SAGADA—This beautiful town, tucked in the verdant mountains of the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon, offers a glorious death experience—a complete juxtaposition for the reputation it got these past years. Tell a millennial that you’re heading to Sagada and you will be immediately teased that it is the ultimate escape for the broken-hearted.

However, it is more than that. It’s larger than life. Located in the upper reaches of a limestone valley, Sagada is broken up into an extensive system of caverns, ridges and underground spring-fed creeks. This topography and its water forms define the agricultural landscape of this mountain community and figure prominently in its rituals and mythology as well. Perhaps this is the same beauty that endeared it to the hopeless romantics, those who find solace in the mountains to nurse a broken heart.

Death, or the mysteries abound it, drew me to Sagada. A short hike under the shade of pine groves lead you to the town’s famous hanging coffins. Called the Lumiang Burial Cave, this sacred ground for the Kankanaey-speaking Igorots hosts a handful of coffins hanged on limestone cliffs.

Emphasizing the holiness of the ground, my guide vividly explains this culture with a sound shy away from a whisper. You could tell how deeply rooted he is in this culture, given the extensive knowledge he shared that validated what I researched in the internet days prior to this trip.

To be closer to the heavens would be a ready answer from anyone, but this guide told me there’s more than that. I said that the Igorots must be a little bit bigger than midgets, given the sizes of their coffins. 

Amused, the guide rebutted: the coffins were made smaller than the actual size of the human body because the tribe wanted to mimic the fetal position. Peace is assured to the departed soul if it is buried that way. One coffin has a chair beside it, which will make one wonder in retrospection.

The hanging coffins of Sagada

The truth is peace of mind is the true gift of the valleys of Sagada. Devoid of any mode of public transportation, tourists need to hike their way to the town’s destinations. The mornings in Sagada unfold in the most exquisite ways. In Kiltepan for instance, worshippers of the sun revel at the dancing clouds above the horizon against a backdrop of the colors announcing a brand new day. 

Pine groves dot every corner of the place. The people? They are friendly and offers the warmest smiles I’ve seen in the Philippines. Sagada is also a foodie destination, with help from the fresh produce from local vegetable farms in the area.

Anticipating a new day in Sagada
Sagada Rice Terraces
Pine groves dot Sagada

Prior to this trip, I always wondered how it feels to be dead. I chanced upon this thought negotiating the steep roads of Halsema leading to Sagada. What if the bus falls in the deep ravine?

I insisted we go up close on one the limestone holes. Before he could resign to agreement, we positioned ourselves near the site where the forest hosts a slew of Arabica coffee in the wild. Imposing mightily in front of us is an altar-shaped limestone cliff, that could be dismissed as a normal cliff that abounds in the valleys of Sagada. Except that it has hanging coffins camouflaging the stones. One coffin is tucked above the edge as if held on by a sharp-pointed edge, while the others are stuffed above each other and pushed tightly to nature’s holes in the cliff. The thought of how the ancient people of Sagada managed to bring their dead in the middle of a limestone cliff will make one rendered in awe.

Limestone cliffs like this one are abundant in Sagada.

My guide was kind enough to show me how these coffins looked up close. But it comes with a warning: one misstep will deliver me to the deep ravines. After I faked my confidence, we navigated the road off the tourist’s trail to fulfil my wish. After all, I traveled all the way from Mindanao and I was determined to not let any stones left unturned.

It was eerie. But you can sense there’s deep respect for the dead. A bracelet whose beads and a Cross resemble that of a rosary sit atop one of the coffins. Alas, a direct reference to Christianity which was introduced to the Cordilleras in the 1900s with the coming of the Americans.

Today, a Christian cemetery is perched on a hill overlooking what the locals call as the Echo Valley, and is only a short walk from the St. Mary the Virgin church in Poblacion Sagada. My guide tells me locals now have option how to bury their dead, although I can sense that their culture of how they bury their loved ones remain intact.

I was one day short in witnessing this year’s Panag-apoy , that one day in the year where locals visit the tomb of their loved ones and burn pine woods to remember the dead. Black stains from the fire are still visible at every tomb’s base when I arrived the following day.

The solemnity in both the ancient and modern burial grounds of Sagada is evident. Here, silence is king. Echoes of shouting tourists broke this once in a while, but those yearning for solitude will find Sagada the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of metro living.

As I prepared to leave for Banaue, I watched the drizzling rain as it patters on the rooftops from my room, a misty fog wispily enveloping the pine groves scattered in the hills of Sagada. I’d prefer to snuggle in my bed instead because it’s cold, but the bus is scheduled to leave in two hours. As the bus afforded me with views of the cliff, the ravine, and the rolling hills, I thought about the dead laid to rest in the hanging coffins perched on its altar-like walls. They found peace, and drove thousands of men to do soul-searching — a thing I unknowingly did in a timeless place that is Sagada. 

Louie Bryan Lapat

Louie Lapat is an information officer based in Tagum City, The Philippines. He is happily married to traveling but still considers writing as his first love. He is also a ninja.

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