Cave Trekking and Ancient Healers in Philippines

Legend has it that Siquijor (pronounced See Key Whore) is full of mystics, shamans, voo doo, and healers. Superstition keeps many Filipinos from visiting the sleepy island. We spent 6 days there and had to experience some sort of healing treatment ourselves.

We heard that Cantabon, one of the highest points on Siquijor, would be a good place to find a mystic healer. Another reason to visit Cantabon is for an 800 meter trek into Cantabon Cave. I decided that combining these two very different experiences would be a perfect way to spend my 38th birthday.

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The hour long scooter ride took us along steep and bumpy dirt roads to the center of the island. There was no signage on the way up, and no signs that anything catering to tourists was ahead, until we finally reached a very small village. We passed a house with a massage sign, and continued until the hillside road leveled out. We stopped when we saw two western tourists getting on their bike. With karaoke wafting in the air, they informed us we were directly in front of the office to book the trek into Cantabon Cave.

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Inside, a young Filipina woman informed us it would be 500 pesos ($10 USD) for two guides and an extra 30 pesos for the helmet with light. Then she said Nick shouldn’t go.

When we travel overseas we encounter skeptical locals all the time, and Nick always proves them wrong. He’s up to try anything and usually can go on any adventure, just at a slow pace. When he told her he would go inside the cave and simply turn around and leave if it got too difficult, her tune changed. She now claimed he wasn’t allowed to enter. It was against the rules. We were shocked! We gently argued or a moment, but backed down when she wouldn’t budge on the newly made up rules.

My underdressed caving guides Romy and Lovely. How they kept their sandals on is beyond me.

My underdressed caving guides Romy and Lovely. How they kept their sandals on is beyond me.

Nick was enthusiastic about me doing the trek even if he had to miss out. He followed us to the cave entrance and then hung back to hear my tale when I came out.

My two guides Lovely and Romi were wearing flip flops. I had a hard hat and water shoes. I was also outfitted with a bathing suit and my best tie-dye spelunking dress, obviously.

The entrance to the cave was no more than 2 square feet, jagged and steep. Just getting INTO the cave would have been impossible for Nick. He doesn’t bend that way.

After about 20 feet of acrobatic moves to squirm into the cave, it opened up and we started walking along the water path. Curious little cat fish were swimming around in the shallow water. The guides pointed out that the ceilings in this chamber had stalactites covered in mud because the water floods and completely fills this area during heavy rains. Since the skies were currently dark and cloudy outside and it rained on us on the drive up, I immediately thought of those kids who got stuck in the cave in Thailand. I’m sure it could happen right here too. But rainy season is over, and the possible light rain didn’t pose any real threat. We kept going.

The cave entrance.

The cave entrance.

“Watch your head, Ma’om”

“Be careful”

“Watch your step”

“Slowly, Ma’om”

“Your back and your head, Ma’om”

The path was truly slippery. The ceilings were low. I imagine clumsy tourists slip and fall all the time. It’s not an easy hike.

I kept stopping to shine my light around and admire the caves features. The dripping water formed countless stalactites and stalagmites. There were crevices and bulking chunks of sparkling crystals. White strips of calcium bicarbonate lined the walls and formed pillow-shaped pools that collected the most crystal clear water I’ve ever seen.

This cave seemed relatively untouched, unaltered from its natural state. The path forward was never clear to me. We scrambled up and down slippery rocks. We made our way through small tunnels where my only option was to do a hunched duck walk that forced me to the edge of my flexibility. We waded through waste deep water at times, and stretched our bodies across three-foot spans of water to move from rock to rock.

“Be careful, Ma’om. Watch your head.”

By the half way point I noticed the heat building and the air getting thicker. Soon we passed a sleeping colony of bats and made the decision to keep going. Many people turn around here, as the path gets smaller and more difficult in the last 400 meters.

At some point Lovely crouched down at a stream flowing off a ledge of crystals. She cupped her hands to catch the water and had a sip. “Take a drink, Ma’om. It’s nice.”

Apprehensive about getting sick, I didn’t slurp it down like she did, but I tasted the cool, pure water. I’m glad I did.

Just past the drinking spot I began to notice tree roots coming in from above. Long strings of tangled roots dangled over six feet in some places. I asked Lovely about it and she said the ground above was thin here. She believed that one day it may collapse during a good rain, but hopefully not today. We kept walking.

