Have you heard of Palawan Underground River in the Philippines – it’s one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, to give its full name, is the world’s longest navigable underground river at 8.2 kilometres. Its unusual in that it flows directly into the sea, and you reach it from Sabang beach by banca boat, a traditional Philippine vessel with bamboo outriggers giving fantastic stability.
Palawan Underground River
Although it’s known as Puerto Princesa underground river, it’s actually located 80 kilometres from the town of Puerto Princesa in a protected national park on the West Coast of Palawan island. Borded by the St Paul mountain range, it’s an unspoiled bay with a very casual atmosphere. You can buy underground river tour packages that include the bus journey from the centre of Puerto Princesa, or tickets at the information center on the pier. Alternatively, if you’re staying at one of the Sabang beach resorts, they also sell underground river tour packages although you’ll pay a little bit more. The banca boat has a roof that gives you shade and it’s a comfortable 20 minute ride to the underground river. You’ll be provided with a life jacket but as the boat is so stable your body won’t even get wet. Wear flat shoes though as you disembark onto a beach at the other end and will need to step into the sea up to your ankles. It’s also possible to hike to the underground river via the Monkey Trail or the Jungle Trail from Sabang. Both hikes are around 5.2 kilometres but are steep and the paths can get quite waterlogged.
A Natural World Heritage Site
After walking a few minutes along the white sand beach, you’ll get into another boat to visit the underground river itself. Our guide had warned us not to bring any food whatsoever as there are cheeky monkeys that will come up and steal it – sadly we didn’t spot any.
Puerto Princesa Underground River Tour
There are restrooms if you need them before heading on the tour itself. It’s perfectly safe in the cave but you’ll be kitted out with a life jacket and also with a hard hat.
This is mainly because it’s quite wet in the cave with water falling from the ceiling…at least we think it was water, but it could have been bat droppings ;-). The underground river in Puerto Princesa is inhabited by approximately 400,000 bats and you are instructed to keep your mouth closed during the tour so that no droppings fall into your mouth. Don’t let the bats worry you, as although some fly around they don’t get close to the boat. In order to protect the cave for the bats and the other flora and fauna living here, your tour takes place in the dark, which certainly adds to the eerie atmosphere. Visitors are not allowed to talk, however the tour guide does give a commentary of the sights and has a spotlight to show you them in detail. The underground river tour is suitable for children, but not for babies as any noise would disturb the fauna.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
There are 6 UNESCO Philippines sites, of which the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park is the most famous. The limestone cave has some distinctive rock formations which resemble animals, vegetables and people. Our guide was convinced that this one looked like Sharon Stone though we’d have pegged it more as Aphrodite ;-). There are other rocks that look like scenes from the Nativity, many of which are located in the “Cathedral” area of the cave. This is a large chamber that’s over 60 metres high and 120 metres wide.
New 7 Wonders of Nature
Puerto Princesa Underground River was chosen as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature on January 28, 2012. The National Park is managed by the City Government of Puerto Princesa and they’ve done a good job of preserving its beauty by limiting the number of tours and ensuring that visitors respect the natural environment. Besides the navigable area of the underground river, there are deep chambers that are not open to the public including a cave dome that measures 300 metres. The public tour covers 1.5 kilometres of the cave.
After your 45 minute tour of Puerto Princesa Palawan river, you’ll travel back by banca to the port of Sabang. There are quite a few fresh fruit stalls here, and a huge variety of flavours to choose from. Our tip is to take your juice to the harbour and sit on the edge admiring the scenery.
Sabang Beach is popular for surfing and the water current is quite strong so swimmers should take care. With El Nido and Coron, it’s one of the best beaches in Palawan. You can get a massage on the beach for a very reasonable price and enjoy the waves lapping in the distance. There are also several rustic beachfront cafes and bars serving up local specialties.
Walk along the beach, past the Sheridan Beach Resort and you’ll come to this swing – the perfect place to contemplate the ocean. Other great activities in Sabang are quad biking, a mangrove tour and the Sabang X Zipline, which is a 15 minute walk from the beach. At 800 metres long and 150 feet above sea level, it’s an exhilarating experience.
We’d strongly recommend staying in Sabang rather than travelling to Palawan underground river as a day trip. It’s around 2 hours to get to Sabang from Puerto Princesa and by the time you arrive there will be a lot of waiting around to get on a banca to the caves. If you stay overnight at a Sabang beach resort, you’ll be first in line for the boat in the morning. We chose the Sheridan Beach Resort, which has a huge swimming pool with a swim-up bar. The buffet restaurant is located on the beach and there are hammocks for guests to relax in.
Getting to Palawan Underground River and Sabang Beach
There are regular flights to Puerto Princesa from Manila into Puerto Princesa International Airport with AirAsia or Cebu Pacific, which take 1 hour and 20 minutes. Don’t miss our tips on the best things to do in Manila, there’s a lot more to the city than first meets the eye. Puerto Princesa airport is nice and modern and has a few cafes as well as a souvenir shop. From here, if you’re staying at a hotel such as the Sheridan Beach, they have a minibus transfer to Sabang. Some travellers choose to take a jeepney instead, a local form of transport. Be warned that there’s no air conditioning and they’re generally very cramped. Many people travel on from Puerto Princesa to El Nido though we’d recommend just flying directly to El Nido as part of another Philippines trip as it’s 6 or 7 hours by bus.
As you can see, Palawan underground river and Sabang beach are well worth a visit for their natural beauty. What is your favourite UNESCO World Heritage Site? Have you visited the Philippines?
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