Encompassing and immense, Langun-Gobingob Caves in the town of Calbiga (more popularly known as Calbiga Cave) in Samar province is the largest cave system in the Philippines. It’s reputed to be the second largest in Asia and the world’s third largest karst formation, measuring 7 km. long with an area of 900 square km. But that doesn’t even begin to describe its vastness.
With chambers upon chambers as large as coliseums, the light from our headlamps barely made a dent in the dark. The surreal underground landscapes brought images of the Underworld to mind. If you want a glimpse of mysterious underground realms, head to Samar. Calbiga is just one of the many cave systems you can explore in this rugged province, dubbed the Caving Capital of the country.
Our day of exploration started out gloomy, with dark clouds and a heavy downpour greeting us the morning our tour was scheduled. It’s a good thing you don’t really need the sun to go caving, though the rain makes the hike more difficult, as I would soon find out. Caving tours are organized by Trexplore The Adventures, an adventure outfitter led by cave master & speleologist Joni Abesamis Bonifacio, who has been avidly exploring his home province of Samar for the past 2 decades.
This guy has led countless caving expeditions with international spelunkers responsible for discovering previously unknown cave systems. Joni’s also an avid mountain biker, having toured the whole island of Samar and parts of the Visayas and even journeyed from Catbalogan to Manila by bike. Talk about hardcore. If you’re looking for something adventurous to do in Samar, he’s the guy you need to contact.
I was traveling solo in Catbalogan after a work assignment in Daram Island, Samar so I wasn’t sure if there would be tours available. Most activities require a minimum of 2 pax to be cost-effective. Unlike other popular destinations in Visayas, Samar still seems off the radar for local tourists. Fortunately, Jack, a British solo traveler who had just arrived from Bohol was also interested in caving during my one free day before my flight back, so the tour was set.
After breakfast, we caught a bus heading from Catbalogan to the town of Calbiga, about 1.5 hours away. From the town proper, we hopped on motorbikes to the jump-off point in Brgy. Panayuran, where we were joined by our porter Lando. Then it was an hour-long hike to the entrance of Calbiga Cave. Halfway there, we stopped at a a viewing deck where I saw just how massive the cave is.
On sunny days, I imagine the hike going here is quite pleasant with the usual pastoral scenes, thickly forested trails and unique flora along the way. Unfortunately, the rain made the path slick with mud, slippery and harder to navigate. Barely 45 minutes into the hike, I slipped and landed on my left knee wounding it. It was a minor fall, yet the impact sent sharp pangs of pain through my leg. I ended up plodding the rest of the way to the cave entrance with a stick as every step caused me to wince. This made hiking even more difficult, especially in areas that required clambering over steep (almost vertical) paths.
When we reached the mouth of the cave, Joni gave us a brief history and some of the guidelines to follow. He mentioned that for the longest time, locals avoided caves like those found in Calbiga because of superstitions surrounding it. Caves everywhere around the country have long been reputed to be lairs of malignos and other mythical creatures. But with the interest from travelers (especially foreign spelunkers), locals have seen the tourism potential of caves.
Calbiga Cave is made up of 12 different caves, including Langun, Gobingob, Lurodpon and Bitong Mahangin. It’s a massive complex consisting of columns of stalactites and stalagmites, unique rock formations, subterranean water courses and natural springs. In his extreme caving tours, Joni and his other guests stay 2 or even 3 days inside Calbiga, just to explore all the different chambers.
After our 1-hour hike to get there, we would just be traversing through the main chambers, spending about 4 hours inside the cave, then exiting at a different point and heading to another village, which would be another 3-hour hike.
As we descended into the depths, the only source of light through the cave’s opening slowly faded away. In the darkness, subtle sounds were more noticeable: the soft trickle of water dripping down from rock formations; the squishing of slick mud beneath my feet; the flapping of bats wings from the cavern’s ceiling.
We headed down a narrow path where Joni pointed out a snake (apparently from the family of the cobra) coiled up in one of the nooks on the path to the left. So as not to disturb it, we took the path to the right instead. We made our way to one of the main caverns, passing through some amazing formations of giant stalagmites, a giant flowstone formation and an area called “the stage.”
After careful trekking over sharp rocks and and muddy cave floors, we eventually arrived at Gobingob-Campsite dubbed the “The Football Chamber.” The cavern’s ceiling rivaled those of a cathedral, with bats roosting above the chandelier-like
stalactites. Cave crickets hopped about on the ground, disappearing into tiny holes in the mud.
Surrounding the chamber was a serene subterranean watercourse, where blind white fish and blind crabs were swimming about. According to the guides, the water here was similar to mineral water and is drinkable. During their multi-day caving trips, the natural pool here is where people swim and take a bath. It also provides the water source for cooking.
One section of the cave’s grounds was less muddy then the rest, and served as a default campsite. Here, in the middle of the huge cavern surrounded by an underground river, we stopped for lunch. Joni and Lando spread tarps on the ground for us to have our lunch – generous servings of delicious adobong manok prepared by Joni’s wife Rhine and all-you-can-eat rice.
For dessert there was binagol, a local specialty made of grated talyan root (a type of root crop similar to taro) steamed in a coconut shell and wrapped and tied in banana leaves. Binagol is mixed with coconut milk, condensed milk, sugar and cooked like a sticky cake, making it a great energy booster for caving trips like this. Later on, for snacks we were also given Corioso, crunchy butter cookies which are another specialty of Samar. Pinoys may take these types of snacks for granted, but I really appreciated that the tour included native specialties for the benefit of tourists.
