Dark and dangerous, often scary but intriguing. These are but some of the words that come to mind when one hear the word “cave.” And yet, the Philippines has 1,756 of them, one of which is the Capisaan Cave. Although relatively unfamiliar to many, its numerous breathtaking formations have awed both newbie and professional cave enthusiasts or “spelunkers.”
The holding of the First National Caving Congress in 2001 in the province of Nueva Vizcaya brought the then newly-discovered Capisaan Cave to the attention of environmentalists, scientists and cave enthusiasts who have since acknowledged it as one of the country’s best, a “geologist’s paradise.” This recognition was reinforced when the province repeated its hosting duties a decade later.
Fifth longest cave system
Located 700-900 meters above sea level in Brgy. Capisaan in the citrus-filled Malabing Valley in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, the 4.2-kilometer long Capisaan Cave is considered as the fifth longest cave system in the Philippines. It is also known as the Lion-Alayan Cave because its two main entry and exit points, from end to end, are the Lion and Alayan Caves.
Cave enthusiasts, particularly the Vizcaya-based Sang-at Salug Outdoor Club (SSOC), stumbled on this cave system as they searched for alternative natural tourist destinations after the Salinas Salt Springs in Bambang town were badly damaged during the 1990 killer earthquake. The SSOC, together with the Gaia Exploration Club and the Sierra Madre Outdoor Club, and with the support of the local governments of Nueva Vizcaya and Kasibu, conducted exploration, surveying and mapping of the cave in 1997 and 1998.
These groups have since worked together to bring the wonders of Capisaan Cave to the outside world. To instill local appreciation and pride and thus encourage conservation efforts, members of the local community have been tapped to form the Capisaan Cave Guides Association to assist those who enter and explore the cave’s dark, damp chambers.
Eight caves mark the entry/exit points of the entire cave system: Alayan 1 and 2; Gaia/Malukbo 1 and 2; Lion; Sang-at Salug (or in Ilocano, “ascend, descend”), which is at the halfway point; Heaven; and Sabrina. The last two have been closed to tourists for scientific study and to prevent further damage. All entrances are connected to each other through narrow passages.
The Lion Cave entrance is easily the most accessible from Brgy. Capisaan and gives a preview of what to expect within the Capisaan Cave System. Stalactites and stalagmites when viewed from a good distance give the impression of gigantic lion’s teeth. The guide’s gas lamp or one’s own flashlight casts shadows into the dark depths, even as the cool water beneath and the sound of constant trickling or gurgling give away the presence of an underground river system.
For those less experienced in navigating through a cave, the trek allows no room for fear of dark or cramped places. Tunnels that connect bigger chambers are narrow, water-logged, slippery or low-ceilinged and test one’s flexibility as he either “duckwalks”, crawls, wades or squeezes through while avoiding hard, sharp formations on the ground or overhead. A few stepladders have been provided for vertical access to some areas. Some pools create a few deep spots which require the assistance of the experienced guides to cross.
Considering its immense number of formations, the cave is still considered pristine and intact. An end-to-end trek takes about four hours, but one hardly notices as lighting up the otherwise pitch-black interior reveals differently-sized stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones and draperies that challenge the imagination with their varying shapes. One can spot a Madonna-and-child figure; a parrot; a Nativity scene or chess pieces in disarray.
This is one reason why the trek would take longer for a shutterbug, because who could resist attempting to capture in photos those amazing speleothems that glisten with specks of gold and silver when illuminated? Yet, visitors are reminded to resist touching them, as the transfer of bodily oils could cause irreparable damage to their formation which is usually a centuries-old process.
Aside from these formations, the Capisaan cave system that includes its forest cover is also home to various flora and fauna that co-exist in a symbiotic relationship to balance the ecosystem. Tree species include tuai (Bischovia javanica), almaciga (Agathis philippinensis), dapdap (Erythrina orientalis) and katmon (Dillenia philippinensis). Animal species observed in the area include the rare Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides manillae), Philippine macaque (Macaca fascicularis philippinensis), Philippine creeper (Rhabdornis inornatus) and cloud rat (Carpomys melanurus). Sadly, however, their numbers are threatened by human activities, particularly agricultural.
Management plans for Capisaan Cave
As an undeniable part of our natural resources, caves are protected by Republic Act 9072, or the National Cave and Cave Resources Management and Protection Act, against destruction caused by careless visitors or indiscriminate commercial development. This law mandates the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), through the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), to formulate, develop and implement a national program for the management, protection and conservation of caves and cave resources.
The DENR’s community office in Dupax del Norte, Nueva Vizcaya which has jurisdiction over Capisaan Cave has drawn up a five-year management plan aimed to manage, protect and sustainably develop the Capisaan cave system as a provincial ecotourism destination in partnership with the local government, non-government organizations, the academe and other stakeholders.
The following are strategies highlighted for the conservation and development of the Capisaan cave system:
- The creation and operationalization of a multi-sectoral Cave Management Conservation Committee (CCMC), including capacity enhancement of its members and the cave guides, local tourism officers, occupants, and community dwellers;
- Visitor management by enhancing information centers and acquiring cave equipment for safe caving activities;
- Promotion of general awareness through information, education and communication (IEC) campaign;
- Resource protection activities that include boundary delineation; census and registration of occupants; rehabilitation/restoration; biodiversity study and research; maintenance of foot trails; deputation of cave guards;Lobby with other concerned agencies such as DPWH for the implementation of necessary infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and potable water system; and Regular monitoring and evaluation on the implementation of the plan.
Conserving an ecotourism destination
Caves provide an important window to understanding man’s history because they are known to have been early man’s shelter, burial or religious sites. Formed as a result of natural geologic processes such as water flow and volcanic activity, they provide interesting and valuable research material for scientists. And, they are fascinating adventure sites for spelunkers.
As an important habitat, ecosystem management is key to conserving cave resources because the ultimate survival of a cave community depends on the proper protection and management of the cave and the surrounding terrain. It is very important to maintain the native vegetation surrounding the caves and ensure their watershed functions. Conserving caves means conserving the vital ecological processes that caves possess, maintain and support.
In his message to the participants of the 11th National Caving Congress in Nueva Vizcaya last April, DENR Undersecretary for Staff Bureaus and Project Management Manuel Gerochi said that with the importance and beauty of caves, “it is a crime that their beauty cannot be shown to the eyes of more people.”
Gerochi also called on the scientific community and the outdoor clubs to help in cave conservation. “Caves are a natural formation, and are an important resource. Like any other natural resources, we want to conserve them because we want to hand down to the next generations the pristine nature of our caves. The challenge is to have the resolve to do more for this resource, to make conservation a goal for the entire society and not consider caves as goods for the enjoyment of a selected few,” he said.
Nueva Vizcaya is a landlocked province in the Cagayan Valley Region (Region 2). It has no white sand beaches to boast of, but it does have the Capisaan Cave System which the Provincial Tourism Office has campaigned for as a banner tourist destination and an exciting site for adventure-seekers. (Yasmine Roselle Caparas/DENR)