Sagada, July 6, 2001 - Sagada, 5,700 meters above sea level, is described by many travelers as Shangri-La in the Philippines. It's a tiny town district, actually nestled amidst the clouds and scenic rice terraces, and EVERYTHING is absolutely within walking distance. That includes the tourist spots, the inns, the isolated spots where you can swear God talked to you, and yes, the cafes.
I'm sure you've all heard of Sagada's attractions before: the hanging coffins of Ambasing, its caves and underground rivers that even non-experts can explore and traverse (but always, of course, with the help of guides), and limestone cliffs. What I wanted to see were the mummies and the century-old coffins, but after a 20-minute walk under steadily darkening clouds, my husband and I decided to head back to our nice, comfy room in St. Joseph's.
But not after I stopped at a rummage sale and picked up this really cool Indian-type top for P30. For some reason, fire sales are tres popular in the north (like the summer ukay-ukay in Baguio), and with a little patience, you can always unearth gems of garments (like this Chinese-style patchwork jacket I wanted to tear off an old woman's back in front of Shamrock café. What a find!).
Our next sightseeing option was to take an early-morning jeep to Bontoc to go to the Banawe rice terraces. It's a four to five hour trip, but the experience, my husband enthused, would surely be worth it. Sure, I said, thinking of the authentic pinikpikan manok that I might found to be served in an eatery somewhere. Banawe it is.
Three hours after our agreed departure time, we were still in bed (thanks to the nippy morning air and absolute quiet). That was the morning I decided to drop my rah-rah trekker act and get real with what I really enjoyed: food.
Unfortunately, because of Sagada's backpacker culture, the cuisine you will find is very safe, very traveler-friendly. (And very drinker-friendly. One of the breakfast items listed in a couple of menus is named Hangover's Anathema.) Vegetarianism is also consistently considered.
But if you're thinking you can have authentic highland cuisine at the frop of a hat, think again: Only the store/restaurant near Sagada Resthouse has pinikpikan manok on its menu, and an order costs P500 (with a day's notice for the dish's exquisite manner of tap-tap-torturing the poor chicken) an amount that can go a looong way in the mountains! Otherwise, the dishes served all over town are pretty much the same: pasta, fried chicken, adobo…stuff you can have at home.
The adventure, therefore, was in the café-hopping, and discovering their many different personalities and habitues.
St. Jo's -- Located in the St. Joseph's compound, the café was an orphanage in the '60s. The tidbits on the empty wine bottles (ingeniously used as a candelabra and menu) say that the iron grills on the windows are original they were put there to keep the babies from falling out if they happened to crawl on the tables. If you're weary from the trip and are booked in St. Joseph's, you will have no choice but to park here and eat. The meals, though, are around 10 percent more expensive (P100 for dinner, P55 for breakfast, excluding drinks) than those available "downtown." And the clientele mostly St. Jo guests themselves are less interesting than the ones found in, say, Shamrock.
Plusses: St. Jo's is the only resthouse/café with a landscape beautiful! You could sit all morning on the steps and ogle at the flowers and the green. Oh, and the café has a special "rum package" on its menu. P60 for a Tanduay lapad with Coke and ice (the long neck version I think, goes for P80). If you prefer to be holed up in the compound and intend to get smashed without going through the trouble of walking out and buying your booze yourself, this is a wonderful alternative indeed.
Sudimay's Canteen -- A good, clean, affordable place to have breakfast is Sudimay's Canteen, located in the plaza near Alfredo Bed and Breakfast. Never mind the cramped appointments (two tables and four benches), not a speck of dust lives here. And it's the only eatery that allows its diners to get a glimpse of the kitchen; others have a sign or a curtain that tell you: Keep Out.
Aling Sudimay (I presume that middle-aged lady was her) will cook the meal and serve it herself. Breakfast (I recommend the hamonado), with eggs and coffee and lotsa lotsa rice, goes for only P50. The place is so bright and friendly that if the owner isn't around, you can expect a friendly local loiterer to fill in as impromptu cook and waitress, like Janice Gulian, proprietress of Alfredo and Log Cabin (under renovation at the time), did. It seems the two have a healthy relationship: when Log Cabin runs out of food, they run to Sudimay for help as well. And please don't mind the big dog (dubbed "wolf" by one of my friends) who sometimes hangs around. He doesn't bite, even if you provoke him, the locals say. I didn't dare try.
