Five days of beauty and adventure in Puerto Princesa

Words and images by Ma. Glaiza Lee

Of all the islands in the Philippines, Palawan piqued my wanderlust the most.

Incidentally, it has been named one of the best islands in the world (not just once!) by magazines like Travel and Leisure, National Geographic Traveller, and Conde Nast’s Traveller, among others.

And it is easy to see why.

With its crystal clear emerald blue waters, towering limestone karsts jutting out the ocean, verdant forests, and small fishing villages dotting its shores, this archipelagic island will surely capture your heart as it did mine.

Located in the MIMAROPA (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan provinces) Region, Palawan is known as the “Last Frontier.” It is also the largest province in the country in terms of total land area.

The island is accessible by either ferry or plane. Most local carriers have flights to its various entry points such as Puerto Princesa, Coron and El Nido. It usually takes about an hour and a half by plane to reach the island.

There are ferries going to Puerto Princesa from Manila and Iloilo.

For our family trip, we decided to explore Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan. We took an early morning flight going to Palawan, with our hotel picking us up upon arrival.

Since we booked a hotel package, we didn’t have to worry about planning our itinerary for our five-day stay in Puerto Princesa.

FIRST DAY: CITY TOUR

Plaza Cuartel served as our jumping-off point on our first day. For DIY-ers, the historical plaza should be just a tricycle-ride away from your hotel.The tricycle is also one of the most convenient ways to explore the city. Fare is about P50 (good for 3 persons as of writing).

Here, you will find the ruins of a World War II garrison that served as a prison for American soldiers. These soldiers were later burned by Japanese military forces in a narrow tunnel just behind an iron gate, which you won’t miss inside the plaza. Of the approximately 150 prisoners, only 10 prisoners survived to tell their harrowing experience. The remains of those who died were buried at the St. Louis County, Jefferson Barracks, National Cemetery in Missouri in 1952.

A stone’s throw away from the plaza is the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. The church has an interesting angular structure that is quite different from the traditional design found in most churches in the country.

Later, we headed to the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, also known as the Crocodile Farm. Here, guests will have a close encounter with the Philippine freshwater and saltwater crocodiles. Walk through the steel pathways hovering above the reptiles’ dens, feed them with chicken, or have your photo with the baby crocodile. The center is also home to some interesting forest creatures such as the Palawan bear cat, the talking myna, the Palawan hornbill, among others.

Our next stop was the Palawan Museum where we got a glimpse of the island’s colorful history as well as its rich cultures and traditions.

BAKERS-HILL

We capped our day at the wonderland-like Baker’s Hill, located at the Sta. Monica Heights. This house-turned-bakery and park sells specialized baked goodies, i.e. hopia. This place has a children’s playground, mini-zoo and picnic areas where you can have some merienda.

SECOND DAY: ISLAND-HOPPING

It took us about 45 minutes to an hour by van to reach the boat station at Honda Bay. Along the way, we dropped by one of those stalls renting out some snorkeling gear for a minimal fee.

Upon reaching the wharf, our tour guide took care of all the logistics, from arranging the boat to securing permits and paying all the necessary fees. All we had to do was wait for our assigned boat.

DIY-ers can rent a van for a day at around P1,200 to P1,500. The boat for the island-hopping tour, including terminal and environmental fees, should cost about P1,750. Each island also has an entrance fee ranging from P50 to P100 per head. For lunch, there are some islands that have picnic areas with food stalls. Table rentals can cost about P300, while the nipa huts can set you back P500.

Our first stop was the Pambato Reef. Here, you will find a huge structure in the middle of the bay which serves as the staging area for those who want to do some snorkeling. Swim around and explore the beauty of the underwater world. If you are not a strong swimmer like me, just hold on tight to the rope cording off the area. Our tour guide was carrying a lifebuoy, which we held onto as he swam around, dragging us with him.

Next was the white-sand Cowrie Island, named after a sea snail with a smooth and shiny shell. This is another perfect spot for swimming and snorkeling. Breathtaking views from the thatched-roof huts found in the area can be enjoyed here, too.

For lunch, we stopped by Snake Island. It is actually a sandbar that seems to slither on the surface of the sea, just like the creature that bears its name.

The island tour normally takes tourists to Starfish, Luli and Cowrie Islands. However, changes in your itinerary may occur due to weather conditions or when the local government closes the islands to regulate environmental damage to the islands and its surrounding corals and marine life.

