Palawan Islands, Philippines Travel Guide: In-Depth Look

Palawan Islands, Philippines Travel Guide: In-Depth Look

An underground river runs through a cluster of surreal caves with surreal limestone formations.

I was about to bite a worm, an extremely long worm. When I was a kid, I occasionally craved an earthy succulent from the garden, but then gave up.

But this time there was no escape. I actually ordered it from a worm supplier who had a stand outside the restaurant where I was enjoying a nice buffet lunch after returning from a trip to one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, and there seemed to be a refreshing driftwood worm. Order.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River in the Palawan Islands of the Philippines is a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed as a Place of Outstanding Universal Value to Humanity, and as I rowed further into this remarkable underground waterway, I understood why reason.

The subterranean river is a two-hour drive north of Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, near the seaside village of Sabang. It winds more than eight kilometers beneath Mount St. Paul, through a cluster of surreal caverns filled with surreal limestone structures — stalactites and stalagmites — that seem to have been carved to resemble that strange, nightmarish creature, Can suddenly reach out and suck. You have entered the dark upper reaches of the unknown.

Possibly, just possibly, the reason no one can find Nessie in Loch Ness is because he moved here from Scotland to enjoy the warm waters.

The Underground River is a popular tourist attraction, not only for foreigners but also for Filipinos. The site is a short boat ride from Sabang’s busy jetty, and after about an hour’s wait to get in touch with the local monkeys, about 8 to 10 passengers are assigned to kayaks and paddled through the opening to enter cave. Dark and echoing.

With its rocky coastline, El Nido in Bacuit Bay is an area of ​​natural beauty popular with tourists. Image: 123RF

A local guide will take the boat into the first 1.5 kilometers of the cave and provide continuous commentary on its many features and those of the river, while a passenger is responsible for lighting large torches at designated points along the way. The guide was more than happy to point out that one of the formations bore a striking resemblance to Sharon Stone. Filipinos seem to like puns more than most.

He also gleefully mentions that the cave is home to 80,000 bats (of nine species), which, illuminated by torches, look unsettlingly eerie. No doubt you want to be on their side.

As you go further into the cave, with one eye on the bats and the other on the swifts swooping around you, with no regard for your personal space, you’ll reach what’s known as the Cathedral, 65 meters high . It’s simply majestic. You can easily see the pope there doing some soggy confession and celebrating mass.

The Subterranean River and Caves are part of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a heavily forested reserve. In fact, the entire Palawan Island is composed of more than 1,000 islands, with a forest coverage rate of 70%, of which nearly 50% are old trees.

Forests are a highlight of a trip to Palawan, and even more so when walking through the forest to a Batak tribal village. The Batak are considered to be the oldest inhabitants of the Philippines and one of the three main tribes living near Puerto Princesa. Their numbers continue to dwindle.

The village of Batak is about an hour away from the main road in San Rafael, where our Astoria Palawan hotel is located. Most of the village’s 45 families (about 5 people each) used to live in the hills, about a four-hour drive by road, but a measles outbreak killed 15 children and the village chief was convinced they needed to be closer to medical services.

The tribe was traditionally nomadic and hunter-gatherers, but they have now settled in one place. They generally live in thatched huts, sometimes raised from the ground on stilts. Villagers subsist on root crops, wild boar, rice and coconuts. They harvest rattan, resin and honey to sell. Projects to teach them how to grow a wider variety of vegetables are underway. If the numbers are any indication, they seem to be very fond of dogs.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. . Image: 123RF

The children used to walk an hour a day to school, but quickly became homesick, so a school was built in the village. This work is still a work in progress, but it serves its purpose in a community that does not have easy access to any form of education.

Just a few years ago, Batak women preferred to go topless while the men wore just a few carefully arranged ropes and barks, but the growing number of outside visitors means that shorts and T-shirts are often more appropriate for public appearances.

I’m heading up the mountain with the rest of the Intrepid team, having lunch with the village chief and anyone else who wants to join. We—well, our porters—bring the food in and bring all the trash back.

It’s an easy walk along the gentle slopes of the stony paths and across several shallow streams. The forest is lush and the breeze rustles through the coconut and cashew trees. The only disturbing element of this delightful walk was the presence of a native skunk nearby, whose presence, though unseen, had a sense-attacking smell that was painful.

