Does magic truly exist? Are there magical places out in the wilds of the world? This is a question whose answer will depend largely on who you ask. Yet although it is uncertain if magic really exists in the world, there are certainly wondrous places on our planet that certainly seem to make one entertain the idea that it just may. One such place lies tucked away within a quaint rainforest in the Philippines, an achingly beautiful river that has long been surrounded by local legends. This is the Hinatuan Enchanted River, a place where it is said mermaids swim, fairies cavort, and which is indeed mesmerizing enough to make one at least want to believe that magic is real.
Located on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, which is the southernmost island of the country, there is a majestic river known as the Hinatuan River. Meandering 648 meters between the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean at Barangay Talisay, Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, it is an idyllic, palm tree lined stretch of strikingly clear water like something out of a postcard or fantasy movie. It is a mystical place, marked by its shimmering, crystal clear blue waters, that is steeped in legend and folklore, and has over the years become one of the premiere tourist destinations of the province. So wrapped in magnificence and mystery is this river that it has become known as the “Enchanted River,” a name that one can see is befitting when laying eyes upon it. Here the water is so incredibly clear that it seems as if swimmers are floating in the air, and even down in the deepest parts, one can peer through the dazzlingly clear azure water all the way to the bottom, which is up to 80 feet down in some places. The surface is typically completely placid, seeming as if to be made of glass, and this combined with the impressive clarity of the water indeed gives the place the feeling of being photoshopped even when seeing it in person. Adding to the unreal, magical quality of the place is the plentiful indigenous flora lining the crystalline water, with the glimmering reflections of palm trees and stunningly beautiful flowers cast upon the surface as if floating in space or etched upon glass. The silvery sparkle of scales in the sunlight can also be glimpsed from large fish that cruise along under the glassy sun flecked clear blue water like something out of a fairy tale.
Down in the depths of one of the river’s lagoons there can be seen passages and chasms that branch off out of sight. These underwater tunnels lead down into a subterranean cave system that was only first tentatively explored in 1999, by a cave diver named Alex Santos. In 2010, the caves would further be explored by a Dr. Alfonso Amores, along with Bernil Gastardo and Emgee Guillermo, who would discover numerous underwater chambers, caverns, fissures, and still more tunnels leading off into uncharted territory, and would lead a total of six more expeditions delving into the Enchanted River’s cave mysteries. Amores in fact gave his life to trying to unlock the secrets of the caves, dying of cardiac arrest while exploring a narrow tunnel branching off from a chamber called Mayor's Chamber, a place 40 meters down in the depths which measures 37m x 31m in size and 8m in height. Exploration of the caves has continued to this day, pushing around 200 feet into the dark, which is thought to be only scratching the surface of the full extent of a vast cave network, and indeed this largely unmapped underwater tunnel system further adds to the mystique of this wondrous place.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the almost mystical quality of this place has long spawned a good amount of legends and folklore among the local people of the area. The water is said to be kept clean and clear by various spirits, faeries, pixies, and other mystical creatures which also act as guardians of the river, and are in some traditions even said to have created it. These fairies and spirits are said to frolic about in the water at night, and the river is also said to be the haunt of mermaids which can allegedly be seen gliding through the clear blue water on occasion. The old legends say the trees surrounding the Enchanted River are the home of enkantos, which are nature spirits, similar to Dryads or Elves, that are typically said to live in large trees such as acacia and balete trees, and normally take the form of pale skinned humans with unearthly beauty. These various mermaids, spirits and fairies are supposedly often spotted by the locals either within the water or lurking along the shores. One typical such sighting was made by a father and son who claimed to have seen two beautiful alabaster skinned women bathing in the river under a full moon, and who disappeared into a whirl of fireflies when they realized they were being watched. Such sightings are commonplace among both locals and visitors. One caretaker and lifeguard at the river by the name of Felecisimo Baguasan said of the river’s alleged supernatural creatures:
Different generations and witnesses have different versions of their stories. But what we are sure that it is inhabited by mystical creatures.
The spirits are said to be most active at night, and that they will attack or chase away those who come to bathe here after dark, with many inexplicable drownings in the river being blamed on these supernatural entities. This superstition is so strong and pervasive that the river is off limits after dark, and even during the day some areas are not accessible, probably just for visitor safety but some say because the river spirits are especially aggressive there. Indeed there are sometimes complaints from visitors of getting inexplicable pains, rashes, welts, boils, scratches, or itches after bathing in the water here, and local folklore says this is most likely to happen to those who are irreverent towards the environment or who do not pay proper respect to the spirits and nature. More ominous reports tell of swimmers being suddenly grabbed, dragged, or yanked from the clear water below by some unseen force. Even out of the water it is said that if the spirits become angered they are known to lure people into the thick surrounding forests and cause them to become hopelessly lost.
