Palawan, Exploring the Last Frontier Second Stop: The Mystical Underground River

I’ve been to Palawan, maybe twice or thrice, and had not taken advantage of the opportunity to explore this mystical place until now.  Even if our Palawan adventure was really about El Nido, we would not miss going to the Underground River, for anything.  I put that in my itinerary way ahead of the island tours in El Nido.  Glad that I did.

Tour package vs DIY?

The question foremost in any tourist mind.

I was trying to make an itinerary that includes an overnight stay in Sabang before our El Nido tour.  Unfortunately, our original travel time did not allow me to make such arrangement because of the uncertainty of transportation to Sabang from Puerto Princesa at night time when we were supposed to arrive.

We ended up booking a tour courtesy of Marianne Home Inn, our host in Puerto Princesa.  Their tour package is priced at P1,685 per pax, discounted because we are guests.  The standard rate is around P1,800 which includes RT air-conditioned van transfer, RT motorized boat transfer, buffet lunch, fees and permits, an audio device, and licensed tour guide/s. Although a bit expensive, working with travel agencies is the most convenient way to enjoy the underground river tour.

Others may opt for a DIY.  You have to secure a permit first at the Puerto Princesa Underground River  (PPUR) Office located located at the City Coliseum.  You have to present a valid ID and pay the fee to get your permit.   The PPUR Office is open on weekdays from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm and 8:00 am to 12:00 noon on weekends.  Once you reach Sabang port, you go to the Tourism Office, present your permit, and then pay the environmental (P40) and boat fees.  At the cave entrance, you’ll also need to pay for the audio device/guide.  You may check this post if you intend to DIY.

The cost of a UR tour is summarized below:

  1. Permit/Entrance fee that includes the paddle boat going inside the Underground River.(Filipino Adult – P175, Filipino Minors (13-20yo) – P100,  Foreigner Adult – P250, International Minor (13-20yo) – P150)
  2. Motorized boat from Sabang to the Underground River cost P1,100 which is good for 6 persons.  If your going to share the boat with other tourists you’re just going to pay about P184 per pax.
  3. An Audio Device that provides all necessary information during the tour costs P85.
  4. If you’re coming from city proper, the van ride going to Sabang costs P140 for Filipinos and P200 for foreign tourists.
  5. If you’re planning to do the Jungle Trail, the Entrance Fee is P200 per pax that includes your “Trail Guide” (optional)

On the day……

I had breakfast of lamayo, freshly marinated danggit , a delicacy in Palawan, while MD had spam at the hotel’s vaunted rooftop.  The breakfast set came with egg, fruit and choice of coffee or milo. We bartered trade to have the best of both worlds.  Here is how our breakfast plate looked after consummating the deal ;D

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I tried to enjoy the 360° view of the Puerto Princesa Baywalk .

The Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral looks like a castle in a fairy tale from afar.

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Being framed by city structures beneath wouldn’t give me the full satisfaction of gazing at these famous landmarks.

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After breakfast, I cut short my reverie as we hurriedly prepared for the trip. We also checked out since we will be back at the hotel in the late afternoon.  I requested to be allowed to clean up after the tour which the front desk officer readily agreed to.

We were picked up by a van around 8:00am.  We made two stops to pick up more guests.  The van wasn’t packed.  There were 10 of us including the driver and the tour guide.  The trip was about two hours through winding roads with a scenic view of the mountains, seas  and the lush greenery.

What Whets the Wanderlust of the Curious Tourist?

The Underground River was voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2012 while the National Park (where the underground river is situated) was declared  as a protected World Heritage Park by UNESCO in 1999.  The twin honors makes this beautiful and mystique underground river the main attraction of Palawan, one that a no-nonsense traveler would include in her itinerary. The uniqueness, natural beauty and grandeur of the river as well as word-of-mouth help in making this new wonder one of the world’s most sought-after tourist destinations.

The Puerto Princesa Underground River is the longest and most navigable underground river in Asia and the second longest in the world. This five mile underground river boasts of unique cave formations with unusually large chambers and domes at least 900 feet from the water level.

In 2010, a group of environmentalists and geologists discovered that the underground river has a second floor, indicating the existence of small waterfalls inside the cave. They also found a cave dome measuring 300 m (980 ft) above the underground river, rock formations, large bats, a deep water hole in the river, more river channels, and another deep cave, marine creatures and more.  Continuous exploration in the cave and river is ongoing to discover other features.  Deeper areas of the underground river are, however, almost impossible to explore due to oxygen deprivation.

While the tourist site has always been known as an underwater river, its location on the St Paul Mountain Range is actually 100 feet above sea level.  The river is brackish meaning it has some mixture of salt water which can be attributed to the tidal influence of the South China Sea to which the underground river directly flows out to.  The entire length of UR is about 8 kilometers or approximately 5 miles but only half of its length is navigable. However, the river tour covers only about half (about 2 kilometers) of the navigable length due to the increased risk factor when cruising beyond the two-kilometer limit .

The river cave allows the tourist to see various and extraordinary karst landscape making the cavern a unique kind of natural phenomena.  Aside from the sites unique geological features, the park showcases a complete mountain-to-sea ecosystem which caters to all forms of wildlife.  It is also home to eight types of rainforests which is quite exceptional considering that there are only thirteen types known worldwide.  These forests are home to various tree floras with different levels of endemic plants and animal life.  The park itself is considered to be the Asia’s most valuable lime forest.

