Philippines village suffocated by own fame

The village is known for its forests, caves and unusual hanging coffins. Photo / 123RF
The village is known for its forests, caves and unusual hanging coffins. Photo / 123RF

Sagada, a small village in the northern Philippines which is known for its peculiar caves, ancestral traditions and mountainous landscape, has been overwhelmed by the rapid increase of tourists in recent years which threatens to destroy what made the place famous.

"We do what we can to try to protect all of our cultural heritage and the surrounding nature but sometimes the number of visitors arriving in the city makes it impossible," April Castor of the Tourism Office in Sagada said.

Lost amongst the northern Philippine mountains but situated only 275km from Manila, Sagada has transformed into the perfect destination to leave the "concrete jungle" any weekend or escape the rising temperatures in the capital on bridge holidays.

Among the lakes, waterfalls, forests, caves and rice terraces of Sagada, there are "hanging coffins", where ancestors in the region tended to bury their dead relatives.

According to historians, the objective of this kind of tomb, hanging on steep cliffs, was to impart freedom to the soul of the deceased in order to easily reach the sky.

However, what until recently was a place to show respect for the culture and ancestral traditions in Sagada has become a chaotic, noisy and crowded area.

"Two or three years ago, one came here to see the hanging coffins and there were a handful of people. Now look what it has been turned into," says Limay Quiore, one of the official tour guides, while pointing to the noisy crowd armed with cameras and mobile phones at the entrance to the hanging coffins area.

The numbers given by the Sagada Tourism Centre reveal the meteoric rise to popularity of this remote village. They have nearly multiplied fourfold in merely two years: from 36,500 visitors in 2013 to more than 138,000 in 2015.

Just over two years ago the authorities in Sagada decided that visits to ancestral sites and caves must be accompanied by a tour guide to ensure responsible behaviour of the tourists.

The decision was taken following numerous incidents such as stealing of sacred objects, photo sessions in protected zones, waste discarded by tourists and constant screams of visitors in places where ancestors rest.

"Beloved and valued objects in our culture have been stolen. We also have to deal with constant accidents and absent-minded tourists who get lost because they act consistently irresponsible," says Quiore.

According to Castro, there is great fear amongst the local population of Sagada of roughly 12,000 inhabitants that such rapid expansion in visitors could completely deteriorate forests, caves and hanging coffins.

- AAP

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