Samar (formerly named Western Samar), is one of the three provinces of Samar Island in Eastern Visayas in the Philippines. Home to a network of amazing caves hidden beneath the region’s lush jungles, including the biggest cave system in the country, Samar is a rugged destination where adventure seekers can experience something out of the ordinary. Though most of Samar Island remains off-the-radar for local tourists, many international spelunkers have been drawn here since it’s been dubbed the “Caving Capital of the Philippines.”
WHERE EXACTLY IS SAMAR PROVINCE:
Samar province covers the west side of the mainland and islands in the Samar Sea. The province is bordered by Northern Samar (capital Catarman) and Eastern Samar (capital Borongan City).
The laid-back city of Catbalogan serves as the provincial capital of Samar province and is the best place to base if you want to explore Samar’s caves. Samar is connected to the island and province of Leyte (capital Tacloban) via the San Juanico Bridge, which spans the San Juanico Strait, the narrowest strait in the world.
HOW TO GET THERE:
There are flights from Manila to Calbayog City in Samar and Catarman, Northern Samar. However flights are usually more expensive and schedules are not as frequent. The more affordable way to get to to Catbalogan is via Tacloban City in the neighboring province of Leyte. From the Tacloban town proper, the land trip (by bus or van) takes approximately 2 -2.5 hours. Grandtours Vans are the most convenient since they go direct, but they only leave once all the passengers seats have been filled up. The buses stop to drop and pick up passengers along the way, so the trip may take longer. You can also get to Samar by taking the 2-hour ferry boat ride from Matnog, Sorsogon province to Allen, Northern Samar, which is another 3 hours away by bus from Catbalogan.
Cebu Pacific, Philippine Air Lines and AirAsia all offer flights from Manila to Tacloban. Cebu Pacific flies from Manila and Cebu to Tacloban and has direct flights from Cebu to Calbayog and Ormoc. Lowest year-round fares may be booked through www.cebupacificair.com or reservation hotlines (02)7020-888.
Vans & buses: The Eastern Visayas region is well-connected with a series of vans like GrandTours, DupTours and Van-vans, which ply regular routes between towns and provinces. Vans are the preferred mode of transport because they’re faster. Trip schedules are fairly regular for the major routes like Tacloban-Catbalogan. However, trips to some destinations may be harder to get to because vans don’t leave until all the seats are filled up. Trips on buses take longer and are less frequent.
- Tacloban to Catbalogan – 2 hours (Grand Tours van)
- Catbalogan to Calbayog – 1.5 hours (Grand Tours van)
- Calbayog to Allen – 1.5 hours (Grand Tours van)
- Calbayog to Catarman – 1.5 hours (Grand Tours van)
- Catbalogan to Bornogan – 3.5 hours (Duptours van) – 4 hours (public bus)
Tricycles: Local tricycles, the colorful pedal-powered rickshaws, are the main mode of transport around Catbalogan. There are also motorized tricycles that go on longer journeys near the city. Unless you’re carrying heavy bags, you don’t actually need to ride to get around, because the town center is very compact and walkable. Fare is P5 per ride.
Bicycles: If you want to explore on your own or go further away from the town proper, you can also rent a bicycle. I was able to rent a mountain bike from Trexplore/Samar Outdoor Shop. Regular rate is P250/day.
Habal-habal: Because of the road conditions, the jump-off point to some tourist spots (like Calbiiga Caves or San Jorge) are only reachable by habal-habal or sturdy motorcycles for hire. A lot of passenger motorcycles here are modified with roofs, which is very practical because of the frequent tropical storms that hit the region.
Boats: Passenger boats travel once a day to nearby islands like Daram Island, with fares ranging from P50-P100. If you want to go island-hopping or diving, you can charter your own boat. Prices are negotiable.
Motorcycle: If you’re a solo traveler who knows how to drive a motorcycle and don’t want to rely on public transport, it’s pretty convenient to have one to get around. If you’re driving your own motorcycle, Samar is connected to mainland Luzon via the RoRo (in Allen, Northern Samar). From here, you can cross over to Leyte (Tacloban) and reach Mindanao via the Liloan Port in Southern Leyte. There were no commercial motorcycle rental shops during my recent visit (September 2017), but I was able to rent a motorcycle through the help of Trexplore/Samar Outdoor Shop for P300/day to traverse Samar Island’s three provinces. Contact Joni Bonifacio for motorcycle rental arrangements.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO DO:
Langun-Gobingob Caves in the town of Calbiga is the largest cave system in the Philippines, reputed to be the second largest in Asia and the world’s third largest karst formation. The most basic caving trip here is a whole-day affair. You can also opt to do more extreme 2-day to 3-day caving/camping trips. Get in touch with Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore / Samar Outdoor Shop for caving tours.