Another common tale from fishermen in the area is that the fish which can be seen languidly cruising the calm waters cannot be caught by any means and will pass right through nets. Some stories say that these fish are of no recognized species, or that traps placed in the water will appear the following day twisted and mangled. Even if one were to miraculously catch one of these fish, doing so is believed to greatly anger the river’s spirit guardians and bring about misfortune to those who do. One such tale describes one fisherman who somehow managed to catch one of the Enchanted River’s enigmatic fish, which was described as being a breathtakingly beautiful specimen the likes of which no one had ever seen. The fisherman decided to publicly display the fish in an aquarium in his village. In the following days, the fisherman became gravely ill, growing weaker and more depleted by the day, and doctors were unable to find anything physically wrong with him. The story goes that as the fisherman was bedridden and seemingly on his death bed, his wife threw the fish back into the river and her husband miraculously regained his health, the mysterious affliction lifting as if nothing had happened.
While tales of mermaids, magical fairies and spirits are quite possibly pure folklore and superstition, the Hinatuan Enchanted River nevertheless possesses quite a few real, documented natural mysteries as well. One is that unlike most rivers, the Hinatuan Enchanted River is comprised of salty or brackish water, with the fish living in the river all of saltwater varieties and the source of which is not completely clear. It is thought that the salt water may be emanating from the ocean and making its way here through the underground cave system, or that back flow from the nearby Pacific Ocean, with which the Enchanted River connects, is making its way up stream somehow, but there is no definitive answer as of yet. Indeed, the very source of the river itself has long been somewhat of a mystery, as is the question of how it manages to remain so impeccably clear and free of any silt or detritus whatsoever. One suggestion is that water coming through the limestone bottom and the underground cave network is being filtered through rock, which would remove impurities and produce the crystal water, but the true reason remains elusive.
It is also unknown just how deep the river gets or to what extent its underground cave system spreads. Although exploration continues here to find answers, no one has yet been able to reach the end of the caves or to ascertain just how extensive they are, a goal made more difficult by the narrow tunnels and somewhat disorienting effect of being down there. It is thought that the caves could extend for miles and be the home to as yet undiscovered species and even totally unknown ecosystems, but exploration is slow going due to the perilous conditions. Only time will tell what mysteries await those that dare to plunge into these depths.
Another somewhat mysterious aspect of the Enchanted River is just where all of its fish come from. Many of the fish here are large enough to actually make swimmers nervous, and it is not exactly known how these saltwater species got here. The fish here are a popular attraction, especially during the daily feeding time that takes place. Every day at noon, a bell is rung which is the signal for all swimmers to exit the water. When everyone is out, a tune called the "Hymn of Hinatuan" is played over loudspeakers, upon which a large school of fish seems to materialize out of nowhere on cue, darting back and forth through the azure water. Staff members then throw rice and pieces of minced meat, shrimp, octopus, and other scraps of food into the water that instigates a veritable feeding frenzy of whirling fish and sparkling scales. This keeps up for about one hour, during which no one is allowed to enter the water and which is by all accounts a rather mesmerizing, almost surreal display. When the feeding time is over, the vast number of fish proceed to simply vanish as if they were never there, once again returning the river to a calm, clear pool where only a few fish can be seen lingering about. It is unknown just where the huge numbers of rather large fish go before and after the feeding time, but they are mostly nowhere to be seen except that one hour when the music calls to them.
The alluring, almost bewitching beauty, mysteries, and magical atmosphere of the Enchanted River have made it a very popular tourist destination for people from all over the country and indeed the world, who come here to gaze at the flawlessly clear water and go swimming. To accommodate the increasing number of visitors, who pay a mere ₱30 ($0.66) per person to enter, the area has been developed to cater to them, with cottages and seating areas for guests, as well as restaurants and numerous snack stalls selling everything from fast food to fresh seafood. For those bringing their own food, huts, tents, tables and chairs are available for picnics as well. Stairs have been installed into the cliff leading down to the river for easy access from the nearest road, where guests arrive by retrofitted motorcycles known as habal-habal, or by larger taxi vans, and a shallow portion of the river has even been fitted with concrete partitions in order to make it into a kiddie pool.
Visitors can swim in certain designated areas of the river, lifeguards are always on duty, and rafts, inner tubes, and life vests are available for rental as well. There is also the option to take a river cruise and even venture out to nearby islands. The Department of Tourism and the local government of Hinatuan plan to develop the area even further in order to capitalize on the river’s beauty and make it a premier international destination, but some locals feel that this rampant development is diminishing the natural splendor of the area and threatening the environment here. Perhaps even more of a threat to the Hinatuan Enchanted River is the increasing amount of logging in the province of Surigao del Sur that has been going on in recent years, which could mar the scenic beauty even further or lead to the river’s legendary clean, clear water to become murky and muddied.
It seems rather sad that the breathtakingly ethereal, otherworldly charm of the Hinatuan Enchanted River, which captivates and draws people from far and wide, may be the very thing that ultimately leads to its downfall. With the increased development of the area and influx of visitors, one can’t help but feel that it cannot be a good sign of things to come for the river, and that it was perhaps better off as a magical place tucked away from civilization and steeped in its mysterious folklore. Yet for now the water remains just as mystifyingly clear as it always has, with its visible caves at the bottom and fish lazily swimming about as if suspended in midair. This still feels like a place where one can easily imagine mermaids might swim, and whether it is really magical or not it is still an enchanting place that makes one feel as if they could believe in magic. If it exists anywhere, then it is here. For how long this will last remains to be seen, and one can only hope that the mystical, dreamlike beauty of the Hinatuan Enchanted River will be preserved for many future generations to come.