When you’re in Puerto Princesa, it’s almost silly not allotting a day for a visit to the Underground River, the Philippine’s entry to the ongoing New Seven Wonders of the World contest. It currently ranks impressively at number 2, just behind the top runner – Brazil’s Amazon River.
The first time I was there (6 years or so ago), I remember being hunched inside a van with other volunteers for an outreach program for surviving veterans of WW2. It was our free day, and I had been looking forward to seeing the jewels of Puerto! The road was impossibly hellish! We were running on 10 kph, the vehicle wobbling left and right and obliquely, up and down some Ripley’s believe-it-or-not lunar craters! I couldn’t believe how the provincial government conveniently ignored improvement of this national highway. What would foreign visitors think?
Fast forward to 2009. I’ve heard of the changes. With the inclusion of St. Paul’s Subterranean Park, aka Underground River, in the shortlist of the New Wonders of the World – besting even dreamy Halong Bay of North Vietnam, I couldn’t wait to see for myself how this recognition has changed the priorities of the erstwhile brain-dead government officials. First off, everyone who visits the river shall pay for a visitor’s permit.
The trip roughly takes 2 ½ hours on a hired van, which uniformly asks for PhP3,000 ($63) for the whole day tour from the city center to Sabang and back. This means, it is better to hook up with other tourists from your hotel and share the ride. I hired the same van that picked me up from the airport. His name is Badok, a really nice soft-spoken guy who is a treasure trove of local information (contact him – +63-9072193225).
I left my guesthouse (Casa Pilar) at around 7AM. And, after buying a chicken bunwich at Dunkin Donut for a take-away breakfast (they’re open 24-hours) – we were on our way. Once I was settled on my seat, I started questioning him about a lot of stuff. And what could have been a dour passage turned into a very interesting ride.
This huge cross was built by an alleged eccentric devotee who had spiritual visions. These days, he has inspired a cult following.A trek to the mountains to visit this "holy site" may prove to be a test of endurance.
3-kilometer of rough road along Barangay Macarascas.
TOO MUCH INFORMATION
The North National Highway provided the setting and scenery for a treasure trove of local knowledge and I was able to document them for posterity.
- The newly opened Microtel Resort, the only beachfront resort hotel in mainland Puerto Princesa, is owned by a lawyer, Atty. Pena and company.
- Franchise of Jollibee branch, Philippine’s counterpart of the fastfood-chain McDonalds, is owned by the mayor"s (Edward Hagedorn) eldest child. It is located along Rizal Avenue.
- Caucasian-pedigeed Mayor Hagedorn’s mom is a German mestiza who hails from the city of Paranaque in Metro Manila.
- That the incumbent governor Joel Reyes’s wife is running for public office in the coming national elections. This is no surprise. Politics in the Philippines has turned into a very lucrative family affair, and is source of immense clout, not to mention riches.
- That after the paved National Highway, the road turns into a 3-kilometer rough road, in Barangay Macarascas area. Work for this road is expected to finish in 2010 prior to the election. As in several places in the Philippines, most infrastructure projects are conveniently stalled, deprioritized and forgotten AFTER any election, only to resume a few months before the next election. This is a similar situation in Davao del Sur’s Guihing Bridge - it connects Padada, Davao del Sur and Digos City. They closed the bridge for maintenance a decade or so ago, necessitating a very rough 3 kilometer detour. What usually took 15 minutes to commute between Padada to Digos turned into an arduous, mind-boggling, wobbly, dusty 30-to-60 minute ride. Now that election fever is starting to heat up, the inutiles (incompetents) of Davao del Sur are resuming work on the bridge. Typical! The people responsible for such fuckups should be neutered or lobotomized for good. My God! The people in that part of the country have been suffering for so many years already! And these idiots are sitting on their lazy incompetent arses.
- The distance traveled from Puerto Princesa to Sabang is 81 kilometers.
