The small town of SAGADA, 160km north of Baguio, has long attracted curious visitors. Part of the appeal derives from its famous hanging coffins and a labyrinth of caves used by the ancients as burial sites. But Sagada also has a reputation as a remote and idyllic hideaway where people live a simple life well away from civilization. Sagada’s distance from Manila, and the fact that the quickest way to reach it from the capital involves at least one buttock-numbing bus journey on a terrifyingly narrow road, means it has kept mass tourism at bay. Sagada’s lofty beauty is given added resonance by its very un-Filipino-ness. The landscape is almost alpine and the inhabitants are mountain people, their faces shaped not by the sun and sea of the lowlands, but by the thin air and sharp glare of altitude.
Sagada only began to open up as a destination when it got electricity in the early 1970s, and intellectuals – internal refugees from the Marcos dictatorship – flocked here to write and paint. They didn’t produce much of note, perhaps because they spent, it is said, much of their time drinking the local rice wine tapuy. European hippies followed and so did the military, who thought the turistas were supplying funds for an insurgency. Today the place still has a very relaxed atmosphere, which continues to be enhanced – for some – by the locally grown marijuana, which (while very definitely illegal) is easy to come by and generally tolerated.
There isn’t a lot to do in the town itself although there are plenty of activities close by. The Ganduyan Museum, next to the Ganduyan Inn, is worth visiting for its collection of Kankanay artefacts. Other than that there’s plenty of scope for just hanging around and enjoying the tranquillity of the town, while in the evenings you can settle down by a log fire in one of the wooden cafés or restaurants. A curfew means you can’t drink after 9pm, but by then almost everyone has gone to bed anyway.
If you have time then it’s worth wandering down to the village of Demang, reached from a turning on the right just beyond the George Guest House and Pinikpikan Eatery. The village is older than Sagada and remains practically untouched by tourism. It’s a quiet residential area with several dap-ay (stone circles where community matters are resolved).