Catarman, the capital and central-most town of Northern Samar is a planned community with advanced urban amenities, opportunities for education, terminals and facilities for transportation and generally a better standard of living that all the other municipalities in the province.
These features do not detract from its bucolic charm, however, for the town is surrounded by lash vegetation on one side and a wide expanse of blue ocean on the other, with a captivating mix of rolling hills, emerald mountains, green valleys, and white beaches in between them.
Catarman is a young town, whose beauty is in its vast green landscapes and quaint cramped street shops that offer everything from native karan-on or snack food ore traditional native hats and banig to mobile phones and laptops computers.
It is a nurturing place most college graduates of Northern Samar have once called home, before moving on to rewarding professional lives as teachers, nurses, lawyers, veterinarians, agriculturists, and other careers spawned in this scenic university town and provincial center of commerce and industry.
The name Catarman is said to have been coined from the Turkish word attar, a type of essential oil extracted from rose petals, and the Muslim term for holy man, imam or aman.
Another source traces the etymology of Catarman to a less profound Binisaya and more commonly used word cataruman, which means sharp, ostensibly the corals near the shores of this old trading post.
The latter version is less enigmatic than the first, but closer to the origin of the names of other towns or even to the root of the name of the island province – samad. Was the samad, or wound, caused by the cataruman or sharpness of the corals?
Like many other parts of the island, Catarman was already a dynamic and bustling settlement when Spanish priests established their presence in the village in 1649, after having ventured west along the coast from their mission center in Palapag. The settlement of families that they came upon became a visita of the nearby town of Bobon in 1697, which meant Catarman had regular pastoral visits from the priest from the older town known for its sweetish spring water.
Historical records identify Catarman as one of the 13 original pueblos of Samar Island. The complete list included pueblos from all over the island, including Capul, Catubig, Laoang, and Palapag located at the northern part of Samar.
When the Galleon Trade ended in 1815, Catarman began to take over from Capul and Palapag the role of stalwart in the growth and development of the northern part of Samar Island. Declining commercial activities at Samar’s major seaports in the old port towns of Laoang and San Jose (Carangian) unsurprisingly shifted traders’ interests to Catarman, primarily because of its ideal geographical location at the center of the province.
Catarman’s present role as provincial center and hub of commercial pursuits was even more established when it was chosen as the capital town of Northern Samar when the new province was created in 1965.
The cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation, the original structure of which was counted among the old fortress-churches of the Ibabao region, continues to stand steadfastly behind its people in good times and in bad.
Today it is surrounded by man-made structures that set the pace for the community’s growth and advancement, with a large plaza separating the church from the municipio. Behind the municipio is the downtown area with a variety of commercial establishments that offer both basic and luxury commodities and services, from restaurants and coffee shops, department stores and thrift shops, to banks, beauty salons and spas.
Catarman is ilawod to many people still residing in upstream barangays or what is called iraya. It is a “city” with all the amenities of urban life. The town center pulsates with commercial activities made more exciting by enterprising ambulant vendors out to get their fair share of the business.
The local airport is just three blocks from the back of the church, with the third corner already the edge of the runway that cuts across J. P. Rizal Street, a major thoroughfare connecting the downtown area to Brgy. Dalakit. The suburban barangay hosts the provincial capitol and leads to other towns southwest of the municipality, such as Bobon, Lavezares, and Allen.
A section of J. P. Rizal is actually bisected by the airport runway, giving the Catarman Domestic Airporet the dubious distinction of being the only airport, probably in the world, that shares its runway with motor vehicles, tricycles, pedicabs, pedestrians and cattle. The section of the street that is cut through by the runway is closed in the morning to give way to taxing airplanes and opens again as soon the last plane takes off.
Regular air commuters are amazed by the runway’s dual function and chuckle with “only in the Philippines!” remarks in this unusual airport that also doubles as a thoroughfare for ordinary motorists and pedestrians.
Catarman sees its role in the province’s tourism drive not as the central tourist hub, but rather as jump-off point for adventures in unique destinations within the province, such as those in the island towns of Biri, San Antonio, Capul, Laoang and San Vicente. Aside from the airport, Catarman operates a public transport terminal for buses, passenger jeeps, and public utility vans to take travelers anywhere in Northern Samar. It has more than enough hotel rooms available for tourists and visitors at popular rates.
Despite of this self-imposed role, however, Catarman is not without its rich share of possible tourist destinations. Its unique look as a small town torn between a laidback rural life and a progressive urban community is a tourist draw in itself, with a unique blend of handicraft items and computer gadgets being sold side by side.
There are well-appointed mountain and beach resorts within this old pueblo. A white beach resort is managed by the University of Eastern Philippines within its campus, complete with air-conditioned cottages and function rooms. The campus also boats of a Scout City where young scouts from across the province congregate every so often for various scouting activities. The young at heart use the same jamboree site for trekking and picnicking, or simply being amidst wild flowers that grow abundantly in the hilly backwoods of the campus.
When not in the mood for trekking and other outdoor activities, the Pineil Farm Resort, located in Brgy. Washington, a short 15-minute drive from the town center along the Catarman-Lope de Vega Highway, provides a welcome option for tourists and travelers looking for a quiet place to enjoy a lazy afternoon.
The roadside property was originally developed as a private family farm by a Catarmanon who used full measure the veterinary medicine degree he obtained from UEP. The farm was eventually turned into a ranch-type resort, open to tourists and guests who are always delighted by the rare spectacle and treat of farm animals and various species of birds wandering freely about.
There are swimming pools fed from natural springs, surrounded by picnic sheds of concrete and native materials, and a function room for formal events. For families and small groups that wish to stay for the night, there are available furnished cottages that blend in with the rural setting.
Not too far from the farm is Macagtas Dam, a naturally scenic irrigation reservoir constructed on the lake and in the barangay of the same name. The large embankment is naturally beautiful with lots of fresh mountain air, green pastures, and soothing tranquil waters. It is ideal for water-based sporting activities, including boating, kayaking, or even wakeboarding.
The bridge over Catarman River, connecting the poblacion of Catarman to Brgy. Bangkerohan, close to the UEP campus, is regularly visited by anglers out to fish in the river just below the concrete span. The anglers appear to be hobbyists out to catch the breeze from the bridge on an afternoon stroll. But one of the regulars, a fishing habitué, intimates that with a rod into the river, he catches at least a kilo of fish of varying size, mostly small, within two hours every day. The men are there daily, not just as hobbyists, but as providers for families waiting for the day’s catch.
Catarman has a wealth of interesting stories to tell and intriguing places to visit. Even if it has not officially earned the title of city, Northern Samar’s premier town is the most visited place in the entire province, mostly by people transacting business in the provincial capitol or pursuing activities in various other places of the province.
With many local visitors coming in from the outlying towns or from the rest of the country, the next step should be to respond to the challenge of providing them with more places to see and things to do beyond merely the provincial capitol and the UEP campus.
Indeed, the future of Catarman is not just in being a jump off point to other tourist destinations in the province, but in capitalizing on its own tourism assets. The town has unique and interesting places to attract local and international tourist.
It may simply be a matter of enticing travelers and visitors to stay longer than they normally would before hopping to many other tourist destinations in the province, mostly carved by nature and enriched by the history of its people.