Saturday, July 07, 2007

Palawan: Underground river and more from Puerto Princesa

It’s been quite a while since the Philippines has had a new UNESCO World Heritage Site. The latest was still way back in 1999, with the inscription of two sites, Vigan and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park known as the Underground River.

Batanes has tried several times to get in the list but never seems to make it because of human error I was told. Besides, some experts say Batanes is not ready for inscription. Aside from being culturally significant and well-preserved, the host community has to be ready for it. That means that the ordinary man on the street should know about the UNESCO inscription, how it will affect them, as well as the duties and responsibilities that accompany such an inscription. The Underground River is a prime example of how a local government, with the right political will and proper guidance from experts, can push proper conservation policies that could lead to inscription.

The park is the only one that is managed by a local government unit in fact. It was under the care of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) before. But illegal logging was rampant. Newly-elected Puerto Princesa mayor, Edward Hagedorn brought then DENR Secretary Angel Alcala to the park to show him the illegal logging activities of the DENR personnel. This resulted in a memorandum that turned the whole area over to the city government.

Lucky day 07-07-07 was spent at the Underground River today via another group tour I booked from my hotel. According to UNESCO, “The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park features a spectacular limestone karst landscape with its underground river. A distinguishing feature of the river is that it flows directly into the sea, and the lower portion of the river is subject to tidal influences. The area also represents a significant habitat for biodiversity conservation. The site contains a full mountain to the sea ecosystem and protects forests, which are among the most significant in Asia.” This was the reason justification for its inscription in the prestigious list.

The ride to Sabang Beach, the jump-off point for the Underground River, is about two hours from the city center, with two stopovers: one as you leave the National Highway, and another at the Buenavista View Deck where you could savor a panoramic view of Ulugan Bay.

At Sabang Beach, you had to visit the park office to get a permit to visit the Underground River and book your boat to the river entrance. You could also opt to hike 2.1 kilometers up and down a mountain trail from Sabang to the river entrance. The group tours are really convenient since they took care of all the logistics. The PHP1300 I paid includes hotel pick-up, land travel to and from Sabang Beach, boat transfers from Sabang to the river entrance, all entrance fees, and lunch.

On the boat on the way to the river entrance, we were afforded stunning views of the limestone karst landscape that characterizes the park. The boat passed by a beach which I remember from my trip in 1997. Swimming is not allowed in the river entrance area which is why you had to hike up and down the Monkey Trail to get to that beach to swim.

At the river entrance, you had to sign their register, wear life jackets and protective helmets, and wait in line to board small boats with outriggers that would take you into the cave. Each boat had a battery-powered lamp in front which I would later find out while exploring the area, were charged with solar energy. Our boat guide was Toting, who is the most popular of the guides for his humor. In fact, he is sought after by visitors and is the one who appears when the Underground River is featured on television.

Indeed, he was hilarious, cracking jokes every now and then, breaking the silence inside the cave. It was a different world we entered, one covered in complete darkness, pierced by the solitary spotlight we had on board. Looking up, you would see different species of bats hanging from the ceiling, fast asleep. Their presence was obvious due to the pungent odor of guano, or bat dung, close to the mouth of the cave.

Flying around were cave swiflets (not bats as others mistake them for) that are most known for the nests they create from their saliva that become the main ingredient of nido soup. The formations inside the cave are spectacular. The speleothems (the cave formations or secondary mineral deposits) formed by thousands of years of mineral accumulation, were very interesting.

The Underground River in Puerto Princesa is the longest explored underground river in the world. A total of 8.2 kilometers have been discovered; 4.3 kilometers are navigable; but access to tourists is limited to 1.5 kilometers. You’ll have to get a special permit to explore the rest of the river.

Anyway, the tour inside the cave lasted about 45 minutes. In the picnic area, lunch was served by the guides. Just a warning though, watch out for the long-tailed macaque monkeys. If you let down your guard even just for a while, you might lose your lunch to them. Monitor lizards or bayawak also walk freely in the area.

After lunch, our group made its way back to Sabang Beach, and then the city center. But we made a brief stopover at Viet Ville to have more Vietnamese food. This time, I ordered chicken salad and beef ball soup.

