BUCAS Grande Island is located off the coast of the Surigao del Norte mainland, across the Hinatuan Passage. For good or bad, it’s usually bypassed by tourists in favor of its internationally famous neighbor, Siargao Island. Unlike Siargao, Bucas Grande has no airport and access to the island is limited to a seaport located in the administrative capital of Socorro, located on its western coast. Its most famous feature, and the reason why tourists go there at all, is the Sohoton Cove, which is on the opposite side of the island.
ARRIVING AT THE ISLAND
The first thing I noted about our journey to Bucas Grande is that we could have cut our travel time shorter by a couple of hours had we taken the Manila-Surigao flight instead of the Manila-Butuan flight. But since our itinerary involved the latter, we had to take the long extra step of riding a van from Butuan all the way to the Surigao City Port, before we could catch a ferry going to the island. I’m unsure as to whether the waters are always a bit rough in the Hinatuan Passage or if it depends on the time of the year, but they were far from calm and got worse a day after (more on this later.)
Since we already had breakfast in the van on the way to Surigao City, we figured that we’d better board the boat going to Socorro right away upon arriving at the port, just to be sure that we don’t get left behind. I personally regretted ignoring all the vendors who tried to sell us food before the boat set sail, because barely an hour into the ride, I was already feeling the familiar pangs of hunger. The girls were kind enough to share some crackers with me. I found myself hoping that there are nice restaurants in Socorro where I can pig out. Big mistake! (Again, more on this later.)
We arrived at Socorro at just past 3pm and were “moderately” swarmed by tricycle drivers offering their services. With Gwen’s lead, we wisely proceeded first to the municipal tourism office to ask for advice on how to go about touring the island. After making arrangements with a local boatman to take us to Sohoton Cove the following day, we checked in at the Balanghai Hotel (which is really more of an inn than a hotel) which was literally just a stone’s throw away from the port.
Having checked in, we then set out to have lunch. Unfortunately, there were no tourist-standard restaurants nearby and the nearest one was a town away. We had to content ourselves with the roadside eatery beside the public market. Because I do not wish to ridicule the hardworking people who prepared the food in the eatery, I will refrain from saying anything about the quality of the food. I’ll just say that the food was very cheap and that we certainly got what we paid for. We later on also had dinner at the same eatery while a power failure uncharacteristically took place. (Bucas Grande Island has electricity 24 hours a day.)
The next day, we again met our boatman who was supposed to bring us to Sohoton Cove. I’ve forgotten his name, so for the purposes of this narrative, we’ll call him “Elvis”. When we first met Elvis the day prior, he looked like an emaciated, sun-burnt beggar wearing near-ragged clothes and a worn-out beanie. On the day of our trip however, he transformed, looking 10 years younger, wearing a black jacket and aviator sunglasses. The man went from hobo-esque to groovy overnight! (It might have been because our group is composed of 80% women, so he might have wanted to impress. We guys are like that.)
From the very beginning, there was already a communication barrier between us and Elvis. He spoke a Surigao-based dialect of Bisaya and spoke only very rudimentary Tagalog, peppered with Bisaya words. Gwen and Cha (or was it Kring?) spoke Ilonggo and it proved to be somewhat useful in bridging the gap. They however still had to insist from time to time for Elvis, and other Surigaonons we encountered in Bucas Grande, to speak Tagalog to be understood.
Elvis’ pump boat looked too small for the 5 of us and there was some apprehension at first that we had to insist that life vests be supplied. There was one funny moment when we were insisting on the life vests, and Elvis claimed that we can have the life vests once we arrive at the destination (thereby defeating the purpose.) We did manage to get the life vests though, and were able to leave for Sohoton Cove early in the morning at sunrise.
IT’S A COVE, NOT A CAVE
It took us about an hour by boat from Socorro Port to the entrance of Sohoton Cove where we were supposed to register and undergo a brief lecture given by the local tourism association on what to expect during the exploration of the cove. It turned out that the life vests we insisted on having was a necessity because the waves were strong that morning and we got wet from all the splashes that the boat made whenever it smashed through a wave. (Being at the very front of the boat, I was tasked to hold up a tarp to shield the others from the splashes. But later on it became a futile exercise as the splashes also came from the sides.)
First, a clarification. If you Google “Sohoton”, you’d find that the results would show both “Sohoton Cove” and “Sohoton Cave”. The latter is found in the province of Samar, where Sohoton is a pretty common place name and where caves abound. In Bucas Grande though, what’s there is the Sohoton Cove, a pristine and verdant inlet which has some interesting features, including lakes, lagoons, rocky cliffs. For sure, it also has some caves along the way, but they each have individual names as the rest of this blog would show. (A lot of websites interchange “Sohoton Cove” and “Sohoton Cave” and you can spot fake articles when authors use photos of one to pertain to the other.)
Because the cove is very elongated and snakes its way into the island, the strong waves surrounding Bucas Grande no longer penetrate it and the water is very calm in its middle parts, making it very conducive to tourism.
EXPLORING THE COVE
After eating our packed breakfast at the site, we had to leave Elvis and his assistant at the registration area because only association-approved boats were permitted to continue into the cove. We were made to wear hard hats and a new set of life vests (of higher quality than what Elvis provided) before starting the boat ride.
It was thankfully sunny and the waters were calm, so we didn’t waste time in taking out our cameras and shooting the surroundings. The steep, sharp and overgrown cliffs instantly reminded me of the coves of Coron, except that this one is much narrower. There are some parts which are passable only in low tide as we had to go underneath very low natural arches to get to the other side.
