Sujoy Dhar is mesmerised by the underground not-so-explored world of the island country
As the boat carrying us slowly melted away from daylight into the darkness of a mountain crevice, it was silence of the graveyard that enveloped us for a while.
An eerie feeling of venturing into an abyss was amplified by the occasional screeching of bats and birds living in the cave and the echoing sound of water dripping from the rocky ceiling. Now we are rowing down the world’s longest navigable underground river at Puerto Princesa on the Palawan island of Philippines.
The Puerto Princesa Underground River is 8.2 km long but everyday a limited number of tourists are allowed to take a boat ride of only 1.5 km stretch of the river.
Underground Mystical Wonder
And as your efficient boatman cum guiding angel in the cavern and caves- who wears a helmet lamp as your only source of light in the darkness inside- paddles you across the underground river from its outflow- which is a mangrove fringed lagoon that flows into the South China Sea- you actually experience one of the most mystical wonders of the world.
This river indeed is now one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” and home to 30 species of mammals and 165 birds and 19 reptiles. Every turn and bend is navigable stalactites and stalagmites here leaving you spellbound when you reach the sprawling underground world of amazing rocks that is the Italian chamber here.
After a boat ride through the sea from Sabang pier you reach the beach of the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park with the journey offering you some breathtaking views of limestone cliffs and emerald lagoons. At the park you would witness scary lizard monitors roaming free, but not harming you unless you try to mess with them. You also encounter the crab-eating monkeys.
Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park encompasses one of the world’s most impressive cave systems, featuring spectacular limestone karst landscapes, pristine natural beauty, and intact old-growth forests and distinctive wildlife.
It is located in the south-western part of the Philippine Archipelago on the mid western coast of Palawan, approximately 76 km northwest of Puerto Princesa, the capital city of the former. The high point of adventure here in the approximately 22,202 hectare area is surely the journey into the underground river. This subterranean river system flows directly into the sea, with its brackish lower half subjected to tidal influence, distinguishing it as a significant natural global phenomenon.
The river’s cavern presents remarkable, eye catching rock formations. The property contains a full mountain-to-sea ecosystem which provides significant habitat for biodiversity conservation and protects the most intact and noteworthy forests within the Palawan biogeographic province.
The rock formations look similar to objects and images such as a horse, cacao fruit, a mushroom and the holy family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) as in the presence of a giant stalagmite with its own island within a massive chamber known as the Italian’s Chamber!
It is here that in 2010 a team of Italian spelunkers discovered the million-year-old fossilised remains of a dugong (sea cow) on a part of the cave wall not currently open to the public.
When you reach the Italian chamber of the cave, which is 360-meter-long, 80 metres high with approximate 2.5 million square meters in volume, you are left overawed for a while, wondering who really is the power behind such creations.
The Free Fall
If you are left awe struck after a cruise in the scary underground river, then the perfect way to unwind is perhaps some different over ground adventure activities like zipline. It is here in Puerto Princesa that you can enjoy the best zipline experience of life rappeling down 800 metres into the beach.
So as you reach near the spot, you have to go for a bit of a hike up to the top to the Sabang X Zipline to rappel down from 150 feet above sea level for about 90 seconds to land in a sandy beach, all along your eyes feasting on the amazing view of the tropical forest mountains and the blue South China Sea below.
After landing in the sandy beach, you can wade through the shallow sea water to the forested habitation and then perhaps ride back in a car or a jeepney to your hotel or resort.
If the underground river experience and zipline are enough for the day, keep the next day for island hopping in Puerto Princesa in the course of which you enjoy the white sandy beaches with snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking attractions. Or you may just choose to enjoy a swim or feed shoals of colourful fishes.
Honda Bay Island Tour is one in which you can hop onto a boat and go island hopping at Honda Bay, which is the mid-eastern coast of the city of Puerto Princesa. Luli Island, Starfish Island, Panden Island and Cowrie Island are well known for swimming and snorkeling.
We had chosen Pandan Island, a private island with just one small resort and the whitest sands, to spend most part of the morning till lunch.
This resort was established in 1986 by a French adventurer and has been voted time and again as one of the top resorts in the Philippines owing to its personalized atmosphere.
Starfish are commonly found near islands such as Starfish Island but you can find some in Pandan too.
“The water is flattest and the visibility is best from late March to May,” writes BBC about the island while a Lonely Planet review says it is a “winning combination of simple living and pure tropical decadence.”
Explore the City
While in Puerto Princesa, try not to miss an evening stroll along the Baywalk in the city and catch a glimpse of the sunset against the silhouetted mountain skyline, well may be taking a jeepney or tricycle ride to the point.
The public market in the city is also an attraction if you are one of those who love to explore local markets anywhere in the world.
For some time enjoy the chaos in the market where tropical fruit and vegetables are aplenty with sea fishes of different kinds displayed in rows as buyers check them out.
A visit to the Palawan Special Battalion WW2 Memorial Museum is recommended too since Philippines was a major theater in the WWII too and was under the control of the Japanese Army. Here you can learn more about the local hero late Captain Higinio A Mendoza who stood up against the Japanese as a guerrilla leader after serving the region as the governor of Palawan from 1931 to 1937. He was killed by the Japanese in 1944 and some accounts say by beheading. Puerto Princesa on Palawan island of Philippines is truly you best tropical escape close to India.
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HOW TO REACH:
You can fly Thai Airways/AirAsia/Air India, etc. from India to Manila. From Manila to Puerto Princesa is less than an hour and is available daily via Air Philippines, Cebu Pacific, Zest Airways and Philippine Airlines.
WHERE TO STAY:
If you have a good budget you can consider Sheridan Resort Puerto Princesa which is closer to the underground river. In the city, a good star hotel is Ivywall Hotel. Budget accommodations are plenty. Check out the deals in booking.com or Tripadvisor