“Puerto Princesa is famous for the Underground River…”
is the sad summary of what I used to know about this city in Palawan. This first solo sojourn changed all that. Though my stay was rather brief to allow an in-depth insight of the place, let me share the things that I enjoyed and discovered during my trip in the place they call as the City within the Forest.
Most people who go to Puerto Princesa also visit El Nido. If you are planning to take the same trip and money is no issue with you (you lucky bastard) then you can take the direct flight to El Nido. If however, you are just like me, ambitious but on a budget, get the direct flight from Manila to PP, then take one of those van vehicles to get to El Nido. I mention this because I recommend that you travel around El Nido first before you take Puerto Princesa. PP and El Nido are 6 hours away from each other, so it’s wiser to be in PP (where the airport is) on the day that you’re leaving Palawan. That way, you don’t have to hurry your way from El Nido.
That’s what I did, so when I was ready to travel Puerto Princesa, I came all the way from El Nido. Again, I booked my land transfer with Lexxus and shared the van with 10 others. Half of the travel I was gazing out the window, the other half I was sleeping. Because we went at night, I found it easier to sleep off that 6-hour travel time. I learned that night transfers have fewer stops along the way; in our case we had two.
I was the last passenger to be dropped off because Palo Alto is somewhere off the highway unlike the other hotels. Check-in time at Palo Alto is 11AM but they allowed me to check in at 12 midnight. I honestly didn’t expect that they would grant my request, but they did so I am quite grateful. I got a room for PHP 2,400 (USD 48.02) per night, a little steep considering the fact that there are many other cheaper options in PP. It’s one decision I did not regret though. [Read: Review of Palo Alto Bed & Breakfast]
I learned that when you travel alone you wouldn’t entirely be alone, especially if you want to go on tours but you’re on a budget. Because I’ve no one to share the tour expenses with, I joined the group tours. Palo Alto offers packages, which I availed to save myself the trouble of finding them myself. The rate is PHP 650 (USD 1.56) per person.
A guide who seemed to have overdosed on Red Bull led our excursion. His name is Mac and his energy was extremely high it was infectious. He engaged everyone in conversation, his voice boomed inside the van in a fashion reminiscent of a radio DJ. So when he said he was in fact, a former DJ I was no longer surprised. Now I don’t know many tour guides in Puerto Princesa but I’d definitely recommend Mac and Palo Alto tours because the experience was fun. Now on to the tour itself…
On December 15, 1944, 150 American prisoners of war (POW) were forced to enter the air raid shelters by their Japanese captors who are part of the Japanese Imperial Army Kempie-Tai. These soldiers were burned alive. Out of the 150, only 11 men were able to survive with the help of some Filipino guerillas. This World War II atrocity happened at Plaza Cuartel in Palawan. Today, a memorial marker for the fallen 143 American POW can be seen in the exact spot where they met their early demise.
Mac the tourist guide offered to take my picture by the entrance of Plaza Cuartel. Given its grim past, I don’t feel comfortable showing you a picture of myself, smiling like a regular tourist, so let me just show you the photo that I’d taken of the entrance.
Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral
The Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral is said to be the center of the local church in the province of Palawan. It is now 50 years old. They say that when it’s your first time to visit a church you are allowed to make a wish so for the nth time I wished for a boyfriend hahaha…
Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center
More popularly known by its former name, Crocodile Farm, this center is the home to some saltwater and freshwater crocodiles. There’s a warehouse for the hatch-lings and a concrete pen that houses the older crocodiles. A bridge is constructed over the crocodile pen to allow the visitors to view and pass through it. The guide warned us to take care of our belongings because she sure as hell wouldn’t go to the crocodiles’ lair if we accidentally drop something in there. Hmm… Understandable.
Because you’re reading this it means I passed through that pen in one piece, maybe because I need to share with you the following:
- The saltwater crocodiles are of darker hue and they are territorial so they don’t usually share a cage. It’s the saltwater crocodiles that you can see under the bridge.
