We woke up early on our second day in Puerto Princesa. Our lack of sleep did not douse our spirits. After all, we were off to see one of the most iconic landmarks of Palawan; the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River. Commonly known as the Puerto Princesa Underground river, this UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts hundreds of tourists all-year round. In 2012, it was included in the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
First, the road going to the port, our take off point going to the Underground River, is full of ups and downs. It was going to be a roller coaster ride, we were told, so we better brace ourselves. While on the road, take advantage of the scenic landscape, punctuated by rolling hills and overhanging karst limestone.
Second, once in the area, we will have to wait for our turn to go into the river. That could mean having to be in line for the next 3 hours or so. But the good news is that we can avail of activities offered by the locals, particularly the zipline and mangrove forest tour to kill time. We got the mangrove forest tour, a boat ride through an estuary that is densely grown by mangroves.
Locals conducted the tour. Here, they explained the life cycle of mangroves, the difference between male and female trees, as well as the dead trees that are serve as home to the infamous “tamilok,” commonly known as wood worm, a local exotic delicacy that is actually a shell-less mollusk. It is related to oysters, hence the similarity in taste and the way they are prepared — smothered with spicy vinegar and eaten raw. The mangrove tour ended with a local song from our guide.
After the mangrove tour, our guide suggested that we have lunch since it would take about three hours before our turn to go inside the underground river. We proceeded to Sabang Beach where our food was served. Buffet lunch along the beach, with the sun shining at its brightest and the sea breeze blowing, was perfect.
When lunch was done, we proceeded to the port where a boat would take us to the Subterranean National Park. A 25-minute boat ride through calm seas finally brought us to the National Park. Imposing limestones brought us awe.
The place was paradise. As a warning, our guide told us that wild monkeys abound so we better secure our belongings, especially small bags. Before we were led to the waiting area, we were fastened with audio devices where a recording about the river would play once we begin the tour. We took the opportunity to explore the area and marvel at its unadulterated sights. It was a chance that we would not let pass so we took as much photographs as we can.
About an hour and a half passed and it was finally our turn to tour the Underground River. We were reminded that, once inside, we must keep our mouths closed because we might accidentally catch bat pee and poop.
Our boatman slowly paddled the small vessel into the river. The transition from light of day to utter pitch black darkness was arresting, somewhat a bit panic-inducing. The feeling was surreal, it was like venturing into a world that is not our own. A dimension that has never seen sunlight, where “day” was non-existent, since it came into being. The feeling that unknown creatures were ready to pull us to a vortex was palpable.
But our guide was quick to turn on his flash light so we immediately adjusted to the darkness. We were warned not to touch the formations — stalagmites and stalactites, if within reach — because the acidity from our hands would ruin or “kill” these natural structures. Some of which are possibly centuries old, our guide told us.
Throughout our journey, our guide would point out different shapes: vegetables, religious figures, sea creatures and humans. Large grouper fishes also abound in the area. But the highlight of this adventure was the “cathedral,” a section of the cave containing the highest ceiling. It looked immense and was definitely breathtaking.
Much as we wanted to go deeper into the cave, it was already time to turn back. On the way out, our guide pointed out more oddly-shaped formations and water creatures.
As we emerged out of the cave, there was the unshakeable feeling that we were changed persons. It was the feeling of having been able to venture into a plane that humans were not allowed to go. But we were able to do it and we were able to go back unscathed. Oh well, we may be overreacting.