Underground River


Underground RiverWe now come to the main reason for visiting this wonderful paradise known as Palawan.


The Puerto Princesa Underground River was officially declared one of the seven natural wonders of the world on January 28, 2012. And while it ranked number one in terms of votes, the list was presented in alphabetical order so you won't find it at the top.

After taking the twenty minute banca ride, I now understand why it is number one. The cave is wonderful and I am glad the government and the local citizens have put in a lot of effort to preserve the place. It truly deserves to be the top natural wonder of the world.





The Permit

PortEver since the Puerto Princesa Underground River was declared one of the seven natural wonders of the world people visiting the place has skyrocketed.

In order to continue preserving this natural wonder, the number of visitors is limited within a given time frame. To control the flow of people, permits are given and tracked. Due to the sheer volume of tourists, permits usually need to be secured days in advance. If you are planning to visit the Underground River, I suggest talking to your tour guide as soon as possible to avoid any inconvenience.

Fleet of BancasIf you have booked a hotel already, they will be more than happy to help you book a tour as well. If you want a specific guide, you might want to try Dean, our tour guide. You'll find the contact details of his company below.

With your hotel booked and permit secure, it's now time for us to head out to the Puerto Princesa Underground River!


The Trip

The toughest part of the trip was actually on land instead of the water. Even sitting comfortably with the air conditioner keeping everyone cool in our Toyota Hi-lux van, the ride was nauseating for those who were awake.

Sari-sari StoreThe path going to the port is composed of tightly winding roads and high angled hills. It usually takes between two and a half to three hours to complete. But since we were running late, we completed it in a little over two hours.

Unfortunately, running fast under these circumstances doesn't bring out the best in people. I don't get dizzy on trips, but even I was affected by the trip.

It was so bad that a couple of the people in our tour group threw up. If you are concerned about throwing up, don't let it bother you too much. This is such a normally occurrence that tour guides make it a point to carry barf bags to keep things clean.

Island CoveIn addition to this, guides also carry around medicine to help minimize dizziness. They usually ask if anyone is prone to motion sickness before heading out so people can take a pill for maximum effect.

Seeing that many people were already uncomfortable during the trip, our guide decided to make a pit stop at a sari-sari store, or convenience store, so everyone can rest and collect themselves. In our case. we used the time to take pictures of the surrounding mountains from the second floor.

Island CliffsAfter our twenty minutes was up, everyone piled into the van and we completed the journey to the port in about thirty minutes or so. Fortunately, no one else threw up during this leg of the trip.

Once at the port, our guide took care of presenting our permits, identification, and all the other requirements while we waited under several tents. And after ten minutes, we finally boarded our banca and were off to the island.

With calm seas, bright sunshine, and a light breeze, the twenty minute trip from the port to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park was the start of a great experience.





The Underground River

SignI understand that the Underground River at Puerto Princes is the longest in the world. And since majority of the river is underwater, tourists only see the part accessible by banca, they miss out on the treasures found underwater.

When I was a strapping young man ages ago, I was fortunate enough to have visited several caves. During those trips, I walked through thigh-high mud, slid down a forty-five degree incline of slippery guano, and witnessed fellow spelunkers sink to their waists while we walked through wet sand.

Cave MapIn my Bohol Tour, I visited the Hinagdanan Cave to see an underground pool that emptied into the sea. In Puting Buhangin, a small cave had the water rising and lowering with the tides. And most recently, I was able to listen to the unique singing stalactites and stalagmites of Ugong Rock, which also happens to be in Puerto Princesa.

Yes, each of the caves I visited had their own share of stalactites, stalagmites, bats, birds, and even snakes to give them their own unique look and experience, but nothing compares to the Underground River.

Cave CeilingSome of the things that I found to be different here include:

  1. Cleanliness – this is the cleanest cave I have ever seen. Thanks to the efforts of the locals, there is no garbage in sight; not even a tiny wrapper or a plastic bottle.
  2. Completeness – it is one of the few caves that still retains its vast collection of gigantic stalactites and stalagmite. Other caves have seen their thousand year old structures get dug out and sold to the developed countries for medicine and decoration.
  3. Temperature – of all the caves I have visited, this is the coolest. Thanks to the cold water, I never broke a sweat as we slowly floated in and out of the cave. In fact, it was warmer outside the cave than inside.
  4. Effort – since I was riding in a banca with only a hardhat and camera, this was the easiest visit I have ever had. Past adventures had a backpack strapped to my back or equipment hanging from my waist as I walked, slid, and climbed.


Cave CeilingBeing a live cave, there are tons of bats and birds flying about. They were so much that our bancero, or boatman, kidded that if we felt drops on our bodies, it was easy to determine what it was. If it was cool, it would be water dripping from the ceiling. And if it was warm, well, you now know that either a bird or a bat did a number on you.

[That's what hardhats are for – to protect us from bat guano and bird droppings!]

But I wouldn't worry about it. Like everyone in the banca, you'd be too preoccupied to notice what hits you anyway. As you float on, you'll be busy looking everywhere. What you do need to keep in mind is not to open your mouth when looking up. If you make the mistake of talking or to gaping as you stare at the wonderful stalactites, well, I hope you like salty food.

[Yup, be prepared for a few drops of fresh warm vitamins!]


Roles

Cave CeilingAs you board the banca, you will notice that the bancero will be at the rear of the boat. This is by design as one of two tourists seated in the front row gets to be the light man. Second to the bancero, this person is the most important guy in the boat because without him you will see absolutely nothing in the underground river.

[Yup, it's pitch black in there.]

Cave WallAs the banca glides over the water, the light man needs to work in sync with the bancero as the latter talks about the different stalactites and stalagmites in the cave. Failing to light up the right thing makes you feel like you're watching one of those cheap DVDs where the sound doesn't match the person's mouth.

The biggest problem of light men is when their hands are pasmado, or twitchy, because one can get dizzy with a shaking light. So it would help if the guy holding the light has steady hands.

Another problem is if the light man happens to get bored at any point of the tour because when that happens, that light will be zipping all around the cave. And since dSLR cameras need that light to help focus, jumping from one point to another means that you won't end up taking any pictures.

[Grr!]





Structures

Cave WallMother nature really has an eye for beauty. Over thousands of years, she has shaped stalactites and stalagmites in the Underground River to resemble things we see on a daily basis.

As you move through the cave, you will come across formations that resemble animals like lions and eagles. You'll find several that resemble fruits and vegetables like garlic. There are even formations that look like people, with one looking like the Virgin Mary and another resembling the Nativity Scene.

There is a small area that looks a beach somewhere in the middle of the tour. And I will tell you, it was extremely tempting to get down and wade on over to it.

Cave WallIf you stare up, with mouths closed of course, you will see stripes of black on the white ceiling. When illuminated, they looked like syrup on a Vanilla Sundae. But instead of chocolate, these stripes are made up of guano, or bat dung.

[Well, if you put it that way, it ain't so yummy after all!]

After about ten minutes, it was time to turn around and we were treated to a different angle of the stalactites and stalagmites. What's interesting about it is that exactly the same rock formations take on a new appearance when looked at from a different perspective. Suddenly some would sparkle when the light hits them, while others would show bands of color.


Camera

Cave WallDean, our guide, said that Point and Shoot cameras are rarely effective in the Underground River. I've also spoken with friends and they concur. They even add that dSLRs had difficulty focusing in the darkness.

In our banca, none of the people who had Point and Shoot cameras were able to take any good pictures. Even an illuminated wall close to our boat wasn't bright enough for these types of cameras. After a while, they eventually gave up or ran out of battery power.

Cave CeilingWith this experience, I suggest that you just turn off your Point and Shoot camera to save power. Save it for pictures outside the cave, where there is ample light. Also, if you will be going to Ugong Rock, your Point and Shoot will work there as the caves are well-lighted because it isn't too deep.

If you have a dSLR camera, I suggest using the brightest lens in your collection. If you don't have anything lower than a F3.5 aperture, you might want to minimize zooming in to get the most light in your lens. You can always crop your pictures later.

I also suggest using an external flash as they tend to be stronger than built-in ones. If you don't have an external flash, make sure to set your camera to use its built-in flash with every picture. I tried taking pictures without the flash and wasn't very happy with the results. Sure, the high ISO allowed to take  pictures, but the spotlight made a brighter circle in the middle of my shots much. With a flash, the entire frame will be balanced with light.

[I'm sure some of you will get better results than I did, but then it's best to be prepared so you don't miss a thing.]

Finally, make sure to fully charge all batteries. If you will be taking a ton of pictures under these conditions, you may find that you'll be out of power by the time you get to the next destination, which may be Ugong Rock.





Animals

SignEven before banca, we were warned not to bring any plastic bags. We were also warned to keep all bags close to our bodies and tightly held. All zippers are to be closed, with all colorful items hidden away.

Other than the bats and the birds in the cave, the island is populated by monkeys. And while the monkeys may look cute and harmless, think again; these critters are the extremely naughty.

Over time, the monkeys here have come to associate plastic bags and colorful items with food. So when they see any of these things, they grab them expecting a quick and easy meal.

MacaqueDuring our visit, a monkey grabbed the clutch bag from another another tour group. Fortunately, the owner did not chase after the monkey as it would only scare it up a tree or into the jungle. After a while, the clutch bag was roughly dumped on the ground because the monkey did not find any food.

If the same thing happens to you, don't panic. Most of all, do not chase after the monkey or scare it in to returning your items. If you do, you will never see your items again.

Instead, slowly and calmly inform your tour guide so he can keep an eye on it. Once the monkey gets any food in your bag, it will dump the rest on the ground. If it doesn't find any food, chances are it will just do the same, which is to dump the entire bag on the ground.

MacaqueThe worst case scenario is that the monkey tears up your bag in frustration. With this in mind, it's best to avoid bringing any designer or expensive bags to the Underground River Tour.

Talking pictures shouldn't be a problem as they appear to be used to it. Still, I wouldn't get too close to them. Grabbing gear worth thousands then trying to disassemble it is not how I want you to end a great tour.

If you haven't seen the Bayawak, or Monitor Lizard, at Crocodile Farm yet, you might be able to get a glimpse it here. With some Bayawaks being longer than a full grown human, they are wonderful to behold as they sun themselves on the rocks.

MacaqueAnd while they may look slow and lumbering, don't be fooled. These reptiles are capable of catching much faster prey like deer or boar. So, just like with the monkeys, keep your distance from them.

Finally, the river does have sand fleas which can give irritating bites. Everyone taking the Underground River tour is advised to put on a healthy amount on exposed body parts. Pay attention to your neck, arms, and legs.

[Don't worry if the mosquitoes feast on you, the bats and birds will exact revenge by eating them too!]


Final Thoughts

Cave ExitThe trip was a very short twenty minutes, and I will admit, it just wasn't enough time to fully enjoy the Underground River. I now understand why some people still take the tour whenever they return to Puerto Princesa. Each visit will probably give you something new to look at.

In our case, I still wanted to walk around the island, but it was getting late and we still had another stop to make. This time it was a cave with singing stalactites and stalagmites waiting for us.

And with that, I will be ending our tour of Puerto Princesa Underground River. I hope you can join us for our last adventure in Puerto Princesa, which is Ugong Rock.

Till next time, keep your cameras ready, your eyes peeled, and your minds open. You never know where your next adventure will take you!


Must Dos

  • Bring a dSLR if you have one.
  • Bring and external flash if you have one.
  • Use a dSLR lens with the biggest aperture.
  • Avoid using your Point and Shoot camera inside the Underground River.
  • Charge all your batteries.
  • Put on a healthy amount of insect repellant.
  • Do not bring plastic bags or colorful items with you when you disembark from the banca.
  • Be careful of the monkeys and Bayawaks.