Spark Samar: Exploring the wonders of Samar Province

From spectacular blue-green clear waters and extreme boat adventures, to thrilling spelunking and island hopping, Samar is one of the country’s best places to visit and experience it all. Samar may be a small province, but is richly diverse in nature’s marvel. Explore the unspoiled wonders hidden in the province of Samar where islets, caves, and rivers are waiting to be discovered.

Samar, the third largest Island in the Philippines, is covered in lush tropical jungles kept in its natural state, away from the worn-out tourist tracks, no crowds, and no large-scale development. Each stop rewards adventurers with an experience like no other.

The trip heading to the destinations per se is already an experience. From Tacloban, you pass by San Juanico Bridge, the longest bridge in the Philippines. Immediate landing from the 2,200-meter bridge, at the town of Sta. Rita, is the Yolanda Commemoration Marker, erected in memory of the lives lost to the typhoon Yolanda.

The famous San Juanico Bridge
The famous San Juanico Bridge

“The monument rises from a base representing a sturdy tree, with its trunk supporting an open palm with fingers extended, sprouting tendrils and saplings. On this palm is a woman with a child while she clutches to her breast the image of Christ child,” the marker reads. The monument was built “as reminder that we should never ignore nor take lightly weather warnings.”

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You would also want to slow down your vehicle when you pass by high-grounded roads overlooking Maqueda Bay, a fishing ground and a perfect place for picturesque sunset viewing, before you reach Paranas.

Sunset in Maqueda Bay (Photo by Nelson Petilla)
Sunset in Maqueda Bay (Photo by Nelson Petilla)

PARANAS: Torpedo Boat Extreme Adventure

Paranas is where the Samar Island Natural Park headquarters is located. SINP is the largest land-based national park in the country. It is a 455,700-hectare park that covers three Samar towns – the municipalities of Paranas, Basey, and Marabut. Part of this park is the Ulot watershed where extreme adventure awaits everyone.

Splendor the Ulot wildlife as you journey the biggest and the last remaining virgin lowland rainforest in the Philippines. Jump off from rocks and swim into the fresh turquoise-clear river. The adventure never stops, as the adrenalin rush is just about to start on the trip back home.

One of the eco-adventure activities in Paranas is the Torpedo Boat Extreme Ride. It is done in Ulot river, the longest river in Samar Island at 90 kilometers. It used to be a navigational highway, long before there was no road from Eastern Samar to Western Samar.

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With the locals of Sitio Campo Uno, the jump-off point of the ride.

The adventure ride jump-off point is at Sitio Campo Uno, Tenani, Paranas, Samar, and the ride ends at Deni Point. In the jump-off, dugout wooden motorized canoes without outriggers which the locals called “torpedo”, awaits the adventurer. It is also the acronym for Tour guide Operator for River Protection and Environmental Development Organization (TORPEDO)., Kuya guides will provide you with life vests and headgears as they give you an idea of what it is like in the ride. Then you’re up for the ride of your life.

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The downstream ride takes an hour, while going back takes an hour and 20 minutes. Each torpedo boat has a guide, a boatman and point person with expert maneuvering skills. You can put your cameras in a water-proof bags and raise them overhead to avoid getting wet, but you cannot avoid laughing and yelling while the boat veers to avoid boulders, tilts to turn, moves up and down the rapids, with waters splashing all over. That’s a lot of excitement right there. It gives you the shrills when it wobbles with the surging water, but it doesn’t turn upside down, which means nobody falls over.

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As you take the ride, you will be enchanted by the cascading waters and the surrounding lush evergreen tropical rainforests, with birds peeking through. Usually seen are the white-throated kingfishers that the locals call “saliksik” and the brahminy kite or “banog”. If you’re lucky enough, you can even spot a serpent eagle flying across your ride.

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At the Deni point is where you trek the river bank, swim, do the plunge, or just relax at the cool waters under green canopy. Wander the Deni point’s tranquil jungle and unique-formed boulders surrounded by forest in both sides of the stream.

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Bold enough? Grab the ropes and conquer the rapids to the other side, because it is where you can climb to the highest boulder and (if you are daring) take a high leap, plunge into the cool and clear waters of Ulot. The nerve-wracking feeling from the swirling clear waters makes you want to just float in the rapids towards the rope and plunge in, again and again.

