Tales from Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Just three days before Christmas Eve my aunt and I squeeze in a three day, two night stay at the city of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, a seemingly short visit which would soon turn out to be the highlight of our entire vacation in the Philippines. It will be a first for both of us. At noon we board a Cebu Pacific Airlines flight from Mactan-Cebu International Airport. The plane’s humidifier creates white clouds above our heads keeping us cool while we settle into our seats. As I flip through Smile, the in-flight magazine, I am giddy with excitement and anticipation. An hour from now we would be setting foot in the so-called last ecological frontier of the Philippines.
Prior to our trip, I perused several travel websites and came across TheVideoCamProject.com, a video blog created by Mark and Hazel Esguerra. I watched closely as the couple detailed their tour of The Puerto Princesa Underground River in an effort to help the country campaign for its bid as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Mesmerized by the complexity of the sights and sounds in the six-minute feature, I felt compelled to visit. After a prompt exchange of phone calls and emails, I was able to successfully book a tour with Amika Travel & Tours, specializing in Palawan tour packages.
Our plane slowly approaches Puerto Princesa Airport and from my window I see a sprawling green carpet of lush tropical paradise. I am already impressed.
Jeff, our driver, is eagerly waiting for us outside carrying a huge sign boldly painted with our hotel’s name. “Watch your head ma’am,” he says with a humorous smile as we climb into the back of a white Toyota GL Grandia van. He would say this again countless times during the span of our tour like it was the most important piece of advice he’d ever given anyone in his life. He proceeds to take us to Hotel Centro in downtown Puerto Princesa where we’ll eventually spend the next three days. The building emerges grandiosely from the thriving greenery around it, its façade a true testament to modern architecture. It was a speedy check-in at the front desk then we head upstairs to our Deluxe Room to freshen up and grab a late lunch at the hotel’s elegant restaurant, the Expressions Café. There we are warmly greeted by Michelle Tiotangco, owner of Amika Travel & Tours, and Kharla M. Luneta, Marketing & Communications Officer of Hotel Centro.
“Once you’ve been here, you’ll always want to ‘come back, come back’.” Ms. Luneta explains of the island’s catch phrase. “It’s a recurring syndrome all visitors get whenever they visit Palawan.” We were about to put that to the test.
After a satisfying buffet lunch we begin our big adventure. We are joined by our tour guide Fritz, whose vast knowledge and passion for Palawan is immediately evident. My aunt and I become like sponges, absorbing information as he feeds us one trivia after the other. I like his energy and sense of humor; together he and Jeff make an excellent team. The itinerary they’ve prepared for us has been cleverly timed to maximize our schedule.
For our first stop they take us to the Crocodile Farm, now more formally known as the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center. It is a 30-minute drive from the main part of the city. By the main entrance there are kiosks where visitors can get a souvenir picture taken with a baby crocodile. My aunt flawlessly puckers up to one of them. When it’s my turn, I touch it for a moment and scream garnering laughter from other visitors around me. I try for the second time and scream some more. I decide to give up for now. While waiting for more people to gather for the guided tour, we check out the 17-foot-long skeleton of what was once the largest crocodile ever captured; its hardened flesh is mounted on the wall. We tour the facility and learn a little bit about how crocodiles are farmed from the hatching phase to adulthood. The guide warns us not to get too close to the crocodiles in the fiberglass tubs especially when snapping pictures because they might snap back. We continue to follow the guide on a wooden bridge above a swampy den housing the adult crocodiles. Too bad it is too late for us to observe the feeding time.
The crocodiles appear to be the biggest draw at the conservation site, but soon we find ourselves exploring their mini-zoo in a forest where they housed more of Palawan’s endemic species of wildlife. These included the bearcat, the bearded pig, Saturday, January 21, 2012 PinoyWatchDog.Com 11 be the biggest draw at the conservation site, but soon we find ourselves exploring their mini-zoo in a forest where they housed more of Palawan’s endemic species of wildlife. These included the bearcat, the bearded pig, Tales from Puerto Princesa, Palawan From Page 9 Turn to Page 11 safety gear. My aunt, a little less brave than I (she’s braver with crocodiles), has chosen to sit on her ride. We climb 69 steps to the drop off and suddenly I find myself soaring turtles, hornbills, mynah birds, the whitebellied sea eagle, and the Philippine eagle. Before we leave, I give the photo-op with the baby crocodile another shot. Again I couldn’t find the courage to carry it with my hands even though its mouth is safely tied up.
