Puerto Princesa

The underground river
Puerto Princesa, Philippines

 


Time to say goodbye to the tropical islands and beaches and head for the city – Puerto Princesa.

The buses to drive the 6/7/8 hours (depending which option you chose!) south are all expensive. Even the local bus that stops everywhere is expensive. So I’ve gone for the slightly quicker van option as there really was very little difference in price.

Annoyingly, after paying for an extortionate ticket, they don’t even pick you up. So I needed a motorbike taxi (tricycle) to the market which is 2km away. My van was due to leave at 10am. So in usual fashion, I arrived far too early at 9.30am.

But already the van was full! They had saved me a small spot next to a window. And surprisingly, I was the only tourist.

At 9.40am, we were off. So much for 10am then!! For the next 5 hours I felt sick. We were speeding around winding corners, more winding corners and more winding corners. The road was totally unpaved for the first half of the journey making it very bumpy speeding along the gravel. To make things worse, I had a old lady next to me who wouldn’t stop touching me. She was already taking up far more than her share of the seat, I was so wedged against the wall, I couldn’t move. But she was slowly inching further towards me, then a hand would go on my leg – just for a second. Next her arm would go on the top of the back of my the seat, so she could stroke my hair until I moved and shook her away. Knocking my head as she quickly brought her arm back. This carried on in various patterns. In the end, after about 2 hours of putting up with it, I made a barrier with my jumper, putting it on the seat between us. But even that didn’t stop her, somehow wheedling her way under the jumper to touch my leg again. For gods sake!

After 5 hours, we were dropped in the car park of a shopping centre. No idea where we were, but I walked to the main road and caught a tricycle to my hostel which it turns out was a long way away!

1.1364256060.pp-fruit-market

Puerto Princesa is the capital of Palawan and is supposedly the cleanest city in the Philippines. But it’s fairly small and oddly the airport is right in the middle of the town – the planes are zooming, low right over my head! I went for a wander, visiting the post office and the market for some more cheap mangos – even cheaper here, just 20p each and some bananas – 15p for 12!

Fruit is about the only cheap thing in the Philippines!

Everyone was very friendly, almost every single person I passed said hello to me! Both places I’ve stayed so far in Palawan I’ve had an animal problem (rats and mice). Tonight, I was looking forward to a mice free evening. Lazing on my bottom bunk, what’s that walking along the wood?! Wonderful. A bed bug.

Killed that one.

Oh, there’s another. And another. And a whole nest.

After telling reception (response: oh you have Mosquitos?! Oh for goodness sake….) turns out they’ve never heard of them. But I made it clear I wasn’t sleeping in that room. Bed bugs bite and they are horrendous to get rid of. So thankfully I was moved to a new bed bug free room!

But I did now have some very loud gekkos! I love gekkos though!

Wednesday 27 February 2013

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (the ‘underground river’) has been voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World (along with Halong Bay, Vietnam, where I was a couple of weeks ago).

Since winning this accolade, there have been many reports that the site is very much overrated (especially as voting was done by the public with no limit to the number of times you were able to vote and therefore is subject to being skewed by the amount of local publicity).

Never mind, I want to go and see for myself! And I’m quite excited.

To visit, there is a strange permit system in place. You can only secure permits in Puerto Princesa and only tour companies can get them. I had planned on spending the night in Sabang – but that plan was ruined by the permit system. So, I’m going on a day trip instead and luckily I booked it a while ago as permits are now apparently sold out until May.

The river is thought to be the longest underground river in the world, at 8km long. As well as being a New Wonder, it is also a UNESCO world heritage site. On a conventional tour, you go 1.5km into the cave – you can go further (upto about 4km in, beyond that the oxygen is insufficient), but it requires an additional permit to go past the 1.5km point.

I was picked up at 8.45am for the 50km, 2 hour drive back up North (the direction I came from yesterday!). So back along the lovely green scenery, but also the winding roads!

We arrived at the nearest small town of Sabang, on the western coast of Palawan about 11am and it was already lunchtime! Lunch is included in the day trip and we were taken to a local restaurant. The food was random, a selection of chicken, fish and rice. Sadly no fruit or vegetables. Nowhere near as nice as the back-of-the-boat cooked lunches I had while island hopping.

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We still had a while to wait until our permit visit time, so I went for a walk along the beach. On one side of the jetty, where the village is, the beach is small and rocky. But in total contrast on the opposite side of the jetty, the beach is lovely stretching sand with crystal clear water and lines of palm trees framing the beach. Lots of fishing boats are scattered on the beach, but after these, it’s just empty. So pretty. There’s a really nice looking 5* resort too, with a lovely pool looking right out onto the sand…oh to be rich right now, this would be lovely.

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At 12.15pm, it was my groups turn to catch a bangka round to another bay, near to where the entrance to the river is. The boat ride took about 20minutes and we were left on another beach, full of bangkas lined up along the shoreline! This beach was also really pretty, framed with limestone karsts.

A little walk into the jungle and we had to visit a registration point and hang out for half an hour while we waited for our number to be called. In the small clearing there was a family of long tailed macaques.

I really don’t like monkeys, but these ones didn’t seem too vicious. We were fully briefed not to bring any food, or to feed the monkeys. Anyone getting too close was being told off very quickly. But it seems to work – the monkeys generally just ignored you, which was great. There was also a monitor lizard skulking around.

When it was our turn, it was just a 5 minute walk through the jungle, out to another small little bay where the entrance to the underground river was. As with everything here, it was so pretty! The emerald water flowing out of the stone cracks which lead to the dark entrance.

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Again a bit more waiting (but it doesn’t matter when there’s nice photos to be taken!). We were each given a life jacket and a helmet and orderly filed into a small boat. This paddle boat had one guy at the back who as both the tour guide and the paddler. He didn’t stop talking (or rowing!) for the 45 minutes that we were inside. What an exhausting job!

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It was really good though. Going into the cave, it was totally black. We had just one torch on our boat, so it was a bit scary! The cave is full of thousands of bats and swiftlets zooming over our heads. Mostly the bats were sleeping, they were really small, dangling from the roof of the cave. The tunnel lead around various corners and opened out into a large open space – originally called St Paul’s cathedral after the one in London (hence the old name to the underground river being St Paul’s).

Amongst all the generic stalagmites and stalagtites, he guide was pointing out various rock shapes – that looks like the face of Jesus, there is a last supper, the Virgin Mary, a lion, a dragon. And now the fruit and vegetable section – a garlic, corn, carrot etc etc!

We turned around in the largest dome – 67m high and made our way back. Again looking at glittering rocks, hanging bats and listening to the drip, drip, drip of water.

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Coming back out again, the jungle and water framed by the black opening of the cave was really pretty. Then it was back on another bangka, back to Sabang. The whole process of getting boats, waiting areas and more boats is incredibly organised. Each group is assigned various number slots and times for each step and it just seems to work so well! The guides really know what they are doing.

There are hundreds of people here today – and I was group 68 into the cave (and there’s about 10 people per boat) and it was only 1pm. There were still lots of people still arriving even after we were leaving. I really enjoyed the day. Really, it’s no more spectacular than many other caves I’ve been to (and is nowhere comparable to Mulu national park in Borneo which is just amazing) and I can see why people question it’s status as one of the new 7 wonders. But it was pretty.

It was 4.30pm by the time we arrived back into Puerto Princesa. So I went out to stock up on some fruit for dinner/breakfast. I really like it here, everyone is so friendly, fruits are really cheap and it’s small so getting anywhere is only a very short walk.
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