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Salmon run is how they call your ride back to Campo Uno, as your expert torpedo men navigate upstream like salmon fish swimming against the river current towards the spawning ground. At some point, boatmen jump off the boat to give it a push upstream. Let off a scream as you feel the excitement, and laugh after the boat made it through a tight squeeze.

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Torpedo boat package costs PhP1,800 (maximum of 5 persons per boat), inclusive of SINP entrance fee, boat rental and gasoline, boat crew and tour guiding fee, safety gears, and SINP protected area developmental fees.

The SINP have once tried using rubber boats and fiberglass but only wooden boats called “torpedo” can endure the raging stream of Ulot river. SINP said they would not put up cottages in Deni point to sustain the natural environment, especially that the nearby community has its source of water coming from the stream. There had been no mishaps recorded since they started welcoming tourists in 2011, but local guides are also trained in responding to cases of emergency, Protected Area Superintendent Zenaida Baisa said.

The place offers everything except a cell phone signal. As advise, communicate with your distant loved ones before starting the adventure, so that your enjoyment won’t be spoiled by the significant absence of telecommunication signal.

To get there from Catbalogan, turn left at the Buray junction and take the Buray-Taft highway to SINP headquarters which is 17 kilometers away. Accommodation choices are SINP Ecolodge, Tapia’s function hall, or Villa Escober Resort. For travel advice, contact 0908-780-5608/0926-683-8836 or see facebook.com/TorpedoBoat.

BASEY: Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge

More than just a spectacular swimming experience and breathtaking sceneries, the Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park offers enchanting caving escapade, that makes it a must-visit destination in Eastern Visayas.

Basey is an old settlement with Spanish and American houses still standing. Situated in this town is a century-old Buscada Church, where the image of Sto. Niño of Tacloban originates. According to folklore, long time ago, a fisherman brought to the church a statue of the Sto. Niño from a sunken ship. It was said to be bigger and well crafted than that of Tacloban’s. When Tacloban was detached as part of the province of Samar, they exchanged images. It is known as “Balyuan” in Waray. Since then, every fiesta in Basey and Tacloban, they exchange the images in the tradition now called “Balyuan rites”.

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What is more interesting is that this century-old church contains tombs in its wall. There rests priests and Catholic devotees. Same thing is seen in St. Michael the Archangel Church, another 17th century edifice.

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Traveling through Basey, Samar is like going back in time, especially when you reach the Sohoton Caves. Be awed by its cathedral-like ceiling and walls adorned with stalactites, stalagmites, helectites, and unique karst formations. The name Sohoton means to squeeze through small openings in Waray.

Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park is a 15-minute banca ride from Wespal Tourism Visitor Centre in Basey. Rest point is in an islet near the entrance of the biggest cave in Sohoton, the Panhulugan cave.

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Upon arrival at the Panhulugan cave, locals welcome the team with folk songs and Kuracha. Shady with green cover and cottages, it is perfect for a sumptuous meal. Just around the vicinity is the entrance to the Panhulugan cave. The cave reportedly was named such after combatants in the war were believed to have been dropped there from a helicopter, and left to rot and died inside. Hence, Panhulugan or the Waray term for drop.

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The Panhulugan Cave is a 569-meter walk inside. The local tour guide helps feed your imagination as he tells wonderful and creative stories about the unique formations of the stalactites (growing from the ceiling downward), stalagmites (from the ground upward), and helectites (growing horizontally). Natural formations that attract cavers include “The Holy Family”, St. Michael the Archangel, the Three Kings, Overflowing Beer, Stairway to Heaven, Hell, People Power, a stage with bats as the performers, and a lot more … depending on how your playful imagination serves you. There is even a natural musical organ that, when tapped, sounds perfectly similar to an orchestra.

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With the gigantic size of the cave, it is hard to believe that these formations grow only a square inch every 100 years. The huge trees above the cave are what nourish the minerals which keep the formations alive and growing (very slowly). It is a place where you realize how small you are against the giant stone arches and karst formations looming overhead. Stalactites gleam like chandeliers, pillars of stalagmites rising from the ground, helectites dashing from one point to another.

