The Philippines is laden with wondrous natural treasures whose beauty defies imagination. Unfortunately and unfairly, these magnificent sites are unheard of due to the lack of a clever, strategic tourism campaign. Most tourism campaigns focus on enchanting but the same old things about the country—white-sand beaches, rich diving sites, Spanish churches and remnants, exotic culture, delicious food, and hospitable locals—for years. The Philippines needs something new to promote.
Puerto Princesa, Palawan, has its own natural treasure, which took decades before it was recognized the world over. The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP), commonly known as the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR), was a faint bleep in the country’s tourism radar. Then in the early 1970s, geologists, scientists, and adventurers began to take notice of this marvel of Mother Nature. Word-of-mouth from explorations, research results, and other documentation about the subterranean river began to flow.
In November 2011, the province of Palawan—and consequently, the nation—had a big break. Puerto Princesa Underground River was selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. With the confirmation of the inclusion on January 28, 2012, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park became one of the country’s best known attractions, which helped place the nation back on the global tourism spotlight.
A trip to Puerto Princesa is not complete without visiting this amazing limestone river. So definitely, we included visiting the river in our tour.
We started the day with a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and tocino. It was going to be a long day, so we needed to fill ourselves up with a big breakfast.
The tour van picked us up at around 7:30 AM. Wasting no time, we went straight to the other side of Puerto Princesa where the PPUR is located. Along the way, we saw the majestic, virgin mountains of Palawan. Basing on a Puerto Princesa Tourist Information Map we got from the airport (for free, we might add), this must be the Mt. Peel mountain range.
Sweetie and I couldn’t help but ask our guide, Jeron Paduga, about any mountaineering clubs or organizations in Palawan that can help us in our future Palawan climbs.
The drive to PPUR from the city is quite long, around 2 hours. So, after an hour, tour groups heading to the underground river usually stop by at Jazz Souvenir and Coffee Shop to have a bathroom break, grab something to eat, take a few souvenirs, or simply stretch their legs out. This pit stop also offers a marvelous view of the picturesque Ulugan Bay.
Ulugan Bay serves as a direct gateway to the West Philippine Sea. At this vantage point, you can see the snakelike Isla Rita and the faraway triple-crown island of Tres Marias.
After a quarter of an hour, we were again on the road to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. We found impressive limestone karst formations such as these just along the road. Many of these karst formations are far bigger and taller than the cliffs of Cantabaco and elsewhere in Cebu. If only they were not far from the city center, these karst formations can be excellent candidates for bolting to introduce the sport of rock climbing in Palawan.
We thought we saw the best karst formations that are ideal for rock climbing. These were just teasers because several minutes later, we arrived at what Palaweños called Elephant Mountain, which is a gigantic mountain that is karst limestone in its entirety! More on that later.
After more than two hours on the road, we finally reach Sabang Wharf, which is the actual starting point of the PPUR tour. See that beach? That’s a public beach with a wharf beside it. Now, check out the sand and the water. Aside from washed up sea grass, driftwood, and other natural debris, you can’t find any man-made garbage. That is how disciplined Palaweños are.
Just look at that water! It’s so clear it’s almost glasslike. And with the mountains in the background, you can’t help but feel calm and peaceful in the midst of excitement.
Aside from littering, smoking is not allowed in public places except in designated areas. The fines are pretty hefty, and if you commit a fourth offense, you get free board and lodging—in the city jail.
This is the registration center in Sabang Wharf. Since we already paid for the tour, Jeron took care of everything, including our registration. We only paid for the environmental fee of P40.
Now, here’s something very important that you need to know—and do—when planning for a trip to PPUR. This becomes even more important if you intend not to hire a tour agency or guide. On June last year, Puerto Princesa enacted Resolution No.06-2012, which is a resolution approving the revised management conditions for tourist entry to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park. According to the park policy in verbatim:
“To protect and preserve outstanding universal values of the Underground River, Management has to set a carrying capacity for the Underground River and is strongly enforcing a No Permit, No Entry policy to support it. All visitors are required to secure an entry permit at the Underground River Booking Office at the PPSRNP Office, City Coliseum, Barangay San Pedro, Puerto Princesa City or call Tel. No. (048) 434-2509.”
