Traveling in Palawan, Philippines: Puerto Princesa Underground River

Sorry for the hiatus, but I just got back from a two-week vacation to the Philippines. Oddly enough, this was my first trip to the island nation even though it’s not a long flight from Taiwan and it’s usually pretty cheap. Not sure why I never made the trip before because while I LOVE traveling, I HATE flying. Weird huh?

Anyways, my #1 goal was to sit on a beach. My #2 goal was to relax and get some quiet time. My #3 goal was to NOT get drunk and go out partying. So in the end, I chose Palawan over Boracay because the latter has a reputation for having a wild party scene and the former is known for being relatively unspoilt by tourism, yet…

Puerto Princessa
an island in Honda Bay, Puerto Princesa, Palawan

 

Getting There

I was able to get a one-way ticket for around 200 USD about 5 to 6 weeks before I wanted to fly. It was from Taipei to Puerto Princesa, a city located in southeastern Palawan. Now this price is a bit high, but I tend to splurge on flights that have a shorter layover time and leave later in the day. There are better prices depending on your timing and what you want. Some friends have gotten flights for 60 USD!

Unfortunately, direct flights to Puerto Princesa are sold out quickly so I had to hang out in Manila for what was supposed to be 3 hours. It turned out to be much longer because Cebu Pacific is THAT kind of airline and is notorious for being ridiculously late. No matter though. There was a lot of good food in the waiting area. It was a real test of willpower, especially because some of these places are hard to find in Taiwan. I opted for the Tuna Garlic Wafflewich because it seemed like something authentically Filipino, but I could be wrong…

The flight to Puerto Princesa was around an hour and pretty uneventful, but I tend to medicate myself into a blissfully unaware stupor. My Taiwanese doctor usually prescribes Xanax and Ativan for nervous flyers. Lucky me.

 

Puerto Princesa

Puerto Princesa looks like it might be a large city with streets in grids and a few malls when looking at a map, but after getting there I realized that was not the case.

Puerto Princesa
a typical main street, but there were also many unpaved dirt roads
Puerto Princesa
a beautiful fruit stand on a corner near my hotel

I opted to stay in a hotel in the main part of the ‘city’ and so finding food wasn’t too hard. The hotel offered a complimentary breakfast of rice, meat, and veggies. There was also a pretty decent mall nearby and the Philippines has quite a large and varied selection of fast food chains. Some of the more common ones: Chowking, Burger Machine, Greenwich Pizza, and of course Jollibee, which I found on my trip to the mall.

Although, if you’re not into fast food and are feeling a bit more adventurous, there are food stalls here and there as well. I won’t say they are ubiquitous, but coming from someone who’s spent the last 10 years in a country famous for street food, maybe my opinion is biased. Even so, I happened to come across a nice little stand with some incredible noodle dishes and soups. Oh, and their super special spicy hot sauce so it was love at first sight for me.

Puerto Princessa 16
a cute little food stand

 

Underground River!

OK so other than the airport and a really awesome noodle stand, what else does Puerto Princesa have to offer? The real reason I was in Puerto Princesa was for the Underground River Tour. Now in actuality the Subterranean River National Park is located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of the city center so it is a bit of a drive to get there. Technically I could’ve stayed closer, but that involved me finding my own way to some jungle hotel about an hour or so away from the airport. That didn’t seem like the safest or easiest plan especially when alone and doped up after a flight. Also, tour groups are more than willing to come pick you up at your hotel, take you there in relative comfort, get you set up, and serve you a free lunch! Tours like this are anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 pisos and your hotel can arrange it.

The Subterranean River National Park was put on the UNESCO list of natural World Heritage Sites December 4th 1999. It was recognized for its “superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.” Later, on November 11th 2011 it was declared one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Other winners include The Amazon Rainforest, Halong Bay, Jeju Island, Iguazu Falls, Komodo Island, and Table Mountain.

Puerto Princesa
a sign explaining what makes the park such an important and special place

Getting to the park is a bit of a trip, but as I said, if you get a good tour company it can be a fun and interesting adventure! From my hotel in the downtown area it was a fairly short trip of 20 to 30 minutes depending on how many people needed to be picked up. We drove to the port where we had another bit of a wait for the banca boat to come get us. While we waited, people tried to sell us pearls and red coral jewelry. Most of it was beautiful, but all of it seemed very cheap or fake. I, of course, bought a few pearl pieces and a ‘red coral’ bracelet that later smudged red stains all over my purse. I guess that means it’s legit?

Once you’re on the banca boat it’s another pretty short jaunt over to the park where the boats are just pulled up on the beach. There’s a good chance you’ll get your feet wet so dress accordingly.

Once on the beach you make your way into the park where it’s a literal jungle. Throughout the park there are plenty of posts in English about the history, geology, and local flora and fauna found in the area. Be on the lookout for monkeys, which although seem curious, aren’t as aggressive as they tend to be in places with a lot of tourists. Also seen quite frequently are monitor lizards, which tend to shy away from human interaction. From what I personally saw, the guides were all very good with keeping humans and wildlife in check.

Now to the good part! Getting to the river isn’t difficult or tedious and takes about 20 minutes at an easy pace. Maybe more if you decide to go off the trail, get lost, or tease the monkeys. Maybe less if you don’t take the time to actually appreciate where you’re at and rush on through, but i’m not here to tell you how to enjoy a park.

Once you’re through the park you’ll come to a small and probably crowded beach. This is where the small boats will drop off and pick up people as they cycle in and out of the cave.

Puerto Princesa
a boat heading off into the cave

You’ll probably be on the beach anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes while waiting for your boat. Not many people can fit into them and usually two people sit side by side in about 3 or 4 rows depending on the size of the people and the integrity of the boat. During my wait, I saw one boat needing to be bailed out quite a bit and one boat almost flip because the people were packed in a little too tight. Either way, it’s fun to watch the process and you have time to take pictures and get ready.

When it’s time to get in the boat, you’ll get a helmet and an audio device so you can listen to a guided tour while making your way through the cave. It’s a great listen! The information is varied and sometimes a bit cheesy, but there’s a lot to learn and of course see. The tour boat goes to the end and then basically comes back out almost the same way. The whole tour is about 40 minutes give or take a few. I didn’t take many pictures because I figured they wouldn’t turn out too great and I wanted to relax and enjoy the cave. You know, living in the now.

Wow! What a journey! But it’s not over yet! Once out of the cave and then out of the boat (careful!) you head back through the park to the banca. The banca boat will take you back to the harbor where you can have a buffet lunch and even a few beers. You’ll have time to explore and do a little shopping, but there’s not much around.

Puerto Princesa
one of the restaurants that cater to the tour groups

Generally that would be the end of the tour, but we had a pretty good guide who was very excited to show us around. We headed away from the harbor into the jungle to a place called Elephant Mountain. Apparently the Underground River is under that mountain. The whole area is made up of Karst topography, which basically means there’s all kinds of caves and subterranean rivers and underground hollows. This is very similar to the Mammoth Cave Park in southern Kentucky. Another beautiful cave area that everyone should check out.

Lastly, if you enjoyed reading about this place and would like to see more then you’re in luck because the Amazing Race did an episode back in 2012. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Puerto Princessa 81
if you want to see more of this area you can catch it on the Amazing Race!

Overall I would definitely recommend this place and it makes a perfect day-trip from Puerto Princesa. For tomorrow’s post I’m off to Honda Bay for some island hopping!

 

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