Along side the rice terraces of Banaue, the highlight of my trip to the Philippines was my visit to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the longest, navigatable, subterranean river in the world. (got that?)
Puerto Princesa is the capital of Palawan province, the westernmost province in the Philippines. If you look at a map of the Philippines, Palawan is the very long island running NE to SW on the far western edge. Because of the subterranean river and other natural features (El Nid and Tubatha Reef) it has dubbed itself as the Ecotourism capital of the Philippines. I didn’t have time to get out beyond Puerto Princesa, but everything I have heard and read from other tourists about Palawan has been positive. Given how affordable the Philippines is, I can easily see this becoming a bigger destination for the backpacker crowd in the future.
Technically, the underground river is within the city of Puerto Princess, however, it is an hour and a half drive from the “city” to the river. This is more a function of the how the borders of the city are defined. My day started out at 7 am getting picked up by the tour company. Entrance to the park, transportation there and back and lunch was P1,200 (about US$25) which is a pretty good deal. My group for the day was myself, two girls from Japan on vacation and four retired Filipino women who did/are living in the US.
The road out to the park was interesting. As you got further away from town, the pavement stopped and the road became a dirt road. That was not a big deal. What was interesting is that every so often, the pavement would start again….and then stop…and then start…and then it would only be paved on one lane. There appeared no rhyme or reason to where things were paved. The Filipino ladies later told me that they were joking that the pavement was only in front of homes that voted for the mayor/governor. What is sad is there may be some truth to that (more on that in my final Philippines report).
The road going out was really beautiful. We stopped briefly at an overlook of Ulugan Bay and drove through some amazing limestone formations and rice paddies. The underground river and all the surrounding landscape is due to karst formations in the surrounding limestone. As water seeped through the rock, the carbonic acid in the water would slowly eat away at the limestone. The result here is the underground river. In most places you find extensive caves, you will find a similar process going on.
After 90 minutes of alternating paved, non-paved roads, we finally arrived at the park….or at least the staging area for the park. The actual entrance to the cave was about a mile away from the parking area. The only way there is via boat so there are tons of water taxis which take people six at a time to the river entrance. Like the jeepneys in the Philippines, the boats were all very colorful and customized.
The cave entrance was surprisingly small given how big the river is. The river goes into the mountain about 8km and the height of the cave is about 60m in the largest cavern.
I have about a dozen photos that I took inside the cave. I took about 200, the vast majority were garbage. Taking photos on a moving boat in a pitch dark cave isn’t easy. Especially when the primary light source is a lamp held by an old woman in the front of the boat that you have no control over. I had to sort of figure out everything on the fly during the 45 minutes we were in the boat. Eyeballing the photos as they came upon the LCD panel, I figured out that the best photos came when I set the ISO to about 400 and pointed the camera away from the spotlight and just used my flash. If I had the ability to stop and get out of the boat at a few points and could set up a tripod, some really amazing photos would have been possible. Sadly, that wasn’t in the cards. What you see on online is not only the best of the lot but the only ones that came out close to respectable.
The boat that goes into the cave is paddled. Any sort of motor used inside of the cave would have been 1) very loud, 2) eventually covered the inside of the cave with soot, and 3) used up oxygen deep inside the cave which would take a while to replenish. Air circulation is poor the farther in you get. The guys that do the boat tours paddle groups of six out and back in a 45-minute trip all day long.
The one thing you are warned about before you enter the cave is to close your mouth when you look up. There are an estimated 40,000 bats which live in the cave and if you look up with your mouth open, there is a good chance you will end up with the taste of bat poop. You can still see bats as far as 1km into the cave, which means they have a helluva flight in and out of the cave every night before they can even start worrying about food.
The boat guides had their spiel down pat. I’m sure they tell the same jokes and describe the same things on every tour. The things which were constantly pointed out were the various stalactites and stalagmites which looked like people and things. One room was called the Cathedral because of all the stalagmites which looked like religious things. There was one that was called the Three Wise Men. From just the right angle, it kind of sort of looked like three heads wearing crowns. Another was called the Holy Family, and from the right angle it kind of sort of looked like a man, a woman, and a child. There was one that looked like a candle with melting wax.
The next area was called the produce section. There was one formation that looked like a giant mushroom cap and there was one that looked like a giant ear of corn. There was a stalactite that looked like two hands holding each other, one that looked like the butt and back of a naked woman, and one that looked like the head of a diving bird. You had to be at the correct angle to make out most of the images, but they were there. There was even the obligatory formation that looked like Jesus.
When the cave trip was done and we were back to blue say and firm ground, we had a pleasant surprise. There were several macaques monkeys near the dock. The monkeys, I was told, have learned to steal plastic bags from people because they know that plastic bags are more likely to have food in them. Two of the monkeys even put on a show for the crowd.
The other really neat thing which was waiting for us were monitor lizards. This wasn’t a zoo and the animals weren’t plants. We just got lucky to see up close two of the major animals in the national park. The monitor lizards moved very slowly and constantly had their tongues out looking for food.
When we finally got back to the parking area, we had lunch waiting for us. It was a nice little buffet with coconut soup, some fish and pork with rice and fresh coconut to drink.
I should also finish my post on Puerto Princesa by noting, that while I was there I got to try birds nest soup for the first time in my life. Birds nest soup is made from nests of swifts which create them with their own saliva. It sounds gross, but it tastes pretty good. In Hong Kong, a bowl of soup can go for up to US$100. A kilogram of birds nest can sell for thousands of dollars. I got my bowl of soup for US$4. At that price, I couldn’t pass it up.