A Bay of Islands and an Underground River

12 Aug

Palawan Part I

Palawan is a stunningly beautiful island province located in the southwest of the Philippine archipelago of 7,107 islands. Known as the “last ecological frontier” of the Philippines because the lack of commercialization has preserved its landscape of limestone rock and mangrove forests and its land and sea life, Palawan truly is an undeveloped wonderland.

The roads of Palawan – unpaved in many places – are lined with doorless huts made of wood planks with straw roofs and surrounded by bamboo fences. Roosters amble aimlessly around, cock-a-doodle-dooing at all hours of the day. Pigs snort from people’s yards or crates tied to the back of jeepneys. Cows stop traffic. Goats chomp on bushes and trees and fences. Water buffalo sprawl out in puddles on the side of the road. Stray cats and dogs beg for food everywhere – and apparently are very successful at it as they all look quite healthy. There is a consistent background noise of various animals and bugs, frequently accentuated by thunder echoing off of the limestone rock formations. Tricycles (not the three-wheeled toddler bike, but in fact small motorcycles with sidecars attached that serve as one of the main modes of transportation in Palawan, acting much like a taxi) putter along the roads, each flashing a funny name given by its driver, like “Larry,” “Jam Jam,” “Princess Cate,” or even “Mr. Suave” or “Chick Hunter.” (I was very entertained by the tricycle names.)

Jam Jam

My trip to Palawan started off fantastically, which I thought was a good omen for my visit. When I arrived at the tiny airport in Puerto Princesa City, the main city of Palawan, I was minorly distressed because I didn’t remember the name of the hostel I booked, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there. Lo and behold, when I exited the baggage claim area, there was a woman from my hostel standing there with my name on a piece of paper – she was there to pick me up! I was so happy, not just because she had just made the next hour or so of my life infinitely easier, but also because I have always wanted to arrive at an airport to a piece of paper with my name on it.

I got right down to business and booked an island hopping tour in Honda Bay for the next day. The tour began at the Honda Bay marina, where a group of Filipino tourists and I boarded a banca boat, a traditional Filipino boat with a contraption of bamboo rods sticking out of each side like wings, making it seem like it would be impossible to tip it over.

A banca boat parked on an island in Honda Bay

Nevertheless, everyone had to wear a lifejacket. Upon being told to put on a lifejacket by our guide, a little boy in our group exclaimed, “I love lifejackets!” which I thought was hilarious. I later noticed that most Filipinos wear lifejackets any time they are near or in water, even if it’s only a few feet deep, which is pretty funny considering how much water is in the Philippines.

Our first stop was at Snake Island, thankfully not named because there are a lot of snakes lurking in the sand, but because of its snake-like shape. We swam and snorkeled for a bit while our tour guys grilled us up a traditional Filipino lunch – a feast of tuna filets, pork, chicken adobo (which is a delicious sauce that tastes amazing on rice), cucumber and tomato salad, rice, and mini (well, they were probably normal size, they just looked small compared to the huge American ones I’m used to) bananas for dessert. On the island, there were a group of boys playing volleyball and laughing, families snorkeling in the shallow water, a few sunbathers (including me), and the smell of barbecuing meat wafting through the air. It was the perfect festive vacation spot.

The festive Snake Island

At the next island, Pandan Island, our group claimed a hut near the beach and we all went in different directions. I couldn’t resist and splurged on a massage (it was only 200 pesos – how could I not?!) then, super relaxed, I spent the last hour on the island on a sandy hill listening to my iPod, gazing at the kids splashing around in the blindingly sparkling water, and daydreaming.

A brewing storm announced the end of our boat trip and the carefree sun day. I conked out early to be well-rested for my trip to Sabang the next day.

Sabang, a two hour van ride from Puerto Princesa, is a must-visit place mostly because it contains the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. The park contains spectacular karst limestone mountains, forests of mangrove and other tropical trees, and a variety of animals lazing (monitor lizards) or swinging about (monkeys).

Limestone rock formation in the Subterranean River National Park

But the real reason to visit the park is to see the 5+ mile navigable river that twists through a cave of one of these limestone mountains. It is an absolute awe of nature.

From my seat in the middle of a ten-person row boat moving slowly through the river, I just stared and started at the limestone walls of the cave, listened to the tour guide speak part English, part Tagalog as he described the shapes of the stalactites and stalagmites (a candle, the Virgin Mary, the Nativity Scene, Jesus’s face – come to think of it, most of his descriptions were religious), and tried to avoid being hit by the literally thousands of bats flying around (none of them really came that close).

My tour group in our row boat posing in front of the entrance to the Underground River

Locals are very excited and proud about the underground river’s potential to be one of the 7 New Natural Wonders of the World (it is one of 28 finalists), and I can’t blame them.

On our way back to Puerto Princesa, we stopped at Ugong Rock for an amateur spelunking expedition up through the inside of the rock. I got to wear a pink hard hat to protect my head during the numerous times I hit it in the tiny crevices we had to climb through.

Me spelunking in Ugong Rock

At the top of the rock was an amazing view of rice fields and of course limestone rock and forest. There was also a zipline at the top providing transportation back to our van parked at the bottom. There is no doubt that one of the best ways to get down from the top of a really tall rock is to zipline to the bottom.

I decided to spend the next day checking out the city of Puerto Princesa. I strolled through the city proper, checking out the old City Hall that was built by Americans in the ‘60s and looks very much like an American building built in the ‘60s. I meandered through the outskirts of town as families were winding down for the day and preparing for dinner. It was impossible for me not to have a good time, because the people of Palawan are so friendly. Kids in school uniforms – boys in white collared shirts, girls in long navy blue or pastel skirts – on their way home from school yelled “hello,” “hi,” “how are you,” or “have a nice day!” to me.

Kids walking home from school in Puerto Princesa

Women cooking dinner on outdoor grills waved to me. Young kids playing barefoot games in the dirty street hollered “hiiii!” at me. Teenage boys said “you’re so pretty” (one even followed me a few blocks and gave me a note declaring his love at first sight. Awww). In contrast to feeling like a complete outsider in the rest of Asia, I felt like a very welcome visitor in the small towns of Palawan.

So far, Palawan is definitely living up to its reputation as one of the best places to visit in the world!

6 Responses to “A Bay of Islands and an Underground River”

  1. Fauth August 24, 2011 at 3:52 am #

    Fun, fun, fun reading! You paint a perfect picture with your descriptions! It seems like Palawanians like their life!! How do you go caving with flip flops?

    • carlylarson August 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

      haha, well fauth, it was amateur spelunking, which i think is much less strenuous than real spelunking :)

  2. Penny Larson August 24, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    I can’t wait for Part 2, Carly. It is so fun to “travel” with you. So much better than House Hunters International, although Dad and I are enjoying that as an alternative form of travel!

    • carlylarson August 31, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

      house hunters international did influence some of my travel decisions, so i think it’s a pretty great show!

  3. connie August 24, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    the philippines look amazing! love reading about everything. can’t wait to see you in BALI!!!!

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