In other words, apply for a permit while you are still in the city proper. The registration center won’t issue permits; they just issue passes, certifications, and other requirements for the tour. Upon registration, don’t forget to bring a government-issued ID, such as driver’s license, SSS, or Voter’s ID.
While Jeron processed our papers, we took time to explore Sabang Wharf. We found several inns such as this to house tourists. Yes, some tourists spend a night here so they can join the early-morning tours to avoid the influx of visitors in the later hours of the day.
The distance from the city proper to Sabang Wharf makes it very difficult for the capital to provide electricity to Sabang. In fact, there are no electrical lines in this area. Thus, residents use solar power to provide their electrical needs. See those square things on the lamp posts? Those are solar panels that provide power to those posts. We even saw humble bahay kubos with solar panel arrays on their roofs! Now that is eco-friendly, sustainable power generation!
It was still 9 AM, and the waiting area was chock-full of tourists! According to a PPSRNP official whom we talked to, about 1,000 tourists in a day visit the Puerto Princesa Underground River. They limit the daily visitors to 1,000 to protect the natural treasure.
Gasoline-powered bancas (outrigger boats) ferry passengers to Sabang Beach, which is a 20-minute ride away. These bancas can accommodate four to twelve passengers, depending on their size. Take note that these boats are NOT the ones that go inside the cave.
After waiting for around half an hour, we finally boarded our assigned boat. At this point, we were just so excited that we could hardly keep still.
All set and definitely, definitely ready to go. Utmost excitement and pure joy are written all over our faces! Who wouldn’t be excited and happy? We’re visiting one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, man!
As we cruised the length of Sabang Bay to get to the wharf, we saw this imposing mountain. If our hunch is right, this is the gigantic Mt. Cleopatra, or Cleopatra’s Needle, according to the Tourist Information Map. See that white strip at the mountain’s middle? That is a gigantic limestone karst wall—yes, an entire mountainside—which is perfectly suited for rock climbing. We’ll show you a better photo of that cliff in a later article.
As we neared Sabang Beach, we witnessed a rare spectacle of nature. We saw large fish jump out of the water. We thought it was just an ordinary occurrence; often, fish do jump up and skim the water’s surface if they sense a boat coming towards them. It was then when we looked up and saw this, a huge white-bellied sea eagle that is actually hunting! As city dwellers, we rarely see this in our lifetime!
He kept soaring around the area, looking for prey. It was such an awesome sight; the magnificence of the eagle filled each soul in the boat with wonder. Even our boatmen, who have lived all their lives in the sea, stopped the boat to admire the sight. They said that they haven’t seen an eagle’s actual hunt before.
Because the boat slowed down, we were able to get some amazing shots of this death-from-above avian.
We don’t have an uber-zoom or telephoto lens, so we couldn’t take a clear photo of him. He probably looks like this. Photo credits to Wikipedia.
As we went farther from Sabang Wharf, we saw rock-protected, sandy coves that are totally devoid of human habitation. Perhaps this is why that white-bellied sea eagle we saw earlier decided to hunt here. White-bellied sea eagles are often found in places where there is little or no human interference; human interference easily drives them out.
Our boatmen announced that we were nearing Sabang Beach as we approached this rock outcropping. This wall of sharp rocks acts as a curtain to the marvelous sight behind it, which completely took our breath away—literally.
That’s the other side of the wall, which shields Sabang Beach from view.
See those boats in the distance? That’s Sabang Beach, the entry point to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. That’s where we were going.
We told you that the sight took our breath away, right? Well, let’s go for starters. Check out this beautiful, unspoiled limestone cliff. Underneath that cliff is cool, aquamarine water that is so clear and clean that it is difficult to believe that it is actually seawater!
Just look at those towering limestone cliffs with that clear, clean aquamarine water! Any visitor would feel a sense of calm, peace, and happiness here.
A better view of the limestone cliffs can be seen in Sabang Beach. There’s something spiritual about this place. There’s something magical here that reinvigorates the soul yet humbles our self-made pride. Just check out the natural beauty; this photo couldn’t even come close to the actual place. The silent grandeur is bigger than we could ever imagine.
Yes, we had to get wet. The cool water and fine-sand beach looked so inviting that we could have just simply strip off to our swimwear and plunge in. But . . .