Some tips…

The local government of Puerto Princesa has set a limit of only 900 visitors a day that are allowed to go on an underground river tour.  Without a permit, you will not even be allowed to go to the site.  In short, “no permit, no tour”.   You are advised to book your tour at least a week or a month before your intended date visit.

Underground River tours can be cancelled due to bad weather condition.  It is best to schedule your trip during the summer season.

Wear only light clothing and bring a change of clothes in case you will get wet while cruising along the underground river.  Also have with you sunscreen, sunglasses and hat to protect you from the heat of the sun.  Also bring a waterproof bag for mobile phone, jewelry and other important items and/or documents.  Do not feed the animals or any other form of wildlife you encounter along the way.  Finally,  do your share in preserving the beauty and natural status of the park.

Reaching Sabang,   our tour gave instruction for us to wait as she arranged for our turn.  There is a queueing system in getting to the motorized boats that bring tourists from the Sabang Port to the Underground River.

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What can MD and I do while waiting for our turn but take photos, of course…..

Underneath this mountain range, The river winds its way through the St. Paul Underground River Cave, and then goes out into the South China Sea.   IMGP0579

More pictures at the port …..

Some rules to follow before hopping on our boat,……

With other tourists, on our way to the river ……

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As we approached the shore,  we were treated to this magnificent view of its shoreline.

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Its enormous karst topography surrounding the shoreline of what is the entrance to the underground river sets it apart from any beach shore.   But this is just the beginning….. hidden from plain sight is an amazing natural wonder…..

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Stunning karst landscape…….

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I bet everyone and I mean everyone without exception posed beside this iconic marker …..

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I read that monkeys jump around and on trees and one has to be careful when walking so as not to accidentally step on one.  Some monkeys are said to have stolen guests’ belongings.   More rules to observe …… Glad that the locals are working hand-in-hand in protecting the area and its inhabitants …..

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Before entering the cave, guests are given life vests, helmets, and an audio device, which will play a guided tour track during the cave visit.  After this, we walked through a short path in the forest and a spectacular sight emerges right before our unsuspecting eyes…

At the end of the path, here is what awaits us ….

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While waiting for our turn, everyone gets busy snapping shots …

Before boarding our boat, I took a shot of our guide who is part of a team of dedicated men who happily guide tourists like us by sharing interesting bits of information.  By his lonesome, our guide would row and steer the boat safely for us to enjoy the cruise of a lifetime ….

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Then everyone piles into a small boat.  MD and I got in first.  MD was seated in front for a vantage view……

As we were cruising, this came into view…. Ain’t that one perfect shot 🙂

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As we entered the cave, I felt at peace.  The only mistake was I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I kept taking pictures in a pitch black cave save for the search light of the tour guide trained on interesting rock formations which more often than not I would miss to capture.  When I checked the pictures, I couldn’t even figure out most of them.  It’s a mistake because it was a waste of precious moments enjoying what the mystical place offers in terms of feeling its magic and allure without seeing or knowing what is around us.  While we glided quietly along the river, I felt the eeriness of  being peered by thousands of bats and other creatures that make this cave their sanctuary….

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Our tour guide/boatman would be training his search light on interesting rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites as well as its inhabitants for the duration of the cruise.  We got to see the Virgin Mary, the Nativity, Jesus Christ, corn, a mushroom and various interesting shapes.

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Reaching the end of the navigational part of the cave, our guide prepared to steer the boat in the opposite direction.  As we cruised, he continued guiding us to the rock formations and refocusing the search light on some of the familiar shapes he showed us earlier.

On our way out, we would encounter more tourists-filled boats about to share this phenomenal experience……

Then, there is light …… Amazing view after emerging from the dark side…….

The boat ride lasted about 45 minutes and when we turned back, I couldn’t help but feel I just came from a long magical journey…. It felt light… and good….

Then, we’re back to where we started this magical cruise  ………

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Walking through the same path, we would pause and collect more memories…..

A testament to being one of the New Wonders of Nature…..

While preparing to leave for Sabang Port, a booth would be showing tourists souvenir photos through a number of desktops.  A tourist can choose a photo for printing and buy it for P250 (if I remember correctly) per photo which is expensive; not environmental-friendly and not in keeping with the current need for digital photos which can be posted immediately.  I asked if I can copy the photo using a USB and pay for it but the boothkeeper said I can’t.  I decided to forego the purchase.  I really hope they can consider adopting a more environmental-friendly way of selling this photos which I am almost sure would entice more tourists to buy and be less cumbersome since there won’t be a need for materials like photo paper to print the photos.  One of our co-passengers was so generous to allow us to take a shot of the pictures she bought.  It was covered in plastic so the resulting image is not so clear….

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Before we left ….

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Updating my bucket list:

Underground River √

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We rode the boat back.

Reaching Sabang Port, we were led to Gusto Grill & Resto where we would have our lunch of fish, chicken, veggies and fruits which is part of our tour package…. Nothing fancy.  One can have as much as you want…..  Someone offered tamilok but we passed on it… not ready yet for this exotic fare … maybe, next time…

The resto is a jump-off point for tourists going to or leaving the Underground River.

As the tour guide made a final call to board the van going back to PP city proper, I had to make one last press to capture the mood of the moment … bouyant and breezy ….

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Going back to the city, I am excited about the last leg of our trip….  Yet, the mystical Underground River will be one dark slow cruise that clears away the cobwebs and tames the torrents of a harried life…..

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