I look down the hole, stomach unsettled at the thought of the vast depth below. How far down, I have no idea. I tighten my grip on the rope from which my life depended and watch the beam of my headlamp disappear into the gaping abyss. There is no turning back. “Here, you conquer all your fears at once,” says Joni, the cave master and guide. Sweating profusely while descending into the narrow chimney, I struggle to find a foothold on the wall of the cave. The inches-wide ledge, from which my quivering feet have come to rest, extends horizontally along the boulders’ surface. I edge along, flattening myself against the rocks. As I claw my way to the right, the slim ledge becomes no more than an inch wide. Suddenly, I find myself in another chamber. The roaring echo in the darkness tells me I am not far away from a waterfall. Clambering over the slippery ramp, I am taken aback by the gorgeous cascade tucked behind the massive stalagmites, breathtaking draperies and crystals and coral-shaped calcites.
The waterfall is just one of the many attractions inside Lobo Cave. The thunderous plunge of ice-cold water, which looks like silk draping beautifully on the age-old flowstones, spills into the passageways and tunnels that lead to the other chambers. “Every inch of those took at least a hundred years to form, and they’re fragile. Make sure you don’t hit them with your helmets,” warns Joni as he shows us the stalactites that hang like candlesticks and chandeliers from the ceiling. Wading further, we stop to admire the imposing columns and flowstone arches in one of the chambers, which is even more majestic than the last.
Tucked away in the municipality of Jiabong in Western Samar, Lobo Cave is often referred to as the most beautiful cave in the country by foreign tourists. Its mouth can be reached through a 30-minute trek across an upland pineapple plantation from the village of Tagbayaon. Until 2005, nobody but a fearless explorer named Joni Bonifacio dared the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers inside it. “Before, I was curious why Italian spelunkers would come just to explore our caves while locals were scared of spirits and deadly creatures inside them,” he recalls. According to him, there are more than a thousand caves in the province alone, most of them still unexplored. “Samar isn’t called the Caving Capital of the Philippines for nothing,” he continues. In fact, the Langun-Gobingob Cave in the town of Calbiga is the largest cave system in the Philippines and the second largest in Southeast Asia. That, and the fact that Samar is the third largest island in country, I shamefully didn’t know.
As if the nearly seven-hour spelunking hasn’t strained every muscle in our body, we find ourselves racing along the churning rapids of Ulot River the following day, shrieking hysterically as our slender torpedo boat swerves, catches water, soars over hurdles of unseen boulders and slams into a foamy wave. And just when our adrenaline shoots up, we drift towards a quiet stretch, quiet enough for us to catch our breath and admire the rock formations and the lush greenery spilling down to the water’s edge. “The torpedo adventure may not be for the faint-hearted,” says Dexter, our boatman and guide. We couldn’t agree more. As we enjoy the cool crisp air, we maintain a sharp lookout for exotic birds lurking among the trees. We see plenty of blue-feathered saliksik (kingfisher) and a few wild ducks flapping low across the green water. A tiny monitor lizard rushes from the bank into midwater, crossing ahead of our path. Above us, an elusive banog (serpent eagle) soars peacefully like a kite.
The Torpedo Boat ride starts on the river shore of Sitio Camp Uno in Barangay Tenani in the town of Paranas and ends at Deni Point, around 10 kilometers from the jumpoff point. You will probably hold your breath again when you reach Deni Point. Natural rock pools and peculiar-looking boulders bedeck the already-breathtaking scenery. And if the nerve-racking boat ride feels amateur to you, you may jump from the highest boulder and plunge into the frigid, swirling waters. Just make sure to leave your protective gears on to avoid injury.
Besides being a major attraction for extreme adventure seekers, Ulot River is also the longest river in Samar, measuring almost 100 kilometers. Its waters come from the upland San Jose de Buan town and drain in the coastal town of Taft in the east. The river is within the Samar Island Natural Park, the largest lowland forest in the country covering three towns- Paranas, Basey and Marabut. Mostly endemic, around 38 species of mammals, 215 species of birds, 51 species of reptiles, 26 species of amphibians and more than 1,000 species of plants have been recorded in the area.
Quinabut-an Cold Spring
When our adrenalin fades into exhaustion, we drive to a nearby resort called Villa Escober for a dip at Quinabut-an Cold Spring. Its sparkling and mineral-rich water, which emanates from a small cave at the base of a hill, is a refreshing treat on such a hot day. It is believed that soaking in mineral springs stimulates blood circulation and relieves muscle pain. Homey and beautifully landscaped, Villa Escober is the perfect place to relax after two days of hardcore activities.
Bent on promoting local tourism, owner and Catbalogan City Councilor Tintin Escober says her family heavily invested on the facilities around the cold spring for the convenience of those who travel from afar just to see the beautiful spots in this side of Samar. “Before, all we had were kiosks for picnickers. Then visitors started clamoring for overnight facilities since the nearest hotels are some 30 minutes away from here,” she says. Ask anyone in Paranas and Catbalogan City, he/she most likely has fond memories of the Villa Escober and Quinabut-an Cold Spring.
The six-hectare resort is a favorite go-to destination for family gatherings and corporate affairs. “Our family would come here a lot when I was a child. When I was in high school, my friends and I would hangout here after our exams,” says one of the local guests.
Villa Escober has five family-sized rooms, a function hall, cottages beside the cold spring and a garden that is a perfect venue for weddings. Though equipped with basic facilities, the resort is carefully designed not to ruin the natural environment. According to Tintin, whose advocacies include sustainable tourism and a healthy environment, she plans to build a swimming pool, videoke room, a spa and a few villas to accommodate the surge of guests especially on holidays. Besides the torpedo boat ride at the nearby Ulot River, she also plans to add trekking activities across the hill at the back of the resort. “Cellular phone signal here is sparse, but that’s one thing our guests love about our place. They are forced to put away their gadgets, enjoy nature and actually talk to each other,” says Tintin.
For a vibrant nightlife and great food that is memorable to the taste buds, head to Catbalogan City, which is just 45 minutes away from Paranas. Here, you’d find a mouthwatering delicacy called Tamalos, Samar’s version of the Tamales in South America. Packed with chunks of tender pork belly cooked with glutinous rice flour and creamy peanut sauce, this dish has the familiar flavors of kare-kare. Tamalos has two variations: the sweet and the spicy.
Don’t forget to try the Queseo as well. Queseo is homemade white cheese processed from carabao milk and is usually present at any Samarnon’s breakfast table.
It may be an acquired taste for visitors, but understanding its meticulous production and the importance it has to the people’s livelihood would make you appreciate its sharp and salty taste.
Can you honestly say you know something about Samar besides the fact that it hosts the other tip of San Juanico Bridge? Until a few days ago, I couldn’t. Beautiful yet underrated, Samar has so many secrets any jaded traveler would itch to tell the world about.
For more information, you may contact the following:
1.) Lobo Cave in Jiabong, Samar
Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore
Phone Numbers: 09192943865/09276750062/(055) 251-2301
2.) Ulot River in Paranas, Samar
DOT Region 8
Phone Numbers: (053) 321-2046, (053) 8320901, 09988889715
3.) Villa Escober/Quinabut-an Cold Spring in Paranas, Samar
Phone Number: 09988589952