The heat of the noonday sun made everything shimmer. In the distance, the twin mountains that form a gorge, shone brilliantly like jewels.

Lying at Metro Manila’s fringe, Montalban in Rizal is home to the Montalban gorge, where a river’s path gave rise to numerous caves over millions of years.

Mt. Pamitinan on the left and Mt. Binicayan on the right flank the mighty Wawa River that became a major source of energy in the last century when the Wawa Dam was built.

Montalban is also the setting of enduring folklore, the legend of Bernardo Carpio, the town strongman. The story goes that, with his bare hands, Carpio stopped the mountains from colliding and crushing the villages on the riverbanks.

He took the fancy of one “engkanto” and she sought to test his strength. She captured him and chained him to the wall of one of the caves.

Every 100 hundred years, he manages to break one chain, shaking the earth in the process. Supposedly, he will become completely free in this century and will deliver the Filipinos from bondage.

Scientific records actually indicate that the gorge was created 25 million years ago when limestone formations started to appear and accumulate, and combined with the remains of marine organisms that lived there when the area was still a shallow sea.

Earthquakes caused movement, leaving the limestone in its present site. The river’s continuous flow along the limestone cracks formed caves and channels. In one of these caves, history was made.

The Pamitinan cave hosted a very important meeting between Andres Bonifacio and the Katipuneros on April 10, 1895. The hero and eight other revolutionaries made the long journey to San Mateo on a calesa. After a brief rest, they proceeded on to the cave in Montalban, weaving deep into its tunnel, then stopping in an isolated chamber. Inside the cave, historians believe, the first cry for independence was made, with the group vowing to fight for freedom. Bonifacio and his men etched the words “Viva la Independencia” on the wall and signed their names.

Three decades later, Teodoro M. Kalaw, then head of the National Library, organized an expedition to verify this story. He was accompanied by a member of the 1895 group, Guillermo Masangkay.

With the natural movement of the earth, the ground level rose in some areas, making the passageway narrower. The group negotiated the treacherous terrain for several hours, sometimes crawling, until it reached an elevation that led to a wide wall.

With light from torches, the group saw unmistakable proof-the names of Bonifacio and the eight others, with the date April 11, 1895. The statement itself, “Viva la Independencia,” had been written over by more recent visitors and had become illegible. But the names were unmistakable.

Kalaw also wrote his own name on the left wall about 400 meters into the cave.

In World War II, the cave became the hiding place of fleeing Japanese soldiers, many of whom died. In their memory, the Japanese government erected a marker at the entrance.

Today, the cave remains a historical and natural jewel. Interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations, resembling chandeliers, altars and the like, still adorn the cave walls. Sadly, vandals have sawed off some of the formations, bringing them home as tabletop decor.

To prevent further damage, the area has been placed under the Protected Areas Management Bureau. While still open to visitors, a gate has been constructed at the entrance to regulate people’s coming and going. Visitors who want a guided tour can ask at the foothills for Mang Antek, the town’s official caretaker of the Wawa River grounds and a resident since the ’50s.