After lunch, we packed up all the stuff and made our way to the another chamber, passing through insanely muddy paths and more chambers with stunning rock formations.
One of the most exciting parts of the trip was descending down a vertical cliff and rappelling down into a chamber 40 meters below with the aid of climbing ropes.
Waiting below was a chamber with a small garden of stalagmites.
In another cavern were gigantic stalactites with tentacle-like formations snaking towards the cave’s floors, some even digging deep into the ground.
After walking some more, we reached an area where the only way through was to cross through waist-deep waters of an underground stream, our feet sinking easily into the riverbed of soft mud. In one area of the cave, Lando found a pair of shoes without soles that someone had left behind. He washed it in the stream and tied it to the bag to dispose of it properly once we got back to town. Apparently, the cave has claimed many people’s shoes, so choose your footwear wisely if you plan to hike here.
Langun, the “mother of all chambers,” measures 270 meters long and 160 meters wide at its largest area, which can easily fit three football fields, according to Joni. On a sunny day, you could see rays of light streaming down from the hole 300 meters above like the tractor beam from a UFO. But because of the rain, the light was more like gloomy mist, yet it was still pretty impressive. As we walked, we could see a tiny ray of light revealing the end of the tunnel.
But before reaching the cave’s exit, we had to make our way through “Guano Mountain” wading our way through ankle-deep bat droppings crawling with beetles. According to Joni, this area claims a lot of shoes because of the quicksand-like conditions.
The exit of the cave was simply beautiful. Rock formations hung down like massive fangs. The cave’s mouth gaped open ready to spit us out from its underbelly into the lush green forest of the Overworld. Because of the darkness in most chambers, you can’t really get a sense of the size of the cave. But with the light pouring in, this is where you get a true sense of the cave’s massive scale.
It was about 3 pm when we exited the cave, yet the hike was far from over.
The most gruelling part of the visit by far was the 3-hour ascent back through barely visible trails flanked by high foliage and thick forests. Thankfully the rain had stopped, but the path’s rocky and slippery terrain was tricky. With the excitement of visiting the cave over, this part of the trip felt the most hellish because most of the trail was all uphill. If not for Lando, who nimbly led the way walking barefoot (while carrying the bag of ropes and food) helping me out through the most difficult parts, I don’t know how I would have managed. I felt really bad for slowing down the whole group, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. I only saw a glimpse of the sunset in the distance before darkness completely took over again during the last part of the trek.
After 3.5 hours of trying to keep my footing on the trail, it was such a relief to cross a small bridge and finally see the motorbikes waiting for us to take us back to town. We got back to Catbalagon past 8 in the evening, our shoes still covered in the muck of the caves, exhausted, yet fulfilled with the whole experience.
The glimpse of Samar’s Underworld was really one heck of an adventure that I won’t soon forget.
TRAVEL TIPS & USEFUL INFO:
- For inquiries on tours, contact Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore the Adventures. Abesamis Store, Allen Avenue, Cabalogan City, Samar.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel. no: 055-2512301, Cell: 0919-2943865
- Website: http://www.trexplore.weebly.com/
- Trexplore’s 1-day Caving trip (Discovery) to Langun-Gobingob Caves in Calbiga, Samar costs P 3,500 pesos ($ 80 dollars) / per person. 2-day and 3 day trips are also possible.
- The tour price includes: Permits, Caving gear, Transportation, Food (Breakfast & Lunch), Local porters, Trexplore Cave Guide, Photo Documentation & Caving certificates.
- Trexplore needs a minimum of 2 persons to organize the caving trip.
- Trips are held all year around except during bad weather.
- The best time to go caving is during the summer months (April and May).
- There’s no minimum age requirement for those who want to join trips as long as guests are physically fit. Trexplore’s youngest caving participant was 8 years old and their oldest participants was 70+. They’ve even had a dog join a caving expedition!
- What to wear: Comfortable clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty and wet. It can get pretty humid in the cave, so wear dri-fit jerseys and ankle-length leggings or trekking shorts / pants. Wear strong trekking shoes. Slippers & flipflops are not recommended.
- What to bring: Small daypacks, garbage bags, water container / mineral water, camera or video camera & extra clothing and slippers (extra clothes will be left in Calbiga town proper; you can change in a restaurant’s bathroom after the tour)
- Upcoming tour: Trexplore is organizing the 11th Extreme Caving 2015 on May 22-24-2015, (Friday – Sunday), a 3-day caving exploration and 2 nights camping trip inside Calbiga Cave. Special rate for only P2,500/person for the whole trip (excluding food).
A NOTE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS:
- I brought a bulky SLR with me, but was not able to really utilize it because of the weather conditions and because you need to keep your hands free during most of the hike.
- It can get pretty hot and humid inside Calbiga Cave. The humidity in the cave makes lenses fog up.
- For day trips, the river crossings here are just waist-deep, so you can still carry your camera bag above water. Other areas of the cave may require you to submerge completely in water.
- To be safe, I double bagged my camera in a dry bag because I was afraid it would get wet so it was generally a hassle to take it out and keep it again.
- It’s better to bring a handy point-and-shoot waterproof camera for activities like this. My smartphone was also able to take a few decent photos in low-light conditions.
- Joni also takes photos during the trip and gives guests a copy on USB / and posts it on Facebook, so if you want to just enjoy the experience (yet be assured of souvenir photos), don’t bother with a bulky camera.
Photo credits: Unwatermarked photos courtesy of Joni Bonifacio/Trexplore