters worse the hole required slipping through it at a 90 degree angle. I never considered myself to be claustrophobic but on this day I was just that. It took about two hours to come out the other side, but to be honest it felt much longer than that! I’ve heard that it can be quite full of tourists, but on this day there was only one other German couple in the cave.

 

Make no mistake: Sagada is amazing. There’s trekking, waterfalls, photography, picnics, bonfires, rappelling and tribal culture. If you want to see something truly out of this world, something truly authentic, then Sagada is right up your alley.

 

Why not contact  Remote Lands today at info@remotelands.com to begin planning your personal adventure in the Philippines?

Jay Tindall

Jay Tindall is co-Founder and COO of luxury Asia tour operator Remote Lands Inc. He has lived and worked in Asia for over 20 years and currently resides in Bangkok, Thailand.

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