Needless to say, the water is very clean. It wasn’t spotless though, especially in parts close to land, as the profusion of vegetation always meant there was a steady stream of dried leaves and twigs, and even tree trunks, falling into the water. But I saw no sign of human garbage, which was excellent.
Viewing it from a wide angle, the cove is already impressive as it is. It’s therefore easy to lose track of the beauty in the little details that can only be seen once one takes a closer look. Wild orchids dangle occasionally on the cliff sides, and songs of unfamiliar birds break the silence every now and then. I imagine that the cove is best explored with a much slower and silent rowboat, and not a motorized pump boat. The disrupts the peacful silence of the surroundings makes one miss out on a lot of the scenery because of its speed.
One of the highlights of Sohoton is the Hagukan Cave, a cavernous space only accessible via a very low entrance that one has to be submerged from the neck down in order to enter it. In high tide, one has to actually go underwater to enter this cave. “Hagukan” comes from the local word haguk meaning “to snore”. Supposedly, when waves hit the cave opening, they make a snoring sound.
Because I know how to swim, I had no qualms about jumping into the water to enter into the cave. I spent a few moments though adjusting to the buoyancy of the life vest because it absolutely repelled the water and rose up to the surface regardless of my body’s angle. Honestly, I would have been more comfortable without it. For some of the others though, most notably Florence, the life vest was a necessity.
The entrance is encrusted with barnacles and daylight quite suddenly fades into darkness just a few feet into the cave because of the aforementioned low opening. Our guides had a limited number of flashlights (one), and so we had to stick together so as not to be separated. At times, we had to hold on each other’s arms. There are a few areas one can step on inside the cave but these were completely submerged so it’s hard to keep a stable footing.
If you think it would be difficult to take pictures in here, you’re absolutely right. That’s why we were impressed with the skill by which our guides kept the point and shoot cameras dry by simply treading on the water and without the use of life vests. Take note that in addition to keeping the cameras a few inches above water, they also had to compose the shot, and all the while their legs are instinctively trying to tread to keep themselves afloat. Their efforts are the reason why we have photographs at all in this cave.
This cave does not seem as impressive as the Hagukan Cave, but although it’s entrance is at the water’s edge, the cave’s floor is not submerged. It’s main feature is an upward path, climbing towards a skylight where, once outside, one can jump into the water from a makeshift diving platform around 12 feet above the water.
On our way up towards the diving board, we encountered some tourists on the way down. Apparently, they lost their nerve and decided not to jump after all. As for us, it wasn’t because we were braver. It’s just that the same path going down was, to our mind, much more difficult so we just had to jump.
As I’ve mentioned in the comments section of the previous entry, I was the token male of the group so I had to put up a braver front lest I lose face in front of my companions and our guides. And so, with our boatman waiting to shoot with one of the cameras, and “advance dropping” my glasses to the guide waiting at the water below, I planned to count to 3 before jumping in the water. I observed myself getting more nervous the longer I took to begin the count so I counted right away and jumped at 2.
I should have pinched my nose on the way down because the saltwater deep in my nostrils hurt like hell. Despite this, I did make a celebratory shout once I floated to the surface. I didn’t plan on doing that. It just came out almost automatically. It took a while before all 4 girls finished their jumps. I attempted to take photos of Cha’s and Florence’s respective jumps but the low shutter speed made them blurry. So as it turns out, I’m the only one who had a clear picture mid-jump. Thanks to our boatman and Kring’s camera.
After this, the tour was over and we returned to the registration area to return the hard hats and life vests, and to board Elvis’ pumpboat towards our next destination.
“Crystal Cave” has got to be the most overused cave name in the country. I’ve already commented before on my displeasure at encountering overused and cliched foreign names for local places. It seems that I have once again encountered such a case in Bucas Grande. I really wish locals could come up with more indigenous names for their tourist attractions.
[I’ve heard that this is also called “Bolitas Cave”, which certainly sounds indigenous enough (even if “bolitas” is actually Spanish.) But upon further research, I’ve read some bloggers say Bolitas Cave is actually a separate one. So for the meantime, until I get further clarification on the matter, I’m calling this one by its boring name.]
Unlike the previous 2 caves, this one is entirely on land and in fact, we had to hike up a moderately steep slope just to get to the entrance. Once at the entrance though, the cave itself gently slopes downwards. This wasn’t a very difficult cave to explore as it doesn’t have the dangers of a Sumaguing or a Lumiang. We did however struggle a bit with the lighting because the guides brought just 2 flashlights, so we proceeded very slowly.
This cave has very interesting formations just a few steps away from the entrance, some of which I’ve only seen here and nowhere else. We could have appreciated them better if we had the same high-intensity gas lamps that the cave guides in Sagada have, rather than just a pair of flashlights. In fact, I was only able to see better the cave features through the pictures we took, because the camera flashed did a much better job in illuminating the surroundings.
As we weren’t confident about the power of the flashlights we brought, we didn’t go all the way in and were out of the cave in half an hour. At this point, we haven’t eaten lunch yet but we were due to visit 2 more spots before we would be able to eat our packed lunch.
Next, back to Socorro Port and a few detours.
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This entry is part of the Surigao & Butuan series dated September 22-27, 2011:
1. The Ugly Side of Surigao del Norte
2. Preview: Surigao del Sur’s Twin Gems
3. The Surigao & Butuan Series (prologue)
4. Bucas Grande Island and Sohoton Cove
5. A few stops between Sohoton and Socorro
6. The Long Road to Bislig and Tinuy-an Falls
7. An Afternoon in Hinatuan
8. A Heritage Tour of Butuan