Palawan: Arguably, the Philippines’ Best Island (Part 1 of 2)

My family and I were supposed to travel to Palawan in April 2020. We had to cancel the trip because of the onslaught of the pandemic. But above all, we were grieving over the losses of two loved-ones in the family: my partner and my dad who both succumbed to cancer in March and April 2022 respectively.

In December 2021, my mom revealed she missed traveling. We all did! We usually travel twice a year: one in April and another in December. The month of April is very significant to us – three of us are celebrating our birthdays: mom, me and my sister Daril, hence, the April lakwacha.

December is Christmas vacation. As a family tradition, the week sandwiching Christmas Day and New Year’s Day is a family reenergizing week. One of my siblings suggested that we push through the Palawan trip.

Finally, in May 2022, we flew to Puerto Princesa, our first destination after two years of no travel. For many of us, Palawan is not a new destination. I, myself, had been in Palawan thrice, twice in Puerto Princesa and once in Coron. However, this trip was significant because it was a first to the family. My first travel was with colleagues, the second was an official trip and the last one (in Coron) was with dear friends.

Here are some highlights of the tour:

A visit to Puerto Princesa will not be complete without visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

According to UNESCO’s brief, “Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park encompasses one of the world’s most impressive cave systems, featuring spectacular limestone karst landscapes, pristine natural beauty, and intact old-growth forests and distinctive wildlife. It is located in the south-western part of the Philippine Archipelago on the mid western coast of Palawan, approximately 76 km northwest of Puerto Princesa and 360 km southwest of Manila.”

The cave reminded me so much of Jeju Island’s lava tunnel (Manjanggul Cave) minus the underground water system.

This is the first stop: the Puerto Princesa Underground River Dispatching Area in Barangay Sabang, about one hour drive from the city center (Photo: SAPT)

From the Dispatching Area, about 20 minutes boat ride to the entrance of the Underground River. (Photo: SAPT)

Siyempre, an obligatory photo with family. On the background is the clear Sabang beach and a small limestone-island. (Photo: SAPT)

The welcome marquee. I was looking for the UNESCO marker. (Photo: SAPT)

The inscribed property is comprised of approximately 22,202 ha. It’s most popular site: an 8.2 km long underground river. However, only about 4.3 km is navigable. We only navigated about 1 km. According to the boatman, the water is high inside. I thought of all the sea creatures from our folklore lurking in the dark. There was a desire and hesitation to get in – to explore more than the allowable 1 km. My imagination wanted to greet and meet the sirena and the siokoys. But a part of me felt unsecured after the kilometer route. I could sense the water rising and in my mind, I wanted to get out.

Oh well, my friends know very well how unimpressed I am with the wonders of nature. I remember the first time I was here. I was excited at first but after sometime, I felt I wanted to go out. I felt very impatient seeing almost the same thing (limestone, stalactites, stalagmites and large chambers).

Anyhow, this subterranean river flows directly into the sea, with its brackish lower half subjected to tidal influence, distinguishing it as a significant natural global phenomenon.

The main entrance to the underground river (Photo: SAPT)

Getting ready to enter the underground river (Photo: SAPT)

Ayan na! About to enter the river. (Photo: SAPT)

Some of the stalactite formations (Photo: SAPT)

This is the farthest our boatman took us. (Photo: SAPT)

Despite the second time and despite me not being a fan of natural heritage, I am still glad I joined my family this time. The giggles and the wows of everyone were very comforting. My two years have been really a roller-coaster ride. The company of these amazing individuals was so heartwarming (cue: enter music – “You’re My Home” whichever version – Billy Joel, Odette Quesada or Lea Salonga).

Oh, and it was refreshing to learn from the boatman who said: “madali pong tandaan ang kaibhan ng stalactite sa stalagmite. Yung tunog ng letter G sa Stalagmite, clue po iyon na ang stalagmite ay mula sa ibaba at ang stalactite naman ay mula sa itaas.” [an easy guide to differentiate stalactite from stalagmite: the sound of the letter G in stalagmite indicates that it is from the ground. So if the formation is from below, it is stalagmite and if it is from above, it is stalactite]. God, my science teacher did not teach me this!

Okay, going back to serious matter, this national park was inscribed in the UNESCO list because it features a spectacular limestone or karst landscape, says UNESCO. This is from the synthesis of criteria vii, which is the feature of the property to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

As stated earlier, the associated tidal influence on the river makes this a significant natural phenomenon. The river’s cavern exhibits dramatic speleothems and several large chambers of as much as 120 m wide and 60 m high. To the locals these are natural sculptures, resembling abubot (decorative ornaments at home) that are familiar to the Filipino public. Our boatmen (my first trip in 2014 and the latest) often compare these natural formations to everyday sculptures like the Virgin Mary, the Nativity Scene, the Last Supper, and a huge Cathedral.

UNESCO also tells us that its accessibility and navigability up to 4.5 km inland allows it to be experienced by the general public, who can view the magnificent rock formations on a river cruise unequalled by any other similar experience elsewhere in the world.

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