For beginners who want an intro to extreme caving, Lobo Cave is the best option. Highlights here include swimming in underground canyons, crawling through mud chambers and a scenic boat ride at the exit passing through mangrove forests and mussel fishing communities.
For the more hardcore adventurers, visit the rarely seen Central Cave, which requires an 18-meter descent on a rope to the main chamber.
Go Canyoning at Bangon Falls
Canyoning is another extreme sport you can do when you visit waterfalls in Samar. The most accessible waterfall circuit from Catbalogan City is Bangon Falls. Tours here, where you rappell and jump down a series of waterfalls, can be done on half-day trips.
Samar has several waterfalls worth visiting, but Pinipisakan Falls in San Jorge, Samar is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in my life. This remote waterfall is very challenging to get to as it requires a habal-habal ride, boat ride and 2-hour hike crossing remote areas.
Just beyond the waterfall is the entrance to Sulpan cave. (More on this adventure soon!)
A more accessible site that doesn’t require hiking is Blanca Aurora Falls, a local swimming spot in San Jorge.
There are several other waterfalls you can visit in other towns. Calbayog, dubbed the “City of Waterfalls,” is home to numerous waterfalls, including Bangon-Bugtong Falls. In Calbiga, you can visit Lulugayan Falls, a 50 meter wide waterfall.
Sohoton Cave and Natural Bridge Park
The most popular tourist destination in Samar (and ironically the one I haven’t been to because it’s expensive for a solo travelers) is Sohoton Cave and Natural Bridge in Basey. Going here involves a river cruise and hike through stone arches and karst formations with options to rent kayaks. Rates vary according to the number of pax (better for big groups).
- 1 person – P1,725.00
- 2 persons – P900.00 each
- 4 persons – P501.25 each
- 5 persons – P416 each
- 10 persons – P333.50 each
Contact number: SMART (0918-6434987), GLOBE (0977-7723990)
Ulot River Torpedo Boating
Ulot River is the longest river on Samar Island and used to serve as the navigational highway before there were paved roads connecting the province of Samar to Eastern Samar. Similar to whitewater rafting, the Ulot Torpedo Boat Extreme Ride takes you through the river downstream and upstream. At the end point, you can jump in the water and get carried by the current.
RATES: 1 Boat for 5 pax – P1,825 (excluding food) * additional P200/pax if lunch will be served. Contact person: Eires Mate (0918-2235586), Danilo Miralles (0939-7793518)
Marabut Island Hopping
Marabut is an isolated retreat with natural rock formations in the town of Marabut. You can visit the various rock formation by island-hopping. You can also try free solo climbing on some formations. I really hope to visit this next trip.
- Kayak single – P200/hour
- Kayak double – P350/hour
- Pump boat – P500 per hour good for 4 pax
- Paddle Boat – P150/hour good for 2 pax
Contact: Caluwayan Palm Island Resort. 0926-3280051, 0917-7185098
Samar Island Natural Park
The Samar Island Natural Park comprises the largest contiguous lowland tropical rainforest in the Philippines. With a total area of about 333,000 hectares, the SINP straddles the whole island of Samar and its three provinces. It has one of the biggest limestone formations in the country, with caves in limestone karst, many still unexplored.
Along the Taft-Paranas road, a few meters from the jump-off point for the Ulot Torpedo adventure, you can visit the Samar Island Natural Park Resort, which has a family-friendly swimming pool.
A small public beach resort near the highway in Brgy Payao that’s popular with locals. It’s one of the nearest beaches to you can reach from Catbalogan and is reachable by a 30-45 minute bike ride. Nice view of the sunset here.
Daram Island is an island municipality reachable by 30-minute to 1 hour boat ride from Catbalogan. Mountain ranges occupy the major portion of the island which is fringed by humble coastal villages. The main landmark near the island is a Sto. Nino statue on a rock. Locals say there are several rock formations, but getting there requires longer travel time.
