In Puerto Princesa we stayed at a cute family-run guesthouse called Pension Del Flora, which was lovely except for the fact that Chris was about a foot to tall for the shower hahaha. Upon arrival one of the owners offered to organize our tour to the Underground River the next day while we went out for food, so we hit up a nearby mall. It was pretty unexciting except that we got some much needed scissors to trim Chris’s moustache, which was DRIVING ME INSANE.
The next day we had breakfast, prepared by the super nice owner Romeo, before being picked up for our Underground River Tour at 7:30am. Now, most people (us included) take a tour because it’s way easier that trying to do it yourself (there is a lot of different transportation required, plus permits, registration, etc. because it’s a pretty regulated national park), however the downside is that you basically end up on an 8 hour all day excursion for a 45 minute ride on the river. So this day consisted of a lot of waiting.
We drove around Puerto Princesa for a bit picking up other guests until our van was full. Our group consisted of another Canadian couple from Toronto, a very chatting American and his new friend, a much less chatty Russian with a cold, and a group of 5 German-Filipinos. Before leaving town we had to stop at the City Coliseum so our guide could procure us all river permits. He warned that it might take a while since there was usually waiting in line involved, so we took a walk around the square outside. There seemed to be some kind of science fair also happening in the Coliseum, so there were a jillion school kids running around.
Once our guide returned we headed out of town, but stopped for a break about a little over an hour in. At the rest stop our guide talked to the shopkeepers and said that quite a few vans had already gone by, so maybe we would like to make a stopover at a local adventure park for a bit instead of waiting in line at the river? Not sure if this was a ploy or not, but most of our van agreed, so we went. The adventure park was apparently made by the government to help to give the community a source of income other than illegal logging, so that’s good. On our way over we also saw a bunch of American soldiers helping the build a school.
The stopover was called Ugong Rock, and basically what you do is a very short spelunking course up to a zipline, which you then ride down. We had already done some extreme spelunking in Sagada and as usual my opinion on ziplines is MEH, so we decided to sit this one out (as it cost extra, obviously). The other Canadian couple was also sitting it out, so we had a good chat about the things that we had done in the Philippines so far.
After everyone else had zipped down (and forked out more money for their pictures), we drove the last bit to Sabang, the jumping off point to the Underground River. A WORD TO THE WISE: The road to Sabang is SUPER CURVY with lots of hills, so people prone to motion sickness definitely take something before driving it. By the time we reached Sabang it was lunch, so we ate at this giant buffet which is pretty much set up for all the people on tours. After lunch we were directed to the wharf to wait for a boat to take us to the entrance of the river.
After a short (but deafening) 20 minute boat ride we reached the Subterranean River National Park. Then it was a quick hike to the actual start of the river, where we waited again for a paddle boat. The boat fit all 11 of us plus the guide (who had his work cut out for him as the sole paddler), and we headed off into the river, with the person in front manning the flashlight.
The Underground River is over 8km long, but they only let tourists visit about a kilometre and a half of it. The river is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was also voted one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, which they are VERY proud of. Our guide did tell us that Tubbataha Reef in Palawan was another possible (and maybe better?) contender, but they had focused their energy on the Underground River’s campaign since it’s way more accessible (i.e. will bring in more dolla dolla bills yo).
While paddling down the river the guide gave us a bit of history, but mostly pointed out different rock formations and what they looked like (a bit of a challenge since this also required directing the flashlight holder). Some were pretty obvious (Virgin Mary, Titanic, lion, carrot) and some were more inventive and hilarious (Manny Pacquiao’s fist, human heart, upside down people, rotting carrot). The were a lot of bats flying around RIGHT BY OUR HEADS which added to the excitement. There is also a bunch of snakes and spiders (tarantulas) in the cave, so that is why you can’t leave the boat.
The paddle up and down the river took about 45 minutes, then we were back into the sunlight.
Afterwards we sat around for a bit while people in our group debated over whether to purchase photos taken by the park photographers. We saw a monitor lizard and a long-tailed macaque while waiting, which was pretty exciting.
The journey back was pretty much a reverse of the one here, with a little bit of transit drama since some people were trying to switch vans to move on to El Nido (and some of these vans apparently left without them). By the time we got back to our guesthouse, I was feeling pretty wonky from the curvy drive and pretty much just passed out.
I was still feeling a bit out of sorts the next morning so we slept in for I think the first time. Romeo was concerned when we didn’t take breakfast and offered to take me to the doctor/hospital, but Chris assured him it wasn’t that serious. Since we were heading back to Manila early that evening, we had an easy afternoon of just wandering around Puerto Princesa and taking in the local sights, such as the cathedral and the Baywalk.
Puerto Princesa is billed as the “cleanest and greenest” city in the Philippines, and while it’s not very impressive by Canadian standards, it’s SUPER IMPRESSIVE compared to Manila and Cebu. They actually have fines for littering for one, which seems to help a lot. It’s also the greenest because the “city” seems to encompass a large amount of undeveloped forested land, so…
When it got too hot we headed back to Pension Del Flora, where Romeo made us some cassava root with brown sugar. We had a good chat about his goals for the guesthouse (it’s pretty new) and the different travellers he’s hosted so far, and then he gave us a re-enactment of exactly what went wrong during the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight. Later he offered to drop us off at the airport for our flight back to Manila, because it was time to move on to Myanmar!