Palawan, the Philippines’ Last Frontier – Part 3

And now to part 3 of this Palawan series, and this time we go to one of the world’s foremost natural wonders, the St. Paul Subterranean River National Park – or simply known as the “Puerto Princesa Underground River”. Located on the opposite side of the island facing the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea to some), away from Puerto Princesas’ city center, it takes a bit of time to travel to this God-made wonder. A trip to the undeground river will take one whole day from your itinerary, but if there’s just one thing that you could see in Palawan, then this has got to be it.

A view of Ulugan Bay, from one of the rest stops along the way to Sabang beach.

A view of Ulugan Bay, from one of the rest stops along the way to Sabang beach.

I would highly recommend booking with a travel agent in advance, if you are planning to see the underground river. The number of visitors allowed into the park daily is being controlled, and going there means getting permits from the local tourism office. I didn’t get to try for myself how is this actually done (and I didn’t want to try either), but it doesn’t looks as easy as 1-2-3. Though Palawan seems to have a pretty good tourism infrastructure compared to most of the country, it’s still reasonable to expect Philippine bureaucracy to still be Philippine bureaucracy. As of Feb 2013 it is already possible to apply for a permit online, however I haven’t tried how well this works yet.

On the other hand, for around 1,600Php (40 USD or somewhere close) travel agencies can take care of getting your permits, and transporting you to the staging area and back. Plus it usually includes a fairly simple lunch (don’t expect one bit of luxury though).

Sabang Beach

Sabang Beach, Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Sabang Beach, Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Our tour started early in the day (around 7am), as the tour van picked us up from the hotel. The trip to the staging area at Sabang took a little less than a couple of hours, along a winding highway that cuts from the western side of the island to the eastern side. Though the ride is fairly smooth, I would recommend taking a motion sickness tablet (eg. Bonamine) if you are susceptible to motion sickness, or bring a few tablets regardless, just in case.

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The Boat Ride to the Launching Area.

From Sabang, a fleet of small motorized boats outrigger boats (aka. “banca” or “pumpboat” in Filipino) will take tourists to a small cove close to the mouth of the underground river. The boatride itself takes around 10 minutes or less, skirting a scenic coastline made of “karst” limestone formations…the type that you can put into postcards. Waiting for your boat in Sabang may take a while, especially if there are a lot of visitors around, as each group is queued and the boats load one at a time, but trust me, the ride is worth the wait.

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A Walk to the Underground

The boats will drop you off in a small, pristine cove with a fine white sand beach. Take note though that the area where the boats drop you off is a protected marine sanctuary, thus there are no permanent structures of any sort along the beach. This means the boats will drop you right into shallow water, as there is no pier of any sort (and rightfully so) and so do expect your feet to get wet. Swimmming in the area is not permitted, however.

It is at this point that you register your names. If you’re booked with a travel agency, this is as far as your tour guide will escort you. Here you get the life vest and the spelunking helmet that you will be taking with you underground, and if there’s time, you can go around and watch some of the monkeys and monitor lizards that inhabit this protected area. The launching area for the boats that would take you to the underground river are around a 5-minute walk away.

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A Boat Ride Most Unique

Your ride to the underground river will be a small outrigger boat that fits around 10 people, plus one guide, who also doubles as the boatman. Think of it as something like a Venetian gondola, except that it’s got outriggers sticking on its side, there’s more of you in the boat, it’s got a huge floodlight out infront, and instead of a singing boatman you get one that talks a lot, with a lot of ad libs. They’re quite entertaining though, and helps remove some of the “eeriness” that usually accompanies going anywhere subterranean.

The ride takes around 40 minutes or so, but you will only be taken less than two kilometers deep inyo the cavern, less than a quarter of its 8.4 km navigable length. You do, however, get to see the largest chamber – an incredibly large area of open space akin to an old cathedral’s dome. One interesting trivia shared by our guide-slash-boatman was that the underground river was named by it’s discoverer after the St. Paul Cathedral in London, precisely due to this large dome-like chamber. How interesting, I thought. I’ve seen St. Paul Cathedral, and now I’ve seen both St. Pauls. The underground river itself seems longer – up to 24 km according to some sources, but the rest of it not navigable.

Going inside the cave is not really as spooky as it looks, partly because of the number of visitors – boats go in and out every few minutes or so. Except for a few moments of solitude, you are likely to encounter several other boats during your short “voyage”. Your boatman will also be talking almost the whole time (some like it, some don’t), as he describes one limestone formation after another, sometimes with a bit of humor.

The interior of the cave is a pretty awesome sight, with layers of colors on its walls. The boat’s own floodlights will illuminate the walls enough fot you to appreciate “God’s artwork”, however it will still be too dark for a good photograph, even with a fast lens and a camera with an ISO sensitivity reaching into the six digits. The boat will also be continuously moving, so long exposures are out of the question as well. Take note also that water droplets will continuousl fall from the cave’s ceiling, so unless you’re gear is weather proof, take extra caution.

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What strikes me most, apart from the grandeur of the underground river itself, is how the people of Palawan have taken care of this wonder. Despite the influx of visitors, the environs of the St. Paul subterranean park are almost immaculately clean and “untouched”, the management of visitors is as organized as it could get with their available resources. There is that impression of genuine care for what is the region’s (or indeed the country’s) foremost jewel. If you contrast that with the quality of care (or uncare) put on other supposed places of wonder in the country (eg. the Banawe Rice Terraces), you’d wonder if St. Paul is still part of the Philippines. It is, which gives a feeling of awe, and a bit of lament on how we could not take care of other areas as the people of Palawan do theirs.

And this is why I say this without blingking an eye – a trip to Palawan is a trip of a lifetime. To borrow a line from Oleta Adams’ song, “I don’t care how you get here, just get here if you can. Yes, in one way or another, get here if you can.

*All photos taken last June 2013, using an Olympus EPM-2 with M. Zuiko 14-42mm IIR.

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