- Those who would rather fly straight to Sabang can take Sea Air flights. Sabang has its own airport.
- Sabang is a sitio of Barangay Cabayugan.
- SM Shoemart Puerto Princesa will soon rise in Barangay San Manuel, some 10-15 minutes from the city center.
- A sprawling San Carlos Viewdeck is in the works, overlooking the beautiful Honda Bay. This is located in Barangay San Carlos. This presently barren area used to be a quarrying site for the Korean firm Hanjin who has since moved elsewhere after expiration of their lease contract.
- The municipality of Brooke’s Point, at the southern tip of Palawan landmass is a 4-hour travel by land from Puerto Princesa.
- The road to the isolated beaches of Nagtabon covers 40 minutes of a slim, sinuous rocky roads west from the National Highway.
- Congressman Baham Mitra owns hectares of Mango Farm seen along Barangay Santa Fe.
- As you get to Barangay Jose, you are rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the eastern seas and a couple of islands to your right.
- Your vehicle then descends along Barangay Salvacion.
- Upon reaching Bahile Elementary School, you turn right somewhere. From there, you can make your 1 ½ -hour countdown to arriving in Sabang, your take-off point to the Underground River.
- Some 1.5 kilometers from the main turn in Sitio Bahile, you arrive at a fork of the road. Road to your left leads to the other tourist destination of Ulugan Bay. Your vehicle will head to the right.
- The uncemented 3 kilometer road starts at Sitio Baruang and all through Sitio Sia.
- Another resort is nearby as you pass through Barangay Buenavista – the expensive Daluyon Beach Resort.
- Aside from Daluyon Resort, an important landmark here is the Buenavista Viewdeck, where vehicles stop for your restroom needs! The view deck is a project of the local government and signals that you’re 1 hour and 20 minutes away from Sabang. You can climb the viewdeck and you are greeted with luscious green scenery that stretches further into the blue ocean. A protruding isle proudly rises from the blue seas – Maniucus!
- For those who love their adrenaline fix of rock climbing, Ugong Rock is 10 minutes away from the Buenavista Viewdeck.
- 15 minutes further, you finally reach Barangay Cabayugan, where Sabang is.
If you're up to roughing it up, this is the cheap public transportation to Sabang!
Badok and my van!
Pearls on sale at the Buenavista Viewdeck.
Underneath these limestone cliffs is the 8 kilometer subterranean cave and river.
Sabang's Tourist Office where you can get your tourist permit.
ARRIVAL IN SABANG
The van parked near the Tourist Office, facing the jetty. It was raining hard and I knew we had to wait until weather gets a little better. A friend of mine secured my tourist permit the day before this visit paying PhP150 per person (for local tourists - $3) or PhP250 ($5.20 for foreign tourists). I realized I didn’t have to secure this permit from the city since it is relatively easy getting them from Sabang’s tourist office, but at least, things went faster. I just presented my permit, then we were given ticket stubs where we pay PhP700 ($14.50) for a boat. If you have senior citizens with you, the tourist office will give a 20% discount not just for the senior tourist but for your whole entourage. This covers a hefty discount – so don’t forget the senior citizen’s I.D.
HOW IT GOES
- Secure and pay for your permits at the tourist office where a banca (boat) ticket is then issued for your boat ride.
- Proceed to the jetty in front and present this to the ticket handler. Queue with the crowd and wait for your boat.
- Once a boat is assigned to you, you'll be sailing on moderately rough seas westward until you reach another beach. Take note of the limestone cliffs that majestically rise from the shore. This is part of the gargantuan limestone mountains from where your Underground River boating will commence.
- Walk on a wooden path at a foresty area amidst monkeys until you reach a river port. Queue for your lifejackets and helmets. A boat is once again assigned to you. Wear them prior to getting on your boat.
- If you want to take photos inside the cave, make sure you don’t take the seat right in front coz you will be assigned to hold torch lights to illuminate the limestone formations inside the cave. Photography inside is a tricky thing coz you are moving relatively fast in very dark environment, so you have to contend against these elements- movement and darkness.
