Sumaguing Cave in Sagada, Mountain Province is the stuff nightmares are made of. At least for scaredy-cats like me. It looked like a giant monster with cavernous mouth that unveiled uneven sharp teeth when angered.
That was my first impression of Sumaguing Cave, also known as the Big Cave of Sagada (so, if there was an analogy test it would look like Big Cave : Sumaguing = Big Falls : Bomod-ok). To make matters worse, there were hundreds of people inside the cave. Hundreds! The stream of people going down the concrete stairs leading to the rocky phase one of Sumaguing Cave was endless. The entrance and exit of Sumaguing Cave are one and the same, so the queue of people going up the concrete steps was not different in terms of length. It was noticeable though that while those on their way in had clean clothes and footwear, some of the ones going out of the cave looked like survivors of The Walking Dead. They had dirt all over their clothes and faces, their hands and knees wore their footwear, and their eyes glazed over with a mixture of shock, relief, and disbelief.
Upon seeing the pitiful state of the survivors of Sumaguing Cave exploration and the seemingly interminable cavernous belly of the beast, I almost backed out. Five minutes into the adventure. Then, I thought of the great experience I would be missing out on if I chicken out, and the lack of material for this blog. Hehe. Like a good heroine in those Disney movies, I soldiered on. Without the @#$%&*%#$ singing.
Our tour guides, Leo and Carl, which may or may not be their real names, prepared the lamps to light our way and gave a short talk about safety. It ended with the question, “who is the weakest in the group?” Without second thoughts and disregarding my pride, I raised my hand. One of them said that the weakest link would go right after the lead guide to dictate the pace of the group. I instantly apologized to my group for possibly slowing them down. We walked a couple of meters from the concrete path when I almost slipped on the slick rocky surface, so completely swallowing whatever dignity I had left, I asked the lead guide to hold my hand as we navigated the treacherous path and weaved our way through the crowd of people. Yes, I am not embarrassed to admit that I was such a weakling and needed assistance for the majority of that two-hour ordeal. I also stopped taking photos. Safety over vanity. The story of a man taking a selfie on rocky slopes in Bali, Indonesia haunts me to this day. According to our tour guide, a huge wave swept him away. I saw the police tapes in the area when we visited the place, days after that tragedy happened.
As mentioned, phase one was rocky and slippery with no clear-cut way on how to move about from point A to B, and even with the help of lamps, it was dark for the most part. The multitude of people, some of whom were struggling to hold on to jutting rocks, a few, slipping and landing on their behinds, made movement constricted. I could not move two inches without hitting someone else’s body part.
At the bottom of phase one, a rock formation called Pig Pen welcomed us. At this point, I did not hear or understand much what the guides said. I think there was a rock formation called Elephant stuck inside the Pig Pen.
Phase two of Sumaguing Cave had smooth and wet limestone, but thank goodness, it was not slippery. At this point, we had to leave our footwear on one side of the cave and continue our wet and wild ride into what must-have-been the stomach of the Sumaguing monster, barefoot. The murky water was cold, diluted, and thankfully devoid of the unpleasant smell present in the mud in phase one, but I did not wish to know the unsavory substances mixed in it.
More rock formations were found in phase two. There were the Turtle, the Dinosaur’s footprint that flattened the Turtle, the King’s Curtain, the Chocolate Cake, something about a queen (a pregnant queen?), and the male genitalia. There were also dipping pools that had knee-high to waist-level murky water. Moving around was easier in this part because the crowd thinned out; part of it was due to the moderation of people who entered the dipping pools.
The Turtle and the Dinosaur’s footprint were easy enough to reach because they were on relatively flat surfaces. From there, it was slip and slide.
Going to the King’s Curtain involved using the tour guides as human stairs. Since I was the weakest link, I had to perform all the movements first. From my upper position, I had to step on the guide’s shoulder, lower my body and place my other foot on his thigh, twist my body, and finish the whole orchestrated number with my feet on the ground.
