Whitewater rafting in the Philippines is a fast growing business, with a wealth of rivers and dozens of eager rafting companies to choose from. But it's hard to beat the convenience of being picked up right from the airport and dropped off at the jump-off point, as First Rafting Adventure in Cagayan de Oro does for its clients.
Not that they're trying to make up for a lackluster experience downstream, because Cagayan de Oro also offers a wild playground for whitewater enthusiasts. The city's eponymous river is studded with more than twenty rapids from class I to VI. Whether you're a newbie or a hardened adrenaline freak, the challenge you seek lies on Cagayan de Oro River.
The Beginners' Course will set you back $14.50 (PHP 700), but for that you get a 12 km ride commanded by expert guides through a 7.6 mile course with 14 rapids, free pickup from the airport and to your hotel of choice; use of safety gear like helmets, life vests, and paddle, and use of dry bags for your electronics and other valuables.
An advanced "adventure-class" course is also available for rafters who seek a bigger challenge. This takes place on a longer 20km stretch of river further upstream from the beginners' course, and provides 21 rapids to thrill the expert rider.
Brief Training Session, Cagayan de Oro River
Our guides recommend wearing beach attire for the trip, as the spray will soak you to the bone; a change of dry clothes; sandals or aqua shoes; and sunblock. Flip flops are acceptable but not highly recommended, as these can easily slip off and get lost.
The guides begin each trip with a run-through of the different commands issued by the boat guides, and a briefing on safety rules for the trip. None of this is rocket science; passengers must simply know how to paddle forward, paddle back, and turn.
The equivalent of buckling in is to simply "lock one's feet" by tucking them into the inflatable cushions before each passenger - any other restraint would be dangerous should the boat get flipped over. Once the lecture is complete, there's only time for a single dry run, then it's off into the thrashing current.
CDOWWRA's Way, Cagayan de Oro River
The fourteen rapids down the 7.6-mile Beginners' Course range between class 2 to class 3.5, offering an exciting ride that's safe enough for toddlers to raft on (according to our guide, the record for the youngest Cagayan de Oro river rafters belong to Canadian twins, one-year-olds were taken along by their parents; luckily the Philippines is out of Child Protective Services' jurisdiction).
The whole trip takes three hours on a sturdy SOTAR (State-of-the-Art Raft) that seats six to eight passengers. The guide steers at the back, while the passengers sit at the edges of the raft and follow the guide's commands, paddling as needed.
Above, the rafts negotiate the first of the fourteen rapids on the course; "CDOWWRA's Way", after First Rafting Adventures' original name. The names of the first seven rapids will be revealed on the next page.
First Four Rapids - Cagayan de Oro River
From "CDOWWRA's Way", riders will encounter the next six rapids that comprise the first half of the tour:
Rapid Two: "We're Busy" is a class 2 rapid that keeps rafters occupied, just as the name implies.
Rapid Three: "Makabundol" derives its name from the local word meaning "to bump"; the current takes rafts dangerously close to a sheer rock wall, which requires an immense amount of paddling to avoid.
Rapid Four: "Twister" is a bigger challenge, a more pronounced drop that the guides encourage rafters to take standing up.
A stretch of calm but quick-running water follows "Twister" - rafters can jump from their boats and enjoy the cold water; you can ride the current until you reach a stiff curve that almost smacks you against another cliff wall if you let it. Above, a few rafters enjoy the water immediately following Twister.
Rapids five to seven are explained on the next page.
Changing Landscape, White Water Rafting
Rapid Five: "Chris' Drop" is named after a former CDOWWRA guide who was the first to fall overboard on this spot way back in 1995.
The territory changes from bedrock to limestone from this point forward - careless guides can get their rafts punctured by the jagged cliffs and rocks on either bank, but eagle-eyed rafters can spy the fossilized seashells embedded in the cliff faces. Wild orchids can also be seen dangling from the overhangs that loom over the rafters.
Rapid Six: "Ka Bernie" is named after a farmer who owns lands adjacent to this area.
Rapid Seven: "Halfway" is the midpoint of the Beginners' Course, preceding a long stretch of calm water before the second half commences with bigger rapids.
Lava Rock, Cagayan de Oro River
The three-hour ride takes rafters close to some interesting geological features… sometimes uncomfortably close, as the strong current will float the raft inches away from some jagged limestone surfaces, until the rafters' dogged paddling kicks in.
Further down the course, lava formations make an appearance, such as this giant boulder in the middle of the river. At this point, rafters are allowed to get off the boat and climb the rock, or swim in the calm water surrounding the rock.
Limestone Wall, Cagayan de Oro River
After a long calm stretch, rapids 8 to 14 follow in quick succession:
Rapid Eight: "Pasiunang Dapit", or "first offering" in the local language, takes its name from being the first round in the second half. Rafters will encounter a long calm stretch between rapids eight and nine.
Rapid Nine: "Butchok's Way" is named after the proprietor of the land abutting the river at this point. Guides also call this part of the river "Naked Island" due to the butt-naked village kids who play by its shore.
Butchok's Way is also remarkable for the hollowed out cavern in the towering limestone cliffs nearby. Swallows nest in the cavern, which also provide a livelihood for villagers who collect the bird's nest to sell to restaurants for about twenty dollars a kilogram.
The swallows attract snakes, which is why the three-storey limestone cliff near Butchok's Way is called "Snake Wall". Rafter may spot a discarded snake skin or two hanging from the vegetation growing from the cliffs if the raft floats close enough.
The Home Stretch, Cagayan de Oro River
Rapid Ten is actually two rapids, only one of which can be taken at any given time - "Brave's Way" is a bumpier, more challenging route compared to the frisky yet relatively tame "Coward's Way".
After Brave's Way (no self-respecting guide will take their passengers through Coward's Way), Rapid Eleven awaits: "Surprise", a rather technical class 3 rapid that can take even the most experienced guide unawares.
Rapid Twelve sweeps boats dangerously close to the sheer limestone cliffs - not for nothing is this rapid named "Eat the Wall";
Rapid Thirteen is a watery scrum known as "The Rodeo" - braver rafters are encouraged to stand up while negotiating this stretch.
Rapid Fourteen, the last rapid for the Beginners' Course, is "Macahambus Way", named after the nearby cave that can be explored by rafters afterward for an additional fee.
Cabula River Grill, Cagayan de Oro River
The jeepney that dropped you off at the starting point will wait for rafters at the finish line, along with your baggage.
The Cabula River Grill at the endpoint (whose interior you see above) offers clean changing rooms and toilets so you can get out of your wet clothes. They also serve a mean roast pork and grilled shrimp, so don't miss out on the food here - if start in the morning, you'll be here in time for lunch, and you'll be mighty hungry once you step off the raft!
For more information on First Rafting Adventure, you can email their office at email@example.com, call their landline at +63-88-857-1270, or visit their website at www.raftingadventurephilippines.com.
Other rafting providers also serve adventurers on the Cagayan de Oro River, among them Kagay (21 Aguinaldo Street, Cagayan de Oro City; phone: +63 88 310 4402) and Red Rafts (phone: +63 928 935 5358; email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Cagayan de Oro City is easily accessible via domestic flight from Manila to Lumbia Airport (compare prices). Manila, in turn, can be reached via direct flights from New York (compare prices), San Francisco (compare prices), and Los Angeles (compare prices). If you make arrangements with First Rafting Adventure beforehand, they'll pick you up at the airport and take you straight to the jump-off point.