Exploring Central Cave in Samar made me feel like an action star. There’s just something so innately bad-ass about descending 18 meters or 60 feet down a hole in the ground into a cavern below with ropes anchored on tree trunks. One moment you’re on solid ground, the next you’re just hanging there lowering yourself inch by inch to the rocky surface below. You look up and a ray of light shines from the ground above.
Standing alone in the cave looking up was a surreal moment. This is the closest I’ve felt to being a character in a video game like Lara Croft, entering a bonus dungeon for the first time. And what a dungeon it is with secret chambers full of glittering crystal walls. If I was a treasure-seeking archaeologist, I just hit the jackpot with this cave.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack a bit. Central Cave is one of the many caves in Samar, an island in the Visayas which is known as “the Caving Capital of the Philippines.” Central Cave was discovered by a young speleologist headed by Cave Master and Samar native Joni Bonifacio and Eleazar Labtic of Huplag Speleologist last May 11, 2014. The cave is about 350 meters long and is circular in shape, with chambers hiding a secret realm underground.
Cave master Joni Bonifacio in Central Cave. Photo courtesy of Trexplore
Getting here and back requires a full day of river trekking, caving, potholing, and rock climbing. Plus, there’s only one way in and out of the cave. Technical expertise and specialized equipment is needed to descend and ascend into the cave. This has kept it mostly preserved from the outside world. A few locals attempted to go in years before using forest vines, but almost got trapped inside. Since then, locals have mainly stayed away the site.
This is where Trexplore comes in. Trexplore is an one-stop shop for outdoor tours managed by Joni, who’s been recommended by Lonely Planet as the most capable caving tour operator in Samar. Joni regularly leads groups of foreign speleologists on caving expeditions around the region. As the manager of Samar Outdoor Shop, caving is his main passion, but he also offers other adventure tours like biking, trekking, rappelling, camping and canyoning to outdoor enthusiasts.
I first met Joni 2 years ago when I booked a tour with Trexplore and got a glimpse of the Underworld of Calbiga Cave, the biggest cave system in the country. Joni is one of the most organized, professional and hands-on tour operators I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. He takes care of everything – from the necessary logistics, permits, guide fees, equipment, porters, transportation and food, needed for any expedition while serving as cave master. Best of all he also takes photos and videos of your adventure. He treats every guest, no matter their skill level, with respect and encouragement during tours. It was an honor to explore Samar again and Biliran (where he also operates a new outdoor shop and Canyoning tours) for a week.
Along with Mavic and Rhea, bloggers from Bicol, we explored the more beginner-friendly Lobo Cave in Jiabong* the day before. We were blessed with fair weather, which made the hike pretty hot. I was expecting it to be rainy because of the season and the account of Sheila and Gian of Adrenaline Romance, who visited just a month earlier and came face to face with lots of obstacles. But because of El Nino, the same river where they encountered a flashflood was very dry during our trip.
The hike going to Central Cave is a workout in itself. Located 8 km away from Catbalogan, the capital of Samar, it’s a good 2-3 hour long trek from the jump-off point reachable by motorized vehicle. From a small community, you follow a path that passes through streams, mossy riverbeds, banana plantations and barely noticeable trails in the thick forest. Our guides and porters had to clear the way in one area because of a snake on the trail, which is perfectly normal when you’er exploring places like these. The last stretch involves a pretty steep uphill hike that left us out of breath in the noontime heat.
The cave entrance is a barely noticeable hole in the ground, with a few benches made of branches right next to it where we set up a makeshift camp. The first activity before entering the cave was lunch! It was the town fiesta in Catbalogan City the previous day, so we had a really filling meal of lechon paksiw, crispy veggies and rice prepared by Joni’s wife Rhine. Seriously, camp meals don’t get any better than this. After lunch, Joni and the team set up the rope systems.
One of the highlights of Central Cave is the descent. The previous night, we had to practice Single Rope Technique or SRT, which requires descending and ascending a rope using a single rope.