“Slow, Ma’om”

At the end of 800 meters I was rewarded with the grandiose waterfall crystal formation called The King’s Bed. Five massive, bright white, pillow-shaped tiers of clear pools emptying into one another. The serene sound of cascading water filled this chamber that was just big enough for me to stand tall in.

The way out was much quicker for us because I wasn’t stopping every few feet to look around and take in the unique landscape. I built up quite a sweat. It wasn’t easy. I opted to take a dip in the only small swimming pool located at the 400 meter point. The cold, crisp water refreshed me. Lovely and Romi waited while I soaked and took it all in. We turned off our lights. In that moment I experienced the darkest, most unpolluted darkness while standing up to my neck in cold, fresh water a quarter mile deep inside a cave in the middle of a tiny island on the other side of the world. Whoa!

For the hour and fifteen minute duration of the hike I was alone in the cave with the guides, enjoying the peaceful sounds of running water and the distinct absence of mindless tourist chatter. I will remember this experience as one of my all-time favorite travel moments.

Despite being in awe for over an hour straight, I was relieved to finally be out of the cave. Nick was waiting with our motorbike and anxious to hear if I thought he would’ve made it. I didn’t want to tell him, but I’m certain he not only would’ve hated how challenging it was, I know he would’ve been stopped in his tracks and forced to turn around at countless points, the first time being the entrance. I also didn’t want to tell him how incredibly awesome the experience was that he just missed out on. That sucked. But like the gracious man he is, he was thrilled for me and wanted to hear all about it.

I was just beginning to share my favorite caving moments while standing beside him seated on the scooter, when a very old woman approached us. My caving stories would have to wait.

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I immediately took notice of her sweet demeanor when she asked Nick about his legs. Her English was broken but descent. She said her name was Mary. She’s 86 and lives just down the road and does banana leaf healing at her house.

I had never heard of banana leaf healing. That’s not exactly what we came for, but I couldn’t ignore how good it felt to be in her presence, and that our healer had somehow found us. We followed her down the road to her house. She was very steady and agile for an 86 year old person. Walking around this hilly town must keep her young.

She instructed us to have a seat on one of the 6 ornate wooden chairs lining the walls inside her oddly modern home. A pair of boxing gloves hung on the wall above a decked out miniature Christmas tree, and a 15 inch box TV perched atop a hutch, everything under the watchful eye of a poster of beloved President Duterte.

A man in his twenties sat up from a couch around the corner and said hello. I mentioned what great shape our new healing woman friend is in.

“My aunt is 86. She is in the garden all day. She’s very young.”

A few moments later she emerged from the back room wearing a white lab coat and carrying a handful of items. She placed them on the dining table and motioned for Nick to remove his shirt and come sit in front of her. She picked up a pen and began writing words across a large, green banana leaf while mumbling something under her breath.

Nick and Mary, mid treatment.

Nick and Mary, mid treatment.

I watched as she slowly smeared some type of oil onto Nicks back and arms and chest. She explained something about rubbing the banana leafs on his oily body and if they stick then he has pain. Okay. She repeated herself several times but we never quite understood.

She started to run the banana leaf across his back. Pressing, gliding, lifting. She moved back and forth across his back, up and down his sides, his arms, and over his chest. She was quiet and thoughtful with her work. Not once did the banana leaf stick. She circled around him a few times before stopping to let us know he has no pain.

She put the leaf down and grabbed his hand for a massage. Pinching the webbing between his thumb and first finger she laughed and repeated over and over that he can press there if his heart stops. Her laugh was so contagious it made us laugh too.

Soon she was done with Nick and asked us to switch. At some point during Nicks treatment I decided I didn’t want one. We foolishly didn’t discuss price, and seriously, what the hell just happened?

But there I was, sitting in the treatment chair, open to whatever was about to come my way. I wanted to get around having to take my dress off, even though it was still wet from caving. Mary touched it and was horrified to learn it was wet.

“Oh no! No banana leaf. Demons will enter.”

I guess I didn’t have to get one of these bizarre treatment after all.

She had us sign our full names and address on a sheet of paper while explaining that she once traveled to Italy many years ago. We thanked her profusely, handed her 300 pesos, and got the hell out of there

Nick and Mary. Can you see the sweetness and vitality in her face?

Nick and Mary. Can you see the sweetness and vitality in her face?

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