Starfish Island, as the name suggests, is home to sea stars; while Luli Island is short for “lulubog-lilitaw” (sink and rise), which basically what happens to this paradise depending on whether it’s low tide or high tide.

Then, there’s Bat Island, home to thousands of fruit-eating bats; Senorita Island, which lets you have a peek into the fishing and seaweed industries of Palawan; Arraceffi Island, also known as the Dos Palmas Resort; and Panglima Reef, known for its coral boulders and gray reef sharks.

THIRD DAY: UNDERGROUND RIVER

Traveling to Puerto Princesa is never complete without visiting the world-famous Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, named as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

For this tour, I suggest availing of a tour package from accredited tour operators. One needs a special permit from the Underground River Authorities Office to be able to enter the national park. The fixed rate, as per the URAO, costs P2,400/pax. Children’s rate is P1,500/pax.

Our tour guide informed us that we were scheduled to tour the river at 1 pm. To pass the time, we decided to stop by the Elephant Mountain, one of the locations featured in the reality TV show Amazing Race Asia, as well as the Ugong Rock, which is just a few kilometers away from the national park.

The side tour at the Ugong Rock cost us about P550/pax, allowing us to explore the area and do some rock climbing inside the cave. When you reach the top, you have the option to take the zipline going down, for an additional fee, or descend the same way you went up. 

Two hours before our tour of the underground river, we headed back to Sabang Port. We had lunch first while waiting to board our boat. The free lunch was included in our tour package.

PUERTO-PRINCESA-UNDERGROUND-RIVER

The 20- to 30-minute boat ride provided us with picturesque views of towering cliffs, lush mountain ranges, and seascapes.

Going to the underground river, we had to pass by a verdant forest and a watershed that served as our guide. Along the way, we spotted some macaque and monitor lizards. We were told that if tourists were lucky, they can spot the elusive Tabon bird and/or the Palawan hornbill.

Expect to wait a little more before you can take your turn in exploring the cave, especially during the peak season. The canoe tour lasts for 45 minutes, taking tourists to the first 1.5 kilometers of the underground river cave.

The Palawan underground river is one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world, spanning a total of 8.2 kilometers. But only the first kilometer is open for the tour. To explore the rest of the river, one needs to secure permits from authorities.

Tourists are each given a synchronized audio device, which narrates the river’s topography including the amazing creatures living in the cave. The boatmen usually fill up lull moments with jokes that you’ll never get bored inside the cave.

Navigating the underground river is a surreal experience. Inside the cave, you will discover a different world altogether –a world filled with beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

FOURTH DAY: IRAWAN AND IWAHIG

After the action-packed two days, we thought we would have a less adventurous day at the Irawan Eco-Park, a 3,000-hectare protected area forming part of the Irawan Watershed. How wrong we were.

First, we stopped by the Irawan Cafe Art Gallery which features artworks by local artists. Then we rode a carabao-drawn carriage to get to the Honey Bee Demo Farm, which introduces tourists to the life of bees, their importance to the ecosystem, and how they produce honey.

CANOPY-WALK

Later, we tried the 1.3-km Zipline Adventure, the canopy walk at the Skywalk Adventure, and the River Trail Adventure.

The rest of the afternoon was spent resting and taking a dip at the hotel’s pool area. But our day didn’t end there. By evening, a service van picked us up to take us to the Iwahig Firefly Adventure, located near the Iwahig Penal Code. The 30-minute tour costs P500/pax.

Darkness enveloped us as our paddle boat waded through the water. The boatman started the tour explaining how residents here make sure to protect the environment since fireflies thrive in areas where there is no pollution. He also shared lessons on brackish waters, phytoplankton, and mangroves. We also had a refresher on constellations.

Finally, he pointed to a tree that seemed to be burning. It took us a few seconds before realizing they were in fact fireflies swarming the mangroves thriving along the Sicsican and Iwahig rivers.

It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

LAST DAY: PASALUBONG SHOPPING

Our last day in Puerto Princesa was spent buying pasalubong. We first dropped by Binuatan Weaving Creations to check out the weaving industry on the island as well as buy some handwoven souvenirs. Afterward, we headed to the public market to buy some dried fish and roasted cashew nuts.

All in all, I can say it was a well-spent five-day vacation for our family. It brought us beautiful memories to last us a lifetime.

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