Thursday, January 12, 2012

Somewhere in Northern Samar

Separated from Luzon Island by the San Bernardino Strait, Samar is way off the beaten path. While Palawan is touted as the ‘last frontier’ in Philippine tourism, Samar, especially Northern Samar, may very well be ‘beyond the last frontier’.

Travelers may fly to Northern Samar’s main town, Catarman, by jet from Manila – the flight takes approximately an hour. An overland trip by bus is possible (and much cheaper); however, the trip takes 12 to 14 hours and the last section is by ferry from the southern tip of Luzon in Bicol to Northern Samar. By whatever means travelers take to get here, they will be amply rewarded by some of the most picturesque and seldom seen places this side of Paradise.

Biri Island is a short boat ride away from Catarman. It is the site of awesome rock formations, huge honey-comb like steps and cavernous natural amphitheaters, arches and caves that have been carved into the rocks by unrelenting winds and pounding surf through the centuries. The Pacific Ocean’s natural tools have created an incredible array of giant sculptures along Biri’s northern shore in a spot called Magasang.

Nearby is Bel-ot, reputedly the best natural saltwater pool in the Philippines. Expectedly, Biri also has great surfing for those adventurous enough – there are no crowds here at all. When we visited, it was so quiet as we were all speaking in hushed voices, dumbstruck by the amazing rock formations. Only the sea birds were heard above the pounding surf.

Northern Samar is composed of small, quiet villages and full of pristine nature. Besides Biri, there are several offshore islands which merit exploration; most are a short banca (outrigger) ride away. One of these is Capul Island, a history-laden place with its own exotic language.

In the days of the Galleon crossings, Samar was the first landfall Spanish ships would encounter after the perilous months-long journey from their port in Acapulco, Mexico en route to Manila. The galleons would dock in Capul’s sheltered shores, bay and coves for repairs and respite from the mighty Pacific and then continue on northward to Manila. The island’s name itself is an abbreviation of ‘Acapulco’, supposedly derived from the natives’ inability to pronounce the full name of the Mexican port.

From the municipality of Las Navas, travelers can go upriver on the Catubig River and meander several kilometers along incredible tropical scenery, ending up at the gorgeous multi-layered cascades of Pinipisakan Falls. There is also a subterranean natural pool in the area along with the Ginagatusan Caves, definitely worth a look.

Another offshore island near Catarman is Dalupiri (sometimes called San Antonio) Island. There’s not much to do here except swim and snorkel in pristine waters off the nearly white-sand beaches and laze around underneath the coconut trees. One may also trek along the coastal trail for several kilometers along the shore of this very peaceful island.

The Haven of Fun Beach resort has beach cottages for around $10 a night or $20 with air-conditioning, but who wants noisy cold air when you’re on a beach with tropical breezes and lapping waves? At night, over bottles of San Miguel beer, we were regaled with wide-eyed stories of “kabogs” or flying foxes (fruit bats) and “sea monsters” (presumably whales).

Speaking of mysterious creatures, the locals of Northern Samar enchanted us with tale after tale of forest ‘entities’ who would spirit away children and deposit them back after a few hours or days dazed and confused, of a good-sized meteor that once fell into the earth behind the town of Victoria affecting the soil so that decomposition of matter (including buried corpses) was measurably delayed, of mysterious lights up in the hills that would disappear and re-appear even in the daytime, and so forth and so on.

But what really enchanted us, everywhere we visited in Northern Samar, was the rugged and savage beauty of this untrammeled corner of the archipelago.

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