Tuguegarao is a city in the land-locked region of Cagayan Valley up north (not to be confused with Cagayan de Oro down south). Bordering it are the Cordillera Mountain Range in the west, the Sierra Madre in the east, the Caraballo Mountains in the south and the Luzon straight in the north.
It was also the first stop on my recent backpacking trip. Tuguegarao became our homebase since the tourist spot I wanted to see – the Callao Cave – is actually located in a different municipality, some 30-minute “trisi” ride away in Peñablanca.
There are no jeepneys nor taxis in Tuguegarao. Their main form of transportation are trisi or tricycles. Most of the articles I’ve read about getting to Callao Cave recommended hiring one to get to Peñablanca from Tuguegarao – which was okay – except I really wanted this trip to be immersive. Being in a hired trisi takes away from all that. (Also, hiring would cost 700php). So my friend and I decided to just wing it and do it the local (and cheaper) way.
We asked around until we found the trisi terminal going to Callao. Here, we found out that tricycles fit up to 6 people, and fare only costs a whopping 35php per head. This made us feel really good about following our guts and not hiring a trisi.
We sat at the driver’s backseat. As the trisi went off, my travel buddy and I started discussing about how we would know if we were already in Callao. The guy sitting next to us overheard and tried to help – to no avail. So after a few begging and bugging (and a bit of threatening – char!) to come with us (mostly from me), Lloyd (the guy) finally relented to our request, but only if we pass by his aunt’s place first. Apparently, Lloyd was from Nueva Ecija and was visiting for the upcoming town fiesta. We got off the trisi with a new friend and the next two days were spent with the wonderful Calagui-Malillin family.
While Tuguegarao has a very progressive feel, Peñablanca has a laid-back provincial vibes – with the Sierra Madre serving as a backdrop to vast rice fields and the Pinacanauan River cutting through it. The quiet municipality also has numerous caves – around 300 -with only 75 documented. Hence the title “Cave Capital of the Philippines”. Of these, the most popular is the Callao Cave.
Joined by his cousin Ella, Lloyd went with us to explore Callao Cave. To get there, we had to ride a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage), cross the calm Pinacanuan River and go up the 184 steps to the mouth of the cave.
Fun fact: “Callao” is derived from the Spanish word “callado” meaning “calm”. And the place truly deserves the name. Stepping into the enormous cave, a sense of peace filled me, especially since the first thing that welcomed us was the church, illuminated by natural light streaming from an opening overhead, like a spotlight.
Seeing this gave me goosebumps and literally moved me to tears. The enormity of the cave combined with the surreality of the “church” made me feel small and lucky at the same time (there’s a bit of a contradiction there, but I’m sure you’ll get it when you see it for yourself).
Callao Cave houses seven chambers and going through it is fairly easy. While most of the limestones are dead, the natural rock formations and undergrowth give life to the cave.
Right next door to Callao Cave is the Sierra Cave, which we explored on our second day. The Sierra Cave opened to the public only last September 2015, after being mapped out by specialists from DENR and University of the Philippines. It is mandatory to go through a preservation briefing before entering.
Among all the caves I’ve been in, the Sierra Cave is the most “alive”. The limestone formations were immaculately white and glistening, the water dripping from the stalactites was really cold, there was even a section of the cave where the mud reaches up to my knee. At one point, the guide asked us to turn off our flashlights to experience the deafening silence and the pitch-black darkness of the cave.
The last part of the cave required us to crawl on all fours, adding more mud to our already muddied body. This was actually my favorite part – anything that gets me down and dirty is a plus on my book!
Fronting both Callao and Sierra caves is the Pinacanauan River. During the summer season, the river is frequented by locals because of its shallow waters. However, the current can get strong and the water deep during rainy season.
The river is the perfect spot to wash up after the mud fest at the Sierra Cave Chocolate Dance Floor. After washing up, we rested by the huts dotting the riverbanks where locals gather their families for picnics.
Speaking of picnics, Peñablancans have the most glorious versions of Pinoy favorites! It was in Pinacanauan where we were first introduced to a taste of their halo-halo! Unlike the ones sold in Manila, their halo-halo have generous servings of banana, different kinds of root crop like sweet potato and yam, sticky rice and different kinds of fruits on top of the standard pinipig, beans and jelly. It is then topped off by a heaping spoonful (or two) of yema or caramel and milk. DAYUM!
I don’t like pancit, but their Pansit Batil Patung is the only pancit I actually crave for. The noodle is topped with pork liver, meat, minced chilis, cabbage and whole egg. An order of this comes with some sort of stock and a dipping sauce made from soy sauce and vinegar with minced onion, garlic and chilis. Mix it all together and get a taste of heaven in your mouth.
While having a plan and having a healthy dose of expectation is good, having none of both and just going where the wind takes us actually made room for wonderful surprises! Not bad for an introduction to Cagayan, Peñablanca.
How to get there:
From Manila, take Victory Liner bound for Tuguegarao – Around 750php
From Tuguegarao, ride tricycle and asked to be dropped off at CALATODA – 10php
From CALTODA, wait for tricycle to fill up (6 people) and ask to be dropped off by the Pinacanauan River – 35php (otherwise, hire it for 280php one way)
Crossing the Pinacanauan River via boat – 10php… or via the river shallows- FREE! (highly recommended!)
Befriending a local is always a good idea! Special thanks to the Calagui – Malillin family: Lloyd, Ella, Tita Julie, Tito Monding and relatives for treating us like family. We will never forget you and I hope to see everyone again soon!
The Calaguis are open for homestays (solo and couples only). Send me an email so I can hook you up!
Ingat and see you on the road!
Up next: Calayan, the Babuyan Islands.
Know a place I should discover? Or want to travel together? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org