TRAVEL | PHILIPPINES | PUERTO PRINCESA
The Underground River in Palawan
One of the main reasons why people travel all the way to Puerto Princesa, a city in the western province of Palawan, is to visit the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, where the Underground River is. Hailed as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, alongside the majestic Amazon rainforest, it is definitely a must-visit if you have travelled all the way to this part of the Philippines.
As it was our first time here, we thought that it would be more convenient to go with a package tour group, where they would arrange for everything for us including the required permits, tour guide, lunch, entrance fees, pick-up service from the hotel and back home again, in an air-conditioned van.
All in all, we paid P1,800 each for the tour the next day.
Any tricycle driver would be able to recommend you to a tour agency, so go with whoever you feel most comfortable with. Pack up your camera, insect repellent, sunscreen lotion, and comfortable shoes, and you’re good to go.
Note: While it is possible to organize the trip yourself without a tour agency to handle the details, it is a bit cumbersome especially if you are looking to relax and enjoy the experience instead of spending a lot of time coordinating, and applying for tour permits which are limited.
We woke up early at 8am to be picked up from the hotel at around 8.30am. Hungover from the night before, drinking Red Horse, we felt worse for wear. Our hotel receptionist certainly didn’t make us feel any better, warning us that the 2-hour road trip to Sabang, where everyone would be waiting to take a boat to the entrance of the Underground River, would be bumpy and winding.
She was not joking… Soon after we hit the road at top speed to get to Sabang, motion sickness started to set in. To describe our ride as a rollercoaster ride would not be too far from the truth. But in this case, this particular ride lasted 2 hours. Not 2-3 minutes!
Hungover. Rollercoaster ride. 2 hours in the backseat of a van. The only thing that saved us was the plastic bag holding our breakfast… While we wanted the trip to end faster, we asked the driver to slow down. This improved the overall experience significantly.
If you have a tour driver like ours, please do not hesitate to tell them to slow down!!
Once we reached Sabang, we had to wait for our guide to get our permits and assigned boats to take us to Sabang Beach. There were a few shops catering to tourists, where we could buy snacks, drinks, souvenirs and necessities like sunblock, waterproof bags to keep valuable items from getting wet.. Lala couldn’t resist the avocado shake and got one from a fruit shake stall for just P80! We are used to SGD $4-5 for the same in Singapore…
After a short 20 minute boat ride from Sabang Beach, we landed on a beautiful beach and trekked through a short jungle path to get to the river. Another smaller paddle boat waited for us here, big enough to fit 8 people. Lifejackets, hard helmets and audio devices were distributed to us, and we were so excited to finally get to see what the fuss was all about!
Everyone was advised to keep silent so as to not disturb the animals living in the darkness of the cave. Flash photography, however, was allowed. The boatman assigned to us would occasionally point his strong flashlight at several formations resembling fruits, vegetables, and animals while the audio tour took us through the journey. The most fascinating of them all, were the formation referred to as the “Cathedral” towering over us, and the “Holy Family” rock formation, which was really enchanting.
Other than the stalagtites and the stalagmites, we also spotted lots of bats either hanging upside down, or flying around looking for their lunch! We were warned that some of them might release their droppings on unsuspecting tourists, so don’t wear your Sunday best to this tour!
The whole journey inside the Underground River cave took 45 minutes from the start to finish, which we found to be quite short compared to all the time we invested on the road to get here. The tour is about 1.5km long at this point. Once more of the cave system has been explored and mapped out further, the tour might become longer.
After the tour through the cave, it was time for us to go back to Sabang Port at Gusto Grill and Resto for lunch at one of the restaurants there. The lunch was served buffet style, so it was our chance to sample a few of the local Filipino dishes such as grilled local mackerel “tulingan”, pancit, kare-kare, and others. Not much of spiciness could be detected, which is typical of Filipino cuisine. Lots of pork dishes were served there, so it could be challenging for Muslim tourists. Do let your tour guide know if you have any food restrictions to see if they could make special arrangement to cater to your needs.
Looking back, we thought that the whole-day tour was worth going for. However, there is always room for improvement. We felt that the Underground River was too brief at 45 minutes, since we travelled on the road for 4 hours, back and forth.
We wish that we were given some time to explore the Sabang Beach on our own for an hour or so, or just to relax by the water. If they could combine the tour with another activity around the area, it would be more time-efficient and worthwhile. On our way back, we drove past Karst Mountain (Elephant Cave), which was one of the featured pitstops on The Amazing Race Philippines and Ukraine, but we were not allowed to enter. The stop did allow us to take some photos though.
We got back to the hotel around 4pm, just enough time to refresh ourselves, and think ahead for what was to come for dinner… (Hint: It’s a pork dish, which originated in Cebu!)