Travel Wednesday – Samar Trip Day 2: Catbalogan and the Jiabong Caves
Today started early, but then again not early enough for us to reach Catbalogan by 7:30am, as our itinerary suggested. By 6:30am, we were just leaving Biri, and the trip from there to Catbalogan takes several hours.
It was almost noon when we arrived at Catbalogan, the capital of Samar province. And though it’s been almost two decades since I last remember setting foot here, it was still basically the same as I remembered it. It is still a bustling city with streets filled with jeepneys and buses that come from other towns and pedicabs that take locals around the city. Its skyline is dominated by buildings and signboards of businesses with the mountains of Samar as its backdrop. To its west is Leyte Gulf and one could easily see the island of Biliran from a distance.
Catbalogan is Samar province’s center of commerce even back in my grandparents’ days, a status that remains to this day. So if you’re looking to buy anything from clothes to local raw materials, you can find them here. It also has a Jollibee—perfect for anyone craving for the usual artery-blocking, yet sinfully satisfying fastfood, which is a rare sight on this island.
But we didn’t go to Catbalogan for the fastfood, nor to go shopping. Rather, it would be our jump off point to the nearby town of Jiabong. Plus, it is also in this city where Joni Bonifacio is based. He is to be our guide in our spelunking trip in Jiabong, Samar.
Joni is the first person that comes to mind—and in Google—when one’s looking for adventure tours in Samar. In fact, he might as well be the entire island’s tourism poster boy because of his knack for marketing and promoting his tours and Samar island’s natural wonders.
We arrived at his place/office/store at about 10 or 11am. I immediately recognized him as he’s the only one wearing hiking clothing with a bright green Jack Wolfskin shirt in a city where most people wear the usual t-shirts, and shorts.
He invited us to his house where I saw some photos of his trips, including one to Kota Kinabalu. Then on one corner were all the gear we would be bringing to Jiabong that consisted of two large bags filled with our food, supplies and our spelunking gear.
An Introduction to Spelunking
Spelunking is the type of activity to which you’d invite your claustrophobic enemies. That is because it involves exploring caves and their dark, deep, and sometimes tight underground chambers.
I’m a little claustrophobic myself, which is why I tried to empty my mind of the upcoming activity even before I left Manila. Then again, I wasn’t really scared, but more of curious, and okay, a little anxious too.
Since 2009, I’ve been wanting to sign up for Joni’s trip, but kept putting it off. And then there I was two years later, on my way to the caves and I’m going there for free.
From Catbalogan, a government vehicle took us to the drop off point several kilometers before Jiabong town proper. There were a number of folks selling pineapples there, cute little pineapples that looked more like giant grenades and cannon shells than fruits. It was also there where we met our guide/porter, Yoyoy Bartolome, or Yoyoy Bart. According to Joni, it was Yoyoy Bart who told him about the existence of the caves back in 2005.
Yoyoy Bart is a shy guy with a soft voice that I barely heard when I asked him his name. His features are weathered, and his right hand’s rough when I shook it, most definitely from years of toiling in the mountains of Jiabong.
Our group walked through the trail heading to the cave, a slightly punishing one for those not used to climbing. But then again one is rewarded with the fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, highland rice and pineapple plantations. Behind us walked Yoyoy Bart who I frequently heard coughing. I learned later on that he was just recovering from an illness, yet there he was carrying one of the large bags and was climbing mountains. I felt a little sad for him—which was pretty useless since I couldn’t really help the guy. But I kept this thought to myself.
Enter the Jiabong Cave
After about an hour of hiking, we finally arrived at the mouth of the Jiabong cave. We had lunch first before gearing up and begin with our spelunking trip. Darkness gradually consumed us as we made our way inside the cave. The stalactites that hung from the ceiling threatened to split my careless head in half had it not been for the helmet I was wearing.
Being in a cave wasn’t so bad as I first thought. In fact, it’s pretty cool to be wearing all the spelunking gear, managing not to miss a step and slip, and putting what little rock climbing skills I have—I felt as tough as Bear Grylls at the time. There was even a tiny opening from where we went down to the underground river. Getting down and back up require steady feet, shoes with a good grip, and convincing yourself you’re not afraid of heights even if you are.
We spent probably around four hours inside the cave where we waded our way through the underground river, smelled more than our fair share of guano, and where I was constantly amazed at my frosty breath. My legs were starting to shake from fatigue, and I was wet to the bone.
And then there it was, the literal light at the end of the tunnel (well, cave). As my eyes became accustomed to the light again, I felt alive. Hearing rainfall, seeing the trees and the sky has never been this satisfying.
Jiabong River and the Jiabong Mussel Farms
We took a boat back to Jiabong via the river of the same name. The water was serene, which was perfect for a boat without an outrigger that could overturn with one violent movement. We also passed by an area canopied by trees, which somehow resembled some areas of the Cagayan de Oro River, or the river in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen made his way to Marlon Brando’s camp.
From tropical forests, the landscape changed into something more familiar: houses on stilts on one side, and bamboo poles on the other. Joni told us that these poles were used in farming mussels, which is Jiabong’s main industry. And we didn’t have to look far to confirm this. The waiting shed near the bridge over Jiabong River was crowded with people selling mussels in small plastic bags at about P50 per bag. The town plaza too has a huge monument in honor of their major product that consists of four giant mussels.
Return to Civilization
The trip to the Jiabong Cave was probably the closest I have been to nature in almost a year. And while it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life so far, my city-bred head still longed for a soft bed after a trip out in the woods.
I wasn’t going to bed yet, however. Our group still had to meet with our hosts. Dinner was at the weirdly-named Flaming Hat, which served us with fantastic food with portions that would be enough for 2-3 persons. We then proceeded to grab a few drinks at the Eskinita bar where a duo played requests and Waray-Waray songs. It was the first time in a long time since I heard songs like Balud, which though are downright sentimental, had great melodies and lyrics.
I lost count of the bottles of beer I downed that night, but then again, it was just enough for me to be able to pack my bag once more and get ready for the following day’s trip to Lulugayan Falls and the Calbiga Cave. I was excited, but my still-shaking legs were begging me to take a day off.
A day off’s certainly out of the question. So jumped into bed and got myself a much-needed shuteye.
Thanks to the Following Folks:
Our trip wouldn’t have been as fantastic without the great people who helped us, including Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore, Lemuel Babael who drove and guided us through most of our trip, Marion and Myla Cinco who took care of our meals, Anita Taran the designated provincial tourism officer of Samar, and Dr. Cabanganan the vice-chairman of the provincial tourism office and Gov. Sharee Ann Tan.