Tuesday, May 10, 2011

#16: Go spelunking in Sagada—CHECK!

I felt like a fraud when I took my first bite of my Hiker's Breakfast one early morning at Sagada's Yoghurt House. All we planned on doing that day was to try out some alamid coffee and spelunk through Sumaging Cave to see the stunning stalactite and stalagmite formations within. I didn't think the activity would be a piece of cake but it didn't necessitate a massive banana and yoghurt-filled blueberry pancake, two eggs over easy and toast:
It's a good thing I fueled up though because we ended up doing more than we had initially bargained for.

After breakfast and some alamid coffee at Bana's Coffee House, we set off with our guide Andrew from Sagada Genuine Guides Association (SAGGA). Our plan was to see some hanging coffins and the entrance of Lumiang Cave, and then spelunk Sumaguing Cave. Our first stop was an overlook where we could view some hanging coffins attached to a limestone outcrop.

One of the natural phenomenons that make Sagada stunning is the presence of limestone formations amidst thick groves of pine trees. Limestone formations are abundant in the Philippines but normally these crop out in the sea—not the mountains. These limestone formations can be found in Sagada because millions of years ago, this area was actually underwater. We would see further proof of this later in the caves. Apart from the existence of limestone formations, another thing that makes Sagada worth exploring is the indigenous Ifugao tradition of placing the dead in hanging coffins. These hanging coffins can be seen attached to limestone outcrops throughout Sagada.
From here, we went on a steep downhill trek to Lumiang Cave. It was quite precarious as the path is steep, rocky and uneven, and I was only wearing flipflops. Flipflops are the recommended footwear for caving because they're easy to take off and put on. Sumaguing Cave has many underground pools and there are instances when it's best to go entirely barefoot. But flipflops make negotiating the rocks and steep descents outside the cave a little tricky. Soon enough though, we reached the overlook showing the entrance to Lumiang Cave.
Lumiang Cave is an ancient burial cave for the Ifugaos. At its entrance, one can find a large group of ancient coffins. What appear to be logs stacked up by the mouth of the cave are actually coffins containing the remains of ancient Ifugaos. The coffins are small because their practice was to place the dead in a fetal position, bringing them back to the manner they started life in.
To the left of the coffins, we saw the dizzying descent into Lumiang Cave. This is where the cave connection route begins—a trail that takes approximately four hours to traverse, and that takes visitors through a portion of Sagada's network of caves, starting at Lumiang Cave and ending in Sumaguing Cave. After seeing some intrepid cavers descend and disappear among the rocks, we decided we wanted to do it too. And thus the adventure began.
There was a brief lull as we waited for Andrew, who had to get more denatured alcohol for his lamp now that we were going to tackle a 4-hour cave tour (as opposed to the 2-hour cave tour we initially planned on doing). Once he got back, time seemed to fly by. Soon we were in the bowels of the cave and natural light became a thing of the past. We quickly saw that this wasn't an activity for anyone claustrophobic or bothered by darkness. The entire first part of the tour requires squeezing into tiny crevices. Everything was pitch black save for the areas illuminated by the one lamp Andrew carried and the tiny headlamp Vic wore. Andrew said that each guide can take a maximum of three people on a cave connection tour as that's the most he can provide light for. This number goes up during peak periods, such as Holy Week, but only because so many people do the tour that light spills over from one group to the next.

The first big challenge we faced was what Andrew called "the first draft." We had to squeeze into a tiny hole and lower ourselves using not much else than a rope and Andrew's legs as a ladder.
"Are you okay, Ma'am? You're shaking," Andrew told me once my feet were planted squarely back on the ground. I told him I didn't have a lot of upper body strength so the effort must've made my arms shake, but I suppose my nerves struck too as this was the first heart-racing portion of the spelunking adventure. There would be many more but the shaking stopped as I became more comfortable with caving.

Following Andrew's recommendation, I spent a lot of time easing myself through the rocks on my butt since it's a lot more stable to be on all fours. Better to be safe than sorry when you're surrounded by darkness and sheer drops, and have only one experienced guide looking after you.
Soon, we started to see some really cool things. We took a break in a cavernous area where Lumiang Cave ended and Sumaguing Cave began. Underneath our feet was what the guide referred to as "rock terraces"—cool patterns carved into the rock by water trickling down from the ceiling of the cave.
From there, more adventure was in store. I wish I had a picture of myself going up this rope because it was a pretty crazy part of the spelunking experience. Our guide had to act as our "elevator"; we had to step on his shoulders so that we could pull ourselves up on this rope and to the rocks above. "Trust the rope, trust the guide. Don't let go of the rope no matter what happens," instructed Andrew.
It was nerve-wracking, especially since Andrew surprised me by saying I would be the first to go up. Normally, he would go through first so that we could copy him and he could guide us through the obstacles. But since I had to step on his shoulders to get up, I had to figure out the rest for myself and climb to the top without further assistance. You can't see it from this picture, but there's a sheer drop to the right of this rock, and after pulling ourselves up on the rope we had to let go and scale the rock towards the right side in order to reach the landing above. I was grateful then that I'd done a bit of bouldering because it helped me stay calm while hanging on to the rock and figuring out my next move. Once we were safely through this portion, Andrew revealed that a rescue team had to be sent in before for a guest because she let go of the rope, fell and hit her head at this very place. Glad he withheld that piece of information til we were safely through!