Swimming is strictly prohibited here. That’s because the whole bay is a marine sanctuary.
At last, we were at the footsteps of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, our very own successful entry to the New 7 Wonders of Nature.
Before we trekked to the staging ground of the PPUR, we had to register for the final time. We think this is done to keep close tabs to the number of visitors. Remember, the local government has to limit the number of visitors to minimize or prevent damage to a very delicate subterranean ecosystem.
The entire park largely consists of the St. Paul Limestone Formation, which is considered a National Geographical Monument. Put in another way, the Puerto Princesa Underwater Cave is inside the St. Paul Limestone Formation.
The declaration sign also shows a cross-section view of the Puerto Princesa Underwater Cave.
Here’s a crude map of the Puerto Princesa Underwater Cave. As you can see, this is a huge, very complex cave system that spans more than 8 kilometers inside a limestone mountain!
The Park has a ranger station to keep visitors and staff safe and secure. Rangers also intercept occasional intruders who intend to poach or illegally extract natural resources.
Non-English speaking or Tagalog-speaking foreigners can avail of Audio Tours. Basically, they listen to a pre-recorded tour in a language they choose while they take an excursion in the underground river. It’s a pretty cool concept, actually.
Airy sheds such as these provide guests with a place to rest, relax, or eat. No, they’re not cottages like those in a public beach.
After everyone in our tour group has registered, we made our way into the forest. Jeron explained that before the PPUR became a tourist spot, adventurers had to trek a couple of kilometers to get to the mouth of the cave. Today, they just need to follow the wooden path to get to the Puerto Princesa Underground River staging area.
A board that explains why forests are vital to the global ecosystem. Would you believe that this forest is still first-generation? There are over 295 species of trees here—most of which are of diterocarp variety—including ipil, dita, apitong, and dao. And that’s just a fraction of the more than 800 plant species that researchers found in the park.
Along the way, we were greeted by the sight of the park’s natural denizens like these scary-looking monitor lizards. Yes, they are quite large. The lizard in the first photo is perhaps around four to five feet long, from snout to tail. Don’t get too close; they might attack you.
We also saw cute monkeys that actually step, sit, and walk with humans on the trail. Now, you might wonder why these wild monkeys seem so comfortable with humans? In most of our treks, wild animals quickly scamper when they sense human beings nearby.
Well, the bitter and sad answer can be eloquently expressed by the photo below. Irresponsible tourists throw snack wrappers or feed the monkeys with food. This act changed their natural feeding habits. They now think that humans carry food; that’s why they wait patiently on the trail for scraps. In addition, realizing that garbage can equate to food, the monkeys do not hesitate to pick up discarded candy wrappers, bubble gum, snack pouches, etc. in the hopes of getting a morsel.
After 10 minutes, we arrived at the staging area and donned on our life jackets and helmets.
The staging area is actually a small, shady beach beside a narrow estuary lined with rock walls and virgin mangrove forests. An estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of water in which one or several rivers or streams flow into it and freely connects to the sea. Thus, the water here is brackish.
Then we saw the monstrous mouth of the Puerto Princesa Underground River and the awesome rock formation that surrounds it. Seeing the cave filled us up with feelings of amazement, excitement, fear, and dread. Mother Nature is beautiful, uplifting, and dangerous at an impossibly grand level. Looking at this natural treasure, we felt the pangs of humility in the sense that nature is so much bigger than we, humans, can possibly imagine. For us, Nature is God; and undertaking this excursion made us feel spiritually closer to Him.
Sweetie and I positioned ourselves at the back of the boat so we won’t have to be the people who will hold the lamp at the front. Bwahahahaha! Well, we want to sit directly in front of the boatman who will guide us inside.
Life vests? Check! Helmets? Check! Headlamps? Batteries full and A-okay. Electronic gadgets, documents, and wallets? Thoroughly waterproofed. Cameras? Already in the right settings. Sweetie and I are ready to go!
That’s our really cool, funny, and knowledgeable guide and rower.
And off to the gateway to the center of the earth we go. See you on Part 2.