- The freshwater crocodiles have lighter skin color.
- Crocodiles are nocturnal so they were naturally sleeping when we went there.
- Crocodiles, especially the young ones can leap so guests are warned not put their hands inside the tanks (but then again who in their right mind would put their hands in there?)
- There are two crocodiles there they named Valentino and Valentina because they were captured on a Valentine Day.
- A saltwater crocodile can live up to 100 years.
The House of Mitra
I’m not sure why, but the tour includes a visit to the house of former senator, Ramon Mitra. I figured though that people go here not for the house itself but for the spectacular view of Puerto Princesa. The house sits on top of the hill and from there you can see the islands of Honda Bay.
The last stop of our city tour is a small food park called Baker’s Hill, where you can buy the best-tasting hopia in Puerto Princesa. I bought a box of ube-flavored hopia and I got to say they were really good. It’s an ideal pasalubong for your folks back home.
Firefly Watching Tour
After the Baker’s Hill, the tour day has ended for my fellow passengers; mine was far from over. Included in my package is the Firefly Watching Tour, which goes for a cringe-inducing rate of PHP 1,100 (USD 22.01). The experience though is well worth the price. They dropped me off at the pier, in a place they called Baywalk. It does look a lot like the Baywalk in Manila.
The tour was led by another guide named, Edison. In our little chit chat, I learned that he originally came from Manila and just moved to Puerto Princesa to become a tour guide. The entire trip was organized, even our seating arrangements were specified. The tour includes a buffet dinner in a floating restaurant, which I learned is owned by a retired military officer.
After dinner, our ferryboat continues its way to the darker side of the sea. We were transferred to a smaller boat because the part of the water that is surrounded by mangrove trees is narrow. The mangroves are highly important in this adventure because that’s where the fireflies reside.
This is my most favorite part of my Puerto Princesa tour. The only word I can use to describe this experience with is “enchanting.” The guide told us that we are a lucky bunch because that night, even the water offers a magical treat. Only twice a year the luminescent planktons go to the surface of the water; that night was one of those rare instances. Edison encouraged us to touch the water to see it for ourselves but for some reason, my fellow passengers barely moved a muscle. Not me, I was curious. The moment my hand touched the water it was magic. The water glowed at the slightest touch; it was simply surreal.
When at last we turned to the mangroves, Edison made a sudden clap. That single sound had one of the mangrove trees light up like a Christmas tree. We were all in awe. He encouraged us to make some noise because the fireflies respond to the sound. I tried so hard to capture this moment into a photo but it was so dark all I got was black. Edison said that you have to set your SLR camera a certain way to capture the fireflies. I realized that if it’s difficult for a camera as sophisticated as an SLR to take picture of the fireflies then all efforts with a camera phone would have been in vain. I was suddenly reminded of the beautiful sunrise that I wasn’t able to take a picture of in Sibaltan. I guess I have to accept the fact that some of the best memories can only take residence in the mind.
Tagabinet Ugong Rock
The next day I was up as early as 7AM to see the most popular attraction in Puerto Princesa, the Underground River. The site is about 2 hours away from the city proper. But before we explored the famous river, we had a little detour at Tagabinet Ugong Rock where people can go caving or zip lining. I had no plan to do either of the two, but that’s what I ended up doing. I thought, I was there already anyway, why not make the most of it. If you just want to go caving it’s only PHP 250 (USD 5.04), but if you want to do the zip line, it’s PHP 550 (USD 11.09) for the Superman and PHP 450 (USD 9.07) for the Sitting. The Superman style is when you are suspended in the air with your body straight, facing the ground. It’s supposed to make you feel like you are flying, hence the name. The Sitting zip line, on the other hand, is just as how it’s described, you go at it in a sitting position. I picked the latter just because it’s cheaper.
To get to the zip line point you have to go through the Ugong Rock cave. It’s called Ugong because when you beat your fist against the walls of the cave it gives off a faint tinkling sound. The difficulty of the climb is easy compared with the caves in Sagada, but the chance of getting hurt with those rocks are still there so it was nice that they offer helmet and gloves to the climbers.
