“Snake trail” – panas in the Ninorte-Samarnon dialect – is the root of the name by which it has come to be known, this languid Pacific town tucked in between untamed forests and a perilously fickle ocean. And it takes no great stretch of imagination on an upstream banca ride to the interior village settlements or trekking down rock and coral-lined paths through a thicket of mangroves and marshes to appreciate how apt the term is for this town seemingly born too soon before its time.
With the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep, Mapanas enjoys a spectacular view of the sun as it soars from beneath the sea in resplendent glory. It is also, and all too often, a powerless witness to the ocean’s rituals of rage that leave indelible marks on its shoreline. Curiously, the path is not always a massive swath of destruction, but sometimes a colossal display of rock formations sculpted by nature into fascinating art pieces.
Mapanas takes pride in the history it shares with its grandmother-town Palapag in the north, and mother-town Gamay in the south. They all have a common center and residencia of the Jesuit missionary priest in the Ibabao Region, which helped shape the temperament and disposition of the staunchly Catholic people that Northern Samar is today.
The town was part of Gamy when the latter was but a barrio of Palapag but later carved out in 1947 to become a full-fledge municipality. Mapanas continued to be a barrio of Gamay, however, until it was in turn elevated into a municipality almost two decades later, on June 18, 1966. This was a year after the founding Northern Samar as a province.
Consisting primarily of forest ground, the barrio used to be frequented by hunters in search of wild animals. Since poisonous snakes thrived in the area, the hunters were always on the lookout for the slimy, venomous creatures and would call out “may panas” to warn each other whenever they came upon a snake trail. In time, the place came to be known as Mapanas, which was retained as the official name of the municipality.
Another version maintains though, that the town’s name derives from palanas. The local term for the flattened into solid platforms by the constant pummeling of strong waves over thousand years.
From hunting ground of the more daring Palapag, Mapanas became a refuge for entire families fleeing the turmoil stirred by the Pulahanes within the poblacion in the early 1900s. Accessible by rivulets and mountain trails, the barrio was also a hideout for the Pulahanes rebels themselves when they were pursued by authorities.
The Pulahanes, so-called because they were garbed in red trousers, was an intrepid group of Filipino fighters who practiced a type of religion based on native mythology, folk Catholicism, and belief in anting-anting ) (amulets). They engaged the Americans in protracted battles between 1902 and 1907.
A work in slow progress
Close to the half-century mark of its existence as a municipality, Mapanas still retains vestiges of its rebel image. Many acknowledge that there are insurgents still ensconced deep in their forest – but no longer against foreign rulers. Many believe, too, that addressing the problem is not so much a question of bringing them to justice as focusing on the root of the problem – poverty.
For the dream of success through education, all the way to college, remains elusive for the average Mapanas parents even today. College graduates of their generation still vividly recall how their own pursuit of education was literally an arduous journey. With no road link even to the next town, the only way out of Mapanas then was to ride the treacherous ocean waves on a boat from shore to shore, always watchful of cloud formation and wind direction, and ready for hours of hiking through rough trails.
Mapanas today is a work in the very early and slow stages of progress. Fishing is a major livelihood activity, with most fishing activities marginal and confined to Mapanas Bay. The catch often consist of the pricier stocks much-sought in the urban markets, such as blue marlin, tuna, sword fish, barracuda, baraka (lapu-lapu) shrimps and lobsters.
Like the farmers, most the fishermen of Mapanas take theri harvests to the markets of Gamay because theriver that runs through town – so far the only access beyond their barangays – snakes into the mouth of Gamay River, right into the center of Gamay’s commercial district and not in the poblacion of Mapanas.
With minimal trading activities taking place in the Mapanas town market, the economy is practically at a standstill. This, some townsfolk painfully acknowledge, is one of the reasons why the municipality known for its banig, salakit, and wooden and rattan furniture, is materially poor despite its wealth of natural resources.
Of road and rocks
Better roads for market-bound farm goods and school-bound students will not only translate to new business and educational opportunities, but will augur well for the development of Mapanas’ largely untapped tourism possibilities. And indeed there are enough in Mapanas to match the more popular tourist destination towns in the province, indeed in the country.
The Matikawol Falls, at the end of the Gamay River and accessible by motorboat, is a favored summer getaway primarily because of its five-layer falls and three naturally flowing pools that are ideal for bathing and swimming.
The Pinusilan rock formation in Brgy. Magtaon is a Mapanas landmark known to many Nortehanons, but for now still waiting to be discovered by the rest of the world. While rock formations are not such a rarity in the Pacific side of Northern Samar, the Pinusilan rock is unique in that it shelters a crater crafted by nature into a shimmering turquoise pool by the rush of the waves over the rocks.
Perhaps owing to the violent image conjured by its name – pusil is the Visayan term for gun si Pinusilan is where a gun was fired or a gun-battle took place – this stretch of beach used to be shunned by locals for many decades. There is no official version of the origin of Pinusilan but, as the story goes, the rock formation ceased to be a feared no-man’s land after the first Catholic Bishop of the diocese and a number of priests took dive into the nature pool – their presence is believed to have warded off whatever negative spirits lurked in what has since become a popular summer picnic spot.
The mushroom-shaped Mayongpayong rock that guards the path ti three large rock-islands has also been gaining tourism popularity. For now the easiest approach to Mayongpayong is by trekking through the thick bakawan along the coast of Brgy. Burgos, wading through shallow ocean and corals during low tide, usually in the morning or late afternoon.
One of the rocks is rather fondly called Binalarawan because of a hole at the top which, according to legend, is the result of an ocean giant’s balaran (spear).
Kanmanoy and kanmanay are twin rock formations visible from the main highway that cuts into the mountains to get to town. Mapanas folk are very superstitious and continue to weave legends around their rocks, including these two, named simply to designate ownership – manoy and manay being terms of respect for elders.
Caves and burial sites
Very few of the locals into the caves in interior barangays, but cavers and mountaineers are charmed by their mystery and archaeological value.
The Gomag Cave, for example, located two kilometers from the town center by motorboat, presents a natural underground chamber and is a sought-after destination among serious speleogists and intrepid spelunkers. Others as yet unexplored caves are the Guinbenditahan and Guintigui-an Caves in Brgy. Siljanon.
There have long been reports of old grounds found in some of the mountain caverns. One of them is accessible to trekkers, at the bottom of a steep rocky cliff called Sang-at, located just across the Mayongpayong Rock Formation. Piles of bleached human skeletal remains of an obviously broader and taller race than Malay are reverently arranged atop flat rocks.
None of the locals dares disturb the bones – and are sternly warned not to as well – because “from experience” the ocean strikes back when the coastal burial grounds are desecrated. On days reserved for honoring the dead, an occasional villager comes to light a candle and say a prayer.
There is much they pray for in Mapanas. Good weather and calm seas. Abundant harvests and bountiful nets. And roads, literally, to progress. And, for the hidden paradise that is nature’s gift and that they cherish, and yet are so willing to share with the world.