Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Palawan Chronicles Part 1 - Revisiting Puerto Princesa and the Crocodile Farm

In Jodhpur, the Blue City of Rajasthan, I felt like home was some planets away. The abodes were made of sand blocks painted in pastel blues. Camels were a common sight wandering the sinewy bowels of a strange city. The locals were garbed in lurid colors reminiscent of fairy tale picture books of distant kingdoms. You can’t help but feel how very far you are from home. On the morning I was to take another train going further north, I took a leisurely breakfast at the rooftop cafĂ© of my guesthouse. With a limited seating, I soon found myself sharing a table with a “mature” American. He wasn’t really that old, but he was older than most backpackers that came my way. We started sharing stories, as was common practice between random travelers. To my surprise, he mentioned that in a few months, he would be swimming the blue oceans of Palawan. The detail of his chance acquaintance with two fishermen was lost on me, but it was calming to finally meet a backpacker who’s actually been to the Philippines (aside from a Taiwanese I met in Vang Vieng whose only visit to the country was a week in Malapascua Island in Cebu).

His eyes beamed brightly as he relayed plans of “staying on a boat”, and for 6 months “just swimming and fishing and diving” in what French explorer Jacques Costeau referred to as “The Last Frontier”. And I was bristling with pride as he marveled on the untouched beauty of the island. He’d been to Mindoro which to my mind is eons away compared to Palawan. As I left him to finish his bagel, I mentally noted to return to Palawan for the 3rd time! Seven months later, I was once again standing on Puerto Princesa soil!

There’s 253 miles of ocean separating the southwestern islands Palawan from the capital of Manila. That’s 407 kilometers, or barely an hour’s plane ride south of Manila! Puerto Princesa is this island province’s capital; a first-class city with a population of barely 210,000.

Palawan is situated southwest of the Philippine archipelago. This photo only courtesy of wikitravel.


Puerto Princesa (PP) is known for its “underground river” (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), crocodile farms, pristine white beaches and unspoiled dive sites, endemicity of Malaria, clean and green ecosystem, the laidback demeanor of its people, and the highly-esteemed visionary politician Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn. Puerto Princesa City has 35 urban and 31 rural barangays, a total of 66 barangays, many of which are named after Catholic saints.

My Cebu Pacific flight touched down the tarmac before 9AM, but as I waited for my baggage, there was power outage. The baggage conveyors stopped; we had to wait for half an hour before our baggage was deplaned. We manually picked up our baggage straight from the trolley outside the arrival lounge. For a 1st class city with a steady flow of international and local tourists, the airport feels like a matchbox. The arrival hall was cramped, albeit relaxed. Foreigners had to sign up at a – yes! - school desk, a single chair situated right before the exit doors. It wasn’t even an official table – with a police officer lazily carrying a logbook. Everything felt unofficial – uh, yeah, laidback! The whole set up looked exactly as it was some 10 years ago – the first time I visited PP.

I ventured at the waiting crowd outside until I saw a guy waving my name on a board. Few days prior to the trip, I called multiple hotels – I was going to be staying in 3 different hotels for this trip so as to get the feel of the different areas of the city. I arranged all my airport transfers. Most of the major hotels offer this free service which is very convenient. My pick-up service was a van that charged P250 ($5.15) for a 15-minute ride to Casa Linda, a bit expensive considering the very short travel time. However, the van was exclusively mine. A trike ride from the airport to the city center would fetch much less, between P50-100 ($1-2), but I didn’t feel like haggling. This was going to be a hassle-free adventure.

Puerto Princesa Airport


My first hotel was Lonely Planet’s highly recommended budget guesthouse Casa Linda, a family establishment managed by actor Matthew Mendoza. We shall feature the different guesthouses at a separate post. Twenty minutes after settling down, freshening up and checking out the surroundings, we hailed a tricycle to inquire for a visit to Vietville, which is about 45 minutes north of the city. Vietville is a special village that houses a throng of Vietnamese migrants who fled their country to escape the clutches of the communist rule.


A usual package trip (city center to Vietville and back) usually fetches P250-300. When the trike driver also offered a city tour (that’s usually P300-400), we finally shook hands on P600 that would include the city tour and Vietville. Of course, this later evolved into something else – the driver named Richard de la Torre decided that it was ONLY going to be a city tour for P600! There are idiots and balahura anywhere and most of the time, they point to the population of the drivers! Public utility drivers – tuktuks, jeepneys, cyclos, taxis, horse-drawn carriages – this special population is among the most dishonest sector of society regardless of country. Puerto Princesa is no different! With so many experiences both local and international, I can confidently generalize that this sector conveniently embraced being the bane of tourists’ lives. Mga hinayupak! Nuf said!

I wanted to go north and see Vietville first to get it over and done with, but the trike driver suggested that we go south first to catch the last “guided tour” at the Crocodile Park before they break for lunch. It sounded like a good idea then, so I said yes. After all, I was the “dayo” (alien) and he should have sound advice on local itineraries since he does this for a living. We trotted southwards passing by named bridges like Irawan, Caramuhan, and Sicsican Bridges. The air was clean and the sun was moderate. There was lush vegetation everywhere you turned your sight, and frontyards were garbage-free. It was 11:30AM by the time we reached the Crocodile Farm.

Tricycle ride

I rushed to the ticket booth to purchase my ticket of P40 ($0.82 ). Beside the booth was a collage of photos of celebrities who have visited the parkAction King Fernando Poe Jr., Vice President Noli de Castro, Alma Moreno, Julius Babao, Regine Velasquez, Eddie Garcia, Ruffa Gutierrez – most of them are seen squirming and holding baby crocs on their hand. (For a fee, this service is being offered.) But the thought of slimy reptilian hide brushing against my skin petrified me!


