The underground river on the Philippines’ last frontier


We followed the bridge between the mangrove trees to reach the Badjao Seafood Restaurant, which sat on wooden stilts in Kamia Bay, in Puerto Princesa, the city of forests, on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.

The waiter brought us a huge grilled Spanish mackerel, locally called tangigue. It was 3 centimeters thick and delicious.

An Indonesian friend at the table looked at the lush, green hills surrounding the bay that fed into the Sulu Sea, and was unimpressed. “It’s just like Lake Toba.”

It’s easy to compare the Philippines to Indonesia: both nations are archipelagos in Southeast Asia, both are full of tropical rainforests and beaches.

The Filipino national hero, Jose Rizal, however, reminded travelers to be mindful of “the music of the birds, the movement of the trees, the aroma peculiar to the place — the inexplicable something the traveler feels that cannot be defined and which seems to awaken in him distant memories of happy days, sorrows and joys gone by, never to return.”

Or as the proverb goes, “He who would carry out the pearls of Arabia must carry in the pearls of Arabia.”

Palawan Island is part of Palawan province, a 1,780-island archipelago that runs north/south for about 450 kilometers between the West Philippine and the Sulu Seas.

Only an hour’s flight from Manila, Palawan is relatively untouched. It’s called the last ecological frontier for its 232 endemic species. Fifty-six percent of the island is tropical rainforest.

Four indigenous tribes live there — the Tagbanua, the Palaw’an, the Tau’t Bato, and the Batak (not the North Sumatran kind — the word means mountain-dwelling in the local language).

The quintessential Palawan experience is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO site that was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2012.

The Cabayugan River, which runs underground for 8.4 of its 32.7 km, was the world’s longest until the discovery of another river under Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in 2007.

Legend says that Palawan’s Batak people (now numbering in the hundreds) were the first to find the cave’s mouth. Superstition (or common sense) kept them from exploring further: oxygen runs out in the underground river’s deeper parts.

That’s not a problem for visitors, though: tour boats only travel about 2.4 km of the river — 1.2 km in, 1.2 km out.

Trips typically begin in Puerto Princesa with a gorgeous two-hour drive through the rainforest to Sabang.

People then board motorized eight-passenger outrigger canoes for a trip along 5 kilometers of empty seas, untouched beaches and limestone cliffs to the park’s entrance: a white-sand beach that is undeveloped save for a sign, several indifferent wild monkeys and a path of wood planks leading into a mangrove forest.

On the other side is another beach and a second, smaller canoe. After donning helmets and life preservers, visitors sail into the underground river.

It becomes absolutely dark — save for a battery-powered spotlight held by a passenger in the bow.

At this point, the guide jokes, “Don’t open your mouth when you look up — That’s not water dripping.”

Bats hang from the stalagmites overhead. Over millennia, their guano has mineralized to form serrabrancite (magnesium phosphate) crystals that provide eerie — and dazzling — reflections when under the spotlight.

We pass through one cavern that is 60 meters high — surprising, since the karst that holds the river stands at only about 300 m.

The stalagmites and stalagmites carved from the limestone by rainwater make cavern look like cathedral, complete with slick and wet stone arches.

The guide directs the spotlight to different rock formations as we go farther along the river. One resembles a 10-m-long bunch of broccoli, another the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

There’s even a bosomy Marilyn Monroe-like stalagmite and a 20-million-year-old fossilized Sirenia seacow visible high above the river’s surface, dating to when the entire island was underwater.

Reservations are essential: Only 900 visitors are allowed in the underground river a day, to preserve the site’s ecological balance. Book through the park’s official website or a travel agent, who might have more slots for last-minute guests.

After descending into darkness, try the beach.

Honda Bay, just 45 minutes from Puerto Princesa along a well-appointed road, is full of blue seas, small islands and plenty of shallow reefs for swimming, snorkeling or diving.

People usually start by renting a boat (it’s easy to split the cost with other waiting tourists) at Honda Bay Wharf before spending the day island hopping.

Starfish and Bat Islands are places to see those animals in abundance, although the bats only come out after sunset. Snake Island, thankfully, is named after its slithering sandbar shape.

Recommended is a stop for lunch at the seafood restaurant on tiny Pandan Island, where five families of about 60 people live. The food is fresh — caught that morning by the men who live on Pandan — and inexpensive.

Two dozen clams cost about 30,000 pesos, crabs cost about 20,000 pesos and there are also sea urchins and mussels.

There’s also snorkeling, massages, beach volleyball and small cabanas for rent, if you’d just like to rest under the sun.

Getting around Puerto Princesa is easy. Hotels are plentiful, almost everyone speaks some English, the boats that cross the underground river are well-maintained, life preservers are in good condition and sustainable development is a watchword.

Residents attribute this to Edward Hagedorn, Puerto Princesa’s mayor from 1991 to 1997.

Sent to Palawan by his parents after falling afoul of gangs in Manila, Hagedorn sang at a nightclub, became a gambling kingpin, was arrested and then exonerated for shooting two cops dead, and then again for check kiting (fire destroyed evidence in the case), according to a 1996 AP article.

Hagedorn then found Jesus and ran for mayor of Puerto Princesa, then a smuggler’s haven. He won and started to clean up the city — literally.

Under his Oplan Linis (clean and green) campaign, people are fined for littering for their first offense — and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for their second.

Hagedorn also reduced congestion and pollution from the trikes in Puerto Princesa. After negotiations, he halved the number of motorcyle sidecar taxis on the road on a given day through an odd-even license plate system.

After a month, drivers said that congestion was down, fares were up and they could enjoy more time with their families on off days.

The mayor — whose life story was adapted for the screen in 1996 — also cracked down on wildcat logging and illegal fishing, created nature reserves and developed kilometers of well-maintained two-lane blacktop roads and other infrastructure to support Puerto Princesa’s 7 Wonders bid.

The island’s natural beauty — and excellent infrastructure — led the readers of Travel+Leisure Magazine to name Palawan the world’s top tourist destination.

It’s easy to see why.

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