Known worldwide as the home of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park – the longest navigable underground river in the entire world and many of its exotic islands, cream colored beaches, a plethora of waterfalls, hot springs, verdant rainforests, fauna and flora that can never found anywhere else on the planet,- the melting pot city of Puerto Princesa City is always an adventure waiting to happen.
Located about an hour and a half plane ride southwest of Manila, the sprawling City of Puerto Princesa which also happens to be the capital of the province of Palawan comes into view where the traveler is first greeted by the many islands scattered all over Honda Bay. The entire city straddles the middle of the Palawan – bordered by the towns of San Vicente and Roxas in the north, Aborlan on the south, Sulu Sea on its east and the South China Sea and the Kalayaan town of the Kalayaan Islands Group in the west. It is by no joke that this city is humungous in size; it is after all the second largest city in the Philippines in terms of area at 2,381.02 square kilometers, next only to Davao City which has a total area of 2,443.61 square kilometers.
Photo by storm crypt
Puerto Princesa got its name from a legendary princess-like maiden, who in the olden times is said to have roamed around the area on certain nights of the year. While others who are too skeptical of such stories point out the geographical advantage of its harbor, which is naturally protected and has a depth which can accommodate large seagoing vessels- thus basically a virtual princess of ports as indicated by the maps of the Spaniards during the colonial era. Historically of course the city was named after the Spanish Princess Eulalia born in 1864. Her mother, Queen Isabel II changed the name to Puerto de la Princesa after Princess Eulalia’s death. After which, it was shortened to Puerto Princesa as it is known today.
As it is the same today, Puerto Princesa was already quite known and recognized for its orderliness and cleanliness way back in 1894. As we walked through the streets of this city (which was still quite scorching hot and humid even during December- we really wished that there were more trees planted along the boulevards of the city), we noticed the absence of litter for such a highly urbanized community. Police and even local citizens (yes, locals can make a citizen arrest) are really quite strict when it comes to waste disposal. There is no excuse to throw your trash anywhere since there are trash bins every couple hundred meters.
Photo by storm crypt
Now the city is becoming to be known as being at the forefront of Philippine ecotourism campaigns with its various projects in promoting environmental tourism in the country today. Puerto Princesa in recent years has again been grabbing national and international headlines with its campaign to make its most famous feature to date be listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature– the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (more commonly known as the Underground River/St. Paul Underground River) which at 8.2 kilometers makes it the longest navigable underground river in the world. The park is located about 5 kilometers from Sabang Beach in the northwest part of the city and is about 2-3 Hours by public bus/jeepney from Puerto Princesa City Bus Terminal (by the New Public Market).
One basically navigates under the spectacular limestone formations which often resemble familiar things like mushrooms, and other vegetables as well as people – the boatman pretty much doubles as the guide and at the same time the group’s official entertainer. There is a turquoise colored lagoon at the mouth of the cave with ancient trees that basically grow right on the water’s edge. There are three ways of heading out to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park – either by boat from Sabang (easiest), or a hike through the Monkey Trail (moderate hike) and the Jungle Trail (difficult hike). Be prepared to encounter a lot of endemic flora and fauna along the way, we probably spotted at least 2 huge monitor lizards along the way, some really nasty ants, and heard birdcalls from different species of birds along the Monkey Trail. Noticing there was an absence of monkeys on the monkey trail, apparently, the pack was already at the beach near the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park opening since there are more tourists (meaning more food for the simians). Around the park, one can find other things to do, you may check out Ethnographic Museum, go on a mangrove cruise using a paddle boat through the Puyoy-puyoy river, or go spelunking in so many of the caves in the area (Lion Cave, Ugong Rock, Cawili Cave, Daylight Hole, Million Birds Cage).
On your way to Sabang, fantastic jungle clad limestone and marble cliffs and karst mountains pepper the horizon- make sure to prepare your camera and that you are seated on the right side of vehicle, then you should be able to capture these geologically significant landscapes which are located at Barangays Tagabinet and Cabayugan. Just before reaching Sabang, is the beautiful Ulugan Bay- a deep channel where a cluster of three islets called Tres Marias guard the mouth of this bay. There is a mangrove footwalk as well as a nearby waterfall (Kayulo) and Rita Island which is located inside the bay is a popular dive spot. There will be more detailed information on the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park in my article which focuses more on this wonder of nature. You may cast your vote online for Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park as one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World www.new7wonders.com.
