Samar town finds light in caves
BASEY, SAMAR—When you lose your way in a dark cave, when the lamp finally goes out and panic sets in, you might as well skip all the saints in heaven and directly ask God to speak His famous words: “Let there be light.”
Not food or water, but light, is said to be the most important thing when exploring caves. Compared to other outdoor adventures, like mountaineering or scuba diving, caving seduces with its own set of dangers, mysteries and thrills.
And this town invites you, dares you, to discover them yourself.
For years, Basey’s Sohoton caves—part of an 840-hectare forest area that was declared a national park in the 1930s—have been drawing a modest stream of tourists, hobbyists, researchers and even treasure hunters. Back then, you hire local boatmen and guides, fend for your own lunch, and try to make it back to the city by nightfall—that’s basically it.
Last week, however, the trips to the caves ceased to be a simple come-and-go affair.
Residents offered a “tour package” with add-ons, such as river-cruise meals, trained and uniformed guides, a catering service and overnight lodgings.
Apart from donating equipment like kayaks, overalls, helmets and other safety gear, the Department of Tourism (DoT) last year started training some 60 villagers in this remote municipality on the basics of “visitor management,” eco-tour planning and marketing, food preparation and first aid, among others.
It turned mere guides into engaging storytellers, plain housewives into skilled cooks and project managers, and a laid-back barangay (village) into an energized community.
Two community organizations have since been formed—one to manage the river cruise and the other, the cave tours.
Notably, more than half of the members are women, most of whom had previously known no other trades outside farming and mat weaving.
“We need alternative forms of livelihood since our town had been under commercial logging for over 30 years, when the only ones who got rich were the loggers,” Basey Mayor Wilfredo Estorinos said during the May 11 inauguration of a visitor center in Barangay Inuntan, the main takeoff point for the boats.
Apart from villagers who would be directly employed by the eco-tours, an initial 30 households were willing to provide overnight shelter to visitors, according to Estorinos.
Hours later, he would gamely do the Visayan folk dance curacha to entertain guests on board a wide, twin-hull river craft that serves as the tour’s “floating restaurant.”
The newly built boat or lagkaw can carry up to 30 tourists and a crew, including a singer and guitarist. It is said to be more spacious than the vessels similarly used for the Loboc River cruise in the nearby province of Bohol.
The DoT extended a P230,000 grant for the skills training and supplies, while the municipal government allotted a counterpart fund of P100,000 to construct the boat.
On its maiden cruise that day, the lagkaw glided leisurely down the Golden River, where the water wore the pristine tones of greens and browns, where petals—not plastic—dotted the currents.
A separate fleet of pump boats and kayaks took visitors to the Sohoton caves, where tour guides like Richard Alibado applied his training by putting on a good show.
Don’t touch surface
First, Alibado laid down some house rules.
“Don’t touch white surfaces once inside,” Alibado said in Filipino as he briefed visitors at the cave entrance that rainy Monday afternoon.
Oil smears from the human skin are like graffiti that could ruin the natural “growth” of the rocks and cause them to turn brown or black, he explained.
Still confusing your stalagmites with stalactites? Alibado offered a simple tip: The one spelled with the “g” crops up from the “ground,” while that with the “c” hangs from the “ceiling.”
As he led the group deeper into the shadows, Alibado turned from being a mere safety officer into a weaver of fantastic tales.
“What you discover inside caves depends on your imagination; you just have to give life to the rocks,” his prelude went.
Alibado ticked off scientific terms to describe peculiar rock formations or surfaces.
But in Alibado’s guided tour, the Sohoton caves also became a subterranean world populated by “elephants,” “Ifugao farmers,” “the Holy Trinity,” “astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin” and even Michelangelo’s “The Pieta.”
“When my friends and I tapped this hollow wall and produced different sounds, we attracted a Philippine Eagle who has never left the cave since. You can actually still see the eagle’s talons to your left,” he said, stringing together one of his many myths.
But the biggest stars, Alibadon said, were the hanging formations just a few feet apart which he teasingly called “Mama” and “Papa.” The Philippine Daily Inquirer leaves it to future Sohoton visitors to find out why.
Sohoton literally means “to pass through” in Waray. Indeed, one occasionally had to squeeze through narrow openings to get to the different chambers, some cramped and clicking with the noise of bats, others as big as churches.
But exploring Sohoton was quite easy since it required no risky climb or descent, just a continuous walk on mostly level ground.
“That’s why it’s a cave for all ages,” said Karina Tiopes, tourism director for Eastern Visayas.
“Don’t look at me!” said a smiling Tourism Undersecretary Eduardo Jarque Jr.
A jolly promoter who has been with the DoT for the last 32 years, Jarque noted that of the country’s 10,000 caves, only around 300 had been explored.
Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano, who like Jarque was here for the inaugural river cruise and cave trek, cited Basey as an example of a community about to perform the delicate balancing act of promoting and protecting its natural wonders.
Durano said the DoT supported the town’s eco-tourism ventures because “we saw that the enabling conditions are here” for that balance to hold, mainly the willingness of the residents and local officials to do their share.
Respecting the caves
Sohoton is just one of the 30 caves found in Basey. To this day, none of them has been vandalized “because the community respects them,” according to Tiopes.
“The belief that spirits dwell in caves also helps keep people out, and the caves are protected that way,” said Jason Garrido, president of the Philippine Cave Guides Association Inc.
Garrido and some 200 other enthusiasts were in Tacloban City in Leyte (30 kilometers from Basey or 45 minutes by car) for the 9th Congress of the Philippine Speleological Society.
The five-day congress, held at the University of the Philippines-Tacloban, assured Basey of tourism visitors for its newly launched projects that week.
“Cave tourism in the Philippines is still quite young,” Garrido said.
“Through gatherings like this, we hope to learn the best practices. Most of our caves are still untouched so we can still contain whatever damage had been done.”
Caving, he said, could be more “technically demanding” than mountaineering, “[which involves] climbing, endurance tests and movement skills. But in caving, your primary source of security is light.”
Inside a cave, “you get to feel how small you are in the scheme of things. There would be times when you won’t even see the walls or the ceiling but only the small [illuminated] space around your body. The fear factor is higher.”
But the experience, Garrido said, could be rewarding: “It’s the chance to discover something—like a new species of fish or a secret burial chamber.”
Or maybe even lost treasures? But then, the folks of Basey, by fostering cooperation and turning to eco-tourism as a way out of poverty, may have already unearthed something just as valuable.