Saturday, October 20, 2012

puerto princesa underground river

No trip to Puerto Princesa is complete without a visit to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. That's the official name, but everybody just calls it "Underground River" or "PPUR" for short.

The PPUR has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, but it was only after being declared one of the New7Wonders of Nature that a daily visitor limit of 900 people was imposed. The latter half of 2011, which was the New7Wonders voting period, saw an huge influx of tourists, foreign and local. Undeniably, the Philippine government's enthusiasm for the New7Wonders campaign paid off-- never mind the controversy.

Anyway. About a week before our trip to Palawan, I started communicating with Island Paradise Tours & Convention who recommended that I pre-book the PPUR tour so that they could work on our park permits--no permit, no entry. I thought that 1500 pesos (about US$36) per person was pretty reasonable, considering that it included the two-hour drive to Sabang, the boat rides, permit, entrance fee, lunch and a licensed tour guide. Except for a minor screw-up (they told us to be ready for pick-up at 645AM but didn't arrive until 8AM), I have no complaints.

There were eight of us in our air-conditioned van, from four different hotels spread out across the city. Sabang, a small sitio or village that is the gateway to PPUR, is 76 kilometers from the city center and it's still part of Puerto Princesa. During the long drive, I got to appreciate just how ginormous, sprawling and green Puerto Princesa really is.

The imposing karst cliffs of Puerto Princesa.

When we arrived at Sitio Sabang, our tour guide left us at the buffet table while she got our boat tickets.

Grilled chicken, fried fish, stir-fried kangkong, pork adobo (yum!), rice, cucumber salad, cornstarchy soup and Coke. 4/5

A lady was selling ready-to-eat kinilaw na tamilok (raw shipworm soaked in vinegar) for only 100 pesos (US$2.40). I had always been curious about this dish-- it used to be common on Boracay-- and Leo, our driver the previous day and newfound friend, said that it was his favorite.

Looked so innocent and harmless at first.

The ew factor kicked in when we saw how long it was.

Actually, when you stop thinking of it as a worm (which it is not) but as a species of saltwater clam (which it is), then it's not so bad. It tasted like a musky oyster, but a bit more al dente.

Read more about the shipworm here.

After lunch-- yez, we finished the tamilok-- our group got on two motorized boats.

We had great weather that day-- 9 October 2012.

A bit of bird watching.

Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the PPUR park entrance. And what an entrance it is.

One of the nicest beaches in the Philippines I've ever seen.

Our tour guide told us that sometimes there are very long queues and waiting time could be as much as two hours. This was true the day before our visit because the park was closed for four days due to heavy rain and when the weather cleared, a horde of tourists rushed to PPUR.

We waited for ten minutes. Yup, we're lucky like dut.

No crowds that day. Woohoo!

The usual 40-minute cave tour covers only 1.5 kilometers, but with a special permit, you can do the 4.3KM route.

Finally, the highlight of our trip to Puerto Princesa!

Entering the cave.

Exiting the cave.

No photos, sorry. Well, it was dark and I don't like using my flash around wildlife-- bats and swiftlets live inside the cave. And water was dripping everywhere! Probably bat and bird droppings, too.

My PPUR tips:

1. It gets a bit damp, but you won't need an umbrella or a raincoat. Crash helmets and life vests are provided and that's enough protection. Just keep you mouth closed when you look up.

2. The best footwear? Flip-flops or Crocs. You have to go through a "jungle trail" to the mouth of the cave, but it is not a hike or trek. Just a short walk on wooden boards.

3. If you want to control the searchlight, take the seat at the front of the paddle boat. The boatman will tell you where to point the light so that the whole group can see the stalactite/stalagmite formations. But mostly you can direct it wherever you like.

4. Or you can bring your own LED flashlight and sit near the back of the boat so that you can hear the boatman's commentary properly. It's very echoey inside.

5. There are malaria and dengue mosquitoes in Sabang, but no need for drastic measures. Just make sure that you use lots of insect repellent.

6. Watch out for the monkeys. Apparently, they like to steal plastic bags because they think they contain food. Bring a small dry bag for your cash, water bottle and camera. Everything else, you can leave in the van.

7. I suppose you could take a jeepney to Sabang and arrange the tour on your own, but if time is an issue, I would suggest you book everything through a local travel agent or your hotel. We were out the whole day, from 8AM to 5PM, and we only made one rest stop the entire time.

Verdict: I hate using the term "must-do" because it's so trite, but PPUR really is a must-do when you're in Puerto Princesa. Just do it.

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