Yes, it's been almost ten years since I've first been to Palawan's famed Underground River. Now it's officially been named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, so I thought it was high time to revisit the place. Besides, My Bibe has never been there before.
The Underground River is part of the 22,202-hectare Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP). It also is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
Once in Puerto Princesa City, it's an approximately two-hour drive to the village of Sabang, the jump-off to the river. Though 50km away from the city proper, Sabang is still part of Puerto Princesa. Thankfully the zigzagging road is now mostly concrete with just a few rough patches.
In Sabang you need to secure a permit, which will cost you around Php 200 (I think?). This, however, can be a problem because since the river's nomination into that 7 Wonders thing, more tourists have been flocking to see it more than ever. To manage the impact on the environment, the local government has since limited visitors to 600 a day, which is still quite a number. So it's but wise to organize and confirm your tours in advance. Better yet, you can avail of those packaged tours for around Php 1,500/person with everything from transportation, lunch and permits all-in. Be also forewarned that the local authorities can cancel all tours due to bad weather or really rough seas (like what happened in December 28, 2011).
If you manage to survive the long line getting your permit, you'll have to endure another waiting time to get on a boat. I'm not sure how much the boat rides cost because we had the resort arrange everything for us to avoid any hassle. The boat unloading and loading system here is painstakingly inefficient, like it's only one boat at a time. They really need to find a more efficient way to serve their visitors, much like how Boracay has perfected its own ferry service.
This is the only spot where boats can load and unload people. Unmindful of all the chaos around, this dog was busy scratching himself -- while sitting on a 45-degree wall.
The boat ride takes between 15 to 20 minutes. Another option is to hike via the park's Monkey and Jungle Trails. I did the Monkey Trail before but unfortunately, the park rangers had to close it at the moment (because they weren't able to maintain it, according to our guide). Too bad because I really enjoyed that one. It was a beautiful 4km trek that took you along the beach, to mangroves, the forest, and up and down karst formations. It was a bit of an exercise, too!
Anyway, the boat has become the de facto way to go, and these magnificent views greet visitors upon their arrival (Disclaimer: I am NOT part of the magnificent views):
The river is still a short walk away from the beach, involving a winding walkway of wooden planks. It was pretty much the same setup ten years ago.
And then there were lots of orange! And lots of orange means lots of people. And that, in turn, means more waiting time.
After donning the mandatory life vest and helmet, visitors hop on these paddled outriggers for the actual tour. Each boat can carry around seven passengers plus the tour guide. Then a local government-commissioned photographer snaps photos from a wooden platform as visitors come in and out of the cave.
The river is reportedly 8.2km long but the tour only involves the first 2km, which is a bit of a letdown. You need a special permit to go beyond this point, and only maybe if you're part of a "scientific exploration group."
Darkness quickly engulfs you upon entering. Your only light source comes from a spotlight that the person sitting in front of the boat is assigned the task of pointing around as directed by your guide.
Bats abound inside but these ones are quite small compared to the ones in Subic or in the Club Paradise Resort in Palawan. Nevertheless, they seem unperturbed by the throngs of tourists plying in and out of their dwelling.
As was the case ten years ago, our guide recited his memorized script peppered with canned jokes. It was pretty much the same as I remember it, the guide marketing various rock formations as bearing semblances to whatever the scriptwriter can think of, from religious figures to fruits and vegetables, to animals and other characters. Having this in mind, it's not a far-fetched idea that they've nicknamed sections of the cave as "The Cathedral," where all the religious figures are, the "fruits and vegetables section," "EDSA," and more.
"The Holy Family"
"The Face of Jesus"
A "cacao," or kakaw, as our guide was trying hard to explain. I could sense his exasperation as he still wasn't able to elicit any laughter from this stoic audience.
I just loved the effect the spotlight cast on this one here.
The "Sharon Stone," according to our guide. It's a naked lady whose back is facing us. Hmn...
"Simba, The Lion King." Nah.
A "giraffe." Couldn't be; its neck is way too short.
"Two cats," or the "Hello Kitty Section," as our guide put it.
I don't know if it was our guide but I enjoyed my first time much more. This one felt rushed. I think we only spent 30 minutes inside the cave. But then they gotta accommodate 600 people, so it's a price everyone must pay. At any rate, there's still a lot to enjoy outside.
According to various literature, the park boasts of a rich biodiversity where several species of fauna abound. I was rearing to see some monkeys but we were only treated to a couple of monitor lizards, which My Bibe and I find very cute. They're quite huge, such growth attributable somehow to the absence of any predator in the area.
How cute is he?!
A standoff. I couldn't get any nearer because every time I inched closer, he'd scuttle away.
See how huge they grow!
Overall, I still did enjoy the tour. The actual Underground River paddle boat tour may be a little anticlimactic but there are a lot more things on the side that help shape the experience into a fairly good one. I'd still recommend it to anyone; try it at least once. Hopefully the local government can find a better, more efficient, and more tourist-friendly system for granting permits and for its boats. After all, it should be more fun in the Philippines.
Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Airphil Express, and Zest Air all operate daily flights from Manila to the capital, Puerto Princesa City.
Flights are also available from Cebu, with Cebu Pacific offering daily flights and Airphil Express 4X a week.
Airphil Express also flies from Busuanga (Coron) 2X a week while SkyPasada serves the Caticlan (Boracay)-Puerto Princesa route 2X a week.
Flight schedules may change, so check with the airline beforehand.
If staying in Puerto Princesa
You can simply book a day tour to the Underground River with gopalawan.travel (+63362884762) for around Php 1,500 per person. It's about a two-hour drive from Puerto Princesa. Alternatively, you may coordinate this with the hotel you're staying in for convenience. It is highly advised that you book your tour way in advance because the local government limits the daily number of visitors to the cave. You don't want to be going all the way there only to not see what you're supposed to visit in the first place.
If staying in Sabang
Once in Puerto Princesa, take a tricycle to the public bus terminal in San Jose. It's best to be there early and catch either the 7am jeepney or the 9am bus. Nevertheless, trips are available until 3pm. Please take note that because several stops are expected, travel time may take longer than two hours, around three perhaps.
Unless you're traveling in a big group or if money is not a concern, an alternative is to hire a van at the airport that will take you straight to Sabang but costs around Php 3,000 or more one-way. Your hotel/resort may, however, offer airport transfer services, so do inquire as this may prove cheaper and more convenient.
In Sabang, proceed to the local tourism office to arrange your tour or again, as recommended, coordinate this with the hotel/resort you're staying in way in advance. I'm not sure how much the tour is this way but Sheridan Beach Resort & Spa charges around Php 900 for each person.