By CYE REYES
When people say they want to go spelunking in this part of the country, the first thing that comes to mind is to go straight to Sagada to explore the majestic caves of this small and quaint town in Mountain Province.
The author with tourism officers inside the Paterno Cave. Photo by Cye Reyes
Little did people know there is an emerging new destination for cave enthusiasts, adventure junkies and ordinary tourists alike. It is just a stone’s throw from Baguio City.
Located in Tublay, Benguet, just an hour away from the bustling city of Baguio, a cluster of caves and cavelets that can equal the caves of Sagada can be explored through the assistance of local guides trained for such caving adventure.
I got an invitation from the local government unit of Tublay for an ocular tour for two of the most impressive cave formations in Barangay Ambongdolan. We were joined by tourism officers from different municipalities of the region.
The two caves, the Paterno and Bengaongao Caves, are both in Barangay Ambongdolan. This small town can be reached either through Tublay-Kapangan Road or the newly constructed detour road via Alapang, which is a shorter route.
The Paterno Cave is a good way to start a dayfs trip to this town. The cave was so named because it became the hideout of Pedro Paterno during the Filipino-American war in the early 1900s, before he became the Cabinet head of then President Emilio Aguinaldo.
The cave is on top of a forested mountain near the Kitong Falls.
Getting inside the cave is an adventure in itself. There are two ways to get to the cave. For the more adventurous, one can either swim across the natural pool at the foot of the Kitong Falls and climb the rocky wall of the mountain by rappelling.
The other way is to crawl down through a small opening at the other side of the mountain and slide until the end of a very tight tunnel for about five meters. This is not for the faint-hearted especially those who get claustrophobic easily.
EMERGING NEW CAVING DESTINATION. The rock formations of Bengaongao Cave (above) glisten as one flashes a light on it. Photo by Cye Reyes
The guides would say, the passageway resembles that of childbirth.
Armed with our flashlights and the kerosene lamps of the guides, we were awe-struck at the rock formations, marbles, stalactites and stalagmites sparkling sparkling colors.
After taking some moments absorbing the view, our local guide showed us some rock formations he attributed to Biblical icons the Virgin Mary. Just like many other caves in the country, the locals interpret the formations based on Biblical stories.
The Bengaonago Cave, the more popular and most accessible among the caves in this town, is an emerging natural attraction in the province. Bengaongao means eching, which is so named because of the echoes created from the chirping or screeching of birds and bats living inside the cave.
Unlike the Paterno Cave, this cave is much bigger and impressive with all its unique rock formations carved by nature over hundreds, even millions, of years.
“An inch of stalactites or stalagmites takes a thousand years to form,” I heard the guide as saying.
The cave’s wonders include stalactites and stalagmites, rock formations that look like cauliflowers, a figure of a pregnant woman and glistening stones shaped like tables and even a staircase. These are fascinating. Even the guides exude their admiration as they impose on the visitors their own interpretation of the natural wonders.
Many of the chambers of both caves are still unexplored. It is not advisable for the visitors to explore them on their own for safety reasons. It is wise to strictly follow the guidesf instructions because they are more familiar with the ins and outs of the caves.
Promoting tourist arrival
The local government of Tublay is still preparing the caves to receive tourists, giving the locals training on guideship skills and getting promotions people into the works to entice both local and foreign tourists to visit the caves.
University of the Cordilleras College of Arts and Sciences headed by Dean Josefina Domingo and Mass Communications department led by Dr. Robert Ta-a offered volunteer services for the promotion of the caves. Its initial project is the production of a brochure, among other promotional materials.
Relaxing the weary
Recently the local government invited members of the local media, including Nordis Editor-in-chief Lyn V. Ramo, to the place to give them a first-hand experience of the caves and the environs.
“The encounter helped me conquer my own fear of caving,” she said, adding the Bengaongao cave is so beautiful the trip even made her relax inside. She suggests, though, the kerosene-fed lamps should not be utilized. Being an asthmatic, she found the fumes from the lamps offensive.
The tourism office reportedly discouraged the use of the native saleng(pine wood) because besides the dwindling supply, the pine torch fumes, like kerosene, would darken the stalactites.
The media group took the route from Paterno River, with photographer Sly Quinto as an inistent guide, giving them an easy descent to the cave “portal” where local barangay folk of Ambongdolan prepared a hearty meal of pinikpikan (singed chicken stew), native red rice, pising(taro leaves) and boiled sweet potatoes and cassava, which were served in their simplest best, the thought sends one mouth-watering for more.
Paterno River proved to be the best site for picnicking that gives cave explorers a chance to renew energy before and after caving.
The way out is a steep ascend to the road. It is equally energizing with the invigorating climate. Portions of the trail under a canopy of wild vines and weeds, the open part lined with ornamental plants. This trail is a 30-minute trek from the river and the mouth of Bengaongao cave. It provides a prelude to a peaceful trip home despite Tublay’s rough country road.
By the time the vehicle reaches the paved Halsema Highway towards Baguio City, one has fallen into a deep slumber and wonders if the caving experience was just in a dream. #