Puerto Princesa Underground River – is it really worth visiting?

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Palawan Island has recently become one of the trendiest and most popular travel destinations in the Philippines. Being voted twice by Condé Nast Travelerreaders the best island in the world, this most South-Western major island in the archipelago received a lot of love from both domestic and international visitors. As a result, the tourist industry literally exploded there. Well, at least in some of the more popular bits of the island.

One of these places is the UNESCO listed Subterranean River, said to be one of the longest underground rivers in Asia. Quite a lot of tourists add it to their bucket list when visiting Palawan, looking forward to the unforgettable experience. I decided to give it a go to and visited the river back in March 2016. Was the whole experience really worth my time and money? Well, I can almost immediately think of several good and bad sides about the whole trip, which I am happy to share with you. Feel free to have a look and determine whether this is the kind of place you would like to visit:

 

PROS

  • It is indeed quite spectacular. While the boatman takes you through some of the cave chambers, you have a chance to admire breathtaking rock formations, countless stalactites and stalagmites as well as the humongous population of bats living in the cave through which the river flows. Once you enter the so-called “Cathedral” (the largest chamber on your trail) you can appreciate the cavern in its whole glory. Just keep your mouth shut when you stare in awe at the rocky ceiling – the bat droppings are certainly not something you would like to have for lunch. This is also explicitly mentioned in the compulsory audiobook you receive during the tour.

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  • The tour provides you with a lot of useful information and understanding of how such places of natural beauty are formed. Since it’s compulsory for you to get an audioguide, you have no choice but to learn something interesting about geology. Even if you’re not a die-hard of natural sciences, you will still appreciate the stories of how the river was explored for the first time and what some specific rock formations resemble. The Dinosaur and the Face of Jesus included!
Can you see the Jesus?

Can you see the Jesus?

  • It is located within a very pleasant setting. The subterranean river is situated adjacent to a very scenic coastline near the sleepy village of Sabang. Although it is officially called the “Puerto Princesa Underground River”, the site is located approx. 65 km away from the Puerto city proper. Therefore you don’t have to worry about busy traffic and crowds of people strolling around. In fact, the beach in Sabang is calm and desolated at most of the times. Therefore it won’t take much effort to find a nice secluded spot all for yourself.

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CONS

  • You need to get a permit to visit the river. These can be arranged beforehand in the relevant government office in Puerto Princesa city, inside the City Coliseum building. Some sources say you can get it without major problems in Sabang too, however if you are planning to visit the river without joining the package tour, I’d recommend to get the permit in Puerto for the piece of mind.
  • Costs, costs, costs… Just like in many places in the Philippines, the annoying thing about the Subterranean River is that there is no single cost associated with visiting it. In fact the whole sum you pay is divided between the permit, compulsory audioguide as well as the banca (a typical Filipino type of boat) which brings you there from Sabang. You might opt out of taking the banca either way (or even both ways, not really recommended though) and take the jungle trail to get in/get out of there. However, you can’t do the jungle trail (at least on the way back to Sabang) without hiring the guide, who charges the same amount as the boat trip costs. Nonetheless I’d heavily recommend it after the trip to the river so that you can enjoy a pleasant hike through the jungle and spy on wild monkeys (a lof of them!) and beautiful bird species.

 

The total minimum sum you need to shell out for the whole experience includes:

Permit (250 pesos) + Audioguide (70 pesos) + Banca (200 pesos) + Jungle Trail Guide (200 pesos) = 720 pesos total.

 

  • It’s VERY touristy. If you’re a lonely traveler, you might need to wait for a while until there is a free place for you on a banca. Most of the people arrived on package tours there, taking all available spaces. The worst thing is the actual arrival at the river site though. With limited space for the boats taking the tourists down the river and the large number of visitors waiting outside, you might easily waste an hour just waiting for your turn. While the waiting area is quite pleasant with a little lagoon and the pristine coastline just behind your back, the sheer numbers of tourists (especially the arguably worst breed of them – the loud tour groups from Mainland China – fortunately not too many) might make the whole waiting not that enjoyable. On top of that, it never really feels 100% good to explore the natural gems of any kind when there are tons of people around you.

 

DISCLAIMER for those who are from Mainland China or have travelled/lived there for longer time – what I mentioned above the crowds of tourists is NOWHERE near as close as the absolute tourist hell on earth you get in many of China’s natural wonders like Jiuzhaigou National Park. Despite the fact it’s definitely not the most secluded spot on the Philippines, it’s still hundreds times better than almost anything you would get in the PRC. No fake antique entry gates, no annoying vendors, no exorbitant entrance fees, no megaphone yelling guides, no pissing kids, no obnoxious tuhao. That’s why I actually enjoyed my visit to the Subterranean River despite the cons listed above – it still feels much better than most of the scenic spots in Mainland China :). 

 

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Summing up the pros and and cons I listed above I’d say the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River is not an absolute must see, but is still worth a day trip, especially if you plan to stay a bit longer on Palawan Island. However, in my personal opinion it pales in comparison to some other things you can do on the island, like all the activities you can do in let’s say – El Nido. What’s more, if you are a caving aficionado and have an adventurous spirit, you will be much better off visiting the mountainous town of Sagada in the Luzon Island and do the cave connection – absolutely 100% worth it!

 

Have you been to Puerto Princesa Underground River? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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