Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

It was kind of sad to be leaving El Nido, even though we had been there two weeks, as I felt we had only been there five nights with our friends, and another couple of nights with them would have completed the experience. In regards to Corong Corong Beach and El Nido, there are lots of positives, with some negatives. The positives being that it is all very beautiful, there is plenty to do, it is fairly cheap by western standards and most ‘things’ you need are available. The negatives are the crowds; the fear of, and the suffering of food poisoning and diarrhoea; the bloody racket the Roosters make in the morning; and the way the infrastructure, electricity, roads, etc, struggle to cope with the growing demand.  Would I recommend El Nido?  Yes!

We went to Puerto Princesa next by minivan. The six hour journey cost AUD$30 per person. We actually ‘invested’ in booking a bigger, more comfortable minivan with Daytripper Palawan  This company guaranteed not to pick up locals, en route, and to only have a set number of passengers, so that we were not all squashed in, like our journey from Puerto Princesa to El Nido was.

The journey by road to Puerto Princesa from El Nido was an interesting trip with the first half of the journey through hills and jungle and the second half follows the coastline. About 90 minutes from Puerto Princesa we stopped at a water theme park and used their fancy restaurant for lunch – this was certainly not the usual lunch time stopping place for minivan travel.

In Puerto Princesa we were booked in at Microtel by Wyndham Resort for seven nights and the cost was AUD$820. In hindsight, we stayed at Puerto Princesa too long; three or four nights would have been sufficient. An alternative for us would have been to stay another night at El Nido and to then go to Port Barton for a few days. We heard many good things about Port Barton whilst we were in Palawan.

The Microtel is a lovely resort, but like so many resorts it is isolated and you basically rely on the resort shuttle bus or calling a tricycle to go anywhere. Having said that, tricycles are not a very good option as, firstly you need to ring for them and secondly, the road into the resort is of very poor standard with many potholes – a very bumpy ride indeed.

View from our room. Courtesy of Lynda

The Microtel is, though, on the beach and a beautiful beach it most certainly is. I will be a little critical of the hotel staff and some of them were reluctant to actually do something without being asked to do it. At the buffet breakfast there was a ‘special’ each morning, it took us a day or two to find this out as no breakfast staff told us. The ‘special’ ranged from bacon to mangos and you had to ask for it – how do you know to ask unless you know about it. The buffet food would often run out and you had to go and ask the staff who, at times, were staring blankly at a phone screen, to replenish it. Having said that though, some staff was excellent. The front counter staff spoke great English, yet there were so many confusions and lost in translation moments. An example was when the six of us were booked on the wrong day for an excursion. The front counter staff rung our room at 11pm to confirm our tour for the next day at 7am – no, we booked for the next day. In fourteen months of travel that has never happened – let alone a phone call at 11pm to confirm.

The ocean here is very tidal and at high tide the ocean laps the resorts’ beach – at low tide you can walk out on sand for a few hundred metres. We had the privilege of having a full moon rise one evening as we sat on the beach consuming a few beverages. It certainly was one of the most gorgeous nights of our journey so far.

We would catch a resort shuttle to Robinson Mall and buy very cheap alcohol, corn chips, dips, cheeses, etc, and then have these mini parties on the beach – yes, older people do ‘partayyy’. Normally resorts do not allow the consumption of outside alcohol on the premises and insist you buy from them; but not this resort, and to be honest it made the stay far more enjoyable. Of course our behaviour was exemplary and we never became unruly.

The main tourist attraction for Puerto Princesa, and probably the only reason to stay here longer than a day or two, is the Underground River. The Underground River is about 80 kilometres from Puerto Princesa  near the town of Sabang. We booked a tour through the hotel which cost about AUD$60, including lunch and entry ticket to the Underground River.  It was on this tour we met Marcus from Germany and Emily, his lovely Filipino girlfriend, these two would shadow us over the coming week.

We were picked up bright and early at 7am by our guide, Denis, and were off on a windy two hour drive through some lovely mountain scenery to Sabang. Sabang has a small village, two very large resorts – it could be worth staying here rather than Puerto Princesa, and the ferry wharf to the Underground River.

I must give credit here to the organisational skills of the Filipino Government. We have been to places and countries where tourist locations are an absolute shamble and mess, with the word ‘organisation’, being something only found in the dictionary. The Underground River though was so efficient the Swiss and Germans would look on with envious tears in their eyes.

On arrival at Sabang, Denis had to go to the wharf and book our group onto a waiting list to go to the Underground River. Denis returned and said we had a two hour wait until our number would be called and our group ready to depart. We then had several options, we could lie on the beach and wander around the small town, we could go ziplining (at our expense), we could go on a mangrove boat tour (at our expense) or we could have a very early lunch. We unanimously chose the mangrove boat tour.

The Mangrove Tour was at the opposite end of the beach to the wharf. Our driver took us down there whilst Denis waited at the wharf to keep our spot in the line – if you are wondering, yes thousands of tourists start coming here from as early as 6am, but the process is filtered and, as I said, organised so that you never feel like you are drowning in tourists.

The Mangrove Tour costs 400 Pesos each (AUD$10). This tour is also part of the government project to give all locals in the area a job and for the locals to benefit from the Underground Rivers’ popularity. There seemed to be so many people who were part of the process, one person takes your money, another gives a receipt, another person gives you your life jacket, another walks you to your boat and helps you get in, then you have someone paddle the boat and another is your English speaking guide. Everyone has a job.

The tour was peaceful and a pleasant enough way to pass the hour.

We saw several snakes, some squirrels, frogs, etc and we were given a commentary of the mangrove eco-system. The water was not clear and but rather muddy, as it was tidal. The tour certainly beat sitting in line waiting at the wharf.

Several non poisonous snakes were hanging from the trees.

