We have barely finished crossing the picturesque San Juanico Bridge from Tacloban City in Leyte when Samar Island on the opposite side begins to make its presence felt. The dark, looming clouds appear first, followed by cool winds and an earnest downpour that blankets the lush countryside in waterborne mist. It’s early May — still summer as far as the rest of the Philippines is concerned — yet here in Samar, it already feels like the middle of rainy August.
“The climate here is somewhat different. We get two seasons in one day,” jokes our local guide, Noel Pagdonsolan. “Summer happens in the morning while the wet season arrives in the afternoon.” In the van, we swap nervous glances; it’s not exactly ideal to kayak in secret cave lagoons in the middle of a rainstorm.
Our weather concerns notwithstanding, we are excited to be here. Lying on the eastern edge of the country, Samar borders the Pacific Ocean on its right side, a location that leaves it open to wind and moisture from the big pond, hence the frequent showers. Compared to other, more popular, Philippine destinations, not much has been written about this place. In fact, Samar is something of an oddity in a region known for sun-kissed days and white-sand beaches. Instead of these, the island sports mountainous geography that’s blessed with tropical jungle, winding rivers and subterranean caverns. Indeed, word on this destination is spreading among adventure travellers. Here in Samar province (one of three provinces that trisect the island), we plan to experience the great outdoors.
Off the beaten path
Our vehicle barrels inland on a winding highway, past verdant rice fields and barrios comprising thatched-roof huts and wooden sheds. On the roadside, pedal-powered tricycles squeak by herds of carabao being led by their handlers. While the rustic scenery flits by our window, our host lets us know just how far we are from the tourist trail.
“We had a little over 200,000 tourist arrivals in 2016,” Noel starts off, quoting a figure that forms merely 3% of the country’s total visitors that year. “It’s a shame because Samar has some of the largest swaths of virgin forest in the Philippines. We have so many sites with ecotourism potential, but so far only a handful are being actively marketed to visitors. Let’s just say that our local government wants to make sure the infrastructure is ready before we let everyone in.”
Noel is also happy to declare that our first destination is the best-prepared and most famous of Samar’s adventure spots. We head to the town of Basey, stopping only long enough to check out its Spanish-era church, before pushing onward to the banks of the Sohoton River. From here, we transfer into kayaks for a leisurely journey toward Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park.
The rain keeps pouring and we are soaked to the bone. Yet, this does little to dampen our spirits as we paddle upriver. Just around a bend, the shoreline rises to form a gorge over 30m high. We look up to the limestone walls that now surround us, its cracks and crevices a testament to millennia of geological formation. Not too far away, this godly artistry displays its pièce de résistance: the massive natural bridge that gives this protected landscape its name. We rest under this huge limestone arch, and while we marvel at this gnarly, rocky monument, our kayak guides tell us that these walls host a vast and incredibly complex cave system.
Into the ground
We get a glimpse of this subterranean world a few hundred meters inland. Panhulugan Cave is one of roughly 30 caverns that have been explored (in varying degrees) in the area. We walk through light jungle and into the cave entrance where it’s absolutely pitch black. The cave is ominous and forbidding; its deathly silence broken only by the constant sound of dripping water.
“This is a live cave, which means it has natural formations that are slowly changing over hundreds of years,” says an expert named Larry Rambacod, who leads us into the darkness. With a wave of his LED flashlight, he illuminates landmarks within the various chambers: curious rock formations with shapes resembling an eagle’s claw and the Statue of Liberty as well as a “frozen waterfall” made of white calcite. Larry also stresses the importance of caring for these natural wonders by following a simple rule: don’t touch anything. “Bodily oils can affect centuries of mineral growth,” he warns us before showing us a stalagmite that has been rendered a ghostly gray by previous visitors. He adds that this complex leads well into the bowels of the earth, where oddities like blind fish and long-legged cave spiders await the hardiest (and ballsiest) spelunkers. We emerge from the cavern a few hours later, wet from a mixture of sweat, mud and mineral water; a super-natural kind of spa treatment that completely blows us away.
More water, please!
Over the next two days we find ourselves in a near-constant state of being soaked, first from a rip-roaring ride on wooden “torpedo boats” down the fast-moving Ulot River. Accompanied by a pair of boatmen with impressive rowing skills, we tear through a 10km stretch of moderate rapids, toward an especially turbulent patch of rocks and water. Here we jump from the riverside into the swirling currents below; the stunt is so exhilarating that we do it over and over again. The following morning we are similarly drenched, this time under a gorgeous two-tiered cascade called Lulugayan Falls. This picture-perfect waterfall straddles the Calbiga River, and is accessible only via 4×4 (or a motorbike) on a dirt trail.
In between the off-road adventures, we find time to soak up the local culture. At Saob Cave, we meet Waray women who create native banig (woven sea grass) mattreses within its cavernous confines. The damp subterranean air, they say, keeps their material soft and easy to weave. On the other hand, the streets of Calbiga town give us a delectable sampling of Samar’s cuisine. Our most memorable meal is the lemongrass- and turmeric-laced chicken tinola (soup-based dish), and a thick, milky pork leg stew known as pakdol by a humble eatery called Rutchel’s. For dessert, we load up on sweet and chewy taro cake called binagol, by Miguel’s Binagol Factory.
You can’t help but wonder how the natural charms have stayed under the tourist radar. Our adventure ends the same way it began — with a crossing of the San Juanico Bridge back to the airport at Leyte. And like our first day here, Samar makes its presence felt, once again, with a display of water. This time, however, there are neither dark clouds nor rain. Instead, what accompanies us on the ride back is a stunning rainbow that starts way out at sea, and ends in that raw, rugged and beautiful island we have just left.
What and where to eat in Samar: Rutchel’s, Niño’s and San Juan by the Bay
Where to stay in Samar: Lola Rosa B&B
This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Smile magazine.