The whole of A Sophomore Section went rowdy as soon as the teacher announced that all are required to be part of the field trip to Callao Cave in March. The teacher smiled. He just let the students express their uncontrollable excitement–high school days circa 1998.
Before the images of the green waters and greenery surrounding Callao Cave crossed my mind, that was the very first thing I recalled while the bus was in motion on my way back to Cabagan from Tuguegarao City last 28 December 2011 at noon. Back then, I know nothing but excitement of going out of school for a field trip, for the first time. I couldn’t recognize the kind of opportunity and privilege laid on my then dormant wandering feet. Documentation of the experience didn’t even prompt my brain’s pen (as opposed to keyboard these days). I was too caught up in the thought of a temporary escape and my sumptuous pack lunch. Then I was suddenly rolled out from reminiscence by what my eyes caught: the very visible text on Peñablanca’s welcome arch. I spontaneously alerted the driver to drop me right then and there. This explains how I got to Callao Cave for the second time after 15 years.
Upon dismounting from the bus, the tricycle drivers raced against each other to get to me. Passengers going to the place are like celebrities and that explains why. It was by instinct that I chose Rommel so I threw him this question right away: “How much will it cost to get to Callao Cave and how many hours will it take to get there?” He replied, “P300. Approximately one hour”. “Since I’m alone, can I bate that to P200? Advance Happy New Year!” was what I blurted out. The haggling was closed.
I was quiet for a couple of minutes but when I remembered that it will take an hour to reach the destination, I decided to initiate a conversation. Surprisingly, the driver was very responsive so I took advantage of it until I could already write a book about his life. This made me feel comforted more so when he started to joke. I always look up to people with great sense of humor. In the middle of his another laughter provoking attempt, I saw a river beside the highway we’re on. So I asked, “Is that still part of Cagayan River?” He enthusiastically replied with more than what I asked for: “Yes, it is. It’s the Pinanacanauan River and it’s a tributary of the Cagayan River. By the way, we will be crossing that river via the improvised ferry in a few minutes because the Tawi Bridge is still impassable to date. It was wrecked by typhoon Mina three months ago.”
As we were nearing the boatyard, I was entertained at how the improvised ferry crosses to the other side. There seems to be quite a bustle there. By the time I reached the riverbank, I was able to understand better how the thing works.
There are two cordages attached to the ferry and are both securely knotted to the most stalwart trees on the riversides. Eight men work together to anchor the ferry against the very strong current through the cordages every time it crosses to the other side.
A few minutes later, the robust verdure of tropical trees, which painted the pellucid waters of Pinacanauan River’s another tail running along the cave area, flipped her foliage with a smile for me. I couldn’t resist what she presented in sight so I took a few minutes of feeding my eyes with the delectable views around. All of the images that I had already forgotten came alive again. Some things were the same but many things were not. Then I thanked Rommel for bringing me to the place safely. Before he left, he said: “Thank you too. It’s been good talking to you.”
Following in time was I took a boat to sail to the cave—solo. People seemed to have forgotten the idea of going out for leisure that time. On the contrary, I was fortunate I owned the boat even just for a short time at P10.
It took me five minutes to reach the few sets of stairs leading to Callao Cave Eco Tourism Center. From there, I availed one of their famous “trained” guides, who are actually youngsters, after paying the entrance fee for free. Take note, it is compulsory for first timers. My case was an exception since the memory card that keeps the details of how to spelunk the cave was already ejected from my base unit. This led me to the timid-looking Harvey. Once he opened his mouth though, I immediately took back the adjective I attached to his name earlier. He started with an impressive delivery of a proem about the cave and then followed it with a getting-to-know-each-other kind of questions—in English. I, on the other hand, eagerly responded to each of his questions. When the soles of my wandering feet were about to osculate the first stair of the famous 184 concrete steps, he warned me that it’s going to be an arduous climb. “Not to a mountain climber, buddy.” I exclaimed inside my head (pun definitely intended).
We ascended lightly to the cave’s lucid orifice because of Harvey’s unstoppable, this time, background investigation. Of course, I returned the favor. The blabbermouth in me always finds great pleasure in a conversation to a stranger when traveling.
