Our main destination for Day 3 was the Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park, home to one of the world’s longest underground rivers. Our hotel somehow managed to get an underground river tour permit for us on a Sunday so we could take this tour, big props to them. The tour was scheduled to depart at around 8 am and we woke up early by chance so we added on “photographing the sunrise” to our day’s to-do list.
Costs of note
Undeground river tour: 1800 PHP ($36/£29) per person
Cherry Aircon bus from Puerto to El Nido: 480 PHP ($10/£8) per person
Taxi from Floral Villarosa to San Jose bus terminal Puerto: 180 ($4/£3) PHP
An early start
Something that took us aback was seeing how early Filipinos get up and are out & about. Corner shops were open and doing business by 5 am sharp and it’s not that Puerto is quiet in the night. These are surely very hard working folk. We first drove towards the west of Puerto Princesa because Dalek’s cognitive functions were not up to par this early. At the west end of the city is its incredibly peaceful Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral (well open by 5:15 am of course with people praying inside). This isn’t the most ornate catehdral but had highly peaceful vibes complete with chirping birds flying about the ceiling. It made for the perfect start to the day. We also peeked at the actual port (“Puerto”) that’s near the cathedral before realizing we needed to be at the opposite end of the town for photographing the sunrise.
Race to the sun
The race was on as seen below with us chasing the sunrise on a scooter. We had about 30 minutes to cover 22 minutes worth of distance as per Google Maps. What didn’t help was Google Maps leading us to a dead end and then to a restricted Air Force base in quick succession. At this point we got directions from the AirForce guard and took a detour from the original route. As a result, we changed our destination from Kalayaan beach to Hartman beach.
We landed in a sticky situation here as we parked our scooter to walk to the beach in the 5 minutes left till the sunrise time of 6:05 AM. There was just a small boggy looking stretch between us and the beach and a guy just crossed it in front of us. However when we tried, Dalek got half of his right leg deep in mud (eww). So we backtracked, alt routed for 1 last time and reach the beach. Within seconds, the golden glow of the sun showed up with its partial shape. We were so lucky with just the right amount of cloud cover to make the colours pop. Here is a small selection of what we saw.
After returning to the hotel (picked up fruits and bread on the way), we had some coffee & breakfast, did our quickfire packing and left with a group of other travellers on the Underground River tour. We haven’t mentioned this before but Philippines is big on group tours so much so that arranging to do things by yourself is a bit painful (blog). But the plus side is that they’re regulating tourism (no more than 1200 tourists a day in the underground river as per the permit system) and it’s fairly efficient. The drive up to Sabang is pure tropical goodness, infact the entire island with the exception of Puerto Princesa city looks like a jungle with hills, extremely scenic. Bought some cashewnuts (Palawan’s famous for this) on our pit stop to calm Yoda’s mid-morning hunger.
Underground River Experience
We reached Sabang by around 10 am and had to wait around for just over an hour till a boat would whisk us to the cave entrance of the underground river. Waiting in such a scenic location is never a problem, specially because there was delicious coconut water to be had for 25 PHP. Once we boarded the boat we felt that travelling n Philippines is like travel in 4K UHD where other places we’ve been to are 1080P HD. The blues of the ocean, the waves crashing on jagged rocks, lofty green hills behind sandy beaches all looked just jaw-dropping. We’ll try to make our images do the talking.
The entrance of the underground river was just behind a spectacular beach. Tour groups were given audio guides in a language of their choice as the cave must remain as silent as humanly possible. A huge number of bats inhabit the cave and as they rely heavily on sense of hearing, we were told to not speak while inside the cave. We love the execution for this idea of maintaining ecological balance in these naturally splendid places while letting people see them. The sad bit was this tour only took us 1.2 km out of the 8 km length of the river. Only scientists with research permits can go to 4.5 km in and the rest is unexplored!! It was quite dark & reminiscent of our amazing caving experience at Gibraltar even though we were in the “light zone” (the other zones are twilight and dark). The caves go really high (upto 60m) and these are some really nice formations of which we’ll share a couple.
Made our way back to Sabang to have the tour’s buffet lunch which was surprisingly yummy, complete with the home cooked feeling. Through the tour and the lunch, we sat with a group of Filipino workmates visiting Palawan from Cebu. They were the funniest group of people we might have come across our travels. Filipinos are extremely friendly people and do not mind talking at all. Funny anecdote from the Filipino group is that Christmas celebrations begin when the month ends with “ber” aka September. Looking at the decorations we saw, we can believe them.
Tiredness creeping up
Everyone but Dalek slept on the way back and we were already really tired. What sucked for us was that we “chose” not to get a hotel room that night and instead take the night bus to El Nido. It was one hell of an experience and our bodies were left battered due to lack of rest (on a vacation) but we believe that the experiences we got in return made it well worth the pain. Tip: The bus terminal is quite far from downtown Puerto Princesa (Rizal Avenue). If you are incredibly tired, ditch the trikey and ask for your hotel to get an AirCon cab. The best 40 minutes of this day’s evening were spent on the cab ride to the bus terminal. We boarded the 9 PM Cherry AC bus to El Nido marking the end of Day 3.
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