From there, we soon reached the underground river, which was a sight to see. The water was cold and crystal clear.
In this part of the cave, we saw an impressive rock formation that looked like a massive mushroom:
Later on we saw another vegetable-like formation: a gigantic cauliflower.
The spelunking continued to be quite challenging, requiring a bit of bouldering and lot of ignoring the fact that we were surrounded by sheer vertical drops.
All this clambering over rocks brought us to an impressive and expansive cavern called "Dance Hall." From far reaches of the cave we could hear both the flapping of bat wings and the beginnings of human noise, letting us know that we were getting closer to Sumaguing Cave. For now though, we had this massive space to ourselves so we got in some fun shots.
Soon we found ourselves amongst civilization again in Sumaguing Cave. Though it is a cave commonly visited by tourists with varying levels of caving expertise, it's no less precarious here because the path starts out with slick rocks and a downward slope. Andrew asked us to leave our shoes and slippers behind as we could get better traction with our feet.
Also, there were a lot of water pools coming our way. Gorgeous, glassy, limpid pools ...
There were some lofty, impressive formations like the appropriately-named King's Curtain:
This one is called the Chocolate Cake. This isn't to imply that I'm the icing on the cake (padum-pum). I'm just there to show scale.
There are other notable formations like the Queen, King, Prince and Princess but the explanations are pervy and I honestly don't find those all too impressive so I'll skip them. Let's stick to wholesome stuff like shark's teeth and turtles.
Delving deeper into Sumaguing Cave, we came across fossilized shells embedded in the cave's walls—further proof that Sagada was once underwater.
Finally we reached the last chamber, where there's a pool roughly 6-feet deep with bone-chilling water. We had to jump in, of course. Taking a dip in that pool has the effect of drinking 5 espressos. Good god, it was freezing!
On our way out, one final rappel. It was relatively easy; Andrew didn't even bother to guide us through it and instead ran up to take our pictures. He instructed us to keep our legs far apart while climbing to keep from swinging to the side. Of course, I initially kept my legs too close together and immediately swung to the left. But I readjusted my footing and made it.
Getting out of the cave proved tricky as we tried not to slip on the wet rocks that have been rubbed smooth by the countless feet that have walked on them. We also took pains not to lay our hands on the guano (bat poop) that covered some boulders. Finally, we saw sunlight as the mouth of the cave came into sight.
The entrance of Sumaguing Cave, lush with vegatation growing amidst the rocks, was a beautiful sight after four hours inside the cave. After one final push up steep flights of stairs, we were rewarded with the high of completing a challenging task and this stunning view:
The sight of the sun breaking through the clouds, just kissing the lush rice terraces with its rays, was nothing short of magical. We celebrated completing the challenge with a round of the cold San Mig Lights that we had been dreaming about all through the spelunking experience. Beer never tasted so good.
Our little adventure was definitely one for the books. There's nothing quite like taking on and persevering through crazy new challenges for the thrill of exploring a place that so few have seen. You learn so much about what you're capable of in the process, all while seeing new and exciting things about the world you live in. It's an experience I will never forget and one I'm absolutely proud to check off my list!

Photographed by Pia de Leon


  1. Wow that sounds like an incredible experience. I am so ungraceful and a totally klutz I think I would have been in traction at the end of the day. Great post.

  2. grabe!!! your entry made me reminisce about my own sagada trip. hehehe, but yours is more adventurous. I haven't done the cave connection, only the Sumaging part. I miss that cave! :D hahaha.

    and you've tried Alamid Coffee. :D hehehe. :)

    I can feel that you had such a great time, and I am glad you did!!! galing galin.:)


  3. Things to Do - Glad you enjoyed it! I can be total klutz too, which is why I scooted around on my butt most of the time ;-)

    Charlie - Try cave connection the next time you go! Haha alamid coffee is almost as much of an adventure as spelunking ;-) Thank you, I really did and can't wait to go again!

  4. OMG I love your blog and the idea behind it! I'm nearing the big 3-0 as well and this inspired me to come up with my own bucket list. Thank you for sharing your stories. :)
    Cheers and good luck on finishing the last few items on the list before the end of the month!
    Tricia :)

  5. Tricia - Thanks! I am so happy to hear you're enjoying the blog. Definitely do it. As someone rapidly approaching D-day with a massive smile on her face, I highly recommend it!

  6. Reading your post made me miss Sagada! I remember "clawing" my way through Sumaging Cave; and the body ache the day after. LOL!

  7. Oh I remember that ache very well! Ahhh I miss it too. Daydreaming about the return trip already!

  8. Spelunking a cave is one of the goals on my bucket list as well. It looks like you had a wonderful time. You receive bonus points for attempting this goal in flip flops!

    Your photos are so beautiful!

  9. elleswim - I highly recommend it! Flip flops seem to be the footwear of choice in the Philippines. I've also already climbed a mountain in them! The photos are indeed beautiful though I can't claim credit. My friend Pia took them. Glad you enjoyed them!

  10. Looks like so much fun! I'm working on my 10 before 30. It's fast approaching so I had to cut it down a little to 10. Love your dancing in the gave. Very good form! FreemanX Adventure Experiences across Oz & NZ for Extreme Sports & Activities


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