After the Mangrove Tour, the driver took us back to the wharf and we joined the queue. I must admit it was the most pleasant queue we have encountered in Asia. We sat and, every now and then, they called a number and that group of people went with their guide and got on to a boat.

Boats waiting for passengers

We were number 92, the 92nd tour group to the Underwater River that morning, it was still just after 10.30am. When you consider we only had eight people in our tour, whilst others (mainly the Chinese ones) had up to 40 people, you can imagine the volume of people going into the Underground River.

When our number was called, just before 11am, it felt we had hardly waited and, other than a few vendors trying to sell little knick knacks, it was a pleasant enough wait. We donned our very sexy and compulsory orange life jackets and set sail for the Underground River.

The trip took about 15 minutes and to be honest was a beautiful journey.

The water was a crystal clear blue and, in places, we saw the sandy bottom, coral and colourful fish. The coastline was a rugged collection of spectacular limestone mountains. We passed the zipline and watched people descending. This was all done on a colourfully decorated boat on a beautiful day – what more could you ask for!!!!

We arrived at a large beach and we were aghast as to the number of boats pulled up on the beach or moored just off it – there were certainly some people at this place.

The first thing you do on arrival at this beach is queue for a photo with the entry sign – sometimes you just have to be a tourist!

Arriving at the beach preparing for our obligatory tourist photo

Once your photo is taken with the entry sign you have a ten minute walk along a footpath to a lagoon where the river cave entrance is. You then come to a screeching halt as there are people everywhere waiting to enter the cave.

The process is again that your guide gets you a number and you wait for your number to be called – we were number 56 (I do not know why, we just were). You then sit in the shade and wait.  It is, though, entertaining watching the other ‘tourists’ take selfies, pose like supermodels, pout like sex kittens, swing their hair around like strippers. Then, of course, once you are bored with watching the men you can watch the women do pretty much the same thing but with more grace – got to love Chinese Tourists and selfies!!!!!!!!!

It does become a bit of a countdown, as number 47 is called, then number 48 and they pile into the canoes, then 49 and it takes five canoes to get them all into the river cave, before number 50 is called.

This process does not take long and I never felt bored – we waited about an hour. It was soon number 55 and once they were off we waited for our little canoe to come paddling along.

We all had to wear sexy yellow helmets and life jackets of course. The helmets were not to protect our heads from clashing with rocks, they were to protect us from falling bat poo in the cave!!! We also needed to take care looking up opened mouthed and in awe – it could be unpleasant!!

Emily was in the front of the canoe due to her being the lightest person and weight needed to be distributed even in the canoe. We all gave the mandatory thumbs up and we slowly set off on a unique experience.

The Palawan Underwater River was the longest underwater river cave in the world until the discovery of another underwater river cave in Mexico’s  Yucatan Peninsula in 2007. The Palawan cave is over 24 kilometres long with a river running through it for 8.2 Kilometres. Only 4.3 Kilometres of the 8.2 Kilometres is navigable by boat. Our trip would take us about 1.5 Kilometres into the cave.

In 2011, after a world-wide vote, a list of New Seven Wonders of Nature were selected. This is not to be confused with the original Seven Natural Wonders of the World consisting of: Aurora Borealis, harbour of Rio De Janeiro, Grand Canyon, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Mount Everest, Mexico’s Paricutin Volcano and Victoria Falls.

The New Seven Wonders of Nature consists of; Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park, Amazon Rainforest and River, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Jeju Island in South Korea, Iguazu Falls, Komodo Island in Indonesia and the Table Mountain in South Africa.

You cross the beautiful blue water and enter a small cave opening.

Once you enter the cave there is audio commentary by way of a small transceiver you have around your neck, the ear phones provided allow you to listen to the commentary in various languages. You are also supposed to be very quiet in the cave as noise can impact on the biodiversity of the cave eco system.

The canoe paddler shines his light at various rock formations as the commentary explains what they are and what they are called.

The most interesting to me, and others I would imagine, was the rock formation called ‘Sharon Stone being interviewed in Fatal Attraction’ – the mind boggles but I never saw the resemblance – I need more imagination!!!

It was also interesting to see markers and dates written on the wall of the caves from the 1930’s. Apparently these markers represented an unknown expedition to the cave. The makers of the writing have never been identified as no official record was kept or the makers never submitted a report of their findings.

Di and I have been in some caves during our travels; smelly caves, slippery caves, caves with a big ocean swell, colourful caves, but this cave was enthralling.  The cave had some major formations of stalagmites and stalactites and drifting through it all was eerily mesmerising.

It took about 40 minutes to paddle up and back down the river inside the cave. On exiting the cave the cave exit looks just like the map of Australia – imagination is required here.

Can you see the outline of Australia?

On exciting the cave the sunlight is dazzling and it takes your eyes a minute to adjust. We handed back the commentary radios and attended to nature, then it was back to the beach and the journey by boat to Sabang.

Heading back to Sabang

The Underground River cave is a must do experience.

On the way we passed many tourists either waiting to enter the cave, walking to it, sailing to it, or waiting in line at the wharf – but the organisation, I felt, was excellent.

We had another wonderful buffet lunch at Sabang – yep, I am getting into eating fish now, I actually went back for thirds.

On the journey back to Puerto Princesa we stopped at a gorgeous viewing area that provided views across a bay and the surrounding islands.

Denis was an excellent guide and we tipped him generously.

We had made new friends with Marcus and Emily. It was now time for a beer or three after a wonderful day out. I highly recommend the Underground River experience.

Of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, I have seen three – four to go. Of the Seven Wonders of Nature, I have seen four – three to go. I am half way.

Let the adventure continue my friends…………………….

1 Comment

  1. Margot and John

    Sounds great – like the para on the selfies!


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