The global pandemic lockdown last year virtually shut down business enterprises worldwide, and Cagayan de Oro’s white water rafting industry was no exception.

Already attracting over 20,000 a year from all over the Philippines and the world, the self-styled Whitewater Rafting Capital in the Philippines, claims to be the only location in the country where guests can enjoy rafting any time of the year.

With 59 rapids over its 48 kilometer length, guests could choose from any of the seven outfitters with professional river guides certified by the International Rafting Federation who could safely transport them along Beginner, Advanced, or Extreme courses in what for many was the adrenaline ride of a lifetime.

Pioneer rafters on an exploratory tour of the upper rapids of Cagayan River in 2005. (photo courtesy of JB Deveza)

Its river depth, incline and rock formations make rafting in the Cagayan River a once in a lifetime adrenaline pumping experience. With rapids every 10-15 minutes, guests can enjoy a one-of-a-kind roller coaster ride, interspersed with the breath taking flora and fauna of the primeval forest.

Now with herd immunity eminent driven by the country’s aggressive vaccination drive and alert levels settling down to Levels 1 and 2 in many parts of the Philippines, the local whitewater industry is looking to restart its once burgeoning tourism attraction.

Rafting regulars can’t wait to do the Cagayan River courses again.

The Upper section of the Cagayan River (Talakag, Bukidnon area/Bgy. Tignapoloan CDO side) features not only pulse-quickening Class 4 rapids but also breathtaking vistas like this one. (photo courtesy of Chisum Christopher Factura)

“Yes, I tried it before. It was an amazing experience. In fact, it’s the best white water rafting I’ve done in PH. The rapids are fabulous. Will definitely do it again,” quips Glen Santillan, founder and former president of the Davao Digital Influencers.

Mountaineer, caver, diver and award-winning freelance photographer Rhonson Ng, whose images are printed in brochures, coffee table books, airport billboards, and tourism materials all over the country, has done white water rafting in all three of the country’s current top 3 rafting destinations.

“I did three rivers. Chico was supposed to be the top, but unfortunately when I did rafting in Chico summer time kaya mahina ang tubig. I would rate Davao River 7 on a scale of 1-10, and Cagayan River 8. Yes, I would do it again provided the river guides are vaccinated.”

New Normal Reset

The outfitters who provide professional river guiding to guests for the Cagayan River white water rafting tours have organized themselves into the Organization of Association of Rafters (OAR) to ensure the safety and  enjoyment of their guests.

OAR is seeking an audience with officials of the City Tourism Office and the regional Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Covid-19 to iron out the guidelines and protocols for rafting under the New Normal.

Sinulom falls, between Sitio Tambo Barangay Tignapoloan in Cagayan de Oro City, and Barangay San Isidro in Talakag, Bukidnon, used to be a prime source of  potable water for Kagay-anons during the Second World War. The rafters are Chisum Factura’s workmates from Hong Kong, who visited CDO after their fall season. (photo courtesy of Chisum Factura)

“I came up with the rafting protocols, Best Practices – Whitewater Rafting in the New Normal,” said Chisum Christopher Factura, OAR President and outfitter operator KAGAY Outdoors. “I already sent an email to Atty. Egay Uy and to the City Tourism Office re Protocols, I will just ask OAR to ask for a meeting with them.”

“These rafting protocols and best practices will ensure quality service and safe whitewater rafting trips for guests and crews, to continue promoting adventure tourism in our city in accordance to the safety guidelines and procedures provided by the LGU IATF and DOH and in adapting to the new normal,” he added.

Not the least, the proposed protocols and best practices also aim to revive the industry which had lain dormant for the past 20 months, so it may continue providing jobs and services for the many upstream and downstream industries which had prospered around it.

Outfitters usually hire local jeepneys to transport their rafts, providing additional livelihood for drivers and operators. (photo courtesy of Chisum Facture)

“Among the industries which have benefitted from rafting tourism are the travel(airline, domestic shipping and buses), local jeepneys (we hire them for a day especially when demand is high ), motorelas, taxis, restaurants, wet market vendors where we buy food ingredients for meals to be cooked during rafting, hotels, malls and pasalubong stores, and local souvenirs from starting point and end point of the rafting,” said Jan Uy, principal outfitter of CDO Bugsay River Rafting.

Among the health protocols and best practices prepared by Factura in behalf of OAR and for consideration by the Cagayan de Oro Tourism and Cultural Affairs Office (which regulates the industry), City Health Office and IATF are the following:

Staff and Office/Warehouse Hygiene Considerations, including full vax for all office staff and river crew, daily staff health screenings (anyone showing symptoms will not be allowed to work), strict compliance with minimum covid-19 health protocols;

Pre-booking/booking: only fully vaxxed guests with recognized/certified vaccines by WHO will be allowed, bring vaccination cards, only guests 15-45 yrs. old with  no existing medical conditions and exhibiting no symptoms will be allowed, medical/travel history, contactless payment in advance, initially will cater only to guests from Northern Mindanao/Region X.

Rafting day: health check for guests prior to departure, (guests exhibiting symptoms to be referred to local health authorities), mandatory wearing of PPEs from pick-up point and again after rafting back to their accommodations, sanitation before and after trips, social distancing with 50% capacity, max of 5 guests and 1 guide in 13’ rafts. Only 2 rafts per jeepney.

