Once upon an enchanted blue river
Published article and photos by Jojie Alcantara
As a proud Mindanaoan, I am happy that my photo gallery online has gained a small following who appreciate my island travel adventures. I noticed with the number of daily viewer hits, one photo gallery stands out as the most visited all these years. It is Hinatuan’s Enchanted River, which has a sentimental spot in my heart.
Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur is a remote municipality most known for its delicious crabs and a stunning design by Mother Nature right in the heart of Barangay Talisay — an incredibly blue basin nestled within a mountainside and protectively covered by the woods. Its startlingly azure tinge comes from the Pacific sea pouring in from its cavernous underwater crevice, mixing salty tang with the moss-colored Hinatuan river. To local folks, it is known to be enchanted. Marine fishes of all sizes swim in this surreal blue hole. Fascinating and at the same time terrifying, once you take a dip in its cool waters, you are reluctant to come out.
In the 90s, two of my gutsy backpacker friends, Christy and Jenny, once camped overnight here after discovering its hidden beauty (clearly unaware of the legend). With just a bonfire to aid them, they slept under the stars, and swam in the cold, dark waters. Didn’t shivers run up and down their spines, I asked? Nope. They clearly recall a multitude of fireflies overhead that enhanced their tiny campfire, lighting up the place magically. The next morning, they must have caused a stir in the barangay for the kapitan hurried over to check up on them. Old film photos that Christy showed me were of Jenny swimming in a deep blue abyss which I thought was the open sea. Only later did they find out of its folklore of watchful spirits.
Originally, the town’s name was said to be divided by the words “Hato” and “Hatu-an”. “Hato” in the native dialect means “a method of preserving fish”, while “Hato-an” denotes a place of preserving fish. Noted for its rich aquatic diversity of fish and animals (regular sightings of sea turtles and dugongs), Hinatuan is located only a few nautical miles off the Philippine deep, hence its abundance of marine life. Fishing is the main source of livelihood here. History records how its mangrove-encrusted coastlines have spared the communities from total devastations of typhoons in the past.
In 2003, I had my first less salty taste of cold waters while swimming at the shallow edge. I was interviewing an old caretaker and former barangay captain, Francisco Jabagatan (bless his departed soul). Mang Isko regaled me with fascinating tales of the mystical river, relating how he has fought against the Japanese during World War in this area, pointing to areas where the Japs have fallen. A certain
Francisco Rivera (see notes below) created the song “Enchanted River” in honor of the place. Mang Isko gave me his only copy in an old cassette.
He has said nobody dared swim in the river after dark because of the enchanted spirits. He was lucky to have seen them twice in his lifetime and described them to me in detail – two women with long blonde hair and a man in green (the creature from the lagoon type?). The sightings must have dwindled in the present, because too many people frequent this once serene place.
In the past, it used to be regarded as bottomless –foreign divers have tried to explore its depth, trying to determine where the current flows to meet the ocean’s course. Dr. RJ Villanueva, a diver and photographer, once accompanied a film crew who was shooting for a movie. His underwater exploration yielded discovery of logs found nestled at 80 feet (this used to be a hauling place of the huge paper mill, PICOP) whose movement during tide changes fogs the water’s visibility.
A Filipino and foreign team of risky cave divers reported its cavern to have chambers leading to very narrow tunnels where strong currents pour in. Since then, a few tech dive explorations have been done. One of the tunnels was named “Mayor’s Chamber”, in honor of long term Mayor Candelario Viola Jr., whom I got to meet when I first wrote about his town in Mabuhay Magazine in 2007.
In 2007, the familiar narrow trail through a thick forest was still rough, but more accessible. Back for the third time, we had the place to ourselves. Kids were not running around recklessly diving from the cliff. There were no boatmen offering rides through a long mangrove stretch from the mouth of the river and into the sea. The blue lagoon was just as stunning, silently sparkling and beckoning you to jump in its fascinating transformation of aquamarine to indigo.
In this quiet afternoon without tourists, we threw bread crumbs and watched small and big fishes come out in a feeding frenzy. Amazingly, locals kept telling us how one can see and feed so many marine fishes, yet not one can ever be caught by hand, net, spear or worse, dynamite fishing. This mystery still holds true until now.
Today, the popular river basin has undergone quite a change in its surrounding. The community and government sector have enhanced the site, added a signage, pathways and stalls for tourists. Directional signs are placed on the road leading to its spot. It has now become a must see itinerary for a small town that also offers other attractions like small islets and snorkeling sites. I can imagine how touristy the place has become.
Personally, I’d like to remember it as the magical river that once caught me under its enchantment almost a decade ago.
For years, people have thought I enhanced the river’s hue in my images, until they’ve seen the river for themselves. You have to be there alone to be engulfed by its mystic spell. Today though, you are lucky to have it quietly to yourself.
(Musings: I used to call this river ‘aniel blue’ the first time I saw it)
You can reach Hinatuan from Davao City via San Francisco (6 hours) or from Butuan City to Mangagoy, Bislig by bus (4 hours). From Mangagoy, seek assistance in the bus terminal for vehicle rentals, van or jeepneys that will take you to Hinatuan River. The more adventurous can try the habal-habal (modified motorcycles) from Barangay Talisay going to the river. Don’t leave Hinatuan without sampling its delicious crabs in the pier restaurant. Special thanks to Municipal Planning Officer Ferdinand Barrios and Gov. Johnny Pimentel and family for my past visits since 2003.
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A message on my photo gallery website:
Thank you for putting into print my beloved town of Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur (Manila Bulletin, May 22, 2011 Sunday issue) and most especially our Enchanted River located at Barangay Talisay which was one a favorite childhood haunt. The text and photos that you have taken with painstaking effort of the place are certainly beautiful and professional so to speak evoking poignant memories to one who has not visited Hinatuan for the last twenty-five years.
I wish to clarify some points though for purposes of historical record. The song Enchanted River of Rio Encantado, melody and lyrics, was not created by one Francisco Rivera per your article, but by one Mr. Modesto Farolan, then General Manager, Port Lamon Lumber Company, a flourishing logging and sawmill firm owned by Don Vicente Madrigal, exporting round timber and sawed lumber in the international market during pre-war days. The employees of Port Lamon known as the “Madrigalistas” come in droves to picnic in the Enchanted River during off days and even in the night when there is moonlight – shouting, giggling, singing, eating and drinking in wild abandon, thus disturbing the magic spell of silence and enchantment of the place. I believe these are the very people that devastate the natural beauty of Enchanted River and not the employees of Philippine Paper Industry Company (PICOP) located in Bislig City which is so many miles away.
Thanks again and congratulations.
Fernando “Dan” A. Nazareno
318 J. P. Rizal St.
Silang 4118 Cavite
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