- The river inside is 8 kilometers far, but you shall be traveling only 1.5 kilometers then your boat heads back. This whole trip takes 45 minutes.
- The water at the mouth of the cave is about 7 meters deep, and it deepens to about 9 meters further along – the deepest part, before it turns shallow.
- The highest point is 65 meters high at the “Cathedral” area.
- There are bats and birds flying around. So take special caution. You might swallow droppings of guanos if you leave your mouth open. ;->
- Stalactites and stalagmites inspire the imagination into what would become thematic areas inside the cave. Majestic columns (when the stalactites meet the stalagmites) abound.
- Formations show graceful and funny figures with even funnier names: Sharon (after Sharon Stone’s bubble butt), the Virgin Mary, the Three Kings, the Garden (as it shows formations resembling vegetables like eggplants and cucumbers, etc.), mushrooms, the Holy Trinity, the Holy Turin Shroud, etc.
- Compared to the caves found in Vietnam’s Halong Bay (which are bathed by colorful lights), this cave is immense and fairly unspoiled. No lighting fixtures have been installed. Everything is au naturelle. Truly a “natural wonder”.
- There are no stores in the vicinity but a toilet is available.
- The boat ride back to Sabang can be a hair-raising endeavor. Our boat glided on midair as we were swept by 10 foot waves. It can get hairy. So take your meclizines and cinnarizines for those with motion sickness. So far, accidents have been nil – so I was told.
- Once back in Sabang, your driver will probably recommend a hearty late-lunch at nearby Jewel Restaurant at Robert’s Resort Inn. I was a little reluctant. I always am when drivers recommend places. But not to worry! Prices are more than reasonable. Don’t order a la carte! Get the “buffet”! This buffet will sit you at a beachfront cottage, and instead of going to a common table for your food, a dizzying array of the most mouth watering Pinoy dishes will be served on your table! This includes pork and chicken adobo, lechon kawali, danggit, chopsuey (vegetable salad), pansit canton, fish belly, etc. All these for just PhP200/person ($4). Take my word for it - order the buffet!
- Yes, you can enjoy Sabang’s crystalline waters too. The beach boasts of very fine beige sand directly facing Robert’s Resort Inn.
Present your permit and boat tickets, then queue and wait for your boat here.
We had to wait for downpour to calm down.
The coastline of Sabang Beach.
Strong currents of the ocean slap violently against the rocks.
Wooden pathway towards the river jetty.
1.5 kilometer ride onward - the 1st few meters, you are greeted by the pungent smell of bat droppings!
Oh yes, those are bats up there!
Sandbar dividing the river waters from the South China Seas.
Karts mountain (limestone cliffs)
Unspoiled beach at the Underground River Park.
CHEAPER TRAVEL OPTIONS
If budget is tight and you’d rather go the Lonely Planet route, it is possible to just head straight to the bus terminal from the airport (IF you arrive early in the morning – otherwise, a 10AM arrival might be too late, although the Underground River officially “closes” at 5PM). Take the jeepney to Sabang and you might not pay more than PhP50 (<$1) for the one-way trip. However, the jeepney won’t leave until it is packed – roof included! If you are planning for an overnight stay in Sabang, affordable accommodations are available. A cottage at Taraw Beach Resort will fetch for PhP600 ($12.5) good for two persons. Cottages at Robert’s Resort Inn are even cheaper at PhP300 ($6.20) but amenities are understandably basic – just a wooden bed with thin mattress and an electric fan, with shared bathroom outside. However, these cottages directly face the beach of Sabang – so that is obviously a plus!
This is the Eye in the Sky.
This carabao-drawn (water buffalo) carriage is a service of the spiffy Daluyon Resort.
From 10 years ago, the number of visitors have tripled to a whopping 93,438 registered visitors in 2008.
Area map of the Underground River.