CATBALOGAN, Philippines – A soft voice wakes me up. Out of habit, I look out the window as our aircraft descends for landing.
In seconds, the clouds disappear, revealing jagged mountains in all shades of green, waves with white caps pounding on shorelines, islets, and even a glimpse of a waterfall’s hurtling silver streak.
I was raised in Samar province, but her beauty never fails to move me.
My guests and new friends from the Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines’ Mid-Year Climb event in Silay City, Albay, were excited.
The 86-seater Philippine Airlines aircraft, available every Thursday, taxied to a hangar at the small community airport of Calbayog City.
No bustle; no waiting taxis and jeepneys – only a line of pedicabs with enthusiastic drivers inviting us for a ride, and a few private vehicles.
It was a spartan atmosphere, but my friends were not expecting a cosmopolis.
I’d lured them just the day before with descriptions of Samar’s mountains and caves, exotic wildlife, cloud-hidden lakes, and islets sculpted by harsh weather conditions.
These are the stuff of glossy tourism flyers.
But Samar, an island of three provinces, has had few takers – still known for a stubborn insurgency born of poverty and injustice, and a location smack in the heart of the country’s typhoon belt.
Slowly, that is changing. Borongan City, the capital of Eastern Samar, and the surfing center of the Visayas, now has direct commercial flights from the capital, sparing travelers the five to six-hour drive from Tacloban City.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which trapped most of us in our homes for two years, ironically gave locals of Northern Samar the opportunity to discover a white sand beach in an interior barangay in the town of Allen.
There’s even a local Wakanda – the legendary Biringan – that fuels residents’ trips to isolated enchanting spots.
Still, I worried that my three friends’ staycation could be ruined by our bumpy-jumpy national roads and the lack of luxurious amenities.
I took confidence in my own “sales pitch”: Samar as the playground for adventure-seekers.
The Philippines’ third-largest island exudes rugged beauty. Samar is great for dangerous sports like extreme boat-riding, canyoning, and spelunking. The Waray (the people of Eastern Visayas) have turned living dangerously into high art.
For the more placid, there are Instagram-ready waterfalls and beaches, some with white fine sand.
But my friends were here for what lies beneath its soil.
Samar, for aficionados, is also known as the Philippines’ caving capital.
After a day of rest in my humble abode in Basey, I brought the guests to Saob Cave in Barangay Basiao, where they tried out mat-weaving, and then to nearby caves.
Basey town, a third-class community, was once the island’s trading center. It is famous for weaving the world’s longest mat and for its mystical caves.
Basey is home to the grand Sohoton National Park (SNP), 840 hectares of ridges, and hilly-to-moderate rolling terrain, with a maximum elevation of 107 meters above sea level.
Three main geologically defined land types exist in the area: an upland plateau, an intermediate karst-limestone block, and lowland fields.
The park offers a lot of natural wonders. The Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park is Samar’s best-developed ecotourism site. It boasts a magnificent natural bridge, green waters for kayaking, and historically significant caves.
The park is well-protected, tourist-friendly, and benefits local communities.
International cave explorer Sarah Francis, author of the book Samar Island Caving Adventures, published in 2017, described Sohoton Cave as “Samar’s only ‘non-wild’ cave, perfect for beginners.” Even tourists in flip-flops can easily explore it.
Entering through the main chamber, Chan from Albay and our other friends were amazed by the sparkling white calcite, especially one that was shaped like a giant walrus tusk.
Some openings looked like frames showing off a painting masterpiece.
The visitors also observed some formations that approximate the shapes of an eagle’s claw, an image of the Sto. Niño and the Virgin Mary, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and musical instruments, among others.
Our next stop was the 5th-class town of Matuguinao, with a population of 7,364 in 2020.
The Samar Mountaineering and Outdoor Club, Inc., (SAMOC) had recently explored some new caves in the municipality.
Another companion, cave photographer Rodney Cabrera, said Matuguinao’s caves could compete, maybe trump, other famous caves in the country.
“The caves are perhaps enchanted, as locals claim. But there’s no doubt about its beauty. The surrounding pristine formations suggest that the cave is rarely entered,” said Cabrera, a SAMOC member.
On our February 26 visit, Matuguinao municipal engineer Agustin Verano joined the caving group of Cabrera, along with members of the club.
“We, the residents (of Matuguinao) really want to promote our natural resources (such as our caves and springs). We really want to tell the world that our place, previously infested by the NPA (New People’s Army) is now peaceful,” Verano said.
“Dati, hindi pinupuntahan kasi dyan hinihinalang nagtatago mga rebels. Pero ngayon at may kalsada na malapit sa cave, wala na daw rebels dyan, at nag-umpisa na puntahan ng mga tao,” he told Rappler.
(People used to stay away because it was known as a rebel hideout. But now that there’s a nearby road, the rebels are gone and people have started visiting.)
King of caves
But there’s also Calbiga town, home of the country’s longest and largest karst cave.
Langun-Gobingob Cave in Barangay Panayuran sprawls through 12 chambers across seven kilometers. features 12 chambers over its seven-kilometer span. It deserves the tag “King of Philippine Caves.”
It was discovered in 1987 by Catbalogan caver Joni Bonifacio. An Italian expedition team led by Guido Rossi, joined by locals, would later explore it.
Adventurer Gregg Yann described Langun-Gobingob Cave in 2022 as a dark paradise for birds, bats, spiders, snakes, crickets, and even blind cavefish, as well as mushrooms and other fungi that thrive in spaces that lack light.
Yann, an environmentalist who also works with the United Nations Development Program, quoted Samar Island Natural Park (SINP) Assistant Superintendent Eires Mate on how the cave was threatened by collectors who would break apart stalagmites and the white calcite rocks.
The practice stopped when the government in 1997 declared the cave system a protected area.
There are other breathtaking caves in Samar but protecting these from illegal activities and the overdevelopment that happened in other tourism areas in the country will take a lot of money, political will, and cooperation between local governments and the national leadership, and residents.
Hurry up and visit while everything remains pristine! – Rappler.com
Ricky Bautista is a recipient of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship, and an adrenaline junkie who explores caves, climbs rocky outcrops, and helps the family in Basey town with its mat handicraft business.