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 island 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:
Samar is an island in the Eastern Visayas region, within central Philippines. It’s the third biggest island in the country and divided into three geographical provinces – Samar (which covers part of Western Samar and islands in the Samar sea west of the mainland), Northern Samar and Eastern Samar.
The laid-back city of Catbalogan serves as the provincial capital of Western Samar 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 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 Western Samar and Catarman, Northern Samar. You can also go to Catbalogan 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 flies from Manila and Cebu to Tacloban, and will launch direct flights from Cebu to Calbayog and Ormoc starting November 19, 2016. Lowest year-round fares may be booked through www.cebupacificair.com or reservation hotlines (02)7020-888.
Tricycles: Local tricycles, 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. There are vans and buses that travel to other towns in Western Samar.
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) are only reachable by habal-habal or sturdy motorcycles for hire. I noticed a few motorcycles modified with roofs, which adapts the vehicle to the 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.
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.
2. Lobo Cave
For beginners who want an intro to 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.
3. Central Cave
For the more hardcore adventurers, visit the rarely seen Central Cave, which requires an 18-meter descent on a rope to the main chamber.
4. 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.
5. Visit other waterfalls and caves
Pinipisakan Falls in San Jorge, Samar is just one of the waterfalls you can visit from Catbalogan. Calbayog, dubbed the “City of Waterfalls,” is home to numerous waterfalls, including Bangon-Bugtong Falls.
6. Payao Beach
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.
7. Daram Island
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.
8. City attractions
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.
If you’re doing any adventure tours, it’s convenient to stay in Trexplore Guesthouse / Homestay, which offers several guestrooms with either fan or aircon, private bathroom, 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 aircon rooms cost P1000/night (good for 2).
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:
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.
Other restaurants recommended by locals are City Grill Restaurant, 103 Bar Restaurant and Maria’s Restaurant and Tina’s Garden for the best Halo-Halo. There are numerous sidewalk stall eateries serving barbecue and other skewered meats (hotdogs, chorizo, isaw, pig ears), and puso (rice in leaves). 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.