When we got to the village, most people were attending the Sunday service at Sweet Rain Church. Filipinos, even the natives, are very religious. More than 80 percent are Catholic, with most of the rest converted to other Christian denominations.

In addition to the church, there is a full-size outdoor basketball court in the village. Filipinos are very passionate about the sport, even though they are generally not particularly tall. But what they lack in height they make up for in enthusiasm.

Lunch at the chief’s hut is simple: rice, vegetables and chicken adobo, a popular local dish in which meat is marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic. This is the national dish of the Philippines.

I can’t say I’ve ever considered Filipino food (how many Filipino restaurants are there near your house?), but it’s surprisingly good, with many different spices, meats, and seafood, including crocodile. Vegetarians will not thrive here.

Filipinos are avid eaters themselves and seem to find time to eat several extra meals each day.

Another big obsession of theirs is spending time with family – even distant cousins ​​are welcome at family festivities. Filipinos are always gregarious, warm and friendly, as local author Alfredo Roces wrote:

“It is said that Filipinos are Malay in family, Spanish in love, Chinese in business and American in ambition.”

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Rosyth could add that they like to sing loudly, usually at the ubiquitous local karaoke bars. Perhaps this explains why every major hotel in Asia has a Filipino cover band.

After lunch with the chief and other villagers who were invited to join us, we headed back down the mountain to the hotel, drank a few bottles of San Miguel and—you guessed it—sang some karaoke.

It’s a six-hour drive from San Rafael to El Nido. Rice fields are dry and local farmers are waiting for the first drops of rain before they can start planting. Coconut and banana trees dominate the landscape, and scarlet, red and pink bougainvilleas line the roadside like colorful sentinels. The buffalo either eat quietly or struggle in small muddy pools to escape the heat and humidity.

El Nido sounds like some sort of climate change weather pattern, but it’s a mid-sized beach town on the northern tip of Palawan. It’s the gateway to the Bakut Islands, an archipelago of towering limestone cliffs, spectacular canyons, white-sand beaches and crystal-clear, coral-filled waters perfect for diving and snorkelling.

It was in El Nido that I first noticed foreign tourists, especially French tourists, coming for the upscale resorts, boat tours and diving. Some stay and become part of the business world. The town center is made up of charming narrow streets filled with cafés and dive shops overlooking the sea. Mountains lean on the horizon. People talk about El Nido’s imminent “take off”.

Of course, it does take off at night along the waterfront, where restaurants and cafes offer dining on the sand, with the occasional live band providing musical accompaniment.

On our first morning, we embarked on a full-day reef snorkeling trip, lounging on a secluded beach. The sea shimmers under the sparkling lights. Our three boatmen, Miguel, Romeo and Derek, hand out snorkels and masks and guide us out to sea, to dazzling limestone outcrops that erupted from the ocean floor thousands of years ago bay.

The bay is surprisingly quiet. It’s like being allowed into another world. The water is warm and clear, but so shallow in places that the boatman has to disembark to push the water across the seabed.

Leaving the bay, we head to the ocean for swimming and snorkeling. No need for a wetsuit here. The water is almost as warm as the outside. Brightly colored fish of various sizes swim in the sea and hide in the dark corners of the coral beds.

The boat docked and we waded out onto a secluded beach. We paddle the shallows and the boatman prepares a lunch of roast pork, freshly caught fish and squid, followed by sliced ​​mango and watermelon. It was hard to stay awake after that, and a few of us dozed off in the shade.

As we headed back to our resort on El Nido Cove, a pod of dolphins decided to escort us to the beach like energetic, playful guards, making sure we got home safely before the sun dipped below the ruby ​​horizon.

Wading ashore after a day of sunny adventure, I looked forward to a cold beer and dinner, although a quick look at the menu revealed no driftwood worms were on offer. So luckily what I ate was bought in Sabang. Soaked in vinegar and garlic, it’s almost translucent. I wanted it to glide down my throat long, slow, and glides, but I decided to chew it slowly and purposefully. Doesn’t taste like chicken.

More information: Philippine Travel Network

reach there: Several airlines fly from New Zealand to Manila. See Air New Zealand, Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, China Southern and Cathay Pacific.

tour there Philippine Island Vacation: From November to May (Palawan’s main season with good weather), a 9-day trip starts at $2,975 per person. See

The author is a guest of Intrepid Travel and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), of which the Philippines is a member.

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