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Ecotourism is Sagada: Lessons from the cave connection
by Leia Castro

The mystical town of Sagada is a favorite destination not only for first timers but also for returnees who can’t seem to get enough of the place and are determined to explore all the ecotourism wonders this municipality in Mountain Province has to offer.

This time, we wanted to experience the much touted cave connection after visiting the usual walking sites – the church, Echo Valley, cemetery, hanging coffins, and Easter Weaving Room to mention a few.

For P800, we were on tour to the so-called cave connection which begins at the mouth of Lumiang Cave or the burial cave and exits in Sumaguing Cave. But what started as an ordinary spelunking tour also became a walking lesson on ecotourism.

I’ve met our guide, Jed Angway, on my second visit to Sagada sometime in 2007 when we conducted a leadership training seminar for the promising and eager young leaders in Sagada National High School.

He was then the president of the Sagada Environmental Guides Association or SEGA, one of two guide groups in the town.

This time we found manong Jed with an apron, baking in his restaurant – the Dap-ayan Sagada, inside the recently built Longid Centrum located beside the imposing and yet to be occupied new town hall.

We asked him how Sagada has been from the last time we visited it four years ago and he mentioned of the road and infrastructure developments as well as the changes in the people.

Sagada continues to boom – evident in the number of houses and bigger and grander structures being built all over. Accommodation has greatly improved with over 30 different pension inns, transient houses, low-cost hotels, and homestay areas servicing the growing number of tourists. An almost six-story multi-building hotel is also being built at the edge of town.

A variety of places to dine have also sprouted all over with the town catering a restaurant with French chef Phillipe “Aklay” Heyer who is also teaching locals how to bake, a Korean restaurant, the famous Yoghurt House, and a number of cafes and restaurants like Dap-ayan which serves the native delicacy such as the pinikpikan with the distinct flavor brought only by the Sagada etag.

Our guide said tourists now come all year round and not only during the peak season of summer. This can be credited to the improved condition of the Halsema Highway and connecting routes where Sagada can be reached not only by those coming from Baguio but also those from Kalinga via the Bontoc-Tabuk Road, and those coming from Ifugao via the Bontoc-Banaue Road.

Tour guiding as a lucrative job

Every tourist is advised to register at the tourist desk at the old municipal hall. There, Mr. Jessie Degay, also a former president of SEGA, instructs tourists on what tours are available, some guidelines, and points them to a row of guides waiting for their turn.

Tour guiding has become a profitable source of income for the young lads and men of Sagada. At any given day, a dozen young men can be found milling around the town hall waiting for their turn to guide the tourists.

There are around 100 plus members of SEGA and over 50 members of the Sagada Genuine Guides Association or SaGGas. This presents a problem, observes Jed as the younger generation already prefer tour guiding to studying or working in the family farm. “Nagadu ti guides. Istambay amin nga tao tatta,” he said. “Agasem ngay diay mauurnong nga tao nga agur-uray ag-guide?”

But he added he can’t blame them. “Awan met puunam ditoy nu haan nga ngiwat ket bannug, paspas ka pay makaurnong,” he said.

There is warning for tourists at the information center on soliciting the services of children as guides. This is not only because of the anti-child labor law but also to keep the tourists safe as they visit the place.

Jed said at present, there is lax regulation on who can act as guides especially inside the caves. “Haan nga kalla idi nga nu below 16 years old haan nga mabalin,” he said.

At present the tourist desk helps in regulating the ratio of tourists per guide. In the caves for example one guide should only accommodate a maximum of five persons.

Passing on the knowledge

During our trip in the cave, Abe, Jed’s younger cousin tagged along with us. He also wanted to become a cave guide and wanted to learn from his manong. So while Jed talked about the wonders of the interior and how we should attack each hole and enter into another outlet, he was also giving tips to Abe on how he could do it on his own. Such mentoring bodes well into continuing the legacy of the guides.

The guides from Sagada have also been tapped to train other guides in other municipalities in the region especially on safety in tourist spots where the life of the visitors depend on the guide alone. Adventure treks like spelunking, rapelling, rafting, and rock climbing – which can be found all over the region – call for specialized knowledge. No one should just become a guide without undergoing a test.

On my earliest trip to Sagada in 2005 and my first spelunking adventure to Sumaguing or the Big Cave, I learned from our guide, Keith Challongen that no one just becomes a guide to the caves. He said he had to pass the test of running from the cave’s deepest interior to the Fire Station in a matter of minutes. He said this was crucial because a guide never knows if one of the tourists under his care would be hurt and the guide must know what to do.