One ascender is at chest level attached to the sit harness, and a second is held in the hand with a long loop of rope for the feet. Movement up the rope is by repeated moving of the foot loop ascender up the rope, pushing up with both feet together, and sitting, supported by the chest ascender. It’s not everyday you get to descend down a cave into the unknown below.
If the journey getting there made me feel like an action star, exploring the cave itself made me feel like I was in a fantasy film or bonus level dungeon. The cave itself is a whole new world! A shining, shimmering, splendid one at that. Central Cave has been dubbed “the Crystal Paradise” because of its beautiful crystal formations.
For some reason, I kept thinking of the movie Labyrinth as we walked around the chambers admiring the glittering crystal walls and alien-like rock formations. With walls of pure white rock formations hanging from the ceiling like icicles, icy sparkling walls like snow and translucent crystals in the different chambers, I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the crystal maze. I’ve seen many caves in the country which have been ruined by vandalism and greed. It was surreal to see something so beautiful and pure firsthand.
There’s no way I can capture the beauty of Central Cave in this narrative and a few snapshots. Like all beautiful destinations, this place is best experienced firsthand. If you’re looking for something unique to do in Samar, I recommend you give caving a shot. Overall, on a scale of 1 to 10 of awesome adventures you can do in your lifetime, I would rate this an 11. Visiting Central Cave is definitely an extreme adventure for your bucket list!
All visits to Central Cave should be booked ahead of time to prepare necessary guides and permits. The jump off point for Central Cave is Samar Outdoor Shop in Allen Avenue, Catbalogan City, Samar. From there, you will take a tricycle ride to the community, then will have to continue on foot (2-3 hours one way). Trexplore can arrange transport including porters to carry gear to and from the cave for you.
HOW TO GET THERE:
- From Manila, take any flight to Tacloban City.
- From the Tacloban airport, ride a jeep to the downtown area and get off at SM Save More. Look for the Grand Tours Van Terminal at the back.
- Ride a van going to Catbalogan City, Samar. Travel time is about 2.5 hours. Fare is P100 per person.
- When you arrive at the van terminal in Catbalogan, walk to Allen Avenue, where Samar Outdoor Shop is located.
WHAT TO WEAR:
Central Cave is a dry cave and it can get very hot and humid inside so wear a dri-fit or breathable shirt as well as cargo pants or long leggings to protect your legs from sharp rocks and tall grass during the hike. You’ll be passing river streams and there’s an option to swim or go canyoneering on the way back, so you might want to wear swimwear under regular hiking clothes. Strong hiking shoes or trekking shoes are a must!
I opted to wear my Merrell Capra Sport Hiking Shoes for this Getaway to Adventure
WHAT TO BRING:
Small packs, dry bags, hat, cap, sunglasses, sun screen, water container (you can refill it at a water source along the way). Trexplore provides harnesses, helmets, headlamps and gloves to all guests.
NOTE: Part of Trexplore’s services includes photo documentation with a handy point-and-shoot camera. I also brought a Smartphone and GoPro, but if you’re after high-quality cave photographs, Central Cave is a good destination because you don’t have to go through water inside the cave, it’s not too large and the crystal formations inside are just stunning for those who can bring an SLR, tripod and lights. Wide lens recommended. It’s very difficult to carry photography gear while rappelling down, but gear can be lowered down with a pulley system.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT:
I stayed in the Trexplore guesthouse above Samar Outdoor Shop, which has affordable fan rooms with a common CR for P200/night. Aircon room costs P1000/night (good for 2). All Trexplore day tours include very delicious onsite camp meals.
Visits to Central Cave cost P3,500 or $80 per person which includes all permits, caving gear, transportation, food (breakfast & lunch), local porters, Trexplore Cave Guide and photo documentation. A minimum of 2 people is required to organize a caving trip, which can be done all year around except if weather is really bad. NOTE: You need to be physically fit and not have a fear of heights to visit this cave.
ADDRESS & CONTACT INFO:
- For inquiries & caving trips, 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: www.trexplore.weebly.com
- Facebook: Trexplore the Adventures