Spelunking in Sagada

He was holding a machete in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  In between puffs, he hacked away at the ferns and vines crossing the muddy trail as we made our way toward the cave.  This was Chris, a young, stocky guy wearing a tank top and flip flops, the man who would hold my life in his hands for the next few hours.

Beautiful views over Sagada

After spending too much time in Manila, I decided to head for the mountains in northern Luzon for some sightseeing before delving into my first volunteer opportunity in the Philippines.  It was an eleven-hour overnight bus ride to Sagada, and this time I had a stranger next to me, not Vicky Ann.

An Early Hike

The morning I met Chris started at 6:30 with fresh-baked bread and coffee made by my homestay grandmother, Jane.  She and her assistants make cinnamon, chocolate and cheese loaves every day and sell them throughout the region.  I sat at the breakfast table with Diego from Spain and Janice from the Philippines, who were traveling together and looking for a third person to share the cost of this excursion.

On the trail

We left the house at 7:00 with Grandmother Jane, who is also an official guide in Sagada.  Guides are now required for all destinations after several unfortunate accidents by adventurous tourists.  Jane pointed out interesting sites and family members as we walked through the village.  She knew everyone, including the driver of each car, truck and bus that passed us.  We eventually hopped on a bus for a short ride to the trailhead.  We hiked for a few hours through muddy trails, picking wild raspberries and taking in the breathtaking mountain views.  Rice terraces and tiny villages dotted the landscape below us.  Our ultimate destination, though was Balangagan Cave, one of many caves in the region, but one that is not frequently visited by tourists.  That’s where we met Chris.

A Slippery Slope

At the entrance to the cave, we were warned of how slippery it would be and how muddy we would get.  Little did I know.  I soon realized if I valued my life I would have to put my camera in my backpack.  I needed both hands and feet, and sometimes my rear and Chris’s hand to navigate through the cave.  We climbed, crawled and slid our way through cavern after cavern, the path illuminated by Chris’s gas lantern and Jane’s headlamp.

Chris prepares the lantern

 Some areas were so tight I could only get through by taking off my backpack.  Some parts were so slippery it was like walking on slime, and it would have been an uncomfortable slide down to the floor below if I did lose my footing.  Chris and Jane hopped along in their flip flops without hesitation while I hung on for dear life.

The stalactites, stalagmites and columns (where they meet) were beautiful.  Brown and white were the most prevalent colors.  We passed by remains of pine coffins (and a few bones) that had been placed there hundreds of years ago and later destroyed.   We also walked barefoot down a steep, sandy hill to a small pool of water, and crawled our way back up to the top.   After two hours, we emerged from the cave at a different spot covered in mud but feeling proud of surviving.

They’ll never lose me with this plaid shirt!

During our entire hike and cave exploration, we never saw another tourist.  This was definitely off the beaten path.  That was my first day in Sagada.  Over the next two days, I learned more about Jane, her bakers, Sagada, and went on two more spectacular hikes.

My shorts didn’t fare so well.

Hanging Coffins

The famous hanging coffins of Sagada
From ancient times until recently, loved ones were placed in coffins hanging from cliffs.
Placing the dead in fetal position (note the shape of the bottom coffin).
Some coffins were stacked in crevices and caves, high on cliff walls.

More Sites to See

The entrance to the underground river, which we traversed.
Walking along the river
Beautiful views and rock formations.
The mountains were bare, until the missionaries planted pine forests over one hundred years ago.
Jane knew just which plant leaves to use to stop the bleeding.
What was supposed to be a spectacular sunrise.

Fresh Baked Bread

Jane’s assistants, ages 14 and 15, start baking bread every morning at 7:00.
Everything is homemade.
Fresh ingredients
They hate having their picture taken, but they put up with me.
They work all day. Both boys have dropped out of school. Jane has another worker, a girl in ninth grade, who she is trying to keep in school.
The finished product

Comments (20):

  1. Paula Agins

    February 24, 2017 at 06:01

    WOW……….enough said 🙂

  2. Lori Liguori

    February 24, 2017 at 06:03

    Another incredible adventure, Tim!!! How brave you are!!! Must be feeling very proud! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anne cylkowski

    February 24, 2017 at 07:26

    Fantastic Tim!! Absolutely love the pictures the mountains caves just spectacular taking a look at these. I know the howe caverns are nothing to compare to the cave you were in, but that’s as close as I’m ever going to get to your experiences. Can’t wait for next post! Take care!!

    • Tim Flanagan

      February 27, 2017 at 08:35


  4. LInda A Wight

    February 24, 2017 at 09:01

    A wonderful adventure TIm. You take my breath away! I do not think I could do the caves; nevertheless, they are wonderful to see. Safe travels. Will look forward to next teaching stories.

    • Tim Flanagan

      February 27, 2017 at 08:36

      I’m glad I did it, but had I known beforehand just how small some of those spaces were, I might not have gone in.

  5. Cindy Cassidy

    February 26, 2017 at 15:17

    You’re going to need a strong dose of Oxi-Clean for those shorts!!

    • Tim Flanagan

      February 27, 2017 at 08:37

      Really missing my maid back in Hanoi now.

  6. Diane Weisman

    February 26, 2017 at 21:27

    I’m so envious of your fantastic adventures and cultural explorations. Keep being safe and having fun.

    • Tim Flanagan

      February 27, 2017 at 08:38

      Thanks, Diane!

  7. Deidre

    February 27, 2017 at 20:39

    You are so brave Tim and I can imagine you have learned more about yourself this past year than in a lifetime.
    I always know you were meant to wear plaid! Incredible adventures and I am so proud of all you are doing.
    To be honest it is unbelievable to me that you have done this all! Stay safe and God Bless You!

    • Tim Flanagan

      March 6, 2017 at 21:34

      Thanks, Deidre! Glad you’re following along.

  8. Tisie

    February 27, 2017 at 22:11

    Tim, your journey is incredible! Thanks for taking the time to share your adventure, sounds difficult, challenging, and rewarding all at the same time. A picture is worth a thousand words. Enjoy!

    • Tim Flanagan

      March 6, 2017 at 21:37

      Thank you! It is all of the above and so worth it.

  9. Rosie

    February 27, 2017 at 22:11


  10. Vicky Ann Deledda

    March 2, 2017 at 08:18

    Wow, Tim, I think this adventure tops them all- not really comparable to getting tapped on the back to duck lower
    on the boat cave rides that we did.
    And the hanging cliff coffins have got me wondering again, just read an article last night on green burials that are as environmentally friendly as possible. Thanks for sharing with such wonderful photography and words.

    • Tim Flanagan

      March 6, 2017 at 21:44

      Sagada was a magical place.


    March 2, 2017 at 17:21

    This life your living is so super wonderful. Thanks for taking the time to share your many adventures!

    • Tim Flanagan

      March 6, 2017 at 21:46

      Thanks for the comment, Linda. Hope you’re hearing all the stories from Vicky Ann.

  12. Vicky Ann Deledda

    March 9, 2017 at 23:56

    She is!


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