Going back to the higher ground meant a different route, a rock formation of around 10 feet that stood almost 180 degrees from the ground. The only way up was using a blue plastic rope with knots as a ladder. I saw a guy fell into one of the dipping pools while waiting his turn to use the rope. Another guy (or the same guy?) lost his balance while using the rope, smacked his face on the wall of rock, and fell to the ground. Good thing he was okay. He tried again, with difficulty, and I winced in pain while watching him. My heart was in my throat while the people in front of me dwindled. I am not a physically strong person. I have zero lower body strength and my upper body strength is negative, so I dreaded that part. I watched the climbers before me and listened to the shouts of, “spread your feet apart!”, “do not spread them too much!”, “use your upper body!”, and “push” because I did not want to fall or smash into the wall of rock and lose a limb or two.
My turn came, and I had the fleeting feeling to cry. Hahaha. But I had no choice but to grip the rope and move my feet. I spread my feet apart, but not too much and prayed to all the gods to support me as I hang in midair. Like what we did for the people before me, those lined up behind me shouted encouragements and lo and behold I was on the top part of the rock. 🙂 I was so relieved I wanted to cry. 🙂 People clapped. We all did, after every person reached the top.
That was only one of the three areas that required that blue plastic rope. The other one was at a 45-degree angle (or close to it, I think). It was scarier than the first because the rock where it was located was not flat. I almost lost my footing, and for a second there, I shouted, “kuya!!!” but before the tour guide was able to help me, I righted myself and reached the end of the damnable rope.
The last rope ladder was the easiest for me. Back in the rocky phase one, the blue plastic ropes were weaved into four to six adjacent motorcycle tires. We had to put our feet on the inside of the tires, hold on to the rope, push ourselves up, and on to the other tire. Rinse and repeat.
After this last rope exercise, it was all rocks and mud. Our group left the congested path and climbed our way through more rocks. I was so grateful when I noted that the surface was more even. Then, the rays of the sun became evident, which meant we were almost back to the concrete steps!!! We had a last group photo, where I had the dirtiest clothes, because at this point vanity won over safety.
If I have to push for my idea of Sumaguing Cave as a monster, I would say that it is a fearsome creation that would deter the faint-hearted and pearl clutchers, but it is a beautiful one. Its high ceiling and innumerable unreachable recesses make it a pitch-black cathedral (it made me pray several times) of unfathomable grandeur and its rock formations rival that of the Underground River in El Nido (although the latter will win the beauty contest). In one of my philosophy classes, we learned the phrase “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” to refer to God as a mystery before which His creations tremble and are fascinated. This phrase came into mind when I saw the insides of Sumaguing Cave, I was scared and spellbound at the same time.
At the end of the trip, I profusely thanked Leo and Carl for keeping the group safe, especially me. 🙂 They told us that we did a great job because some people turned back even before finishing phase one. So, yey!
If you finished reading this, congratulations! You are a patient person.
Tips for Sumaguing Cave Adventure:
- Hire a tour guide or a couple of tour guides. No one at the entrance inspected whether cave explorers had tour guides or not. It is imperative to get one (or two), as they will keep you safe. They know which path is best and how to solve logistical nightmares. Also, they will act as your human stairs. Sumaguing Cave tour guides have a fee of P1000.00 (US $20.00). Do not forget to tip them generously!!!
- Wear appropriate attire. This means non-slip footwear and light and comfortable clothes. A hat or a cap is also recommended. Water and other elements cascade from the ceiling to your clothes and exposed body parts, and they do not smell like perfume.
- Bring flashlights or headlights. The lamps help the group, but it is better to have a personal source of light to guide your way.
- Bring a small backpack. Bring bottled water because you will be parched after you exit Sumaguing Cave. Prepare a change of clothing because you will get wet. You do not want to smell on your way back to the town (like we all did). If you are on medication, it is also wise to have it packed in your backpack.
- Do not bring heavy equipment like a kick-ass camera. It will just weigh you down. If you want to take photos using your camera or phone, make sure they are sealed and tied to your person properly.
- Vandalism of any kind is strictly prohibited and is punishable by law and by community sanctions. These include writing on the walls and chipping off rocks.
- Do not scatter or leave your trash inside the cave and in its vicinity. Empty bottles of water and softdrinks littered the area outside the cave, and it was not a pretty sight.
- Respect the local customs and traditions of the people of Sagada. Be kind to your tour guides.