Some landmarks of interest around Catbalogan City that you can easily walk to include the Samar Provincial Capitol, Obelisk Tower, Catbalogan Church, Plaza Pieta, and the Pier. Here ‘s an extensive list of some Catbalogan City tourist spots.
Most of my explorations of Samar were made possible only through Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore the Adventures / Samar Outdoor Shop. Joni, who has 20+ years caving experience, organizes regular caving trips, hiking to waterfalls hikes and other outdoor adventures. For extreme adventurers who have no idea where to start exploring in Samar, the outdoor shop in Catbalogan City should be your first stop.
- Contact Joni Bonifacio at Trexplore the Adventure
- Address: Samar Outdoor Shop. Abesamis Store, Allen Avenue, 6700 Catbalogan Samar, Philippines.
- Contact numbers: 0919-2943865 / 09276750062.
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Website: https://trexplore.ph/, www.trexplore.weebly.com,
- Facebook: Trexplore the Adventures
WHERE TO STAY:
If you’re doing any adventure tours, it’s convenient to stay in Trexplore Guesthouse / Homestay, which offers several guestrooms, unlimited WiFi plus you get all the insider info you need to plan your trip. The fan room with common CR costs P200 a night, while the air-con room with private CR costs P1000/night (good for groups).
For budget travelers, San Roque Lodge offers Ordinary Rooms (fan, common CR) for P150/night and Air-conditioned rooms (with cable TV, toilet & bath) for P600/2 persons.
GV Hotels in the Municipal Plaza, Behind Catbalogan City Hall (Tel. : +63 55 543-8011) offers basic budget aircon rooms, with promo rates for P600/night.
Other hotels in Catbalogan are San Francisco Hotel, Fortune Hotel, Summer Garden Pension House, First Choice Hotel, and Maqueda Bay Hotel. Here’s the contact info. of some places to stay in Catbalogan.
WHAT / WHERE TO EAT:
Tahong or mussels are a major industry in the town of Jiabong and they’re used in a lot of interesting street food around Catbalogan. During my most recent visit, I came Tahong BBQ being sold in New Romantic Canteen, a stall across Van-Vans terminal in the downtown area. It just costs Php 5 per stick and is really good!
You can also find Tahong Lumpia (P20 for 7 pcs) and Tahong Balls, deep-fried breaded tahong similar to fish balls but with mussel meat (P5 for 3 pcs) in stalls across the plaza near the Provincial Capitol.
Tina’s Garden is a local favorite serving Halo-Halo (P38). Be sure to try their Puto Ligong made of black glutinous rice.
Crabs are a local specialty in the islands and in some districts like Santa Margarita and Daram Island. Tamalos is a specialty packed with slivers of liempo (pork belly) and chunks of soft fat cooked with rice flour in a spicy, rich peanut sauce.
Binagol is 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. It’s a popular souvenir item that you can find in terminals and street corners in downtown Tacloban.
Cafe Maria Rosario on Rizal Avenue serves rice meals, burgers, pizzas, coffee and some cakes. Pleasant atmosphere and WiFi. They also sell traditional Samar delicacies packaged by Charito’s Delights.
Other restaurants recommended by locals are City Grill Restaurant, 103 Bar Restaurant and Maria’s Restaurant. There are numerous sidewalk stall eateries serving barbecue and other skewered meats (hotdogs, chorizo, isaw, pig ears), and puso (rice in leaves). For an authentic local meal, you can go tot he market and try their specialty paluto tinola. There are also a few fastfood joints around town including Jollibee.
WHAT TO BUY:
Charito’s Delights Fastfood and Pasalubong Center along San Roque Street sells a wide range of traditional Samar delicacies.
Bestsellers include corioso (crunchy butter cookies), torta (an ensaymada-like cake), roscas (sugar sprinkled cookies), Delicias de Pili, Hopia de Pili, Polvoron de Pili, & Ube Pastillas. Similar delicacies are also sold in the GrandTours terminal station where you will need to ride going back to Tacloban.
The Pasalubong Center right under the Tourism Office beside the Provincial Capitol Complex also sells interesting souvenir items like jars of Adobong Tahong (P120), Tahong Crackers (P15/small bags) and woven products from the town of Basey.
NOTE: This travel guide was compiled from three separate visits to Samar province on November 2014, September 2016 & September 2017.