Palawan Adventures: Part 4 Underground River

When in Palawan, everyone tries to visit the Underground River.  Its one of the Philippines most famous natural attractions and has recently been voted as a contender for the Seven Natural Wonders of Asia.  It’s essentially an extensive underground cave system that goes into the cliffs for quite a few kilometers;  Eight, I think.  What makes it so unique is that the entrance is at sea, and the cave system is filled by a mixture of tidal and river waters, making the whole thing navigable by boat.

To visit from our location, we needed to either rent a boat or drive.  I think it was about a 4-5 hour drive, or a 3 hr boat trip away.  We picked the boat trip, for the shorter, unique passage, but it did mean getting up at 4.30am for a 5:00am departure.  Three hours on the banca – each way – with that noisy engine and headphones had me hesitating.  But everyone was a good sport to do it, and we set off just before dawn for the long trip.

Sporting chic hat/headphone/headcover combo…

Three hours is a really long time on a vibrating, noisy banana with no cushions or real protection from the elements.  But it was such a unique experience to watch the sunrise over so much of the Palawan coastline, watch the early morning fishermen and putt past small islands off the coast.

Around 8am in the morning, we docked at a small beach and transferred to another little boat to enter the cave.  We learnt that they were expecting the heaviest traffic of the year that day, but we were the first into the cave.  4.30am paid off!  Our tour guide was awful and hilarious all at the same time.  His speech was a memorized script that was delivered in a monotone style – punctuated only occasionally in all the wrong places.  He pointed out the various stalactite and stalagmite formations to us as we sailed through, asking us to see Jesus, the Virgin Mary, mangoes and who knows what else in the formations.  I had a fit of giggles at one point.  He kept instructing Rob to point the boat’s light to the different formations, using the same language over and over again:  “Yes, yes, yes.  Move over there. Higher, higher.  More to the left.  Yes, yes, yes!” This was done so much, and for so long, that it got really creepy, like a bad porno script!

Robert asked him to shut up give us a few minutes of silence to enjoy the place.  I was reminded of our excellent kayak guide in Palau, who shared information and then paddled in silence a little, letting us enjoy the peace of the place.  (Not here I’m afraid).

Here’s a little footage of the cave entrance before it became to dark to film.  If you listen carefully you can hear our guide jabbering on in the background:

Aside from the guide, the cave was wonderful. I would like to have see more though.  More cave, less guide.  But that’s what happens with development.  Too many people.  I will say they do a very good job of preserving the mangrove swamp around the entrance, keeping tourists to wooden pathways and away from the forest floor.  The place was beautiful, but the boat trip views that really stay with me, despite the rain, hard seats and the god-awful engine noise.  A memorable day.

Palawan Adventures: Part 1 Getting there

Palawan is the long skinny island in the Western Philippines and just over an hour flight from Manila.  It is considered one of the last remaining virgin jungles in the country and was one of our “must visit” locations during our stay.  It is very undeveloped, with only coastal roads, many of which are just mud tracks and impassable at times.  Jeepney’s run all over, but the going is slow.  Our northerly ride from the capital of Puerta Princesa to Port Barton was about 3.5 hrs.  To travel north further all the way to the Northern Tip of El Nido was more like 6 hrs.  Travel in the less developed South even slower.

Getting to Palawan has been a multi-stage journey, which started actually deciding what our experience would look like.  After my earlier convoluted explanation of how we came to find a rental home in Port Barton for our next great escape, we booked it for Easter, staying for a week last month, and had a fantastic time. It is considered one of the last remaining virgin jungles in the country and one of our “must visit” locations during our stay.  Latham brought his friend, Rob, and Robert’s sister, Helen, joined us too, having just arrived from North Carolina just a few days earlier.

The next stage of getting there, after the plane ride, was the long ride in the air conditioned bus.  Our journey was interesting though, and the time passed quickly.  We stopped at our supermarket to load up with food, which we packed into the coolers the housekeeper sent down with the van.  (Smart).  She had put a few cold drinks in the cooler for us, to help us manage the heat (even smarter!) and we set off out of town.

The main road as far as our turn off was tarmacked as the going pretty easy.  But once you make the turn onto the Port Barton road, it is dirt track all the way for the last hour.  It rains so frequently and heavily that any maintenance work on the road is quickly worn away.  Here’s a little taste of the rougher patches:

Port Barton was small and charming, and we had more cold drinks in the shade while we they loaded our things into the small banca that would take us to the house about 20 minutes up the coast.  The muffler on the boat was broken and the engine made a horrendous sound, so they handed out ear muffs to drown the noise.  The boat took us past fishing boats and tiny communities consisting of little bamboo shacks, and eventually landed on a beach with one small house, waiting for us:

The house was perfect.  Located right on the beach, with a sand path leading to the door.  The layout was simple, but comfortable.  Each bedroom had a small fan, but the sea air was cool enough so most nights I didn’t need it on.  We spent most of our relaxing time either sitting on deck chairs on the beach, or sitting on beanbags on the small gazebo nearby.  At night we played board games with the boys.  There was a TV, but, mercifully, no-one turned it on.  We had a wonderful housekeeper, who cooked meals, washed up, and made beds.

Helen enjoying the view

We cooked when we wanted to, and she helped with the prep.  It was so relaxing to make a marinade, or top and tail beans on the beach, and come back to the kitchen all cleaned up and ready for the next round of culinary activity, reading a chapter or two between bouts of effort.

Teenagers know how to relax