Caves do not have mass appeal. Given a choice between a beach and a cave, most tourists I know would probably be packing their Instagram-worthy swimwear and flip-flops to bask on the sunny shores of a tropical island before you can even say “spelunking.”
I mean, why would anyone want to dangle hundreds of meters in the air to enter a hole in the ground leading to an unknown chamber, stumble around on slippery boulders in complete darkness, crawl through muddy passageways and swim through the frigid inky waters of underground canyons where who knows what could be lurking, waiting to reach up with their gigantic tentacles or venomous fangs to drag you down to the depths below?
Because it’s loads of fun, that’s why. There’s something immensely satisfying about exploring an underground realm where only a few people have been before. For adventure-seekers, overcoming all the challenges that come with cave exploration is the reward.
Around the country, you come across a few caves that have have been developed for tourists and are easily accessible to the public. Sulpan Pinipisakan Cave, a 2-kilometer long mountain tunnel deep in the jungles of in San Jorge, Samar is definitely not one of them. After flying from Manila to Tacloban in Leyte, a two-hour van ride to Catbalogan City, another hour’s bus ride from Catbalogan, a rough 30 minute habal-habal ride to the community, two-hour long boat ride upstream and another two-hour long hike to reach the campsite (are you still with me?), we were ready to explore the cave.
Every cave I’ve gone spelunking in offers something different. What makes Sulpan Cave special is the entrance is just upstream from the four-tiered cascades of Pinipisakan Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve seen in the country to date. The cave feeds this waterfall and contains numerous winding water-filled passages and a large underground lake which you have to swim through.
Visitors can potentially get hypothermia from prolonged exposure to the cold water in cave so we had to suit up in wetsuits and life vests for safety. We also had helmets fitted with headlamps and gloves to protect our hands.
After crossing the river against the strong current, we headed to the upper layers of the falls by clambering up the natural boulder formations on the side of the main cascades.
The third tier was a wide pool shrouded in a canopy of forest vines that dangled like chandeliers from the trees above. Fallen branches stuck out from the serene pool that we we waded through. A hush fell over the group as we reached the area. There was an eerie almost mystical quality to the place and I felt like we had stumbled upon something sacred.
After navigating through terraced pools, we reached the fourth tier of the waterfall immediately below the cave entrance. If the main cascades look like it should have fairies flying about amidst rainbows, the cave entrance hidden behind the thick foliage looks like it could be the lair of much darker creatures. The areas touched by sunlight right in front of the entrance were still covered with moss and ferns but stalactites hung down like fangs in front of the gaping hole just beyond.
Many locals in Samar remain wary of caves because of deep-rooted beliefs that these are the dwelling places of evil spirits. There are even urban legends of an invisible mythical city somewhere in Samar called Biringan (which means “hanapan ng mga nawawala” or where one finds the lost) said to be inhabited by supernatural beings. If you’re superstitious, you can’t help but think that the cave entrance could be a portal to another dimension. Thanks to my fondness for monster flicks, my fears lean more toward gigantic snakes though. It takes 5-6 hours to explore the 3.95 km cave, the main passages of which run from Pinipisakan Falls to Humaket entrance and back.
If you’ve never tried spelunking, it’s hard to explain the satisfaction you get from it. You have to use all your muscles just to find the easiest way to go forward. It usually involves a lot of stumbling over slippery terrain, rock scrambling, shimmying down rocks on your butt and generally trying to keep your balance. Wet caves are even trickier. You have to wade, slosh, tread, and swim in the waters with no idea what lies underneath.
While the wetsuit keeps you warm and protects your bare skin from sharp rocks in the water, it also feels very heavy and restricts your movements in the portions where you have to walk. I must have stretched a muscle in my left leg climbing up one of the boulders because I started to feel a twinge of pain every time I moved. I felt short of breath. The dark seemed to magnify the discomfort and I felt everything. The squelching of wet shoes and grains of sand and mud that found their way into my socks just grated against my feet with every step I took.
Speleologists will probably be fascinated with every cavern and unique formation of stalactites and stalagmites, but they all started looking the same to me after awhile. I don’t think I was able to recharge enough from the hike earlier, because felt like I was operating on half HP the whole time. My energy just seemed to drain at a rapid speed the further into the cave we went into. At one point, I had to take off the upper half of the wetsuit off, just so I could move and breathe better.
As icy cold as the water was, that was my favorite part of the exploration because I didn’t have to walk. However, we were going against the current and treading was exhausting too.
We saw a couple of large cave spiders and cave crickets, barely distinguishable against the brown rocks in the dark. We also encountered a gray snake which quickly slithered away into the cracks before we continued forward. As we plunged into the dark waters of the next passageway, I tried not to think of the fact that snakes can swim. While back-floating through a passage with a low cave ceiling, I thought of what it would be like to be trapped or stranded underground if a flash-flood were to fill up the caverns.
