Northern Exposure: Side-Trip to Callao Caves, Cagayan, Philippines

I always look forward to the December holidays, Christmas being a big thing for us Filipinos, and also because it gives me a chance to visit relatives and hometowns. I come from the Northern part, Cagayan Valley, where without a doubt there are some interesting attractions, but which I practically take for granted having grown up in that milieu. This time, encouraged by my brother, I agreed to get off my mother's reclining chair/butaca (my favorite holiday activity is sitting back on this chair and sipping my coffee ever so slowly) and went on a two-hour drive to Penablanca, Cagayan - home to Callao Caves, one of the bigger cave complexes in the Philippines.

I have been to the caves a few times before, but this trip was more special because we took along my 6-year old daughter for the first time. She gamely went all the way up past the 184 steps to the main chamber, and had all the energy to go further up to the fifth chamber (along with the guide and my relatives), while I, already feeling pooped out, elected to just sit with my favorite twin nieces, faced the altar in the main chamber, and contemplated on how those stalactites and stalagmites seemed to have a will of their own, and formed statue-like figures - the guide said one of the formations looks like a 'mother and child' sculpture. In the mean time, my daughter was apparently having fun venturing to the more spooky area - the more spooky it got, the more excited she became. She even wanted to go to the 6th and 7th chambers, but which were off limits to public this time of year. The inner chambers were very dark when we got in as we were the first visitors on an early Saturday morning, and the artificial lights inside were not switched on yet.

After the cave encounter, we went on a boat-ride along the Pinacanauan river which was all calm this time of year. To call out the boatman stationed at the other end of the bank, our guide just had to shout out "Mororan!" - her shout echoing all the way - for the boatman to cross over and pick us up. Mororan refers to the name of the waterfalls along the way; its flow resembles raindrops falling from atop the mountain - "Uran" is the dialect for rain. Some tourists prefer to pass directly underneath the waterfalls and thereby get drenched in the process, but this bunch tried to avoid any close encounter with Mororan. Hence like the river that day, the trip downstream and back was very smooth and calm, and no unexpected shrieks nor surprises from cold water splashes. 

Here are some snaps of the area:

The base of Callao Caves 

A guide is now required when going into the cave, a welcome development I would say, both for safety measure and also for additional historical and local perspective about the destination. Our guide was also quite flexible, briefing us in no-nosebleed English for the benefit of my daughter, who has yet to learn the local dialects Ilokano/Ybanag 

184 steps going up/down the caves

The main chamber where the locals have carved out an altar 

Some stalagmites here, some stalactites there make some nice worship area. According to the guide, a mass is also held in here once in a while

Light at the top of the tunnel

After spelunking, a natural progression is to go rafting along the river at the base of the caves 

Pinagcanauan River seems a lot more serene this time of year

Cagayan and Isabela are also known for their old churches (this deserves a separate discussion all its own - so will assign that for next trip/post), the cattle ranches, large tracks of farmlands, and thick forest areas (before they got denuded by some socially irresponsible forces). 

And because of easy access to logs and woods, Isabela also produces some of the more intricate narra wooden furnitures I have seen. Hence, the reclining chair is a common furniture in the region. I also particularly like the bridges mainly because of their simplicity and yet high utility. Some of the bridges are painted orange (the new black? :-))...I have yet to understand why orange...but a voice in my head told me 'Orange you glad it's not some other outlandish color?'

Orange is the new Black: Gamu, Isabela bridge - which I have crossed at least a thousand times

A farm in Buenavista, Gamu

Needless to say, I will want to be back, if only to breathe in restorative fresh air, 

And sit back and watch the world go by, once these little kittens (names withheld for security reasons) get off my favorite chair 

Here's a bigger version of that chair, sitting prettily in the city of Ilagan

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