Las Navas is a remote interior municipality, one of only four towns of Northern Samar distant from any coastline, and therefore with no romance or row with the ocean or sea.
But the way to the heart of the town is still through water, in this instance via the Catubig River on board the ubiquitous pump boats and bancas that crowd into tiny docking berths at embarkation and destination points in Catubig and Las Navas towns.
It only takes a half hour to get Las Navas from Catubig and boats traverse the river daily, as they did since the first families loaded civilization and the next generation into sailing vessels and headed upstream.
Las Navas today has found its way into the country’s tourism map – or perhaps more accurately, the tourism radar scan has picked up a steady blink on this forested mountain town where people live with falls, caves and natural pools in their backyards or at the bend of a rough trail.
There are many conflicting narratives on the history of Las Navas. One version states that the present town of Las Navas was the original site of Cagninipa (what is now Catubig) before the Moros launched a vicious attack on the settlement around 1775 and 1775.
According to this account, the Moro raiders killed a great number of residents and abducted around 500 men and women. The men were believed to have been forced to serve as oarsmen in the raids conducted by the Moros elsewhere in the country, while the women were sold as slaves in Mindanao and Borneo.
Those who had managed to escape this violent onslaught by fleeing to the mountains returned only to bury their dead, and thereafter decided to permanently abandon the village. Only a few families remained in the once flourishing settlement, those who hoped to try and pick up the pieces of their lives from ashes of a decimating disaster.
Their progress in rebuilding the old bungto (town center) was slow but determined. In no time, they were calling the place Binongtoan in remembrance of the bungto they once had before the Moro assault. By 1832, Binongtoan had recovered enough to become a pueblo and a major producer of rive in the Ibabao region.
At around the time, according to local folklore, a Spanish military officer named Las Navas de Toledo led a fleet of sailboats upstream along the Cagninipa River from Laoang. They reached Binongtoan, where they found a gracious community of people who welcomed them as honored guests.
Las Navas in turn must have such a charismatic guest, for he is said to have engaged the community enough that they decided to name their pueblo in his honor. After all, Bungto or Binongtoan was but generic term for settlement and De Las Navas must have appealed to the aspiring Hispanic side of the culture then.
In the course of its shifting fortunes, the settlement in Las Navas went through a number of changes of political status until it was officially recognized as a municipality on July 8, 1949, by virtue of an Executive Order signed by then President Elpidio Quirino.
At the fringe of a mountain range
Located at the fringe of a mountain range that is home to indigenous wildlife flora and fauna, Las Navas used to be the site of a large commercial logging operation which almost obliterated its biologically rich forests. That past is immortalized in the name Navasnons have given the site – Sitio Guinlagingan in Brgy. San Isidro.
A secondary forest has since grown, providing a lush cover for its wealth of natural resources that includes a network of caves and waterfalls, but scientists believe it will take one or two generations of trees or 150 to 500 years to recover the characteristics of a primary of primeval forest with two or more layers of canopies.
The preservation of Las Navas’ forest ground is thus a major challenge for its leaders, with threats of commercial loggers and slash-and-burn kaingeros making another major comeback too close to ignore. The townsfolk have been consistently opposed to the issuance of any new logging permits and local leaders are responding with alternatives that include the development of an eco-tourism package that could provide livelihood for the people.
Pinipisakan Falls is the prize at the end of the river – when travelling 15 kilometers upstream from the poblacion. In truth though, it is the three-tiered cascades that feed the 50-meter deep Las Navas River (Catubig River), its waters drawn from deep within the mountains.
The falls are relatively narrow, compared to other grander curtains elsewhere in the province known for its waterfalls, but the force and flow of the water is torrential and inspiring. The first tier is 3 meters wide, the second 10 meters, and the third tier, ideal for a picnic site, is 30 meters.
A nature enclave around the falls is formed by karst mountain formations hiding dank caves and deep ravines. The waters, clear deep blue during the summer months, are ideal for adventure rafting and shooting the rapids. For the more faint of heart nature children, there is a viewing deck at the first cascade, from which to gaze and gasp at the spectacle of the powerful force of the falls and the placid serenity of the surrounding mountain view.
The strategy is anchored on the Pinipisakan Falls, part of which has been dammed up to provide irrigation for rice plantation in the Catubig Valley covering the sister towns of Catubig and Las Navas. The dam construction was carefully planned to ensure that local communities benefit from it use, the ecosystem is not comprised and the potential economic benefits of the water source as a tourism draw are protected.
Despite the new structures that would necessarily impede part of the water flow, however, the cascades are still impressive with their multilayered silver-like curtains, bursting with froth and lather. The natural waterfalls and man-made dam are both great attractions for those intrigued by nature’s splendor and human genius to use a natural resources for the benefit of man.
The draw of falls and caves
The Pinipisakan Falls is located 15 kilometers from the poblacion and remains the premier or star attraction of Las Navas. The cascades are found in Brgy. San Isidro, which is within the buffer zone of the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP), a national protected area which covers 1,412.31 hectares of forest ground spread in all three provinces in the island of Samar.
The barangay occupies a mountain range that is also home to caves of various magnitude, some of them yet unexplored, with impressive luminous cathedral-like stalactites and stalagmites crafted by nature at a pace unhurried and undisturbed through thousands of years.
The most popular of them is the Kilometer 3 Cave, obviously a convenient identifier based on a roadside landmark. The cave has the added feature of a remarkable subterranean fresh water pool that lies still and calm, shielded by a canopy of wild forest trees and buttressed by caves and giant rocks. Locals call the pool Kinagatusan, from the Ninorte-Samarnon translation of 100 because it is said to be about 100 arms’ span in diameter and 100 arms’ span deep, and also lend this name to the Kilometer 3 cave.
The cave is hidden deep in the dense forest ground, which in itself should make a good tourist draw, and is accessible only by trekking. Mountaineers and cavers, through the help of local guides, discovered the cave not too long ago and have since then organized expeditions to travel to the cave site and subterranean pool.
The adventure starts right in the heart of Las Navas with a habal-habal ride through tough roads, an hour-long river cruise, and a three-kilometer trek over shallow rivers, thick forest trails, steep mountain paths, and finally the magnificent Kinagutasan Cave and its astonishing underwater pool.
Townsfolk residing near the Pinipisakan Falls take time off from their regular jobs as farmers and housewives to serve as tour guides. Their job is not simply to guide visitors on their way to various destinations, but to answer questions about the place and to provide intriguing narratives about life in the jungle to add color to the trip and keep visitors occupied all throughout the expedition.