Photo by storm crypt
Aside from the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Puerto Princesa is also famous for its multitude of beaches. Head out to Honda Bay and go island hopping in its many islands, the most popular ones would be Snake Island (known for its long sandbar and fish feeding area- 45 minutes away from the port), Pandan Island (35 minutes), Starfish Island (35 minutes), Bat Island (known for the thousands of bats flying around dusk- 10 minutes), Cowrie Island (10 minutes), Adobo Island, Arreceffi Island (owned by the Dos Palmas Resort and 1 hour away from the port), Luli Island (15 minutes) and the reefs of Panglima (with its big coral boulders and gray reef sharks) and Pambato (known for medium large fishes of various species and beautiful coral gardens). The islands can also be viewed from Mitra’s Ranch, a privately owned ranch which is open to the public during the day. Mitra’s Ranch sports a house which looked very similar with the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Bukidnon.
Save probably for Snake Island, every island charges a minimal entrance fee. Arreceffi Island however is the most expensive of the lot which at the time of this writing charges PhP500 entrance fees. Entrance fees are paid upon entrance to these islands and the rates of the boats and entrance fees are posted at the port which is located about 5-10 minutes from the Puerto Princesa City Proper. The islands all have cream-colored sandy beaches. The most developed is probably the Snake Island where you can rent open air native huts with tables, and tiny stores which sell fresh seafood to grill and bread which can be used for fish feeding. The fishes on Snake Island are way too aggressive as we found out for ourselves. We literally had to get out of the water after a few minutes as a pink colored fish basically started attacking us by furtively divebombing and nibbling our feet. Of course, it not life threatening and other people will find it cute and amusing though we just felt weird to see such aggressive fish circling us.
Most of the islands are tiny; we basically went around Pandan Island in about 30 minutes and were quite pleased that there were not a lot of tourists in most of its parts. In some parts of the island, the sand was very, very fine which felt almost like silk. Pambato Reef was just gorgeous and very colorful; the reef is one of the most diverse around Puerto Princesa. Make sure you wear fins and not to splash too much when trying to swim and snorkel around as this damages the corals. Also avoid touching or stepping on the corals – a coral only grows 1 centimeter every year and these reefs are already threatened as it is. We saw signs of coral bleaching in some of the corals in the reef – one of the damages wrought by global warming. Also, we were a little concerned as well when we saw a small bucket of conch shells in our boat – collection of shells of any size or specie is not good for the environment and we encourage everyone to refrain from taking home a “souvenir”. Arreceffi Island made world headlines when in May 2001, 20 guests from the upscale resort Dos Palmas were abducted by the dreaded Islamic bandits Abu Sayyaf and one Peruvian-American was later beheaded and another American was killed in the crossfire during a rescue attempt. Because of this, a massive security presence is now deployed and radar surveillance has significantly boosted security and since then there were no more repeat incidents of this kind that have ever happened in the entire province of Palawan. Unfortunately, 9 years later, Palawan and Puerto Princesa City are still reeling, very undeservedly, from the effects of the highly publicized kidnappings, and while there is no immediate security threat in Palawan, it is only lately that tourist numbers are beginning to go back up. This is really ridiculous actually, after the horrific events of 9/11, it did not take 9 years before people started visiting New York. Today, Puerto Princesa and Palawan are some of the safest destinations in the world and the presence of so many Europeans and other foreigners visiting and living in the province that we met during our trip backs this up.
Photo by storm crypt
Aside from the beautiful beaches in Honda Bay, you may also visit the many other beaches on the mainland such as the beaches of San Rafael, Concepcion, Puting Buhangin, Tagbarungis, Kamuning, Pontog, Turtle Bay- all of which front the Sulu Sea and about 1 hour to 1 hour 45 minutes away from the city proper. On the side facing the South China Sea, you may check out the beaches of Napsan, Tagkawayan, Nagtabon, Talaudyong, and Sabang, While these are more or less the best known beaches, one can actually go and find your own beach which you don’t need to share with other tourists. One of them is a beach which is literally overlooked by a lot of people because it is a nice sandbar which is located right next to the landing lights of the Puerto Princesa Airport. The beach is called Canigaran and you have to literally wade through up to waist deep of water to get there. This is also a place for some locals to go get some edible shells.
Meanwhile, Puerto Princesa Bay is a hub for sunset cruises, and dolphin watching and is also a major port of call for smaller ships and boats that are bound to the different destinations in the Sulu Sea, namely the stunning islands of Cuyo (where the famous, ultra-exclusive Amanpulo Resort is located) and to another UNESCO World Heritage Site the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, magnificent atolls with an astonishing diversity of marine life unparalleled anywhere in the world. Colorful reef fish swim in its shallows while pelagics and sharks swim in its volcanic depths.
Near the port of Honda Bay meanwhile, is the Viet Ville or Vietnamese Village, a former settlement area for the Vietnamese Boat People, refugees who fled Vietnam during the Vietnam War and found themselves washed ashore in Palawan (the first wave of which was in 1979). Being naturally hospitable, the Philippines offered not only a home but a second chance to the Vietnamese refugees. The village was set up by the local government and up until today, these humble houses still stand testament to a peoples struggle for freedom. There is a tiny chapel and a statue to Our Lady of Viet Nam, a restaurant and a souvenir shops. Street signs within this tiny village are in Vietnamese as well. Check out the Sta. Lourdes Hot Springs nearby as well. Another hot spring worth checking out is the Sta. Lucia Hot Springs too.
For waterfalls the most notable are the Sabang Falls in Sabang, Olanguan Falls, and the Kayulo Falls. Halfway going to Napsan are the Salakot Waterfalls where aside from the cool waters of its three layered waterfalls, rare species of butterflies can sometimes be found here. Mountaineers would love the trek to the 1,600 meters high Cleopatra’s Needle which provides a sweeping view of Puerto Princesa City. While it is a challenging climb for mountaineers, one will be rewarded with rivers, streams, fields and lush forests.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Aside from the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, and the island hopping, one of the major highlights of our trip would probably be the visit to the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm. Spanish authorities during the colonial period had earlier designated Puerto Princesa to be a place where offenders were exiled but it was only in November 16, 1904 under the American Governor General Luke Wright that facilities were established. Vocational activities were made available to the prisoners which include farming, fishing, handicrafts making, forestry and carpentry.
Prisoners are free to roam the hectares and hectares of land within the penal colony which makes this one of the quirkiest prisons in the world. When we drove into Iwahig, instead of guards, prisoners actually opened and closed the gate for us. We had to sign in of course, plate number, name of guests and all. Most of the roads inside the farm are dirt and gravel and it couldn’t be more surreal to see ricefields left and right – yes, the prisoners grow their own food. In the main square, stately American colonial buildings still stand, one is a beautiful building that is used as a recreation hall which is right next to a souvenir shop. Unfortunately, the recreation hall is in a state of disrepair and needs immediate attention; I peeked inside and found the roof is literally falling apart. The souvenir shop sells items such as gavels, baseball bat keychains, nunchucks, canes made from kamagong, a Philippine hardwood, side by side with cute stuffed toys, t-shirts and pearl necklaces. Outside the shop, the prisoners can be a tad pushy selling their wares and seeing some of them are wearing medium security shirts, although, obviously, the guys mean no harm, still the experience was quite unnerving at worst. For a good price, one can even buy government-issued prison shirts (around 200-300 Pesos apiece depending whether it is minimum, medium or maximum security shirts). Another feature of Iwahig is the Balsahan River Picnic Grounds which are also open to the public. Best is to buy some meat and bring it to the picnic grounds to be grilled, the grounds are also tended by prisoners themselves and are open to the public. While at the picnic ground, check out the Iwahig Stone which serves proof that Palawan is one of the oldest islands in the Philippines. Close to Iwahig, along the National Road is the Irawan Crocodile Farm and Nature Park, which is open to the public and aims to preserve and further research on crocodiles.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Within the city proper, there are quite a few places that one should check out as well. You may as well check out the very angular Immaculate Conception Cathedral on Rizal Avenue which is right next to the Plaza Cuartel on Taft Street. Plaza Cuartel was used as an old garrison where more or less 150 soldiers (varying accounts), all American Prisoners of War were herded by the Japanese Imperial Army on December 14, 1944 into three covered trenches and were then set on fire using barrels of gasoline. Those who attempted to escape were shot down, others tried to escape by climbing over a cliff that ran along the site of the trenches but were later hunted down. 10-11 survived this atrocity and it was said that 133-141 were killed. A small statue commemorates the site of the massacre.
Also within the city proper, make sure that you pay a visit to the Palawan Museum which houses the relics and artifacts found in Tabon Cave – the site of the oldest human bone ever found in the Philippines and the oldest known fossil remains of Homo Sapiens in Southeast Asia which are radiocarbon dated to an age of 22,000-24,000 years. The fossil is now housed at the National Museum of the Filipino People in Manila.
Major festivals are the Baragatan sa Palawan and Feast of the Forest (3rd week of June) and the City Fiesta (every 8th of December).
Why Not Go
While the city proper offers a good deal of creature comforts, the hulking malls and the blinding lights of flashy clubs and discotheques of Manila are conspicuously absent in Puerto Princesa so for those on the lookout for clubbing and mall-hopping, Puerto Princesa is not going to be the right place for you.
For those who seek leisure and adventure, Puerto Princesa offers a vast array of choices from cruising an underground river, spelunking, diving, island hopping, firefly tours and other eco-friendly pastimes. It is a must for every traveler to and within the Philippines to experience the beauty of this wonderful city.
Best Time to Visit
The city enjoys a year round tropical climate with a relatively high humidity. Early mornings by Sabang Beach however can be chilly around December. Puerto Princesa is mostly spared by the typhoons that ravage other parts of the country and thus makes almost any time of the year the best time to head out to this city.
Our favorite place to stay in Puerto Princesa (city proper) would be hands down – Banwa Pension (http://www.banwa.com/), a guesthouse & art café rolled into one. The accommodations are pretty basic, but the service is friendly and ambience is pretty bohemian. The lounge room doubles as an art gallery of sorts and art pieces (for sale) line the walls of the corridor. The restaurant operates on an honesty basis, get your beer from the fridge and write your name on the sheet of paper by the bar and pay later when you check out. Most of the guests who check in here are mostly Europeans and it is pretty easy to meet new friends while lounging around – we ended up talking about the European Union and swapping travel stories and tips over beers around Christmas eve with other guests from Sweden, Germany and Austria. After we came back from Sabang, we had to chill out and get away from the searing midday sun and headed back to Banwa for a couple more beers and some great conversation with even newer friends.
Photo by Dave Ryan
In Sabang, Mary’s Cottages (+63.919.7577582) is the no-frills choice, accommodation is really basic and some huts share an outhouse while other cottages have their own lavatories. Like most of the resorts on Sabang, the resort runs on a power generator which is turned off at some point. The owner is amiable, and the staff is helpful, save for the fact that the check-in guy forgot to give us our blankets (which almost left us frozen around early morning). The common outhouse needs more attention as well as sometimes it wasn’t very well kept. Having said that, we liked the simplicity of the resort compared to a newly constructed huge hotel made out of concrete which looked grotesque and uninspiring. Mary’s Cottage has the better beachfront in the entire Sabang strip. Also, the owner can send a carabao cart to pick you up from the port to take you to the resort.
Where & What to Eat
Suffice to say, we left Puerto Princesa with extra pounds. A visit to the city is never complete without trying the Tamilok also known as a shipworm and although it looks, as someone said like an umbilical cord and despite of being called a worm – it is not a worm. It is actually related to the clam family albeit a really, really weird looking clam. It is prepared with vinegar and/or lemon juice, pretty much like a ceviche, and the taste was like that of an oyster with an earthy aftertaste probably much owing to the fact that the Tamilok bores its way through wood around the mangroves and other areas near the waters. Grossed out at first, I almost finished more than half of the plate of Tamilok served to me at Kinabuchs (Rizal Avenue). Kinabuchs is also known for probably one of the best crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckles) I have ever encountered. Once in Puerto Princesa, and you are not a vegetarian, make sure you get hold of their crispy pata! Basically we spent our Christmas Day dinner at this place with Mr. Caesar Yuipco and his lovely family.
One of the most highly recommended places by friends before we went to Puerto Princesa was Ka Lui also on Rizal Avenue. So off we went and after the famous and super delicious seafood plate, it was full on thumbs up for this stylish restaurant (you have to take your shoes off when you step into the restaurant) which also doubles as an art gallery for local artists. We met with owner, Lui Oliva after dinner and we also found out that the restaurant actively supports not only the local artists, but also local producers. Almost everything on the menu as we found out was sourced in Palawan which we think is an exemplary way of helping local communities. Aside from offering great food, it was a great cause and for that we highly recommend Ka Lui.
Vietnamese influence brought about by the waves of Vietnamese refugees settling in Palawan is pretty prominent with its many Chao Long Houses (pretty much the same as Tapsilog places in Manila), eateries which serve cheap but great tasting Chao Long (a rice noodle soup usually served with meat, locals call it beef stew and it is pretty similar to Pho). The noodles are flat and almost translucent in a very savory broth with beef, beef bones, pork or chicken) and served with basil, mint, bean sprouts, chili and calamansi (or Philippine lime). Chao Long is also best eaten with a piece of French Baguette smeared with butter and garlic on one side. The best place to try this is at the Bulwagang Princesa Chao Long House on Rizal Avenue. The Chao Long in this place is so good we had to come back for another round.
Photo by Dave Ryan
For vegetarians, you may check out the Vegetarian House on Manalo Street near the office of the Department of Education. In Sabang, meanwhile, one should never forget to try the fresh coconut juice at Mary’s Cottages located near the entrance to the trails going to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park – it was probably the yummiest coconut juice we ever had in memory.
Nightlife in the city is characterized by basically heading out to restaurant bars like Kinabuchs. During festivals and holidays, the place to be is hang out at the Baywalk where colorful lampposts line the harbor which faces the Sulu Sea. Bicycles can be rented while there are a few food stalls around. During the Christmas Season, a giant Christmas tree adorns the park while there are small fairs constructed. The beach in Sabang is mostly characterized by restaurants.
My to do List
1. Go on a cruise through the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River.*
2. Island hopping in Honda Bay. **
3. Pay a visit to the Plaza Cuartel and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral.*
4. Go shopping for super cheap pearls at unbeatable prices at Delma’s (+63.48.4341495/+63.919.4988917/by the Old Public Market)*
5. Try the Crispy Pata and the Tamilok at Kinabuchs.*
6. Visit and have a picnic at the Iwahig Penal Farm.*
7. Satisfy your hunger with some good Chao Long at the Bulwagang Princesa Chao Long House after you visit the Vietnamese Village. *
8. Snorkel at the Pambato Reef.**
9. Go spelunking!
10. Take a carabao cart ride on Sabang Beach.*
11. Learn more about the history of the province at the Palawan Museum.*
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure. Palawan is notorious for really awful mosquito bites. Our bug bites are still itching more than two weeks after we left.
2. Drowning – Learn to spot rip tides and make sure you wear a working life-vest during boat trips.
3. Dehydration – always bring a bottle of water especially during hikes..
4. Getting wet, take Ziplocs with you for your gadgets and valuables.
5. Protect yourself from UV rays by putting on sunblock.
Puerto Princesa Airport is the main gateway to the Palawan mainland. Talks are afoot of converting the airport to cater to international flights. From Manila, it is accessible by air via Philippine Airlines, Zest Air, and Cebu Pacific. There are flights via Southeast Asian Airlines (SEAIR) from Manila via El Nido/Busuanga. There are also seasonal flights direct from Boracay/Caticlan also via SEAIR. Cebu Pacific meanwhile offers direct flights from Cebu.
Photo by Dave Ryan
By sea, Puerto Princesa is accessible via the Superferry which has schedules for trips to Manila via Coron which takes about 18-22 hours. There are also trips from Iloilo via Montenegro Shipping.
Tricycles are the main mode of transport within the city, and figuring out the right fares sometimes boggles the traveler – you really don’t know whether you are getting ripped off or not. Outside the city proper and to other towns, there are jeepneys and rickety mini-buses available. The best option is to hire a van to take you around and this works out better when you are in a group or have your trips arranged by your tour operator instead to do away with the hassle. Going to Sabang, there are only three available jeepneys (last one leaves at 1PM) and at least one bus a day. A rental van costs about 3,000 to 3,500 Pesos depending on how you haggle. Island hopping is made possible through a motorized outrigger boat. At the Honda Bay port, there is a list of rates and the boatmen never ask for more.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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