Crocodile Farm and Nature Park (CFNP) aka Crocodile Farming Institute started operation in 1987, with the assistance of the Japanese Government. This was completed during the administration of President Corazon Aquino and Minister Carlos G. Dominguez. The farm cultivates and rears both fresh and salt water crocodiles.


The lobby greets you with the skeletal remains of the biggest male salt water crocodile – spanning 16 feet long - captured in 1992. Its hide is spread and hung on the wall adjacent to the display glass housing its skeletal remains. The specimen named “R10” was approximately 50-60 years old at the time of capture. R10 eventually died a few days after its capture.

R10 is the biggest male saltwater crocodile ever captured in 1992 and stretches 16 feet long.

  • Skull of 15-foot Crocodylus porosus from Bakbakan River in Roxas, north Palawan. This one died of poisoning.


A slim lady with long straight hair tied on a bun came out from nowhere and introduced herself as the “guide”. After the introductions, she referred us to a dark room containing photos, cut-outs and write-ups on crocodiles. These included golden nuggets of information: the freshwater variety is endangered, and compared to its saltwater cousins, the former are “scared” of people, while the latter are the “attackers”.

After the enclosure – a tacky excuse of a pictographic museum - we were taken to the Hatchling House where baby crocodiles lay still. We proceeded to climb the viewing deck of the main crocodile dens where adult crocs are housed- the saltwater variety separated from the freshwater type. Feeding days are Mondays and Thursdays, consisting mainly of chicken. From the viewing terrace, we were introduced to the adjacent 4-hectare Nature Park which we were free to roam. At various locations, ostriches, bearcats and other caged animals were on display. Though we loved the wild growth of foliage, it was obvious that maintenance of the place was nil. It didn’t take us long to navigate the area.
Don't extend your fingers near them, warns our guide.

Dangerous even as babies.

The Hatchling House - just like nurseries, these basinets contain a number of baby crocs.

Crocs are territorial thus you hardly see more than one taking a dip in the water. They alternate.

Saltwater crocs - they're fed only 2x a week

Viewing Terrace

The 4-hectare Nature Park starts with this site map...

Tarzan will be pleased... adventitious roots stretching from the branches and down the ground...


We made our way out. It was almost 1AM and our trike ride was nowhere in sight. We asked the guard, but he said the driver left without a word. We thought he’s probably having lunch somewhere but wasn’t it common sense to at least inform the guard where he was? After all, we were paying for his time and services! None of the P600 included the waiting-in-the-dark clause! We deserved to know how long we had to wait for him. Some 20 minutes later, he came back spewing inane excuses that he went to the vulcanizing shop to fix a flat tire, something that neither I nor the guard noticed earlier. I don’t mind flat tires. I’ve had one even in Phnom Penh and India, but it wasn’t so hard to tell someone to inform us of his whereabouts so we won’t wonder where the hell he went! You don’t leave a paying customer in limbo!


That covered, I took my time checking out the farm’s souvenir shop. Shirts at the airport shops cost somewhere between P135 to P150 ($2.80-3), so when I saw them priced at only P75 ($1.50), I decided to buy my pasalubongs (gifts) right there! Other items: a purse woven from rattan (calamaea palm) at P185 ($3.80), straw hat at P100 ($2) and some trinkets at P35 ($0.75)! The phantom trike driver’s disapperance turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered checking out this souvenir shop since it was only my first day! Twenty minutes later, he was back with his moronic excuse – as though he was explaining to someone who didn’t endure 10 years of post-collegiate degree!


How cosmopolitan is Puerto Princesa? It isn't really. Proof of this is the absence of (car) taxis to navigate the streets around this city. To get around, you hail a tricycle that is color-coded: a white tricycle (MWF) and a blue tricycle (TThS) that takes turns plying the streets on their assigned days. This means that at any given day, some 20,000 trikes roam the streets, except on Sundays where most of the 40,000 total tricycles rest anyway, about a fourth of Metro Manila's volume. This number constitutes a large volume compared to the overall nationwide approximate of around 900,000 tricycles in the Philippines. Metro Manila contributes some 180,000. This color coding scheme was a move by the government to address their environmental concern regarding pollution brought about from fumes of these fuel-run vehicles.

Some 15-40% of its fuel air mixtures escapes through the exhaust port. Because of this, the unburned gasoline and lubricant it emits contribute to an increased hydrocarbon and fine particulate emissions in the atmosphere.
Emission tests conducted on tricycles showed that the average hydrocarbon emissions was at 6,000 ppm (parts per million) or 10 times over the acceptable standard for cars.

The usual fare is just PhP8 within the city limits. If you're a topurist, this will probably become PhP9 or 10, which isn't much. At night, expect a hike of this rate to P10-12. Nothing more.

Straw hats at P100 each...

Wind chimes and other hanging decoratives made from shells...

Cowboy hats, mats, desk lamps, and other handicrafts...


Crocodile Farm is located south of the city center in Barangay Irawan. A trike ride will take about 30 minutes to get there. Entrance fee is P40 per person and includes a guided tour at the first half of the visit. The park and the tours are being managed and handled by veterinarians, most of them are graduates of the University of the Philippines.

This is the Eye in the Sky, obviously miffed!

Next post: Mitra Ranch & Mansion, Butterfly Park and Commodore Fernandez Mansion

From the exit, turn right to go north back to the city center; turn left to go south.

No comments: