Underground Puerto Princesa: cave secrets and hidden beaches

Jo Mitra on the world's longest river beneath the surface and a beach called Go West

by Ces Rodriquez

Honda Bay Beach in Puerto Princesa, Palawan's capital. Photo by Allan Barredo

GO NOW
Just because. There is no reason not to go to Puerto Princesa — whatever the time of year and whatever the weather, Palawan is always a joy to visit. When it’s dry, canopies of trees keep you cool and it’s a breeze to cut across the glassy waters of Honda Bay, hopping from one island to another. During the monsoon season, Palawan is often spared the typhoons that tear across the rest of the country. And the rainy season brings with it its joys — the greenery comes alive, and the light turns milky white. Find a cabana (a beach hut) and enjoy Palawan whatever the weather. And of course, there's the lure of the underground river.

GET YOUR BEARINGS
Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan, lies in the middle of the island province about 550km southwest of the capital Manila. It’s not really a city — more of a friendly town where you can get around on foot and enjoy the sights without hassle. There are plenty of bars and restaurants along the main drag of Rizal Avenue. About two hours’ drive from Rizal Avenue, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the western coast of Palawan, about 50km north of Puerto Princesa, is one place you should make an effort to see. The park covers a protected area of more than 22,000 hectares. This is the sight most visitors to the area want to see. It’s the longest underground river in the world, meandering for more than 8km beneath the surface. Book a boat ride, passing a bewildering array of stalactites, stalagmites, caverns, chambers and pools, the formations made eerier by the shadows cast by the boatman’s paraffin lamp.
 
WHERE TO STAY
“It’s not where you stay, it’s what you do in Puerto that’s important,” says entrepreneur Jo Mitra, our insider guide for Puerto Princesa . That said, he recommends Marina de Bay as a place to more than just park your bags. Twenty minutes from Puerto Princesa Airport, Marina de Bay has 12 air-conditioned villas surrounded by mangroves and landscaped gardens. Each room has a balcony with a view of the Puerto Princesa Bay. There are eight executive villas (P2,780/day). Two of the executive villas are suitable for families as they have lofts with three additional single beds. Junior suite villas (P2,180/day) have one queen-size bed with a pull-out and a single bed. All rooms have a TV and Wi-Fi access. The resort is known for its cabana on an overlook, a “nice spot where you can have afternoon tea while watching yachts in the distance,” Mitra says.

Mitra is looking forward to the opening of Sheridan Hotel on Sabang Beach, a popular seaside area en route to the Subterranean River. The good news is the hotel bar is already open for orders.

If you’re feeling adventurous, stay overnight on Starfish Island, one of several small islands that are part of the Honda Bay Island Hopping Tour. On his honeymoon, Mitra and his bride spent the night in a hut on the island. “The accommodation is rustic,” he says. But what makes the stay both romantic and adventurous is the fact that at high tide, the island submerges, leaving only the hut and the stilts it’s perched on visible.

Marina de Bay’s T-house. Photo by Jocas A. See

Marina de Bay
Brgy. Tiniguiban, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Manila tel: +632/ 782 9704
Email: info@marinadebay-palawan.com

Away from it all: Jo Mitra and his wife spent their hoenymoon night in a lone hut on Starfish Island. Photo by Jocas A. See

Starfish Island
Contact the City Tourism Office of Puerto Princesa
Airport Compound, Rizal Avenue Extension,
Puerto Princesa

WHAT TO DO
There are ziplines at Mitra’s Ranch, Mitra’s family home. Located in a subdivision known as Millionaire’s Village, the home has breathtaking views of lush plains and mountains, and a keyhole glimpse of Honda Bay. A sloping area has been converted into a park with three ziplines that take you from the top of the hill to the bottom. The views and the park are free. A ride on all three ziplines costs P500.

In Barangay Santa Monica, visit the Butterfly Garden, home to butterflies and moths native to Palawan and other parts of Southeast Asia.

While the Honda Bay island hopping tour offers white sand and blue seas on any number of small islands in the bay, Mitra recommends staying put all day in one island. He especially likes Snake Island, which has a serpentine sandbar and crystal-clear waters, making it a great spot for sunbathing and a dip. Most resorts and hotels offer island tours for about P1,100 for one person, including transfers, lunch, and entrance fees to some of the islands.

If, like Mitra, you like your beaches isolated and undeveloped, make the 90-minute trip out of the city to the western coast of the capital, to a beach the locals call Go West. It’s a spectacular three-kilometer stretch of white sand, with not a soul in sight. “It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” Mitra says. There’s nothing else on the beach but a few cabanas.

The trail to St. Paul’s Subterranean River. Photo by Ferdz Decena

The 8.2 km Underground River which winds through a cave before flowing directly into the South China Sea.

Instead of taking the usual boat to the Subterranean River National Park, hoof it. “The trail to the underground river allows you to experience the jungle,” says Mitra. Cellphones are best kept hidden, he adds, because the monkeys you meet along the way are a curious lot and have been known to snatch mobile phones from hikers. The trek, called the monkey trail, is also bayawak or monitor lizard territory.

Ziplines at Mitra’s Ranch.
Baker’s Hill
Brgy. Santa Monica

Butterfly Garden
27 Bunk Road Brgy. Santa Monica
Open from 7am to 5pm

Go West
Call the City Tourism Office of Puerto Princesa
Airport Compound, Rizal Avenue Extension,
Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Underground River
Call the City Tourism Office.
Airport Compound, Rizal Avenue Extension,
Puerto Princesa

 
WHAT TO EAT
The freshest seafood. Try the local lamayo fish, which is one of the tastiest and most popular, often served butterflied and fried.

Mitra recommends Kinabuchs Bar & Grill, owned by motocross legend Butch Chase. Kinabuchs serves grilled squid, grilled blue marlin steak, baked mussels, and the local delicacy tamilok, a wood worm. Kinabuchs also has an outdoor TV where diners and tipplers can enjoy a Pacquiao fight or a basketball game.

KaLui interior. Photo by Allan Barredo

KaLui specializes in fresh seafood. It’s an informal hangout, where shoes are checked into lockers at the entrance to keep the highly-polished wooden floors the way they are. KaLui serves only seafood and vegetables and the menu varies according to the catch of the day. Possibilities include sashimi, tempura, shellfish soup, sinigang (a hot and sour soup) and baked mussels. There’s also a vegetarian option.

Mitra also recommends the Marina de Bay Resort restaurant. There’s an open-air dining hall with a view of the bay and the mountains, and another mini-restaurant on stilts at the end of a wooden bridge, popularly called the T-house.

Kinabuchs Bar & Grill
369 Rizal Avenue, Puerto Princesa
Tel: +6348/ 434 5194

KaLui
369 Rizal Avenue, Puerto Princesa
Tel: +6348/ 433 2580, +63928/ 753 9621


ESSENTIALS

HOW TO GET THERE
Air Swift (formerly Island Transvoyager) operates flights to El Nido in Palawan, from Manila and Cebu. From El Nido, it’s about five to six hours by road to Puerto Princesa. From Puerto Princesa airport to the city, tricycle rides cost P50.

Contacts
Puerto Princesa City Tourism Office
Airport Compound, Rizal Avenue
Ext., Puerto Princesa
Tel: +6348/ 434 4211

Association of Travel & Tour
Operators of Puerto Princesa
2nd Floor, Basaya Bldg., Junction 1,
National Highway, Puerto Princesa

City Tourism Council
Tel: +6348/ 433 6079

 
TRAVEL TIPS
Don’t forget your hat, sunglasses, SPF lotion, and emergency kit.
 
Spray on insect repellent, particularly for tours to the Subterranean Underground River.
 
The Underground River sits in total darkness so remember to pack your torch or flashlight. 

InFlight would like to thank Puerto Princesa City mayor Edward Hagedorn and his tourism staff for assisting the InFlight team during their front cover shoot in Puerto Princesa. Our thanks to Mr. Aquilles Guzman of Ellen’s Travel and Tours for providing transportation for the team. Ellen’s Travel and Tours offers van rentals in Puerto Princesa City. A three-hour city tour costs P1,500 plus P300 for each succeeding hour. A van rental for the tour to the Underground River costs P3,500. Best to book a van at least a week before arriving at Puerto Princesa. Call Tel+6348/ 434 7052 for bookings and inquiries.

Originally Published in Inflight Traveller October-November 2011. Updated December 2015

 

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