Back on the road, it doesn’t take long for us to arrive at Irawan Eco Park. Little did I know that our next stop would challenge my fear of heights. I’ve chosen the Superman flight and two men assist me with my safety gear. My aunt, a little less brave than I (she’s braver with crocodiles), has chosen to sit on her ride. We climb 69 steps to the drop off and suddenly I find myself soaring through a forest canopy with views straight out of the Lost series. The almost mile-long flight is said to be the longest zipline in Asia so far. We complete it in seven minutes coursing through a couple stopovers to get to a couple other drop-offs. I’ve never experienced such a thrill in my life! And I think I may have found a new addiction…
At the landing area, they award us with certificates together with a picture of us hanging on the zipline with two thumbs up. My aunt earns a nickname from one of the local ladies, “Goldilocks.” It sticks.
At Baker’s Hill we get a chance to relax and catch up on conversations. We learn how Baker’s Hill evolved from being a bakery into a charming theme park visited by hundreds of tourists every day. Diverse gardens, fiberglass sculptures and Disney characters abound. If Jeff and Fritz, hadn’t packed sandwiches for us in the van, we would have had room in our stomachs for their delicious baked goodies. Seriously. The temptation was very difficult to resist.
An avid weaver, my aunt finds herself in seventh heaven when they bring us to the nearby Binuatan Creations. It is already dark and we are the only visitors left. There is a teenage girl working on one of the wooden weaving machines and she invites each of us to try. One by one I insert some colorful indigenous fibers in the machine to help complete a placemat. The process seemed simple but tedious. In their showroom we purchase some of their finished goods as gifts for friends and family. The beautiful displays include coasters, totes, wallets, slippers, handbags and pretty much everything else that can be made from this dried native grass.
Day 1 is officially over. Exhausted from the day’s activities, we skip dinner and decide to retire to our room early to get ready for our 6am start tomorrow.
Before heading out again the next morning, we hastily eat breakfast. We indulge in a warm bowl of arroz caldo at Expressions Café. Fritz and Jeff are surprisingly punctual (I am not used to people being on time in the Philippines) and cheerfully greet us in the lobby. They were certainly not joking about the early start. Today we are going to visit the Puerto Princesa Underground River, a two-hour drive from our hotel. Along the way we stop to snap some pictures of the gorgeous scenery covered with lush vegetation. Low hanging clouds gently hug the sides of the mountains and the sun rises slowly from across the horizon. The air is the freshest air I’ve breathed in a while. I inhale deeply and take full advantage of the moment.
You would have to be a well-trained driver to navigate the narrow, zigzag roads sprawled across the rugged part of the island’s landscape. When we pass through small villages, Jeff slows down to dodge lazy dogs, overtake motorcycles, and avoid people walking alongside the street. The paved highway is sporadically interrupted by rocky roads shaking us in our seats.
“They call this road,” Fritz says, pausing for effect. “Abortion Road.” I guffaw loudly. By now I’m used to Fritz’s uber corny jokes.
We arrive at Sabang Beach along the northwestern tip of the island to where a row of boats were lined up each one with a number on them. While Fritz arranges for our boat, my aunt and I stroll along the shore barefoot and embrace the warmth of the sun on our skin. The early morning mist hovers above the sea as the waves harmoniously crash on the shore. It feels incredibly peaceful to be in this that moment. I glance at several fishermen unloading ice buckets from their boats probably from this morning’s catch. I turn my attention to a basketball tournament that was just beginning on the boat terminal and move closer to watch while snacking on lemon iced tea and banana chips from the sari-sari store nearby. We get our boat number, 15, and are instructed to remember it. “Only six people, including the two boatmen are allowed per boat,” Fritz informs us. A middle-aged Dutch gentleman, who was also in the boat with us, politely introduced himself. We put on our neon orange lifejackets and I breathe a sigh of relief, glad that they prioritize safety measures.
Visitors from all over the country and around the world have been flocking to Palawan to see the Underground River ever since it was chosen by worldwide voting as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in November 2011. This UNESCO World Heritage doesn’t disappoint, well at least to novice travelers like me. The boatman revs the engine of the pump boat and we are effortlessly launched towards the deep blue waters of the South China Sea.
After an uneventful 10-minute ride, a limonite cliff protruding from a picturesque blue bay dipped in semi-white sand greets us. I gasp at the splendor of beauty around me. Along with other groups of tourists, we are led to the actual site of the Underground River, a placid lagoon murky from the recent rains. With a life vest and a helmet secured on our heads, we board a small banca, paddled by a boatman who doubled as our tour guide. We enter a gaping black hole under the St. Paul Mountain Range and find ourselves surrounded with stunning rock formations closely resembling real life objects, even plants and animals. If you allow your imagination to get carried away, it can get creepy inside particularly with the sounds of screeching bats and a slew of stalactites and stalagmites. The voice of the guide, however, brings you back to reality as he points out various geological features formed over several hundred thousand years. Out of the river’s 8.5km length, we only cruise through 1.3km. A special permit from the city is needed to explore it further. I extend my hand out to touch the water it is a little colder than the beach.
