Any seasoned tourist who has ever been to the Philippines and has visited Palawan knows that one of the must-see sights in Palawan is the Underground River. In order to visit the Underground River, you must first get to the Subterranean River National Park, located in the heart of Puerto Princesa. The Subterranean River National Park is considered to be a protected area in the Philippines, and if you are a nature-lover, or you love taking nature walks to long hiking trips, a visit to this park should definitely be on your list. The park is nestled in the Saint Paul Mountain Range, and is surrounded by two different bodies of water: Babuyan River to the east, and St. Paul Bay to the north. You will get to encounter a lot of endemic flora and fauna, and you will be amazed at the diversity of the park’s landscape. There are over 800 different plant species in the park, as well as animals that you won’t be able to find anywhere else in the Philippines, such as the bearcat, the bearded pig, and the Palawan stink badger. You will also be able to encounter marine animals at the coastal area of the park, such as sea cows (or dugongs), and hawksbill sea turtles. It is fairly easy to get to the Subterranean River National Park: just take a short hike (or for those who want to relax and enjoy the view, hire a boat) from the nearby town of Sabang.
Once you get to the Subterranean River National Park and you have already taken the time to enjoy the view, you should prepare yourself (and your camera) for what would be the highlight of your visit: the Subterranean River. Known more commonly by the locals as the “Underground River”, this beautiful stretch of water was nominated as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in November of 2011, and it was officially declared as part of that prestigious list on in January of 2012. It was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1999. The entrance to the Subterranean River is found at the St. Paul’s Underground River Cave. The river itself is more than 24 kilometers (or 15 miles) long, and the subterranean portion is measured to be around 8 kilometers (5 miles) long. The river empties out into the West Philippine Sea. Once inside the cave, you will be amazed at the geographic wonders awaiting you inside, including on the largest in-cave chambers in the whole world: the Italian’s Chamber. You will also be treated to a whole host of exotic animals that you will only be able to find inside the cave, such as nine different species of bat, a species of whip spider (something between a scorpion and a spider), and two different species of swiftlets. Make sure that you book a ticket to the Subterranean River BEFORE you go to visit it, especially if you’re going there during the summer months.
Say you’re a tourist going to Puerto Princesa for the first time, here’s how to get to the Subterranean National Park. There are two ways to get to Puerto Princesa from Manila (the capital of the Philippines): by plane or by ferry. By plane, it will only take you a little over an hour to get to Puerto Princesa from Manila, but this is the more expensive option. If you have a lot of time on your hands, not a lot of budget to travel, and are feeling a little bit more adventurous than usual, you can opt to take the ferry to Puerto Princesa, which will take around 29 hours for the journey to finish.
Once you get to Puerto Princesa, you can travel by car or by public transportation towards the town of Sabang. Once there, you will need to a hire a boat for a 20-minute boat ride towards the Subterranean Park itself. Once there, you will have to take a fairly short 150 meter walk through the forest. Your boatman will often act as your guide, and he would always be more than happy to show you the natural wonders of the park as you trek through it. The moment you step into the forest, it will be like you can have been transported into a fairytale forest. You will be able to hear birds chirping in the overhead canopy, while monitor lizards bask in the sun nearby. You will also be able to see macaque monkeys in the trees, but be careful with them, because they are attracted to shiny objects and food. If you are going on an independent tour, you would need to secure a visit permit from the mayor’s office in Puerto Princesa before you can visit the Subterranean Rivers. Considering all the hassle, it might be better to just arrange a tour beforehand with one of the numerous tour and travel agencies that offer package tours to the River. Sure, it might be more expensive, but consider all the hassle and trouble that you save for yourself when all you have to do when you reach Palawan is make sure that your camera is fully charged!
The sights and sounds at the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is something that you will never forget for the rest of your life. Aside from the stalactites and stalagmites that you will see once you enter the river, the first thing that you will also notice is the hundreds of thousands of bats that dot the ceiling of the caves. However, they are harmless, so you won’t need to worry about them. Tourists are not allowed to leave the boat at any time during the tour, which only adds to the mystery of the Underground River. Once you enter the caves, your only source of light would be a flashlight held by one of the people in the boat, so you will be able to hear a lot of exotic sounds in the darkness caused by the movement of the water and the animals around you. The trip inside the Subterranean River Caves is definitely a feast for any adventurous soul’s senses!
Aside from visiting the Subterranean River, there are a lot more things that tourists can do and experience while they are in Puerto Princesa. If you want to have another unforgettable experience that you can only get while in Puerto Princesa, you can visit Crocodile Farm found at the Palawan Wildlife Refuge and Conversation Center. You can also visit the Irawan Eco Park nearby. If you’ve had your fill of nature and wish to see other cultural sights in Palawan, you can visit the Puerto Princesa Cathedral, found in Puerto Princesa City itself. After all these excursions, you might be feeling a little bit hungry and in need for some down time, so plan a visit to Baker’s Hill, where you can just and enjoy the sunshine while chowing down on delicious baked goods.
One of the biggest reasons why a visit to Puerto Princesa is so popular with both local and international tourists is the sheer diversity of activities and sights that the region has to offer, as well as the relative affordability of such an outing. While the best time to visit Puerto Princesa is during the summer months here in the Philippines (from March to June), it’s also the worst time in terms of having so many people around you. You can brave a visit to Puerto Princesa during the colder, off-season months such as November to January, but you will not be able to enjoy the beaches as much.
All the local airlines offer flights to Puerto Princesa on a daily basis, but you should try to book a ticket as early as possible before your intended travel time in order to get a good discount. You should also be on the lookout for promo fares, which can give you a roundtrip ticket from Manila to Puerto Princesa for as little as $35, including all the charges and fees. You should also plan a trip with as many people as possible, so that you can avail of group packages. Some tour packages can cost as little as $150, including plane fare, accommodation, and the tours for a 3-day, 2-night adventure for a group of four. If you avail of these packages, the only money you would need to bring with you would be pocket money for food, souvenirs, and maybe a little bit of side travelling around the island. Take note: you should already have local money with you, because banks are scarce on the island, and the exchange rate on the island itself is abysmal. The food in Puerto Princesa is very good and is full of fresh seafood that rock-bottom prices; just find some friendly locals, and they will be able to direct you to places where the food is good and reasonably priced. Always ask hotel concierges or the local tricycle drivers for recommendations. Finally, when in Puerto Princesa, don’t forget to bring your sense of fun and adventure, so you can really enjoy all that the island has to offer!