Puerto Princesa, Philippines: Exploring Sea Caves

The cliffs surrounding the bay in Puerto Princessa, Philippines.
The cliffs surrounding the bay in Puerto Princesa, Philippines.

A magical 30th birthday weekend in Puerto Princesa

By Juanita Pienaar

A baby crocodile at the croc farm.
A baby crocodile at the croc farm.

Puerto Princesa is one of the larger cities on Palawan. It is usually the starting point for people visiting the island, but often people don’t linger too long there before heading north towards El Nido.

Puerto Princesa is different from the Island breakaway you expect when thinking of the Philippines, but it offers so much to explore!

The Philippines is a digital country with many bookings and arrangement often made via text message.

I booked a trip to the underground river and a firefly viewing trip completely via text message. The operators came to pick me up and dropped me off at my hotel afterward.

The boat to the cave in Puerto Princessa.
The boat to the cave in Puerto Princesa.

I befriended a taxi driver from Puerto Princesa while I was in the Philippines and he offered to take me to the Crocodile Farm, Bakers Hill and the Butterfly Eco Garden and Cultural Village.

The underground river

The underground river at Puerto Princesa is the longest navigable underground river in the world. It is a World Heritage site and named one of the 7 New Natural wonders of the world.

It used to be thought that this river was the longest underground river in the world until the recent discovery of an even longer underground river in Mexico.

From my hotel, we took a minivan to Sabang Pier. Here local Banca boats wait to take visitors to the entrance of the river. The ride is short with amazing views of the clear water, a mountain that looks like a man’s face, and the famous limestone cliffs standing tall with the bottom bits eroded by centuries of wave lapping against them.

The calm pool and entrance to the cave in Puerto Princessa, Philippines.
The calm pool and entrance to the cave.

The boats turn into a bay, surrounded by the tall, dark limestone cliffs and head to the beach. From the beach, there is a short walk through the forest on a wooden walkway.

At the end of the walkway, there is a tiny beach with some of the clearest, aqua-colored water that you can imagine. The water is so calm it is difficult to think that this is the entrance to the longest navigable underground river.

When I initially booked my trip it was a bit of a spur of the moment thing. I thought ‘hey, this looks great!’ and booked… and paid.

Once I came to my senses I remembered that I don’t particularly like caves. I also then realized that I tend to get claustrophobic in places where I cannot just get out.

in the butterfly conservatory in Puerto Princessa.
In the butterfly conservatory.

I forged ahead, because who can give up the opportunity of seeing the world’s longest navigable underground river? On the tiny beach, I was given a life jacket and a hard hat and ushered into a rowboat.

The entrance to the cave seemed a bit too small for my comfort but as we passed from day to night I was pleasantly surprised.

The cave opened up into cavern after cavern with beautiful stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations.

The tour guides seem to have a script that they run through- even pausing for laughter after every joke they tell, it all just added to the experience. They pointed out rock formations shaped like horses, mushrooms, the holy family and even a naked woman.

Here are a few facts about the Puerto Princesa underground river to impress your friends with:

  • Only about 4.3 km of the 8.2km long river is open to the public. Special permits are required to enter the other parts of the river.
  • Boats leave from Sabang pier but permits need to be purchased beforehand.
  • Towards the opening into the ocean, the river water is brackish – a mix of salt and fresh water.
  • While the mountain is underground, it is higher than sea level.
  • The trip from Puerto Princesa to the pier takes about an hour and a half.
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Welcome to the underground river
Welcome to the underground river!

Chasing Fireflies

Seeing as I set out my trip to Puerto Princesa to do as many touristy things as I could, this seemed like the best thing to do for the evening of my 30th birthday. Once again the tour started with a pick up at my hotel. I was taken to Puerto Princesa city baywalk where I got on board a large banca.

This boat traveled part of the way to where rowboats were waiting. The rest of the trip was completed on a rowboat to prevent noisy engines scaring the fireflies away. The tour guide was entertaining and informative as we traveled slowly along the riverways.

At the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center.
At the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center.

To add to the magical feeling of the evening the wake of the boat lit up with yellow sparkles of bioluminescence (plankton that lights up due to the same chemical process that makes fireflies light up).