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At the end of the walk to the innermost part of the cave, the tour guides have the most dramatic way of making you appreciate the usefulness and beauty of light. They will ask everyone to turn off the portable lights all together, and experience total darkness for a minute. That is when they also tell you stories on how they, “by chance”, survive whenever their lights die out when they’re inside for inspection. It gives you a thrilling urge to turn on your lights back from total darkness.

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The excitement does not end there. In fact, there are still a lot more equally enchanting caves around waiting to be unraveled. The guides, however, will prompt you that your next activity should be kayaking towards the Natural Bridge.

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Long before, the means of transportation going to the Natural bridge entailed either the use of a small banca or trekking. It would take somewhere around 50 minutes. But now, with the available tour packages being offered there, you can reach the Natural Bridge through kayaks and motorized boats in just 10-15 minutes.

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Starting off with a motorized boat that will transport you to the shallow part of the waters where good-for-two-persons kayaks await. A boat man is usually in-charge of paddling for you, but if you want to experience steering the ride (like I did), you can paddle for yourself towards the end point: the Natural Bridge. There are two natural bridges-limestone rock formations with the river running through it underneath, hence its being called “Natural Bridge”. You can swim in the shallow raging clear waters under the shade of gigantic natural creations surrounding you.

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Rate is PhP2,160/person but it goes down to PhP735/head for a group of 10 persons. The package includes entrance fee (protected area), motorboat (5 pax), kayak rental, environmental fee, lighting fee, caving (10 pax), kayaking (5 pax), folk song performers, lunch, and snacks. For reservations and inquiries, you may contact Vangie Retaga, Municipal Tourism Officer through 0928-335-8783.

Before leaving Basey, don’t forget to drop by for souvenir items. The Saob cave is the perfect place for that. But unlike other caves in town, this cave is settled in dry ground. Under this primitive façade is a cool place where locals, using sturdy material, weave souvenir items such as “banig”, bags, wallet, and slippers, for selling.

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MARABUT: Rock Islets hopping

After an active torpedo boat extreme ride and going in and out of the caves, isn’t it ideal to relax in a villa in front of inviting islets? Marabut offers just that: an isolated retreat, a quiet corner that nature dedicates for those who seek soulful relaxation.

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A stay in the Caluwayan Palm Island Resort makes it a perfect avenue for this desired relaxation. The resort’s infinity pool faces the coastline of Marabut that displays the magnificent effects of the battle between rock and sea. You can see walls of limestone stand bold against waves, boulders rising from the sea like natural monuments, and coves and islets tucked in-between inviting tourists to rush into clear seawaters.

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Islet hopping is through a motorized boat pump boats for PhP500/hour (4 pax). It will tour you around the neighboring islets and even dock you in one of them, if you want to enjoy the water for a while.

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Delightful meals are likewise served in cottages close to the shore, where winds blow strong, giving you the satisfaction of summer season. There are also kayaks for PhP200/hour (single) and PhP350/hour (double); paddleboats for PhP150/hour (2 pax); a club house, Bistro bar, and videoke bar. Room rates range from PhP2,200 (2 pax) to PhP4,900 (5 pax) for the Beach Villa.

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The word “Cal” in etymology which means “rock”, is where Caluwayan, Calbayog, Calbiga, Calbayog derived their names from. Samar, the third largest island in the Philippines, is subdivided into three provinces: Northern, Eastern, and Western Samar or simply Samar. It is also home to the Philippine Eagle, where it was first sighted in the 18th century. It is also a home to one of the largest caves in Southeast Asia, the Calbiga Caves in the town of Calbiga.

Also in Calbiga is the Lulugayan Falls, a spectacular waterfall. Catbalogan City is the trade center of the Samar province and is an hour and a half hour ride from Tacloban City, the regional hub of Eastern Visayas.

During summer, we look for enjoyment and relaxation. The list of beautiful destinations in Samar is endless. With lots of beaches, wide choice of activities, and a good mix of cultural and natural attractions, Samar province is one of the most ideal places to top every traveler’s bucket list this summer.

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