ANTIQUE, Philippines—Surprises and other unexpected delights will make a trip on the Bugang River a memorable experience for nature lovers and those with a touch of gypsy in their souls.
Lush forests protect the river’s headspring. The water also provides one with several options: swimming in the Malumpati health spring, trekking to the headspring and setting out on a river cruise on sturdy bamboo rafts.
Fresh from a 15- to 30-minute ride from the town—about 35 kilometers from Caticlan and 209 kilometers from Iloilo City—visitors are greeted by the sound of swimmers frolicking in the 50- to 100-meter swimming area.
The site serves as a jump-off point for hikers who may want to make their way to the headspring. Led by guides provided by Bugang Community-Based Eco-Tourism Organization (BCBTO), the trek takes about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your pace.
This is one side trip that should not be missed as it offers one that rare experience of entering a largely pristine forest covered with row upon row of towering trees. Trekkers are advised to wear comfortable and protective footwear as the journey includes crossing creeks and a hanging bridge, stepping over rocks, sharp stones and fallen branches.
The main destination is the 30-meter-deep headspring, which, along with other estuaries, is the main source of Pandan’s water supply, according to BCBTO president Yolanda Urbina.
The trek ends with a return route to the Malumpati spring swimming area where guests can take a river cruise on bamboo rafts 1.5 meters wide and 5 meters long. Each raft can accommodate four to five guests, plus three boatmen. The hour-long river rafting and boating activity traverses the villages of Guia, Sto. Rosario, Zaldivar, Candari and Mag-aba.
In the summer when the water level is low, boatmen manning the raft jump into the shallow waters and push the watercraft against the riverbanks, using a bamboo pole.
Where the fun begins
But the fun begins when the tourists “take over” from the boatmen and try to maneuver the raft themselves, avoiding tree branches and going around sharp bends. During the rainy season, the cruise becomes more challenging as the raft is rocked by strong currents.
Guests can stop along the route to swim, gather wild fruits or just relax by listening to the gentle sound of the water and take in the soothing sight of trees and lush vegetation on the riverbanks.
Samples of the tamilok or woodworm are offered to raft passengers who dare to try the exotic. A delicacy with an oyster-like taste usually dipped in native vinegar and eaten raw, the tamilok thrive in mangroves.
The rafting experience ends at Manlonggong Point at Guia Bridge where guests transfer to small wooden bancas that can seat one to two passengers.
Tourists will enjoy the scenery during the 15- to 20-minute trip, although many may find it more exciting to borrow the wooden oars from the boatman and paddle the boats, getting wet and racing with other tourists up to Bugang River fish port on Pandan Bay.
At the fish port in Barangay Zaldivar, the tourists are fetched by vehicles of the resort where they have been billeted for an overnight tour.
An overnight tour includes interacting with fishermen and taking a cruise on Panday Bay, known for its spectacular sunset.
The tour has attracted tourists including those from other countries who visit neighboring Boracay Island and make a side trip to Pandan and other areas in northern Antique, according to Gigi Bautista, owner of Pandan Bay Beach Resort.
Families who come in droves either bring food or cook their provisions in picnic cottages along the side of the swimming area, which has a shallow portion about 2 feet deep that gradually increases to 6 feet. Two diving boards, one as high as 10 feet and the other rising to 20 feet, stand at one side for those who want to plunge into the cool waters.
If you don’t want to be burdened by carrying food baskets or are too busy to cook, you can make arrangements to have your meals prepared through BCBTO, which manages tourism and conservation activities. The BCBTO also offers souvenir items made of indigenous materials, including handmade abaca fiber bags, trays and other accessories.
The 4-kilometer-long river is a model of the harmonious balance between tourism and caring for the environment, earning for the waterway various national and international awards as a protected area and for being among the cleanest in the country. It is a Hall of Fame awardee in the government’s Cleanest Inland Body of Water contest.
In 2006, it received the Green Environment Apple Awards, an annual international campaign of the United Kingdom-based The Green Organization that recognizes and promotes best practices in preserving the environment.
The campaign is widely supported by the 86-member BCBTO, which conducts monthly cleanups of the river and promotes an information drive on the need to preserve the river system. Part of the group’s campaign to protect Bugang River is prohibiting the setting up of pigpens near the river and swimming at the headspring.
Just 45 minutes to an hour by bus or van from Caticlan, the jump-off point to Boracay Island, and six hours by passenger bus from Iloilo City, Bugang River is easily accessible to tourists, especially those who like short tours and side trips away from the horde.
The bus fare from Iloilo is P215; passenger vans or buses charge P100 and up from Caticlan.
There are inns for backpackers and groups at Malumpati spring resort, with room rates starting at P1,500. There are also high-end resorts along Pandan Bay, where you can get rooms at P2,000 and up.
A tour of Bugang River, including river rafting and boating, but without room accommodations, costs from P500 to P1,400 for one, depending on the size of the group.