We arrived in Puerto Princesa a few days ago, which was our introduction to rugged and breathtaking Palawan island. The city is quite beautiful, and has a lot to teach most other Philippine cities with it’s modern architecture, laid-back vintage feel and suprising anti-litter laws. As a result, there isn’t a bargain to be found, and because of the influx of tourists, there aren’t many genuine smiles either.
Tyson and I have done our best to avoid tourist trodden hot spots, and as a result, we have managed to find some beautiful places in a country that is likely Southeast Asia’s last untouched frontier.
Puerto Princesa is larger than Dumaguete, and even has such luxuries as traffic lights, a first sighting for us. The city, like our hometown of Victoria, is beautiful and very proud. Tourists flock here in their privately chartered jets to view paradise with their own eyes. They stay in fancy hotels dedicated to the needs of foreigners. They board the sleek air conditioned vans that ply the ribbon of pavement between Princesa and Sabang so they can view the newest addition to the elite 7 Natural Wonders of the World club in the utmost of comfort.
There is no denying Palawan’s beauty. Steep limestone cliffs rise from the turquoise water like gothic cathedrals. The regal rock faces taper off into dense and thriving jungle that is choked with wildlife at every level. Monkeys swing from the treetops and huge, prehistoric Monitor lizards roam the forrest floor.
Tyson and I spent one night in Puerto Princesa, at a dingy place called Payuyo Pension. The sheets were clean, but the bathrooms could sure use some updating, and the shy staff were only helpful when pressed. The following morning we decided to make the trek to the famous Subterranean River, which is advertised so heavily, here. In true backpacker fashion, however, we forwent the tourist transport vehicle in favour of the signature local transportation, the jeepney. Unlike the fancy air-conditioned vans reserved solely for wallet-heavy tourists, the jeepeney doesn’t afford itself such luxuries as seat belts or windshield wipers. And it’s cheap.
And a ride in a jeepney wouldn’t be complete without livestock, rice and a roadside tire change. We were packed in amongst the locals, while latecomers happily took their seat on the roof in between bags of feed, construction material and the often required spare tires. There was surely more weight on top of the jeepeny than in it, which I tried not to think about when we rounded corners.
The 72 km, tooth loosening trip took three hours, with frequent stops for passengers and vehicle maintenance. When we arrived in Sabang, we were expecting a remote, tourist-starved village tucked into the jungle. What we saw was a mini Boracay. Sabang will look like Boracay in about ten years, and Sheridan has already staked out a front row seat on the pristine beach with an incredibly opulent resort. The sight saddened us.
We spent three nights at a place called Blue Bamboo, which we highly recommend to anyone on a shoestring budget. It’s cheap, cute and well-kept. Owner Lorraine, who is Filipino claims to have designed the cottages herself, and she’s an excellent cook. The place is located on the Filipino side of the beach, away from foreign cash flow.
The locals of Sabang see too many tourists, and it’s obvious. With crowds of camera-clad foreigners showing up daily to march through the Subterranean River, us white folk barely get a glance from the Filipinos, let alone a smile. And our fellow foreigners aren’t friendly at all, which shocked us. We have received many a vacant stare in response to “hello”.
The beach of Sabang is truly awe inspiring. Foamy surf thunders in, gripping the beach with a fury that makes it seem the boundary between land and sea is threatened. The waves crash against the tree-lined cliffs creating meters high spray, and a lingering mist. One can stand and stare for hours at the ever-changing water, mesmerized by it’s powerful motion.
Tyson and I decided to visit the Subterranean River our own way, instead of signing up for a package tour. This also meant seeing it as cheaply as possible. We did this by choosing a gruelling 5km hike to the river, instead of an expensive 20 min boat ride. A french guy named Bonaventure came along. We’d met him in the jeepney, and he was also staying at Blue Bamboo. He did the entire thing barefoot.
The hike was perhaps our favourite part of the day, as the trail took us through some pretty dense and incredible jungle. We slogged over tree roots and rocks, and through a lot of slippery mud. The sound of chirping bugs was nearly deafening, and with so much foliage vying for sunlight, the forrest floor was damp and cool. We discovered a few caves carved into the looming limestone rockfaces, one of which was quite large. With flashlight in hand, we walked in about five metres. We noticed that an animal had been laying marble-sized eggs all over the walls of the dry cave. Upon further inspection and an accidental sacrifice, we discovered that the eggs belonged to tokay geckos.
The river tour itself was beautiful but not spectacular. The famous Subterranean River snakes underground for over eight kilometres before emptying into the ocean. The trail led us to the mouth of the cave, an area clogged with tourists. We had just spent two glorious hours alone, sweating in the heat of what felt like untouched jungle, and it was strange to now be faced with wealthy foreigners carrying expensive handbags. We handed over our permit, and waited in line. When our number was called we donned lifejackets and plastic hardhats and climbed into a small paddleboat. Our boatman showed us the first kilometre of the river, and then in true Filipino fashion, informed us it would cost more to go further. We declined.
The mirky green water in the cave is 8 metres deep in the dry season, and rises an additional metre in the wet season. Hanging from it’s pantheon-sized chambers are stalactites of many shapes and sizes. Swallow-like birds that have evolved to use echo location flew endlessly around us, while thousands of bats hung from the crevices in the cavernous ceiling. Apparently the giant cave is also home to tarantulas, water snakes and scorpions, none of which we saw.
Our paddleboat trip took about 45 minutes, and our amusing guide pointed out a number of different types of stalactites. While he was able to tell us what the shapes reminded him of – “This one looks like a carrot” – he didn’t elaborate too much beyond that. He did inform us that the highest point in the cave is 65 metres, an area we passed under. The beam of the provided flashlight didn’t really have enough power to display the cave to it’s full potential, and therefor getting any photos was quite difficult.
When we hopped out of the boat, we wandered down to the nearby beach, and along the way we spotted sneaky monkeys who were trying to separate unsuspecting tourists from their mid-day snacks. The incredibly human-like creatures were successful many times, and one nearly tricked me, as I succumbed to the photo op. But he missed, and instead of a stolen granola bar, I got a muddy slap on the wrist.
We also spotted a few large Monitor lizards basking near the ranger station. They didn’t seem to be phased by the crowd they attracted, which makes me suspicions they’re getting handouts from the rangers to keep them around.
The trek back was challenging, but left us with a real sense of satisfaction. That evening we scarfed down a much deserved meal of chicken curry and rice before calling it a night.
This morning we boarded another jeepeny and headed back to Puerto Princesa. We booked into a hotel with wifi, albeit slow, so that we could plan out the next phase of our trip. Originally we’d planned on trekking up to the northern point of Palawan to El Nido, but after seeing what tourism has done to Sabang, we decided it wasn’t worth the eight hour drive to discover El Nido was full of foreigners and tourist-numbed locals as well.
We’ve decided instead, to fly out of the Philippines tomorrow, and our destination is Singapore. There we’ll spend about three days before heading to Indonesia for three weeks.
This evening we popped into a small local eatery for dinner, and ended up starting a conversation with the owners, a Filipino couple and their friends, Ron and Joe, two friendly gentlemen from the US. After they closed up shop we all headed down to the boardwalk, which is all lit up at night, and is dotted with small stands selling an assortment of things including food and jewelry. We grabbed mango shakes and freshly roasted peanuts and sat around chatting, until yawns separated us. As we headed back to our hotel, both Tyson and I agreed that because we’re leaving tomorrow, we wished we’d met them earlier.