On top of the cave are the starting points of the two zip lines. I felt a little disconcerted upon hearing the shrill of this young woman who was about to be tossed into the zipline. She was so scared her cries of terror can be compared to a pig being butchered. All the while, her companions were busy being true friends by laughing at her and documenting the whole thing through a video.
Meanwhile, in the Sitting zip line area, the woman who went before me was already being set up. She is in the same tour as I am and just like me, she was traveling alone. Her eyes reflected fear, but there was also a quiet determination in them. I thought to myself if she could do it, I sure as hell could too.
Then it was my turn. I was so nervous my sweat felt cold. Two men prepared me for this activity, helped me to my harness, and the flap where I’m supposed to sit. They told me to just relax and let go. It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve had in my life, but I think I made a good job of not letting it show.
From there, things went really fast. The moment they let me go, I felt myself falling. You know that feeling when your stomach seemed to have gone up to your chest, that’s it. It was all too quick that I forgot to yell. I only remembered to howl when finally I saw the beautiful view below, but it was a scream out of exhilaration rather than of fear. Before I knew it, I was gliding through the wire with the air on my face and the feel of blood rushing through my veins. It’s like all my senses have been activated, never in my life have I felt so alive. It was both scary and exhilarating and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
The ride only took 21 seconds. I was delighted to see that they’d taken some photos of me up there so I didn’t think twice about buying a copy for only PHP 100 (USD 2.02) as a souvenir.
I befriended Maria, the other girl who did the zip line. We shared a table during our lunch where I accomplished one of my goals in this trip; try the Puerto Princesa delicacy called, Tamilok. Tamilok is a woodworm that lives inside mangrove trees. A small bag of tamilok is only PHP 100 (USD 2.02). It can be eaten raw with some vinegar. It tasted just like an oyster, slimy and salty but it also has a distinct taste, which I could only define as the taste of wood.
After our lunch, our driver drove us to the pier where we spotted many tourists waiting for their turn to ride the boat to go to the Underground River. If my estimation is right, we waited for almost an hour for our turn. I almost cried when I noticed that my water-damaged phone died on me again. So I set aside my reservation and requested Maria to take some pictures of me in the Underground River so I can have a souvenir. Thank heavens she was gracious enough to say yes.
At last, it was our group’s turn to ride the boat. It took about 20 minutes to get to the island. The first thing that I noticed was the foul smell that hung about the air, which I could surmise came from thousands of bats living inside the cave. Again, we had to wait for our turn to enter the cave because the island is filled with tourists. When finally our turn came, Maria and I volunteered to sit in front of the boat so we can have the best view. Because we were on the tip of the boat, I instantly became the flashlight holder. You see, the boatman cannot do it himself because he was busy stirring our boat.
The cave is big and dark, the temperature is chilly and it reeked of bats. There were many boats sweeping their way inside carrying the tourists. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the boatman, imagine the effort they have to exert because the boat can only be stirred manually. Our boatman told us some things about the cave and helped us discern the shapes of the rock that I swear to you resembled some things, such as vegetables, people, or animals. The bats were everywhere, flying about, in some instances, closer to our heads that we had to duck several times.
Our boat ride was slow and long that I almost feared it would never end. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the majestic view and the dark beauty of the underground river, but these are also the very reasons I had an unsettling feeling.
And so ends the story of my very first solo travel that once upon a time, stayed in my head as a “what if.” It was just a short trip, but this means more to me than any other trips that I’d taken in the past. This is not just a travel but a foray to the unknown; a challenge to my capabilities and my limitations. And I know that this just the first of my many unaccompanied travel ventures. If you’re reading this and you’re wondering if you should go at it alone, consider this post as the sign that you are waiting for.
And now let me leave you with the itinerary and the breakdown of my expenses in my Puerto Princesa – El Nido sojourn.
Itinerary & Expenses
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Puerto Princesa & El Nido – Itinerary