White Water Rafting in Cagayan River became an overnight sensation when then Tourism Secretary Dick Gordon (left) got President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and husband Mike Arroyo to try the basic course in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Rupert Domingo (back, between Mr. Gordon and Pres. GMA.)

In office/shop: only 5 guests allowed inside at any time, follow sanitation and hygiene best practices at all times, alcohol based sanitizers in office, PPEs required when in the office.

Monitoring and Government Engagement: OAR to ensure all outfitters are updated on LGU protocols and guidelines to be secured directly from the LGU, IATF and DOH.

 “We are just waiting for them to call the meeting,” said Rex Tapungot, lead outfitter from Red Rafts.

Beside Red Rafts, only four other outfitters (Bugsay, Kagay, Great White Water Rafting and 1st Rafting Adventure) have remained from a high of seven who served the industry during its heyday before the global pandemic struck.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Just 4 Fun

“We started rafting sometime around June 1995 from Barangay Taguanao with makeshift rafts not meant for water rafting,” said Rupert Domingo, acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the sport in the city.

“We never expected it to evolve into a tourism attraction, and we were only rafting for pleasure on weekends using used paddles we bought from (Bgy.) Bonbon,” he added.

Rupert Domingo and son Kim were among the White Water Rafting pioneers who started the craze during weekends. (photo: Rupert Domingo)

The rafting pioneers were mostly members of the Northern Mindanao Mountaineering Society (NORMMS) and included Ronnie Vidal, Kim Domingo, Julius “Tabiocs” Bioco, and Reynolds Domingo.

“We were joined later by Chisum Factura, Rolly Barretto, Albert Lagamon, among others,” Domingo recalls. “I don’t recall now who the others were because we had a different group every weekend when we went rafting.”

The inflatable boats they used at the start were actually only meant to be used in swimming pools, since they had no idea what sports rafting was all about. It was only three years later when the group managed to buy a second-hand inflatable boat from the United States.

Two of the earliest celebrity guests to White Water Rafting in Cagayan River were Piolo Pascual and Angel Locsin. The makeshift welcome sign at the starting point of the Beginners Section in Bgy. Mambuaya is dated 1995, just when the local rafters were starting their weekend jaunts. (photo courtesy of Rupert Domingo)

“There was nobody who taught us about white water rafting, we just learned by ourselves as we went along,” Domingo said. “It was only around 2005 when Glenn Lewman Jr. introduced us to  his SOTAR products and allowed us to buy three boats on installment basis.” 

Factura recalls  his early experience with the adventure sport.

“I started to go on weekends as a paddler, not as a raft guide. I joined every weekend, whenever there were friends who just wanted paddle with us, eventually gaining experience and being confident to bring a group in the boat as a raft guide. There’s always a feeling of excitement/thrill, especially when you’re guiding ang bringing guests on the river, he reminisces.”

“We had a book “The Guides’ Guide Augmented: Reflections on Guiding Professional River Trips” by William McGinnis. It helped me a lot on the do’s and don’ts of river guiding.”

A picture from one on the first upper river exploratory trips taken in 2005. R-L: Ron Foster, Randy Shelman, Glenn Lewman Jr., Chisum Factura, and Glenn Lewman III (photo courtesy of JB Deveza)

“We didn’t have any formal training until we met Glenn Lewman Jr. of SOTAR who introduce us to the IRF in 2005. I usually did the lower and mid-sections of the river. I was one of the pioneering guides who ran the upper river section. We started at Bgy. Sto. Niño, Talakag after the IRF trainings,” he added.

But even earlier than that, the group was already offering rides to the public practically for free since all they had to pay was for the jeepney fare from Divisoria to Taguanao.

When the outfitters later started charging for the rides, they started at P300, which later increased to P500, P700 up to the present P1,200 per head.

The first white water rafting guests came to Rupert’s residence, and later the pick-up points moved to the McDonald’s parking lot in Limketkai Center and in Plaza Divisoria, while still others parties preferred to be picked up in their respective hotels. Although SM Uptown provided a space for this purpose for the outfitters at their parking building, guests still preferred to meet up downtown close to their respective hotels.

Then Department of Tourism Regional Director Dorothy Jean B. Pabayo was one of the staunchest champions of the infant industry, often making it the centerpiece attraction in various travel expos held around the country.

White Water Rafting as the center piece of the Cagayan de Oro Booth at th 2018 Philippine Travel Mart. (photo courtesy of ExhibitsToday.ph)

However, to ensure the safety of their guests, the outfitters contracted an instructor from the US with the help of Lewman to train their members as international river guides.

“We pooled our resources for the plane fare of two trainers and the training was conducted at Ugiaban around 2006 under IRF guidelines and accreditation,” Domingo recalls.

“I was one of those who got certified as a Class 3 River Guide,” Factura said. “To ensure the safety of our guests, the proper training of our guide and the provision of the proper safety equipment is really important.”

Eventually, Factura got certified as a White Water Rescue Technician-PRO in 2020 by Rescue3 Europe, along with five other river guides from Kagay.

One of the best rapids of the section with class 3-4 rapids. Visible from the top of the highway going to Talakag, Bukidnon. (photo courtesy of Chisum Factura)

With Cagayan de Oro already under Alert Level 2 these past four weeks, hopes are high rafters can again enjoy the incomparable thrill of white water rafting along Cagayan River.

(For a more detailed account of the early days of White Water Rafting in Cagayan River, click here to read JB R. Deveza’s account of one of the early upper river sections exploratory trips by the white water rafting pioneers in 2005.)

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