Later on, Harvey pushed on his display of knowledge about the Peñablanca Protected Landscape and Seascape’s main attraction again. With the support of wikipedia, he was able to articulate this: “The cave was named after a Kalaw bird that inhabits this area. The Callao cave system is composed of seven chambers, each with natural crevices above that let streams of light to get into the cave, serving as illumination for the otherwise dark areas of the place. Previously, there were reported nine caves in the system, but an earthquake in the 1980s cut off the last two chambers. The cave is classified by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as a Class II cave. This describes caves with areas that have hazardous conditions and contain sensitive geological, archaeological, cultural, historical and biological values or high quality ecosystems. Such caves are open to experienced spelunkers or caving enthusiasts and guided visits, although some portions may be closed seasonally or permanently for conservation purposes.”
To get to the initial chamber, which is also called the Aviary Chamber, we had to descend a few meters away from the stairway. This part is seasonally flocked by exotic feathered species like Nido birds.
The second chamber or Holy Chamber is where the main attraction sits—The Chapel that has already been used countless times in a multitude of Philippine postcards and was later turned into a cathedral by the locals during Pres. Marcos’ era.
At exactly 2:00 PM, we were already at the third chamber also known as the Dark Room Chamber. A headlamp or a flashlight is really necessary to pass through the narrow pathway.
By 2:30 PM we’re already past the four remaining chambers. The Ice Cream Room, which was derived from a big boulder formation resembling the three delicious scoops of an ice cream. The Jungle Room Chamber because the stalactites and stalagmites therein resemble animal shapes. The Sun Room Chamber, which is explained by the radiant and colorful rays of the sun peeking through the round crevice on the roof allowing visitors to enjoy the views inside. Hence, it is usually considered the best among the group. The last is the Adventure Chamber because of the steep and slippery path on the way back.
A decade ago, this cave was in a humble status like the heritage site (San Pablo Church) near my hometown. Today, the influx of travel bloggers dramatically put tourist attractions into the mainstream. No wonder this cave has already gained international recognitions. The 27th season of The Survivor filmed a five-hour segment there, the discovery of the 67,000-year old Callao Man was published in the Journey of Human Evolution back in 2012, and when Columbia Pictures, 21st Century Fox, and Golan Films signified their intentions via ABS-CBN news that they are eyeing Callao Cave as a possible film production site in the near future.
I had a chance to talk with one of the elder travel guides, Zelda, in the tourist center later and the most important thing that I learned from her is, a prominent geographical feature of the place is its insusceptibility to soil erosion. There was never a record of landslide in the area.
It was already 5:30 PM when I headed back to Tuguegarao City. I was supposed to use the same route but was discouraged by Zelda as it will be harder to catch a tricycle on the other side. I had to bear the costly special trip via a habal habal to leave quickly. From the city, I took the bus again to get to my hometown, Cabagan.
While the vehicle was propelling, I can’t help but reflect on that spontaneous revisit. The sudden bolt of excitement that struck me was still surreal. For one thing, the frustration of featuring the place on my blog could be a factor other than my vagabond nature and value for solitude. But there’s more. What really drew me there is that longing, which arose from my juvenile frustration, to continue the story and share the beauty of the place.
What I learned from this experience is going back to the places we already visited is actually a cool idea. It makes us love the place all the more. It lets us see how spontaneous we could be. It’s more muse-inspiring too. And sometimes, it does taste even sweeter.
I wouldn’t mind if I go back there for the third time…or more. I now believe that every time is wonderful and unique and special. “No place is ever done, and no travel experience ever entirely complete. There is always someone else to meet, some new mountain to climb, some new food to try, some random adventure to fall in your lap, or some memory to reforge” (Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler).
- Trekked Mountain Province-Ifugao-Cagayan Provinces at Php7,580.67 (meimontemayor.wordpress.com)
- Phraya Nakhon Cave @ Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, Thailand (alwaystravelicious.com)
- Cagayan makes history after sweeping Smart to win V-League crown (sports.inquirer.net)
- Konglor Cave, Laos (dontusemytoothbrush.com)
- Cave ‘Selinitsa’-Prefecture Messinia (alternativetourismnafplio.wordpress.com)
- Penablanca, Cagayan Valley (pilipinastrotting.wordpress.com)
- Go Underground at Cave of the Mounds (lauriesportraits.wordpress.com)
- Callao Cave System (www.choosephilippines.com)
- A Closer Look Into Callao Cave (www.driftwoodjourneys.com)
- Callao Caves, Penablanca, Cagayan (www.cagayanvalley.com)
- The Glowworm Caves of Waitomo (travelingcheesehead.com)
- Callao Cave (en.wikipedia.org)
- Overlooking the Ambuklao Dam (elaljanelasola.com)
- CLIMBING THE 183 STEPS AT CALLAO CAVE, PEÑABLANCA, CAGAYAN, PHILIPPINES (inthewrongboots.wordpress.com)