Bumming around in Basey: An eco-tourism experience
Text and photos by Gina Mission

The flight attendant is announcing that the airplane is landing at the airport of Tacloban City. Out of habit, you look out the window for one last look at the sky. Just when you start feeling in your gut the quick descent of the aircraft, you see the clouds quickly disappearing, flying away, to reveal the breathtaking, if fleeting, view of Eastern Visayas’ seemingly endless rugged coastline, its numerous islets, and verdant mountains.

___The aircraft brings you to the coastal airport, which is mysteriously quiet. Walking to the arrival area, your mind filled with images of unexplored mountains and caves, exotic wildlife, cloud-hidden lakes, islets sculpted by harsh weather conditions, all those things you see in glossy tourism flyers, you wonder whether it will be worth the trouble getting there.

The Natural Swimming Pool inside the Park

___Even before adventure travel fever hit the country, the islands of Samar and Leyte, collectively known as Eastern Visayas or Region 8, were already popular destinations for people interested in Philippine history. Nowadays, these islands exude a wonderful combination of history and mystery, its tourism potential spelled out in the words ‘adventure’ and ‘fun’, for the thrill-seeking traveler.

___Even with local tourism slowly picking up, however, there’s still no mistaking its trademark rural charm.

___According to the 1995 census, some 3.4 million people live in Eastern Visayas‘ 21,562 sq. km land area. The population is growing at an annual average rate of 1.8 per cent. The average annual income of the region’s 700,000 families is around P50,000. According to the census, the average annual expenditure in the area is P37,500; the remaining amount goes into savings.

___But like most statistics, these figures hardly reflect the living standards of the locals. A look at the people’s lives tells a story of poverty and want in a truly rural setting.

___Adventure seekers and accidental tourists, however, do not find the region’s "rural-ness" a problem. Samar and Leyte offer opportunities for action sports, romance with history, and scenic strolls. And for the travel nut, the region’s isolation only means you’ll have everything all to yourself. Like Basey town in Samar, and its many splendors.

Rich, rich Basey

___From the airport, you take a Tamaraw FX to Basey. You pay P15 for the 30-minute trip across the 2.16 kilometer San Juanico Bridge that connects Tacloban City in Leyte with Basey in Samar.

Stalagmites inside the Sohoton Cave

___Basey is a third-class municipality whose glory days date back to colonial times when it was the population and trading center of the island. It now lags behind its former sitio, Tacloban City, which is the regional capital. But the local government of Basey is trying to catch up with its more developed neighbors by offering visitors what it has in abundance: its rich natural resources.

___Basey is home to the grand Sohoton National Park (SNP), an 840-hectare natural park, made up of high and broken ridges of hilly-to-moderate rolling terrain. It has a maximum elevation of 107 meters above sea level. Three main geologically-defined land types exist in the area: an upland plateau, an intermediate karst-limestone block, and lowland areas.

___The park offers a great deal of natural wonders. There’s the Sohoton Natural Bridge, a magnificent stone bridge connecting two mountain ridges from which the park got its name. Sohoton" is a Waray word, which means "to pass through." Underneath the bridge is the Sohoton Natural Swimming Pool. " Inside the park is an exciting array of caves, waterfalls, and rare flora and fauna.

___Panhulugan Cave I is the largest and most spectacular cave found in the park, with an estimated floor area of 546 square meters. This cave is geologically active, as evidenced by the constant dripping of water from stalactites and the large accumulation of material beneath its chimney holes.

___Panhulugan Cave II is a long scar, about 50 meters high, that cuts into the face of the Panhulugan Cliff, a steep rock formation.

___Sohoton Cave is a very large cave situated in the eastern portion of the natural bridge. It has a high cathedral-like dome with a parabolic arch-type entrance about 15 meters high. Inside are spectacular limestone formations that approximate the shapes of a eagle’s claw, an image of the Sto. Niņo and the Virgin Mary, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and musical instruments, among others.

Heaven meets earth: stalagmites and stalactites inside the Sohoton Cave

___Another attraction in Basey is the Cabungaan Waterfall, about 50 meters high, the base of which has a fantastic tunnel-like passage leading to the Sohoton Natural Bridge.

___It takes around four hours to tour the park, one and a half hours (around the lifespan of two petromax lamps) of which is spent spelunking in the area’s gorgeous caves.

___To ensure its protection and management, the park was placed under the National Protected Integrated Areas (NIPA) in 1989. According to the local NIPA representatives, visits to the park have not increased significantly since then.

___A visit to the Sotohon Park involves taking a native outrigger for an hour and 45 minutes on the Basey Golden River, passing through small, picturesque villages. Rawis, a riverside barrio, houses the still unexplored Rawis Cave, which, according to the locals, is even better than Sohoton.

___Basey teems with many caves still waiting to be explored. But the town seems to be in deep slumber, oblivious to the wealth of adventure that it can offer tourists. And though its local government is promoting Basey’s many attractions, it might still take a while for the people of this town to achieve, if only because of its sheer vastness, of their area’s full tourism potential.

Fiesta in Basey

The Banigan-Kawayan Festival

___Melanie Enriga is a 45-year old elementary school teacher from Pasig, Metro Manila. As early as July, she serves notice to the principal of her school that she will be going on her annual leave in September, specifically September 29, the fiesta of her hometown, Basey, Samar.

___Then she starts preparing for the big event, which the Basaynons (people of Basey), regardless of where they are, excitedly come home for. By the end of August, Melanie is ready for the big day, with seven sets of dresses, shoes, and an array of accessories.

___Each year, the sleepy town of Basey comes to life when it celebrates, in an outlandish party that lasts a week, the feast of St. Michael, its patron saint. The Church of Basey was built in 1864 beside a watchtower that was built a decade earlier. The fiesta features the much anticipated Banigan-Kawayan Festival, a kind of cultural street dancing that showcases props and attire made of bamboo and mats.

___Although Melanie’s can barely make ends meet with her earnings as a school teacher, she allows herself one whole week of "Basey pampering" at fiesta time, when she hobnobs with the "big people" of Basey. For her, this is an occasion she really has to prepare for.

___Though she doesn’t have an ancestral home to return to, she has relatives and friends who eagerly accommodate her and her friends from Manila in their homes. The hermano mayor, the town’s fiesta host, is her distant relative who would be offended if she doesn’t stay a night or two in his newly renovated house, or if she doesn’t at least show up to eat there. The hermano mayor came all the way from the US for the occasion.

___Such is the fiesta in the poor and sleepy town of Basey – it is unreasonably extravagant but it gives the migrant Basaynons a sense of belonging, a reason to return to their roots.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.10.07