“Mind your c’s and g’s.”
That was the first thing I learned during my first caving expedition in Peñablanca, Cagayan more than 20 years ago.
The c’s and the g’s as I learned are what I should remember to identify rock formations inside the caves. Rock formations that grow from the ceiling are called stalactites (that’s the c’s) and from the ground are called stalagmites (that’s the g’s).
And the town of Peñablanca in Cagayan has plenty of stalactites and stalagmites – millions of them.
Peñablanca has a land area of 1,193 square kilometers stretching all the way to the Pacific side. Its original settlers were the Ybanags or river people who survived on slash-and-burn farming. When the Spaniards came on the latter part of the 18th century, they named the place Peñablanca or white rocks.
The town was blessed with natural resources: rich mountain forest; fertile agricultural land; and clean mountain springs and rivers. People could grow rice, corn and tobacco abundantly. This attracted people from Ilocos and nearby provinces to settle in Peñablanca.
But the settlers soon discovered the town was even richer with something they did not expect: bird droppings from the kalaw bird that can be used as fertilizer. This led to the discovery of Peñablanca’s extensive cave system. The first cave that was discovered was where the kalaw birds came and laid their eggs. It was called Callao Cave. This was soon followed by many other cave discoveries.
This led to establishment of the Callao Cave National Park in 1935 under Proclamation No. 827. This covered an area of 192 hectares. In 2003, the protected area was expanded under Proclamation No. 484 to cover an area of 118,781 hectares and was renamed Peñablanca Protected Landscape and Seascape.
It is said that there are more than 300 caves in the protected area. So far, only 75 have been documented by the National Museum.
Among the most significant discoveries in Callao is the Callao Man. In 2007, the National Museum found the remains of a Homo Sapien that is at least 67,000 years old. This would antedate the 47,000 year-old Tabon Man of Palawan.
How to get there
Peñablanca is about 525 kilometers from Manila. Its gateway, Tuguegarao, is about 40 kilometers south-west of Peñablanca.
The easiest way to reach Tuguegarao is to take the daily flights from Manila. It takes about 50 minutes to fly from Manila to Tuguegarao. At the airport, take a tricycle to the jeepney terminal, and from there, there are regular jeepneys and UV express vans that go directly to Peñablanca. It is also possible to hire a tricycle service to and from the park. Travel time is around one hour.
Another way is to take a bus to Tuguegarao. Victory Liner, Baliwag Express and Florida have several daily trips to Tuguegarao from Cubao, Quezon City. Overnight trip is preferred by most as it takes only 10 hours as compared to 12 hours when going on a daytime trip. Upon arriving at the Tuguegarao terminal, there are tricycles that can be rented to go to Peñablanca.
For those with private vehicles, drive north via NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, exit from Pura, continue drive via Guimba and then enter the Maharlika Highway via San Jose. From there, the road crosses Dalton Pass before finally entering Isabela via Santiago. Continue drive to Tuguegarao and then enter Peñablanca via welcome arch. The road to the Callao Cave visitor center is now well paved. There is ample parking at the park for private vehicles.
The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m. Entrance to the facilities is P20. Roundtrip fare to cross the river on a boat is P20.
What to see, what to do
Callao Cave is the most accessible among the caves. It can be reached by climbing the 184 concrete steps. It is composed of seven chambers, each one with natural crevices to allow the streams of lights to illuminate the dark caverns. The first chamber is the largest with its width of 50 meters and height of 36 meters. A chapel was built on this chamber with the giant stalagmites used as the altar.
Located only few meters from Callao is the entrance of Sierra Cave. Only experienced cavers are allowed inside Sierra at it requires crawling through low and narrow openings. Sierra is famous for hundreds of stalactites shaped like popcorns.
There are other caves like Jackpot, Odessa-Tumbali and San Carlos. Exploring these caves must be arranged thru the resident Sierra Madre Outdoor Club or SMOC. San Carlos is considered one of the toughest at it requires crawling through muddy chamber. Inside the cave is a clear lagoon where one has to swim under a lot of rocks to reach the other side. Half of San Carlos is covered by cold running water.
Another attraction inside the park is the Pinacanauan River. A boat can be rented to explore many of the attractions upriver. During rainy season, it is also possible to do rafting and canoeing adventures in Pinacanauan. At dusk, visitors can watch the spectacle of seeing millions of bats fly out of Bat’s Cave. There is also this place by the river called Mororan or a “perpetual drizzle.” These are small waterfalls along the river that shower every boat that passes by.
Where to stay, where to eat
Across the visitor center are cottages and dormitories that can accommodate between four to 50 people per cottage. Another alternative is to camp beside Pinacanauan River, but this requires prior arrangement.
Most visitors simply choose to stay in Tuguegarao, where there are lodging options from the basic pension houses to the luxurious two-star hotels.
There are also not much dining options in Peñablanca except the local carinderias (small local eateries) outside the park, so most visitors just head up to Tuguegarao to eat. Tuguegarao now has its own share of 24-hour fastfood stores located along the main highway going north. But the locals still prefer their pansit called Batel Patung. It is local noodles with plenty of chicken liver, chopped gizzards, chicharon and served with fried egg on top, plenty of onions and chili, and eaten with its own soup.
Popular pasalubong from Tuguegarao are products derived from native carabaos such as pastillas, chicharon and even carabeef tapa.
Definitely, every visit to Peñablanca makes one feel he or she is getting the best from what nature can offer.