Sagada’s Cave Connection
Sagada, a cool mountain station in north-central Luzon, is a restful escape from the tropical heat of the Philippines. The destination offers up forests full of pines and tree ferns, exotic burial rituals, a once grand head hunter culture, and gorgeous slopes filled with extreme rice terracing.
Our principle reason for coming here was to bone up on our spelunking skills by doing the famous Sagada Cave Connection, a four-hour cave crawling tour linking the Lumiang and Sumaging cave systems. This tour requires its participants to repel down vertical shafts, crawl, squirm, dangle off of ledges, slip, slide, wade waist-deep through underground streams, and clamber over wedding cake cave formations – in other words, it’s serious food for your inner child.
The Sagada Cave Connection starts with a short walk through the somewhat contradictory tropical-evergreen landscape and quickly descends into the dark Lumiang cavern. Visitors will get an up-close look at piles of ancient carved coffins that line the entrance walls. It’s all very mysterious and enticing, but the trip is not for the faint of heart.
When we did the Cave Connection Tour in 2010, no safety equipment was provided and the entire tour was conducted by the light of a gas lantern. Twenty minutes into the tour, our gas lantern started to malfunction and our guide was forced to return to town to get a replacement leaving us sitting deep within the cave in pitch-black isolation with bats fluttering around our heads for more than 45 minutes. I thought it was hilarious, but the wait was a bit of a challenge for Thomas who suffers from mild claustrophobia.
Further on, as we were exploring the lower sections of Sumaging cave, I was slightly behind Thomas and the guide because I had stopped to examine a formation. Evidently, the guide had carefully directed Thomas through a pool, but nobody had thought to tell me. I stepped into what I thought was shallow water, but in reality, I was stepping into the mouth of a water-filled vertical tube.
Thomas, who at that very instant was asking the guide to come back with the lantern, said that one moment I was walking through the cave and the next I had vanished. Not realizing I was stepping into a bottomless pit, I simply dropped straight down into the tube miraculously not touching any of the jagged rocks along the way.
The effect was pretty much like being swallowed by a giant. Thomas said he was scanning the cave trying to figure out where I had gone when, all of a sudden, I reemerged from the flooded floor. First lesson of spelunking, don’t assume shallow water conceals a solid floor.
Technical difficulties during the Sagada Cave Connection aside, working our way through the cave system was a real adrenaline kick. The first half felt like we were hamsters crawling through the ultimate tube maze. Later it opened into larger karst caverns.
In the deepest portions of the cave, far from both the entrance and the exit, we discovered animist faith healers chanting at the base of a monolithic pink stalagmite, which looked like some prehistoric altar. Our guide had never seen such faith healers before and all three of us sat off in the distance curiously listening to the mysterious chanting.
The highlight was certainly exploring the underground stream that flows through the lower reaches of Sumaging. Elaborate waterfalls of stone, beautiful calcium terracing, glittery walls, water-logged stalagmites and glistening multi-hued stalactites greeted us at every turn.
The Cave Connection in Sagada was the perfect opportunity to practice our caving skills and learn some lessons, like how to look before you take a step. We are already searching the web for other caving possibilities here in the Philippines and further south in Indonesia. Stay tuned for more caving adventures!
Note: Caving enthusiasts might worry that it looks like we are climbing all over the formations. All of these pictures were shot on the main path through the cave and nothing was unnecessarily touched.
Sagada Spelunking Tips
Sumaging (also written as Sumaguing) and Lumiang cave systems are located just outside Sagada in north-central Luzon, Philippines. We did the Cave Connection Tour in 2010 for 800 pesos ($17 at the time) for two people. More recently, tours have been priced at 1,400 pesos ($64). For larger groups, additional guides must be hired. Cheaper and easier tours to Sumaging cave are also available.