Back in the city proper, I took a quick nap before heading to Balinsasayaw Restaurant where our group decided to have dinner. It was a full menu of nido soup, grilled meat and sea foods, and garlic crabs for us. Thanks to Oliver Banzon, Em’s friend, for treating us to a sumptuous dinner. The night wasn’t over since Rolly and Gigi Padilla treated us to drinks at Itoy’s Coffee just across the street. It was our last night and I was taking the Cebu Pacific flight back to Manila the next day. Although Rolly and Gigi were still staying another day for a Dos Palmas tour which completes any Puerto Princesa holiday. More photos in Multiply.


  1. Greetings Ivan. Thank you for that beautiful and very informative entry on the Palawan subterranean river. I've been meaning to go but can't find the time. When is the best time to go there anyway? Rainy season?

  2. Anytime would be fine. Although you'll have to endure longer lines/waiting time during the summer months if I remember it right.

  3. Thanks for answering so quickly. May I say that I really enjoy reading your travel blogs! Especially those of our more beautiful beaches. More power!

  4. Thanks for dropping by. Our beaches are indeed paradise. I hope to visit more soon.

  5. Anonymous20.7.07

    omg!! you posted it na, hehe =D i'll add you ha? and can i copy the pictures (even if its only the ones we were in them =D)?

  6. Anonymous20.7.07

    ganda talaga ng pinas! :)

  7. Anonymous20.7.07

    Crabs are my favorite; whether it be chili crab or garlic crab. It was definitely a fun night Ivan. I'm glad i met you and the Padillas. I saw your video on 'Mel and Joey' by coincidence. I also saw the civet cat and the coffee Alamid. ahahaha.. Although I'm quite queasy, i really want to try that coffee.

  8. Hey Oli, thanks again for dinner! Buti nalang maraming sobrang crab! Hehe! You saw that TV appearance? Haha! I'm also curious about that alamid coffee. I think you could get it cheaper in Tagaytay.

  9. Great post Ivan. I'll be in the Philippines in a week and am looking forward to visiting the UNESCO sites in the country.

    Gary Arndt

  10. ivan, 'just came across your website, which is great btw! 'was wondering if you ever got to see sammy magbanua and dennis socrates when you were there. also, be careful of the nikniks when swimming on the beach after the monkey trail. - herb85

  11. Hi Brod! Thanks for dropping by! Both Sammy and Dennis were out of town when I was there. But I also have a kabatch in Puerto Princesa.

  12. Anonymous4.4.08

    Hello Ivan,

    Great blog you have here...just wanted to know where did you stay in Puerto Princesa?


  13. I stayed at Puerto Pension. They pick you up at the airport and serve a light breakfast as well so not bad.

  14. Anonymous9.5.08

    Hi Ivan, First of all congratulations for such an excellent blog promoting the Philippines! Maybe now that the Underground River is a nominee, ranking #19 to the New 7 Wonders of Nature you can help promote it among other nominees, the Tubattaha Reef #8 & Chocolate Hills #9 through your blog.Thanks in advance and more power!

  15. james29.7.09

    Hello... How can we have a special permit? to navigate the entire river?

  16. Hello,

    Philippines is rich in natural resources. No wonder why many tourist here in the Philippines. Very Nice Article.!

  17. Tried the Nido Soup last year from like . Tastes really good... yeah, I thought it was gross at first, but wow, you won't regret it.

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  19. Anonymous19.3.12

    hi, thanks po sa blog nyo.
    pede po magtanung?
    ok lang po ba bumisita sa palawan ng first week ng july? di maulan? first timer po ako. san po ba mas maganda magpunta? gusto ko kasi mkita ang underground river. pero kung mas maganda sa busuanga kesa puerto prinsesa.. i need an opinion po please.. di ako makadecide kasi. or san po maganda puntahan sa pinas pag july? pede po rin ba pumunta sa boracay sa july? or bohol na lang po? san po maganda?
    i got only one week to go anywhere in Pinas. I would welcome your ideas.

  20. Anonymous13.4.12

    Hello Ivan, great blog! very informative about entering Underground river. My friends and I are planning to go Palawan this May and visit the Underground river and after that we are planning to go to Twin Lagoon and Kayangan Cave. Just want to ask if how long will it take to get their from Puerto Princesa City? And any advice would be very much appreciated.


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