Alfredo Bed and Breakfast -- According to some of the locals, this inn is a hit among Europeans. I can understand its appeal: the restaurant is the only one with a distinct decorative concept from the hardwood bar down to the sitting area in front of the fireplace. Its owners also seem to be the most business-savvy: It's the only resto offering a buffet (P150-200), and Narda's products are available in the inn as well.
The menu is vast and varied, but if you're unlucky you might be waited on by one of Sagada's most sullen waitresses (No use describing her here. You'll know when you see her). My consolation was the breads baked by Philippe (by loaf: whole wheat P25; tomato herb loaf P30; raisin P35), a Frenchman who decided to reside in Sagada since '92. When I had time alone, I took the opportunity of reading the "Alfredo's Menu and Info Book," which was actually more like Philippe's personal journal. In his quaint English and spelling ("reed" for read, "shew" for chew), he pours out his personal philosophies about the laws of the universe; garlic shells; state of the nation; baking, etc. He also shares some very helpful tips for "the best gazing spots in Sagada." Beats a tourist pamphlet anytime.
Shamrock Café -- From Alfredo, one can take the side steps down to Shamrock. Here is where the action starts. Shamrock is located beside the municipal hall and above the public market, at the beginning of the road which you take to go toward the demang (old village) and the cave. This makes it sort of a convergent point for the local guide, the true-blue backpacker, and, well, the local lush. You will never see a wholesome vacationing family eat at Shamrock. The Brady Bunch will shudder at the décor (the place screams short order and beer; the place even has a chair more like a throne which exhibits the gender hierarchy of the region: a man at the backrest, with his arms and head resting on women's heads. The women make the pose.
It's the best and therefore my favorite place to really get to know some local folk. My husband and I started chatting it with cook/attendant/apparent "manager" (what else do you call one who runs the establishment?), Graale Cadiogan, and her sister Josie. On the third day, we were buying drinks for Dangwa, a guide who was christened so because he was born in the bus of the same name. Anybody who has been to Sagada knows Dangwa, and through him you'll get to know other personalities as well….a totally different story altogether. Cuisine-wise, I recommend Shamrock sandwiches. Though simply made, they make a filling and flavorful meal (try the dyeydze-tuna, mayo, cheese for only P45). The pastas are good as well and the portions so large they're good for two (P55 - P70 depending on the sauce).
Yoghurt House -- Further down the road, you'll discover Masferre's Country Inn and Restaurant (yup, named after the French guy who made all those fantastic photographs of the highlanders), Igorot Inn, the Greenhouse, and Yoghurt House. I also fell in love with this place's café: It's the only one with reading material! You can choose from any of the fictions on the shelf and rent it while enjoying a nice, creamy (albeit warm) yoghurt shake (P40). The décor is family friendly as well, but since it's closer to the cave, that means the guests are inclined to be backpackers. Curiously too, breakfast items figure predominantly on the menu. But then, who said you can't have an omelet (P55-P60) for lunch and pancakes (P60) for dinner.
I also visited Ganduyan Coffee Shoppe, which has an extensive menu and the cheapest tea (P10 a mug; P10 will likewise get you a bag of dried Sagada Mountain Tea leaves, good for a gallon). It's also the only eatery that offers crepe. The crazy thing is, the meals (P75 - P80) aren't available until you reserve them. Tip: Visit its souvenir shop instead and haggle for some nice placemats (P35 each).
I didn't bother lingering in Masferre, where around three Filipino families and two well-shod Caucasion couples were I hope enjoying their dinner. My friends who had dinner there the night before warned me of the so-so food at P90 - P100 and the waiters who gave them another order of sotanghon instead of an extra plate. "Eh, kami nga humingi kami ng Coke, binigay sa amin tinidor," shared a woman from the neighboring table. So I stayed just long enough to look at the photographs then bolted. And headed straight for Shamrock. (BY GINA ABUYUAN-LLANES)
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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