Philippines, March 2016
Puerto Princesa is considered the cleanest city in the Philippines. I obviously have not been to all the cities in the country to compare, but this town was definitely cleaner than the other ones we drove past in Palawan. They even have a city law against littering and have banned public smoking. My friends and I decided to spend just two nights in town because we only wanted to see the Underground River. We drove from El Nido, approximately 4-5 hours away, enduring sharp curves, high cliffs and a nausea-inducing ride.
We arrived (safely) around early afternoon at the One Manalo Place Hotel (click here). It was centrally located and about 2 minutes away from the airport. This hotel offered complimentary pick up/drop off shuttle service, you just need to communicate with them ahead of time. Since we arrived by land, we only used the shuttle service upon check out. The hotel has a beautiful lounge area, though I felt like they may have forgotten to turn on the air-conditioning when we arrived. My friends and I decided to spend the afternoon exploring on our own then meet up for dinner.
My room was nice, spacious and clean with a good working A/C. I noticed a couple of things, though, as I settled in: first, the safety box’s battery was dying and second, I didn’t have towels in the bathroom. Both were quickly resolved after calling housekeeping. The hotel boasted a nice swimming pool in the middle of the complex and housed a modern gym with decent sets of free weights and cardio machines (Yes, I used them..).
To while away the afternoon, I went to have a 90-minute combination (swedish, shiatsu, thai) massage (valued at 650 Php, ~$14.00!) at the Nuat Thai Spa located just next to the hotel in a separate building. The rooms were well-decorated, cozy and of typical Thai spa setting having massage tables on the floor that were separated by curtains. I had a great session and I recommend the place if you are in the area. In fact, I visited the spa again for a 75-minute foot massage for 350 Php on the day of our departure.
Our group reunited at dinner as planned and we walked to Kalui restaurant, which was recommended by friends and travel guide books. It was about 15-20 minute walk from the hotel. Unfortunately, we left the restaurant almost as soon as we arrived because they were fully booked for the night. The place was hopping and people were waiting outside to be seated, so apparently, the food must be that good!?. It was a good thing we still had one more night in town so we were able to make a reservation for the following night at 6:15 pm. We ended up eating in another restaurant closer to our hotel, Ka Inato.
I found Ka Inato’s ambiance appealing with a lot of artwork and paintings. The food was okay but the Buko Halo was a bit disappointing. I was expecting a Halo-Halo consistency but it was more like fruit salad in coconut juice with wafers that tasted like paper…not that I regularly eat paper to know the taste, but that was my impression. I don’t have the exact value of our meal but I think we paid close to 2000 Php for 3 people. After dinner, we went back to our hotel and called it a night in preparation for a full day of activity and adventure.
We had booked the Underground River tour from the same shuttle service company that we used because they offered a discount which we happily accepted. (I did ask at our hotel how much the tour was if we booked it from them and it was good to know we were paying less.) We used Fort Wally Shuttle Service company, I don’t think they have a website but I found their number in the guide book (+639172762875 ).
Pick up time is between 7:00-7:30 am and it was about 1.5 hours van ride to Sabang Wharf. An early arrival is definitely preferable because the wharf was already packed with tourists both local and foreign.
We waited for another hour or so to finally get our boat number from our guide. It is important to to remember this number because we had to use the same boat on the way back. The boat capacity is only for 7 people. The boat ride from the Wharf to the cave site was another 15 minutes. It was bumpy due to the big waves and strong winds.
The Underground River sign welcomed us as we got off the boat. Just a few meters walk down the wooden path were some facilities such as rest rooms, a registration desk and a place to get earpieces for the audio tour later. After receiving my earpiece, I had to walk a few more meters down towards the cave to, again, wait for the paddle boat that was going to take me inside the cave.
The loading area was divided into two groups, one for large and another for smaller groups. The wait was about 30 minutes until we were finally seated in a boat which could only carry 10 people. This was where I was given my audio guide set to my language preference.
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean Underground River is a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered one of the new 7 wonders of nature (like the species in the above picture). The cave is about 8 km long, about half of which is accessible by paddle boat. However, tourists are only allowed to explore 1.5 km of the cave. I think you need a special permit to go further and see the 2 million year old fossils. To complete the tour, it took approximately 45 minutes but every second of it was filled with a view of mind-blowing, mesmerizing rock formations.
The cave was naturally preserved. There were no artificial lights installed inside unlike other caves I have been to. To lessen the noise, we used our audio sets as we entered. Our guide’s headlight was the main source of illumination that showed us breathtaking stalagmites, stalactites and huge columns. It was hard to stop saying “wow” at almost all the rock formations. Also, I saw that the ceiling was covered by thousands of bats.. So, although the view may be jaw-dropping, you might want to keep your mouth shut when looking up..unless you want to snack on bat poop. It was quite a relaxing ride, with only the intermittent squeaking of the bats and the slow, rhythmic sound of the paddle hitting the water to hear in the near-pitch blackness of the cave.. All the wait was worth it.
We left the Underground River Cave mesmerized and with smiles plastered on our faces. Now we had to head back to Sabang Wharf using the same boat and to enjoy the included (late) lunch from the tour. We decided to move our dinner appointment to 8:15 pm (thank god for availability!) due to the proximity of lunch and dinner time. Once we arrived back in our hotel, we had enough time to clean up, relax and to head out to our dinner in Kalui Restaurant.
As expected, the restaurant was busy with a crowd of people waiting outside. You can choose to have a table out in the garden or inside the restaurant, but you have to take your shoes off if you opt for the latter. The place was huge, just like a Nipa Hut but on steroids….. with native decor and wooden flooring. The staff was very attentive and efficient. The menu was small but had a “catch of the day” entree’.
I had the green mango with bagoong and the stuffed squid with a side of rice. It even came with a fruit dessert but I still added an order of leche flan (because I was on a diet..not!). The food tasted delicious and the portions were pretty decent.. We, three growing boys, were all full and satisfied! The best part was that we only paid about 1,200 Php (approx. $ 25 USD). Make reservations if you are planning to eat here during your visit.
It was definitely a great way to end our second and final night here. I am sure the town has more to offer than just access to the Underground River but personally, a 2-night stay was just enough for me to see and experience one of the main attractions in Palawan.
Below is the video of La Venta, a group of italian researchers, geologist etc., who have studied the cave and have explained why it was considered one of the 7 wonders of nature.
Video Credit: Puerto Princesa Underground River (YouTube)