Learning from experience

While walking to the caves, Jed pointed to a group of coffins just across the entrance to the trail leading to Lumiang. He said they used to say that the coffins there were of women who died during child birth. But later on they found out that this information wasn’t true. That is what’s good with an experienced guide who continues to change along with the knowledge he gains of his environment and of the town. This is crucial even though tourists wouldn’t really know the difference and accept any fact told them.

Trust your guide is the general rule. Many times inside the cave we had to solely trust in Jed as we couldn’t see beyond the light of the petrol lamp. The crevices could lead you either to a narrow blank wall, a bottomless pit, or even a hole full of water. If you don’t heed the guide’s advice, a lot of bad things can happen to you.

Jed shared an experience where one visitor, who was afraid of heights, suddenly started to panic. “Haan nga makakuti isunan,” he said at a point where they had to climb down from a steep ledge. It took him more than an hour to convince the tourist to come down, with Jed blocking the view of the bottomless pit they could fall in.

I asked if he was worried about losing the light of the lamp once they overshoot their time inside the cave. He said this wasn’t really a problem as the petrol lamp or hasag could easily be fixed or remedied.

Idi, headlamps ti us-usaren mi ngem maymaysa ti turong ti silaw na,” he said, reason why they resorted to the brighter petrol lamp. Once a flashlight or headlamp malfunctions, the guide and the tourists are left to their own devices inside the pitch black caves.

That is also why Jed carries a back pack with tools to fix the lamp and a pack of bread in case we got hungry.

A changing landscape

Change is often measured by residents as well as visitor – what’s new, what’s still there, and what’s no longer there.

Even inside the caves the landscape is constantly changing. “Nu nabayag kami nga haan nga immuneg mapukaw kami met,” our guide said.

He relayed one trip to the cave where he tagged along thinking that his co-guide knew where they were going. “Agtedted ti ling-et ko sika,” he said as they entered each outlet and faced a blocked wall. Eventually, they found the right way.

Did the tourists know you were lost, I asked. “Haan met,” he said with a laugh.

The caves are not the only ones changing. Even the town itself has been faced with constant change.

On our first visit to this town, the road going to the caves were still rough but contractors have since started working on them. In recent years, then President Gloria Arroyo declared the road going to the caves as a national road which will allow more funding for their repair and maintenance.

At present, the Dantay-Sagada Road that goes up from Halsema Highway to Sagada town proper is now being constructed. This will soon change the travel experience of those who visit the town, as the old “country road” will soon be concreted.

Even the younger generation is changing, Jed commented. With the boom in tourism, many children now dream of being tour guides or transient home owners. Problem is the influence of tourists and the affluence of tourism is growing stronger and many age-old practices and beliefs are slowly being forgotten.

Dumak-dakkel ti kwarta ngem bumabbaba iti ikasta da ti services. Maaw-awan ti sacred part na,” Jed said. The burial caves for one are now being treated just as tourist attractions and not as a sacred place of rest for their ancestors.

Waste management

After almost three hours of walking, crawling, climbing up and down, and even rappelling including a short break at the famous “Dance Hall” we were finally at the mouth of Sumaguing Cave.

The noise of cave-dwelling bats and the smell of their urine and feces is a reminder that the cave is alive. The water flowing inside it and the constant dripping of the limestone forming the wonderful rock formations remind tourists that Mother Nature is truly wonderful. She asks for only one thing in return – protection.

As we were ascending to the mouth of the cave, broken glass, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and used match sticks littered the whole area. This is a sad thing, Jed said. Before, all SEGA guides took it upon themselves to clean up the areas where they bring the tourists. In fact, it was part of their responsibility to maintain cleanliness but nowadays more and more tourists and guides themselves no longer care about cleaning up.

Part of the problem of being a host to tourists is how to handle the added waste of the thriving town and the visitors. The local government has made a good step in promoting waste management by putting up giant tarpaulins encouraging people to segregate and to recycle. However, a waste management program should go beyond information dissemination.

On our way to Echo Valley we saw a mound of trash, mostly of plastic wrappers and cans being burned in defiance of the giant tarpaulins’ messages.

Jed, who used to facilitate the Materials Recovery Facility (MILF) of the town, said the problem was the town has not built a new MRF where the trash can be sorted and recycled. “Isu siguro nga adda nakita yu nga mapupuuran,” he added.

The old MRF was then located where the Longid Centrum now stands.

And as other towns all over the region continue to promote ecotourism, residents there should take note of and learn from the success of Sagada and improve on its weaker points.
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