Hidden somewhere in the dense foliage of Puerto Princesa City is a gem that has gained recognition all over the world. 80 kilometres north of the city center lies Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a protected area that has a wonderful secret. Tucked secretly underneath the towering mountain range is an underground river that has piqued the interest of many a traveler all over the world. Uncovering this nice little secret was our first day prospect in Puerto Princesa City, our fifth day in Palawan.
February 21, 2017
We arrived in Puerto Princesa after spending three days full of adventures in El Nido, named as the “Best Island in the World” by a popular travel magazine. Is there any thing that can top that? We can never tell. For as long as one is open to adventures, one is bound to discover or unravel fine pieces of paradise. Not that Puerto Princesa Underground River is much of a secret.
As the underground river is located quite a distance from the city center, Penny, Ziv and I had an early wake up call. Our arranged tour is set to pick us up at our accommodation. Once we were picked up, we had to pick others who are going to join us. It was interesting to note that apart from the three of us, our guide and driver, all members of our tour group are foreigners. The Underground River certainly hit it big and has gained recognition from all over the world.
The drive from the city center to the national park is quite a lengthy one. The paved road is a positive sign of the progress that has taken over the area in the past few years. Along the way, we stopped at a cafe to stretch our legs and have some cup of coffee or munch some breakfast. The foreign travelers, I surmise, badly needed because, even though the leg room in the van is adequate, they might still have been discomfited by the long ride. The cafe had a great view of the bay and has an adjacent shop that sells colorful trinkets.
When everyone had a fill of the morning air, we resumed our trip. But before reaching Sabang wharf, the jump off point for the underground river adventures, we made one final stop at an idyllic spot, Karst Mountain and Elephant Cave. The mountain range surrounding the area is primarily composed of karst rocks, our guide informed us. The area is renowned for being a stop in various editions of The Amazing Race. We stopped by for a couple of photo opportunities and with the early morning glow, the budding rice plants shone even more brilliantly, giving the area a surreal atmosphere.
With all pictures taken, we proceeded to the final stretch of our over 2-hour journey. The dock area was already teeming with activities. The guides are lining up for confirmation of the reservations. As the city government manages the park, everything was systematic, from identification of the visitors to the reservation of boats that sail to the underground river area. Please note that it is preferred that visitors be in organized groups. As reservations with the city government is a must, booking with a travel agency weeks or months in advance comes in highly recommended.
From Sabang, it takes roughly twenty minutes of boat ride to reach the underground river area. One can also trek going there but that is rarely the preference of curious visitors. The area itself is teeming with wildlife activities. Monkeys freely roam the jungle area and as such visitors are cautioned to be wary of them as they can be savage. On good days, visitors can get glimpses of bayawaks wandering around the area.
Before one is allowed to enter the underground river, one must undergo an orientation. Some of the salient points are:
1. Always use the hardhat and life vests provided.
2. Once inside the cave, avoid opening your mouth when looking up. Bat excretions might fall out any time.
3. Talking loudly or any form of disturbance inside the cave chambers is strictly prohibited. It will disturb the bats.
4. Using camera flash inside the cave is strictly prohibited as it will stun the bats and other of its natural denizens. For picture taking purposes and highlighting the cave’s major spots, boatmen are equipped with flashlights.
5. Leave no trace principle applies as always.
Quite an easy task which every visitor must take to heart once inside the cave. Each visitor is provided an audio device and ear piece which act as a virtual tour guide. It is timed to start as the boat enters the cave. It is also perfectly timed to highlight each major stop in the tour, spewing interesting facts while the boatmen uses flashlights to guide the visitors. The audio devices are programmed in every major language; before the start of the tour, each visitors is asked which language they prefer.
With everyone equipped, it was finally our turn to enter a new world! To ensure everyone’s safety, each boat has a limited capacity. The boatmen, before paddling, check that weight is evenly distributed on the boat. I my memory serves me right, I was alone on my row; each row seats two people but I was on the heavier side back then. Haha!
Amazement slowly took over our senses as we were slowly being swallowed by the dark labyrinth. And what an enchanting place it was that we’re entering! Various rock formations align both sides of the cave. It was narrow on several parts but it adds more thrill to our adventure. The chill burnt our exposed skins and the smell of bat excretion aroused our olfactory senses. Such things one can expect when one enters caves.
Before being voted as one of the New7Wonders of Nature in 2012, already earned global recognition when it was listed in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it wasn’t difficult to see why. Majestic stalactite, stalagmite and column formations abound the numerous chambers of the cave. The live formations glimmer brightly and above us, the cacophony of bats screeching is like music that reverberate throughout the labyrinth.
The deeper we got into the cave, the more amazing the rock formations became. We were spellbound by a world we rarely witness. As we took the regular tour, we navigated roughly 4 km (2.5 miles) of the river although it stretches longer. Organized tours with special permits can explore the 8.2 km (5 miles) navigable stretch; it is without its risks and challenges. The tour lasted roughly an hour but it was a memorable and fascinating hour.
As the light embraced us while we exit the spectacular maze, one word comes to mind to describe the moment. We were all stunned, stunned by beauty, stunned by the magnificence, stunned by things that we didn’t know existed. There is so much beauty in the world that one must explore. On our way back to the city proper, we can’t still define the euphoria that overcame us at that moment. To say it was a memorable experience is an understatement. Cathartic experience is a hyperbole but it is not far from it.
Sights and Sounds Inside the Cave
Pictures taken by Ziv Nadcop and yours truly.