It’s called one of the new wonders of the world. An underground river, spanning nearly 24 km long on Palawan’s west coast. It’s also happens one of the island’s biggest tourist attractions.
I had debated whether or not I would visit here. I’ve been in a couple of underwater river caves before. But when I asked a few other travelers what their favorite thing to do on the island was, they said the underground tour, so I jumped on ship.
Booking my tour in Puerto Princesa was super easy. Most hotels double as tour coordinators and will help book any excursion you’re looking for. It cost me $2,200 PHP, the equivalent to about $44 USD. It’s a little expensive by Philippines standards, but again it’s a major tourist attraction.
My tour guide picked me up from my hotel at around 7:15 in the morning. We would wind our way through Palawan’s mountainous roads for about an hour before we came to a stop. It was a chance to use the bathroom and check out a local shop to get snacks and souvenirs. The highlight for me though was the view. Overlooking this gorgeous bay, this is the site of paradise.
After about 20 minutes, our group piled back in the van for about a 15 minute drive. We were pulling into some adventure park. I was a bit confused because the guide had told us we still had 45 minutes until we’d reach the underground river. So why were we pulling into an adventure park?
We pull up and all get out of the car and are forced into this information/orientation hut where they play 2 videos about the park. It’s a mix of cave exploring and zip lining. And then we are told we can add this on to our tour. GOT IT. This is a chance for them to up-sell us. For about $500 PHP or $10USD, we could go into the caves, and ride one of two ziplines. Again the caves weren’t really selling it for me, but in order to ride the zipline, you had to do the cave hike.
I was a little annoyed with the up-sell because I really just wanted to go to the underground river. But with about half the group signing off, I figured I had two options. 1. Sit in a waiting area for an hour. Or 2. Pay the ten bucks and do it. So, #WhenInRome or in this case #WhenInPalawan.
The cave adventure lasts about a half hour. There were some tight squeezes, which was one of the reasons I did not want to do it, but I shimmied my way through with a smile on my face. Our guide pointed out some of the interesting formations in the cave including one rock, where if you hit it, it sounds like metal. For me, my favorite part about this cave exploration was having to harness up and use ropes to climb up the side of one of the walls to reach the top. It was no more than 10 steps up, but I felt bit like Indiana Jones, so I’ll take it. There are also a number of ladders or steep steps you must climb.
Eventually you reach the top of this mountain with rewarding views of the surrounding areas. After catching our breath, it was time to get down.
You have 3 options, you can walk back down, or take one of two zip lines.
The first zipline is pretty standard. You sit in a harness, and zip your way down. The second zipline is a bit more adventurous and is called the Superman. Essentially, you harness up, and when it’s your turn to go, you are in a flying position, face first.
Obviously I chose the Superman. I’ve zip lined a number of times in the past, including one time upside-down, but this would be a new position for me, and what a rush it was. It probably lasted 45 seconds, but soaring above rice fields, I felt l like I literally flying. Such an exhilarating rush!
When I landed, there was a small shack set up where you could purchase pictures of your trip. While it was a good deal $3 USD for 1 picture, I didn’t need any of them. The tour van came to pick me and 3 others who went down this way up to continue on to the river.
When we arrived, we were taken to a restaurant for a buffet style lunch. Besides rice, there were 2 other options for me, which was fine, I was prepared for that. Halfway through my meal, it began to rain. It is the rainy season, so it really should be expected.
We were carefully led back to the van to avoid getting wet and took at 5 minute drive down a dirt path to a pier, where we would board boats to transfer to another boat before our tour began. Now these weren’t just any boats, these were the Filipino/Asian boats/canoe/whatever you want to call it I had seen in so many pictures and videos. I hadn’t even boarded the boat and I was loving it.
By this time, the rain was now just a drizzle as we set off on about a 15 minute ride. We watched as the the jungle and cliff side formations passed us by. We eventually landed at a nearby beach where I saw my first wild monkeys. We were warned to hold our belongings close, and not to taunt them. We were also told not to take pictures of the monkeys, but that rule clearly goes flying out the window, even with the tour guides themselves.
From the beach there is a short trail that takes you to the entrance of the underground river. There are about 15 people per canoe and because I was traveling alone, I was put at the front of the canoe where there was just enough space for me and my bag.
Again, I had been in underground rivers before in Kentucky and Believe, but I quickly realized there was something a bit different about this cave. First was the smell. A pungent rotten aroma lingered from the cave. And the second difference was where that smell was coming from. I quickly realized as we got closer and closer to the entrance of the cave, that those were just not birds flying around, those were bats. And it wasn’t just a few, it was thousands of them. Flying at warp speed through darkness. As our tour guide turned on his flashlight, you could see thousands more hanging upside-down right above our heads. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little scared, but then I thought, if they do these tours all the time, then it has to be safe. Just as a calmed the nerves though, a bat went flying by my face so fast, I could feel the wind from his wings.
To me, caves are caves. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. While there are certainly interesting formations in each one, there was nothing particularly amazing to me about the caves other than it’s length. But you don’t go that far into the cave. The entire time in the cave is about 45 minutes.
For me the boat ride to the cave and the bats inside were what made it stand out.