The brief excursion in the dark water tunnel leaves me yearning for light again. The monitor lizards are waiting for us. I cautiously attempt to get closer for a picture, but they are relentlessly moving around.
At noon we have lunch back at Sabang Beach in a tiny beachfront hut. When it’s over my aunt and I receive a delightful surprise. “Wait here,” Fritz tells us. A carabaodrawn carriage appears from behind the coconut trees and we hop on as it takes us for a quiet ride along the shore. No motors, no engines; just the sweet symphony of the beach. We couldn’t help but giggle at times because it was quite an amusing experience.
Ugong Rock is next on our buzzing itinerary. It is located in Brgy. Tagabinet, Puerto Princesa, one of the many villages on the island without electricity. I learn a new word, “spelunking,” which means the hobby or practice of exploring caves. My aunt admits she is losing her steam and decides to pass on this one. Lea, my cave guide, and Fritz accompany me as we explore the recesses of Ugong Rock, unique for the reverberating sound it makes when you tap a column. When stalactite and stalagmite connect, they form a column and this cave has several of them. We carefully find our way to the exit by slipping through narrow spaces and passageways. My physical endurance is tested during this 75-foot climb and when we finally get to the top I am sweaty and exhausted. But my exhaustion goes away when I see gorgeous views exploding around me from the view deck. The only way back down was to zipline 350 meters across a vast rice field. Talk about exhilarating. The descent was worth the treacherous climb and I find myself smiling from ear-to-ear.
On the way back to the hotel, we take a quick detour to Mitra’s Ranch. The hilltop destination, owned by former Senator Ramon Mitra, provides panoramic views of the emerald city. Not only that, they offer horse rides around the property. I am tired but decide to go for one round with Eric, my guide, and a gentle horse who is his namesake.
We shuffle around the city to see some landmarks including the church and the bay walk where the tallest Christmas tree in the Philippines proudly stood. Then we visit a souvenir shop and purchase pasalubong for friends and family. Their cashew wine caught our interest and so did their jars of honey and pearl jewelry.
For dinner, Jeff made reservations for us at a popular Filipino restaurant in downtown Puerto Princesa called Ka Lui. The hotel contacts one of their registered tricycle drivers and we feel safe heading out to the city on our own. At Ka Lui we are asked to leave our slippers in a locker before stepping into the dining area. The restaurant is warm and inviting, designed to reflect a traditional Filipino home. We rapidly scan their menu and order fruit shakes to refresh our weary selves. Our dinner choices primarily comprised of seafood dishes including their remarkable Tubbataha Salad made with fresh tuna strips and bits of fruits seasoned with Palawan dressing. Interestingly enough I discover later on that it is named after the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea.
On our last day at Puerto Princesa, my aunt and I feel sad and anxious to leave this extraordinary place. But our sojourn isn’t over. At 6am sharp we travel to Honda Bay for an island hopping excursion to Pandan Island. My aunt looks beautifully content as the breeze ruffles her long silver hair. I take a nap during the 45-minute boat ride and wake up to the most astounding sight of white, sandy beaches at Isla Pandan Day Resort. We are the first ones to arrive and we pretend like it is our own private island. I gather a bag of bread, my snorkel, waterproof camera case, and booties ready, all of which I rented from a dive shop along the way to Honda Bay. I meet Jesse, my boatman, a young dude with ripped abs and his name tattooed in black ink across his chest. He is to take me out to sea for snorkeling and fish feeding. I hang on to a lifesaver and we swim towards the middle of this giant aquarium. The view down below is fantastic. Picture a rugged seafloor alive with corals, sea urchins and starfish. Schools of tropical fish such as angelfish, clownfish, and butterfly fish flock towards me when they see the bread in my hands. It tickles when they pick on my fingers. We rest on a huge rock sprouting from the bottom of the sea out of nowhere and experiment with underwater shots.
We head back to the shore where my aunt is staring out the sea and waiting for us. While we were away, Jeff and Fritz, got busy cooking our lunch. We walk back to our native gazebo and are impressed by the feast they’ve prepared. We shamelessly dive into our meal consisting of barbecued pork and Lapu-Lapu fish with rice and slices of green mangoes with a side of shrimp paste for dipping. How often does one get to experience heaven on earth?
Around 10am we gather our belongings and return to the mainland. My aunt and I take a final look at Pandan Island before heading up the ramp of the boat. This place, brimming with marine life and luxurious beaches, is only one of the 7,107 islands on the Philippine archipelago. Filipinos are truly blessed. Grateful for the experiences that rained on us during these past three days, we think we’ll save the other islands for next time because we have a flight to catch. To the people of Palawan whose politeness and generosity has touched the core of our hearts, we say, “We’ll definitely come back, come back.”