Spelunking in Sagada has long been in my Philippines bucket list.
The first time I made the long and arduous journey to its neck of the woods—a six-hour dizzying bus ride from Baguio City, with hill-billy music in the background—I was with a group of Architecture students on a tour organized by my good friend Tracey. Because the kids (ah, the kids) had signed a waiver prohibiting them from engaging in “potentially dangerous” activities, spelunking from Lumiang to Sumaguing cave was out of the question. And because I didn’t really relish the idea of making the four-hour journey from the mouth of Lumiang Cave to Sumaguing Cave alone, I decided to put it off until I manage to trick some people into doing it with me.
It took five years, but eventually I found like-minded adventure junkies in these two:
So there we were, after partaking of a really filling lunch at Yoghurt House, making the walk downhill from the town square to the mouth of Lumiang Cave, the burial site of Sagada’s oldest ancestors.
Along the way, we saw a few of the some-200 surviving hanging coffins housing Sagada’s elders.
When we finally faced the mouth of the cave, we were greeted by the eerily captivating sight of wooden coffins stacked against the wall:
Our guide Fred told us that the position of a coffin signifies how much an ancestor was valued by his/her loved ones. According to local folklore and tradition, the higher the location of a coffin, the closer an ancestor was to heaven. The coffins, made out of hollowed out logs, appear smaller than the size of the dead. This is because traditional practice dictated they place ancestors in a fetal position, which is said to bring peace to the departed’s soul. Some had interesting carvings like this one:
After spending a few minutes waiting for our guide to fill his lantern with ethanol, we finally made our initial descent. It was quite intimidating because upon entering, we faced a dizzying abyss that reminded me of Gollum’s Cave in the Misty Mountains.
When we finally made it in via a tiny hole in the back of a huge boulder, natural light was no more. It was a good thing I was never the claustrophobic type, because I would’ve totally freaked out the moment I found myself surrounded by nothing but huge rocks that could very well choose that day to cave in on each other (I had to quell the evil voice in my head saying, “Earthquake alert, earthquake alert”).
Because of all the physical challenges involved in traversing the innards of Lumiang and Sumaguing, we didn’t even notice the chunk of time that passed. The entire journey took us three and a half hours to complete—probably shorter had we not stopped to take photos of these interesting-looking distractions:
When we finally made it to the heart of Sumaguing, we knew all our hard work was worth the effort because a visual feast of glorious limestone formations and underwater pools awaited us.
Down the rabbit hole: Fred told us this hole will lead us back to Manila—in what exact form, he did not specify.
Sumaguing’s crowning glory would have to be the aptly named “King’s Curtains”:
Our motley crew could not resist the photo opp:
We didn’t stop at the King’s Curtains, of course:
By the time we emerged from Sumaguing’s mouth (we had entered Lumiang at 2 p.m.), the sun had already set. Clearly, camwhoring—and not procrastination—is the true thief of time.
According to Fred, the longest time it took to get out of the caves was when a large group ended up exiting as late as 10 p.m. They were inside the caves for more than six hours—enough to sound the alarm to Sagada’s search and rescue team. To avoid accidents and other untoward incidents, our guide told us that people are allowed inside the caverns only for a maximum of six hours. The moment you hit that ceiling, search and rescue operations will be waiting. Because he told us this while we were negotiating our way across a particularly steep boulder, it reassured me somehow. One wrong step could lead me plunging some 30 to 50 feet into the ground—which almost happened when I freaked out after spotting a huge spider perched a few inches away from my head. I feel you, Ron Weasley.
After our successful “mouth to mouth” session that afternoon, I’m not entirely sure I want to do spelunking again. It was fun while it lasted, but I prefer being amid wide open spaces (like Sagada’s rice terraces, which we walked across the following day—entry soon!). So hurrah for crossing off that item in my bucket list, but caving is not something I see myself getting into. :p