1. It would cost you a considerable amount, but if you wish to visit the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park without hassles, then it is best to let a tour operator or travel agency do the reservation/arrangement of your tour for you. Your tour operator or travel agency will take care of all the permits, land transportation, boat transportation, and other aspects of the tour for you. All you have to do is to give the amount to the service provider then sit back and relax.
2. Booking the Puerto Princesa Underground River tour yourself can definitely save you a whole lot of money. However, considering that you will be dealing with the local government, be prepared for lines, headaches, and a lot of hassle.
3. The PPUR Office is located at the City Coliseum. You can get there by riding a tricycle; fare is between P8 to P12 per person depending where you are.
4. The PPUR Office is open from Mondays to Fridays, from 8AM to 4PM with no lunch break. They are also open on weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, at 8AM to 12PM. The staff goes for a one-hour lunch break and resumes at 1 PM. The office closes at 5PM.
5. To apply for a permit, check the following steps:
Step 1: Get a transaction number and wait for your turn
Step 2: Fill out the form and submit personal details for processing.
Step 3: If you’re a walk-in visitor, proceed to Counters 1 and 2. Tour operators and travel agencies line up on Counters 3 and 4.
Step 4: Let the staff compute the payment.
Step 5: Obtain the signature of a PAMB representative to finalize your permit.
6. Permit Fees
* General Entrance Fees to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
- Adult (Filipino) – P100
- Minor (Filipino) – P75
- Adult (foreigner) – P150
- Minor (foreigner) – P100
- Senior Citizen – P100
- Differently Abled – P100
* Cave Entrance Fees
- Adult (Filipino) – P175
- Minor (Filipino) – P100
- Adult (foreigner) – P250
- Minor (foreigner) – P150
- Toddlers and children 3 to 12 years old – P75. Children below 2 years old are not permitted for safety reasons.
Remember that prices may change without an advance notice. Thus, it is best to contact the PPUR office for the latest prices, updates, and policies. Use these contact details:
- Telephone No.: (048) 723-0904
- Telefax: (048) 434-2509
- E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
7. The PPUR office usually has a long line of applicants. And considering that the local government limits the visitors to PPUR, there is a chance that you may not get a slot. To increase your chances of success in booking a PPUR excursion, visit the PPUR office early on Mondays and Thursdays. Try to avoid Fridays and weekends.
8. After getting the permit, you still need to find a way to get to Sabang Wharf from Puerto Princesa proper. There are vans for hire, jeepneys, and buses that travel there. Since we bought a tour package, we were simply fetched at the hotel by a tour van.
If you wish to save money and take the bus or jeepney, at Puerto Princesa city proper, take a tricycle to the New Market Jeepney Terminal. Take a minibus or jeep going to Sabang. There are four trips that run daily from the terminal to Sabang between 7AM and 2PM. Fare costs roughly around P150, and the trip takes around 3 hours.
9. Once you get to Sabang Wharf, have your permit processed at the registration center. Please remember that the registration center in Sabang Wharf does not issue permits! Never forget to apply for a permit at the PPUR office in the city first before coming to Sabang Wharf. And don’t forget that you need to pay P40 for the environment fee.
10. Once you arrive at Sabang Wharf, hire a boat to take you to Sabang Beach. Ask the locals where you can hire a boat. Then negotiate for a reasonable fee, usually around P300 to P800.
11. You can also stay overnight in one of the inns or hotels in Sabang. If you want a more affordable option, try homestays. We actually saw lots of foreigners who emerged from structures that look more like huts and private homes than hospitality establishments. Keep your guts with you and ask around.
12. Do not feed the monkeys or lizards in the National Park. Feeding them can alter their normal feeding patterns. Needless to say, do not throw trash anywhere in the Park. Dispose of your trash in designated garbage bins.
13. Pack light but bring the following:
* water (at least a liter)
* trekking attire
* rubber shoes or trekking sandals
* umbrella, hat, or sarong
* headlamp (highly recommended)
* rain gear (in case of bad weather)
* extra money for emergencies
The helmet and life vest are already provided.
14. You will be crossing the sea and cruising down an underground river. Thus, you need to waterproof your things. Place your valuables, gadgets, dry clothes, and important documents in waterproof containers, or wrap them securely in Zip-lock bags or plastic bags. Do not rely solely on so-called dry sacks because water can still seep in through the permeable fabric.