Samar: A Sparkle in the Dark

Sohoton Cave

In the year 2013,  all eyes were on the Eastern Visayas region following the devastation brought about by typhoon Haiyan--the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded history. During this time, the region was at its worst--hunger, homelessness, death tolls, and believe it or not, politics amidst crisis. Seeing the damages the region had incurred, one would think that it would be impossible for it to recover that soon. However, the Eastern Visayas Tourism Office helmed by the hardworking Regional Director Karen Santiago Tiopes and her team took advantage of this "limelight" to boost tourism. Remember that after typhoon Haiyan, many international NGOs flocked to the country and resided in the region to help in the relief and rescue operations. The brighter side--it was an opportune time to showcase the natural beauty of the provinces in Eastern Visayas. The beaches, islands, caves, rock formations, despite the wrath of Haiyan, remained astounding with just minimal rehabilitation needed.

Four years later, while there is still a lot of work to do on the way to full recovery, the Eastern Visayas region continues to soar as one of the popular tourist destinations in the country. There's a lot to explore throughout the region's three main islands: Leyte, Samar and Biliran. In Samar alone (which is composed of the provinces of Northern Samar, Samar, and Eastern Samar), you would need more than a week to see all the attractions the island has to offer.

Last Holy Week, after our four days journey through Northern Samar, we continued on to the province of Samar, particularly in the towns of Basey and Marabut, and the capital city of Calbayog.

How to go there:
The most common route is via Tacloban, where there are daily flights to and from Manila. If coming from Cebu, you may fly via Calbayog. If time is not an issue, you may take the bus from Manila, which will pass through Matnog in Sorsogon. The bus will board a ferry going to Allen in Northern Samar.

Depending on where you want to go first, you may take a bus from Tacloban or Allen to Marabut (rock formations), Basey (Sohoton Cave and Natural Bridge) or Calbayog (the city capital).

Where to stay:
Calbayog
There are several accommodation options in Calbayog including the Baypark Hotel and Ciriaco Hotel, which are both nestled along the highway.

Note: When in Calbayog, whether staying in the city or just passing by, do not miss the chance to eat at Marcial's Grille, which serves a very flavourful fried chicken as well as their famous baby back ribs.

Marcial's Grille fried chicken
Fish sinigang
Pork barbecue 
Pancit Canton


Basey
We stayed in the affordable and clean Western Highway Lodge. However, the hallways and bathrooms seem a bit cramped. They said that the lodge was damaged by typhoon Haiyan, too, and that during the relief operations, an NGO stayed there for months and had helped them put back the lodge in good shape.

There is also an eco-lodge in Brgy. Wespal where the Visitors' Center of Sohoton Cave and Natural Bridge is located.

Marabut
The most popular resort in Marabut is Caluwayan Palm Island Resort and Restaurant. It is also the jump off point to the rock formations that dot the serene San Pedro Bay.


What to explore in Samar:
Sohoton Cave and Natural Bridge
In 1935, the Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park was established with the goal to protect the unique rock formations, caves, and rainforest along the Sohoton River in Samar Province. The area, which spans 840 hectares, features caves, subterranean riversthat are almost similar to Bucas Grande Island in Surigao, waterfalls, and beautiful limestone formations.


To begin your adventure, you must first register at either the Tourism Office located at the port area in Brgy. Baybay, or at the Sohoton Visitors' Center and Eco-Lodge in Brgy. Wespal, which is about 15 minutes away from the port/town proper. Here, all fees are standard and guests are given a briefing about the activities that they can do in the area. Guests are also required to wear lifevests before boarding the boat that will bring them to the base camp.

Launch pad at the Visitors' Center
Boats on standby

At the base camp, guests can go kayaking along the river onto the natural bridge, which will take abut 30 minutes to an hours roundtrip, as well as go spelunking in the "friendly" cave. The Sohoton Service Cooperative, who is manning the park, can also prepare food for your group.

Bon appetit!

Choose your kayak

Everything here is very organized--from reception to safety and food. How I wish Minalungao National Park in Nueva Ecija is managed the same way. The smoothness of the entire process... the controlled number of people cruising on the river... the fees that are reasonable and not overpriced at all. I am from Nueva Ecija and I should be promoting our very own but I just couldn't as I see lots of loopholes in how Minalungao is being mishandled. Sad.

As of April 15, 2017

Moving forward, cruising along the river gives spectacular views of karst limestone formations reminiscent of Surigao and El Nido. The water as clear as glass, and up above the rocks are lush greens that complete the postcard-perfect vista. It is a sight to behold.




Our guide said that before the Visitors' Center was created, guests had to trek from the entry point to the natural bridge. Good thing kayaks are now available, or else I would have died of exhaustion from even the simplest hike, you know.




Under the natural bridge










The walkway that used to be the access to the natural bridge

St. Michael the Archangel Church (Basey Church)
The centuries-old church atop a hill in the town proper is another must-see spot in Basey. Despite many renovations, some of the original features of the church are still intact and well-maintained. We were unfortunate though because we went on a Good Friday so the church was closed, and it was also drizzling outside so the photos we took do not give justice to how charming the church is up close.

St. Michael the Archangel Church
Marabut Marine Park
I first learned about the scenic rock formations of Marabut from Travel Now, a local travel magazine that used to have a TV show. I was instantly impressed with the rock formations that they showed in one of their episodes so I really made sure I'll check these out personally when I got a chance to explore Samar. Although I must admit that at one point, after the long and winding trip from Allen in Northern Samar to Marabut, I almost dismissed the idea of boating around the rock formations and instead just view them from afar, Good thing my companions were persistent and the next thing I knew, I was already aboard a small boat from Caluwayan Palm Island Resort & Restaurant and off we go to the rocks!

The beachfront of Caluwayan Beach Resort
 Boat ride from Caluwayan Palm Island Resort and Restaurant costs Php 500/hour, and is good for four persons. Entrance fee is Php 25. You may need to have at least two hours or more if you want to stay in one of the rock formations or if you want to go snorkeling.













Here's a short video that gives a sneak peek of Marabut, Samar. It can also be viewed on HD (720p or 1080p). Enjoy!




Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral
In Calbayog, check out this church and delight in its seamless blend of Spanish and modern architecture and design. While not as old-looking as the other churches created during the colonial times, this church also played a role in the history of Samar. Jesuits used to live in Calbayog, but they failed to build a church there. It was only after the takeover of the Franciscans that Calbayog was given the parish status, and thus the church was founded.

Sts. Peter and Paul Parish



While Samar and the rest of the Eastern Visayas region had experienced the worst of typhoon Haiyan, the resilience of its people, especially in terms of tourism, is just amazing. From the rubbles rise a sparkling gem that is worth all the attention...this time, in a more positive light.

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Damo nga salamat Ms. Karen Santiago Tiopes, Sir Rodel Balierbare, Ms. Josette Doctor, Sir Romy Zaide, Sir Deo and Sir Henry Espinola for making our trip to Biri an enjoyable one!!!

Know more about Samar. Visit their Facebook page here.

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