But despite all the discomforts, you appreciate the experience. Caves have a different kind of beauty. The beauty may not be as obvious as white-sand beaches or dramatic cascades of a waterfall against a blue sky, but they’re bizarrely fascinating nonetheless. Massive rock formations glitter like diamonds and you come across curious forms sprouting from the cave floor like twisted trees.
We encountered pieces of driftwood that had turned curiously white in the cave and coral-like rock formations that resembled white brains. If you’re familiar with the Netflix series “Stranger Things” you’ll get the appeal of the dark and twisted world. Descending into caves is like climbing a mountain in the Upside Down, with the very real possibility of some Demogorgon-like creature lurking in the dark.
At one point, we noticed small green plants shooting up in the muddy soil in the cave. How do they grow without sunlight, we wondered? But there are many creatures live in complete darkness like crabs, blind shrimps and bats. It’s amazing how life finds a way even in the most adverse conditions.
I still thought we were in the cave, but the sound of forest crickets and the presence of moss and ferns beneath our feet signaled that we had already reached the back exit. The purplish night sky was barely visible through the thick forest cover overhead.
We stopped for a snack of crackers and cheese to give us an energy boost before backtracking the same way we came from. It was a slow but steady journey but the good thing was we were going downstream with the current in the water sections, so going back was faster. As we neared the cave entrance, insects started swarming about around our headlamps and flashlights.
Finally we were out of the cave! But we weren’t out of the woods yet. Our last challenge involved jumping down the fourth tier of the 5-meter high waterfall which we ascended by rope that looked so beautiful and inviting earlier in the daylight. I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it if I had to jump during the day, but there was something about the fact that it was night that made it scarier.
But the moon was full. We had just returned from exploring a fascinating underground world without getting eaten alive. Jumping down should be the easy part. “It’s a good time to be crazy,” I thought to myself as I ran off the cliff and plunged down to the frothy black depths below.
* * * NEXT POST: Riding the Currents of Blanca Aurora River * * *
LOCATION & HOW TO GET THERE:
Sulpan Cave is located in a very remote area of Brgy. Baiang, San Jorge, (Western) Samar, Philippines. Visiting this cave requires a permit which you have to secure from the San Jorge Municipal Office, multiple transportation changes and prior coordination with local guides from several barangays that the hiking trail and river passes through for security purposes.
For hassle-free visits, I highly recommend you book with Trexplore/Samar Outdoor Shop, a local tour operator based in Catbalogan City. Visits should be booked ahead of time to prepare necessary guides and permits. Our jump-off point was Samar Outdoor Shop HQ in Allen Avenue, Catbalogan City, Samar, Philippines.
WHAT TO BRING:
Caving is a thrilling but potentially dangerous extreme activity if you try to do it without safety equipment and gear. Trexplore provides all the life vests, wetsuits, helmets, headlamps and gloves, ropes, etc. needed for caving expeditions.
It’s very difficult to bring an SLR during for this. It’s essential you have a waterproof or action camera if you want to take your own photos because you’ll be submerged in water. 95% of the time. Part of Trexplore’s services includes photo/video documentation. Most of the photos I used in this post came from them. Joni usually uploads photo highlights on the Trexplore FB page and you can copy raw images & videos directly after the tour. Bring your own USB or external hard drive.
WHAT TO WEAR:
Wear strong hiking or trekking shoes that have good traction for the cave. Hypothermia is possible from prolonged exposure to cold water, so you will be issued wetsuits you can wear over swimwear (rashguards and leggings recommended). You will also be issued life vests, helmets with lamps and gloves for your safety.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT:
All caving tours with Trexplore includes delicious onsite camp meals, so you don’t have to worry about preparing food beforehand. Having good food after such a tiring adventure is amazing. We had BBQ, liempo and sinigang (with fresh shrimp caught in the river), which tasted amazing since we were all exhausted.
To explore this cave, you need to camp out at least overnight in the jungle. There’s a campsite near the waterfall, so no need to bring tents. We slept in makeshift stretcher-like beds made out of old sacks in a barracks-type hut. Sleeping bags and malongs are helpful for keeping warm during the night.
Because of the remote location of this cave, you need to allot two days including travel time to get to Sulpan Cave (usually combined with a waterfall visit to Pinipisakan Falls) and back. The two-day trip with Trexplore costs P10,000 or $200 per person. The cost may seem steep, but that’s because all visits here involves a lot of logistical pre-arrangements, safety equipment and manpower (from transportation, porters and permits).
Caving is not for everyone, but if you do get to explore this amazing cave beyond a waterfall in San Jorge, Samar, I can assure you that it will be an adventure that you’ll remember for a lifetime. Thank you to Trexplore for arranging this awesome adventure!
ADDRESS & CONTACT INFO:
- For inquiries on caving expeditions, 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/
- Facebook: Trexplore the Adventures
NOTE: Photos courtesy of Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore.