By Jason Paul Laxamana
Central Luzon Daily
Last month, my Kamaru production team and I flew to Puerto Princesa City, Palawan to co-produce the music video of the carrier single of an upcoming Cuyonon rock album by a band called Bulyaw Mariguen.
During our stay, our producer Jocelyn Fabello of Matinlo Productions took us to one of country's pride in the realm of ecotourism—the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (also called St. Paul Underground River National Park), a nominee in the “New Seven Wonders of Nature” competition and one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
Trip to the Park
We woke up early in the morning and rode a van to reach the place. Even though we were staying in Puerto Princesa City, the barangay (Sabang) where the park is located is far from the heart of the city, and the trip can range from one hour to an hour and a half.
It's not all land transportation. Upon arrival to Sabang, we had to take a short banca ride at the Sabang Pier—about ten minutes—to reach the national park, which is on the other side of the beach. The water we had to travel across comes from the South China Sea already.
The trip is short but we were stunned with the beauty of the surrounding shores, forests, and mountains. Plus, the water is not murky compared to the waters of Pampanga Bay; the water is also greenish blue—probably a reflection of both the sky and the lush forests from nearby bodies of land—and best of all, clean.
Upon landing, we enter a safe forest that would lead us to the small port where the City Government of Puerto Princesa. In that short trek inside the forest, we encountered monkeys and monitor lizards (bayawak) freely roaming around.
The monkeys, like the ones in Subic, are infamous for snatching stuff from people, so we were advised to keep an eye on our things and to not leave our possessions unattended. Physically harming the monkeys, along with the lizards and the other animals that may be found in the forest, is unlawful.
The giant monitor lizards, especially for us urban people, were both fascinating and frightening due to their baby dragon-like appearance. Fear not though because they don't attack people.
In fact, according to the locals, they are afraid of people. Their seemingly casual behavior around humans is only because they have been used to their constant presence in the area. But if you try to shock one, it will run away fast like a shooed cat.
Into the Cave
After the short trek, we arrived at the port where tourists can avail of group boat rides—paddled by local employees—through the cave. A tour inside the cave, which can last from thirty to forty minutes, would have cost us money, but since our trip was sponsored by Mayor Joel Reyes of Puerto Princesa, we went in for free.
We enter the mouth of the cave where it's pitch-black all through. A spotlight is held by the passenger in front though, allowing everyone to scan the surroundings which is filled with stalactites, stalagmites, sleeping bats, and swiftlets that fly around the area. At first, we mistook the swiftlets as bats, but the boatman—who serves as tour guide and entertainer as well with his funny side comments and knowledge of greetings in several Philippine and world languages including Kapampangan and Niponggo—informed us that they were birds, swooping down on insects to dine.
The cave, while the lower part is submerged in approximately 30 feet of fresh water (the water at the entrance is somewhat salty though as evidenced by the seashells forming on the walls because the entrance is near the point where the river and sea meet) still had a huge dome space above, where water droplets were falling down mildly at random points.
The water was coming from the rainwater accumulated above the terrain, seeping down through soil and rocks, until it reaches the cave.
“The water dropping from above can be considered Holy Water,” the boatman comments. “But if what drops from above comes from the bats, it's Holy Shit.” We burst in laughter.
Various stone and rock formations inside have names like the Holy Family, LRT, the face of Jesus Christ, Bat Cave, the Pegasus, the T-Rex, and many more. They had been named as such because the formations appeared like them, especially the breath-taking face of Christ.
We couldn't help but wonder how such place was formed. The boatman said that the cave could have been water-free back in the centuries when sea levels were lower. While the documented discovery of the underground river is credited to a Spaniard, the natives of Palawan could have known the area as well, except that there hasn't been any piece of evidence found yet.
After a cozy tour inside, we reached the point where boats are supposed to return. No, it was not the edge of the tunnel yet. In fact, the edge was still far away, and we were even informed that a huge empty lot where a hundred people or so can camp was situated there.
“Gusto niyo bang puntahan?” the boatman asked. “Yes!” we all excitedly replied. “Sige, puntahan niyo, hihintayin ko kayo dito... promise!” he answered. Again, we laughed hard.
The reason they don't take tourists, or anyone for that matter—except if people with enough reason like geographers and scholars have permits from the proper authorities—to the far reaches is because it could be too dangerous and distant from the port, such that if emergency happened, rescue will take time to come.
Ecotourism VS Environmental Protection
One might wonder why there aren't many boats available to rent, causing people to wait long in line before experiencing the cave. Boats could be enlarged to accommodate more people per trip, but why is it not being done?
It's because it's not purely ecotourism for the national park. Concerned with the animals, like the nocturnal bats sleeping inside, they limit the number of people inside the cave to not cause too much noise. “Travel agencies keep on suggesting that we increase the number of boats, but we tell them we don't want to strongly disturb the dwellers inside.”
Puerto Princesa City is lucky to have such natural wonder, and the natural wonder is luck to have an understanding and sincerely passionate group of people looking out for its preservation. Even though the government keeps on promoting the place, it doesn't abuse and over-commercialize the whole idea, unlike what happens in other places.
For more information about the place, visit the official website of the management. www.puerto-undergroundriver.com
Photos care of Diego Marx Dobles, Kamaru Photography