Fireflies glow when oxygen combines with some of the chemicals in their bodies. The faster they breathe the more they glow.

As the boat glided along the water the tour guide spoke and sometimes yelled out ‘Greetings’ he called it. He was wonderful at encouraging the guests to shout out too- causing large areas in the trees and grass to light up.

The tour ended with a buffet dinner of Filipino cuisine on a large boat with the lights of the bay in the distance.

The entrance to the cave from the boat.
The entrance to the cave from the boat.

Some fun facts about the firefly tour:

  • Although the going to see the fireflies takes most of the evening, the 10 km boat ride through the mangroves only lasts around 30 – 45 minutes.
  • The tides have an influence on the length and exact route that will be followed.
  • The fireflies in Puerto Princesa can be found along the Sicsican and Iwahig rivers.

Butterfly eco garden and tribal village

The Butterfly Garden is a garden specially planted to attract butterflies, serve as a habitat and natural breeding ground. There are large nets spanned over the garden to keep the butterflies in. There are a number of other critters to look at like scorpions, lizards and, stick insects and interesting beetles.

Decorations at Baker's Hill
Decorations at Baker’s Hill

At the back of the garden, there is a door that leads to the cultural village. This area gives you a glimpse into the life of the indigenous people called Pal’awan. The Pal’awan live in rural Palawan and some of the tribe members take turns to visit the cultural village at the Butterfly garden.

They have little shows where they show their craft, skills, weapons, and way of life to visitors. They are especially proud of showing off their pet python called Samson – a monster at 2.5m long!

A butterfly up close at the Butterfly farm.
A butterfly up close at the Butterfly farm.

Some facts about the Butterfly garden and cultural village:

  • The Pal’awan people speak their own dialect and use a translator to interpret for visitors.
  • All of the natives are part of a pure Pal’awan bloodline.
  • The Pal’awan people sell and use Bagtik – a plant sap that they harvest locally.
  • The Butterfly eco garden and the cultural village is found just a short distance from the South National Highway of Barangay Sta. Monica, Puerto Princesa City.
  • A lot of the wildlife in the garden has been rescued from poachers.
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Crocodile farm

The crocodile farm runs guided tours throughout the day. It starts out in the reception area where a huge skeleton and skin of a giant crocodile are exhibited.

There is also a skull of a sperm whale that was found at the famous Tubataha reef. From the reception area, the tour goes to the hatchling house to see the baby crocks and then on to the crocodile den where the adult crocodiles are kept.

Welcome to Bakers Hill.
Welcome to Bakers Hill.

To complete the tour you have to walk over a steel bridge suspended over the Cage of the Living Crocs where the largest crocodiles are kept.

There is a lot to explore in the Nature Park. The surroundings are beautiful and you can visit bearcats, wild boars, bearded pigs and a variety of birds.

Baker’s hill

Baker’s Hill is like a fantasy park filled with beautiful gardens, decorated streets, sculptures. Flower arrangements and art pieces. There are lots of spaces to explore and it makes for a perfect day off from rushing around sightseeing.

There are a few food stalls and restaurants inside and of course, the bakery at the entrance offer deliciously baked goods. About Baker’s Hill:

  • Baker’s Hill grew around the original bakery and now includes a number of restaurants, snack bars, shops and a viewing deck.
  • The newest attraction at Baker’s Hill is The House of Shrek. It is a tree house with statues of the Shrek movie outside.
  • The Hopia/Jopia at the bakery is highly recommended.
  • You can find Baker’s Hill on Mitra Road in Baranggay Sta. Monica, Puerto Princesa City.

Puerto Princesa offered me a wonderful weekend of exploring and playing tourist. I had so many new and memorable experiences there that will stay with me for the rest of my journey through life.

Juanita PienaarJuanita Pienaar is a citizen of the world, recently settled back down in her home country, South Africa, after spending time traveling and living in Asia and Africa. She has a passionate love affair with the ocean and loves to share that passion by teaching scuba diving. She is a yoga teacher and fully believes in finding the balance in life. She has recently discovered the joy and freedom of wearing yoga pants ‘out-and-about’. Juanita loses herself in the written and spoken word and is currently working on her first autobiographical novel, telling tales from the perspective of an expat-local.

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