Recently we took a trip to Palawan, Philippines, and LOVED it. Unfortunately, the island was so fantastic in every single way that just the word ‘love’ doesn’t seem to quite encompass our feelings about the dense green jungles planted alongside jagged limestone cliffs that protrude out of brilliantly turquoise water. I’ve been trying to come up with a blog post that adequately describes this tropical paradise for a week, but alas, my writing skills are just not up to par for a task that great.
Here is Part 1 of my attempt to do justice to Palawan, although I know the words—and even photos—won’t quite succeed.
Palawan is an island province located in the Western Philippines, quasi-close to Malaysia. More and more people are heading to Palawan now that there has been an increase in paved roads, leading to greater accessibility of the island; however, Palawan still maintains more of a natural and undeveloped feel than say the more famous party-city of Boracay. (Or so we’ve heard—having never been to Boracay I suppose we aren’t exactly experts on that.)
Upon flying into Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, our first stop was Sabang to witness the Underground River. Recently, the Underground River was listed as one of the New7Wonders of Nature, and being so close we decided it would be silly not to check it out. What makes the river so unique is that it is one of the world’s longest underground rivers at 8.2 kilometers. The caves inside have stalactites, stalagmites, and THOUSANDS of bats. It’s quite eerie floating through the silent darkness, only to look up, to see the top of the cave literally covered in sleeping bats. (Guano…yummie!! Ace Ventura anyone…anyone?) Anyway, the guides are quite good and will point out all the formations in the cave, some which remarkably resemble fruit, animals, and even Virgin Mary. Unfortunately you aren’t able to see the entire 8.2 kilometers, but with all those bats hangin’ around I was ready to exit the cave when we did.
The river is a pretty cool experience, and definitely worth the time to see. The government seems to be doing a very good job managing the site, regulating the number of tourists allowed per day and streamlining tourists while keeping prices down.
Of course, everyone who flies into Puerto Princesa wants to see the Underground River, and there are numerous tour agents waiting at the baggage claim to sign you up for their tour. For around P1200, you’ll get roundtrip transfer from Puerto Princesa to Sabang, Underground River Permit (which you must have as the government places a limit on the number of tourists allowed per day), bangka transfer to the river site, river tour, and lunch. It’s not a bad deal considering all you have to do is hop on the van, and it’s the option most people choose. But, it wasn’t really for us. Driving nearly three hours just to see the river with a bunch of other tourists only to drive straight back to Puerto Princesa? Nope.
What we did, and recommend, is to spend a night in Sabang. You’ll get to experience a bit more of the village and the people, and there are plenty of nice budget accommodations to choose from. We opted for the lovely Bambua, and would highly recommend it for its serene and quiet location.
We found it a little difficult to find comprehensive DIY River Tour information online prior to our trip, so this is our advice to fellow travelers seeking to avoid the tour groups. You’ll see it’s not nearly as difficult as most people make it sound!
- Upon arrival at the airport you can get to Sabang via a private van (and ideally find other travelers to split the cost with you), take a scheduled air-conditioned van through a company, or hop on the public bus, possibly having to ride on the roof. Our flight arrived in the morning and the next public transportation option wasn’t until the afternoon, so we hired our own driver to get to Sabang as quickly as possible.
- On the way, we stopped at the Underground River Office in Puerto Princesa to pick up our permit for the following day. And this is our biggest piece of advice: sign up to be in the first time slot to visit the river! Although we hadn’t heard of the river prior to researching trip options in Palawan, it is a very popular destination, especially with all the ‘wonder of the world’ publicity. And because most people sign up for a tour out of Puerto Princesa, it gets extremely crowded late morning/into the afternoon. But if you go at 8:00am, there are very few people around, you don’t really have to wait in line at all, and the whole atmosphere has a more natural and serene quality to it. Buying a permit will set you back P250 if you are a foreigner, and only P150 if you are Filipino.
- If you have the first time slot, then wake up early and get down to the pier where the bangkas leave at around 7:30am. You will first need to get your permit authorized, which only takes a few minutes. You can then find some people to share the bangka ride with you to the mouth of the river. The boat costs P650 for six people, one-way; roundtrip it is P750. So divided by 6 people, that’s only around P100—pretty good.
- Once you arrive you will have to wait until they call your boat number, and your guide will officially begin. Enjoy!
The river tour is quite short for all the time invested to actually see it, so we suggest hiking the Monkey Trail back from the river to add to the experience. The monkeys of Palawan are surprisingly good trail blazers as it’s not a challenging hike (although a little difficult to do in sandals), and a gorgeous way to experience the lush jungle of the island. It takes about 2 hours to complete, and the clearly marked path will bring you straight back to Sabang. While we saw all the monkeys and monitor lizards before we started the trek, it’s still very pleasant.
So that’s our complete guide to seeing the Underground River. Per person, if you take the Monkey Trail without a guide, it will only cost you P350. Granted that is from Sabang, not Puerto Princesa, and it doesn’t include lunch, but it is still cheaper, and more relaxing, than signing up for a P1200 tour. *The crux to keeping it cheaper is to take public transportation (P150) or find people to split the cost of a van hire from Puerto Princesa to Sabang, which can go for P3,500 for 12 people, roundtrip.*
There isn’t much to Sabang other than the Underground River, but there is a nice little beach to relax on and mangrove tours if you’re interested in that sort of thing. The Underground River seems to be really helping the town of Sabang, as there are now paved roads connecting it to Puerto Princesa, and an increase in jobs for locals living there. You will notice that there is no pharmacy though—one must make the drive to Puerto Princesa for medicine or even contact solution. Hopefully with continued sustainable management over the Underground River, the tourism will continue to benefit the people living in Sabang.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Palawan Adventure, all about the crown of the island and focus of our trip—El Nido!