We were impressed by the expertise of the Cagayan de Oro white water rafting crew as they safely guided the raft through the angry rapids. The Butanding Interaction Officers in Donsol swam smoothly and ably assisted guests in safely interacting with the butanding (whale sharks). They are well-trained and experts in what they do, and if you add back-breaking work to that, you’ll be referring to the boatmen of Pagsanjan Falls.
Many of us think of Pagsanjan merely as the place where we could find the Pagsanjan Falls. It’s more than the waterfalls. Like many towns of Laguna, is an old town. An old arch or town gate welcomes visitors to the town when coming from the direction of San Pablo City. The marker placed by the Philippine Historical Committee on the arch reveals that prior to 1668, Pagsanjan used to be a barrio or barangay of Lumban, organized into a separate municipality in 1668. The arch or town gate was constructed between 1878 to 1880.
Pagsanjan was occupied by different forces in the course of its history: the revolutionaries in 1896, the Americans in 1899, and the Japanese in 1942 during World War II. The town was liberated in 1945.
It’s fun to chew on these pieces of historical information while waiting for the banca, through the rapids and ultimately to the Pagsanjan Falls. We’ve heard discouraging stories that should deter tourists from visiting Pagsanjan. What we saw or experienced, however, was totally different.
Going into the town, we dropped by the Tourism Information Center. Only places with a keen sense of pride in their tourism potential has a working tourism office. Pagsanjan is one of those. We were welcomed and ushered inside the small but comfortable office, given a brief overview of the place and handed a glossy, full-color brochure. We were informed to avoid the fly-by-night operators of bancas and tours. Simply proceed to accredited resorts, pay the standard rate of P1,000 per head, and they will take care of the rest. We were encouraged to report violators.
The hotels and resorts line the river. After paying, we were assisted in putting on the life vest and the helmet. We were given our ticket stubs, which indicate at the back that the fee already covers a personal injury insurance and hospitalization insurance. Walastik! Consider this — life vest, helmet and accident insurance. The entire thing reeks of danger. This is going to be fun!
After around 5 minutes the banca arrived. It’s looks like an oversized canoe or kayak, manned by two boatmen, and made of fiberglass. There’s no outrigger so getting into the boat requires balance. Move too much and the boat will capsize. Move too much and lose your balance while shooting the rapids, when rocks and boulders on both sides, and you’ll definitely need the helmet and the accident insurance. Wow, more fun! The excitement is building up.
A motor boat occasionally runs up and down the lower part of the river. Boats loaded with passengers hitch to this motor boat towards the half-way point. The motor boat pulls a string with a single hook at the end and drives on without stopping. The first boat catches the string and latches the hook. The graceful process of hitching to the series of boats requires paddling alongside the boats, tying a rope at the tailend of the last boat. By the time we were on our way to the drop-off point, 25 boats were hitched to the motor boat. Not a boat capsized. At least not during that time.
The motor boat disengages before the first of the approximately 14 rapids. We initially thought, only 14 rapids? When we saw the boatmen strut their stuff, however, we began to wish there were fewer rapids, and not because we were scared of the rapids.
Each boatman must under rigorous training of at least one month to be certified. The two boatmen with us collectively have more than 20 years of experience. That is reassuring as you navigate through the rapids — going upstream — against the river current and the rocks on both sides.
A boatman has to paddle against the current in a clipped motion to avoid hitting rocks and solid rock walls at sides, while at the same time avoiding collision with boats simultaneously going upstream and boats speeding downstream. If you’ve heard the expression “with only an inch to spare”, that expression does not apply here. Boats hit each other on a regular basis, sometimes passing through with the front end “slicing open” two boats beside each other.
This brings us to one of the most important safety tips in Pagsanjan’s shooting the rapids — always keep you extremities inside the boat. You’ll easily lose a finger here.
When not paddling, the boatman nimbly jumps out of the boat, kicking the stone wall or a boulder to steer the boat away from a sure collision. I wonder how their bare feet soaked in water could withstand stepping on the rocks, booth the smooth ones and the jagged ones.
In certain points of the trip, the boatmen have to lift the boat over obstacles (there were three of us in the boat), slide the boat on the water at the other end, step/kick on rocks at the sides, jump back inside the boat, then paddle.
Seeing all these made us wish that there were actually less rapids. These boatmen are awesome. Superman and the Super Friends would do well to get them as allies. Now, don’t forget to give them a generous tip =).
The trip upstream, which is around 1 hour, took us to the main waterfall, found in the neighboring town of Cavinti. I asked the boatman why it’s called Pagsanjan Falls when it’s located in Cavinti. They say it could be accessed through the town of Pagsanjan, so it’s called Pagsanjan Falls. Ok, end of discussion. It’s time to prepare going under the main waterfall.
The waterfall looks cute from afar. It’s far from scary (and even if it would have looked scary, we would still have loaded ourselves on the bamboo raft). Looks can be deceiving. It’s easy to forget how powerful tons of water could be.
Then the two guides began to tug on the rope. The raft slowly moved towards the waterfall.
Ten meters. Woohooo! The water is darn cold. Five meters. Strong wind and heavy water spray; a strong hurricane must feel this way. One meter. We have to cover our faces. We can’t open our eyes from the pressure. Ground zero. It feels like we’re hit by sacks of rice. I have to lean back to protect our son and that means more surface area for the water to pounce on. It’s like . . . hard massage. We have to do it again.