Wednesday, November 18, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 4: Puerto Princesa & The Underground River

Whew! What an exhausting day.

Perhaps I should set this up a little. A couple months ago, while we were still in the planning stages of this trip, Rebecca handed me a guide book with a plea to do some research and find something for us to do with our week of exploration in the Philippines. Conscious that we would be with Dana and Marc, I discarded those things that seemed too strenuous, but I still was hoping to find something that would get us exploring the out-of-doors, since we already had the city and beach resort bases covered. On Lonely Planet's list of Top-10 Can't Miss Things to Do, I saw the tours of the longest Underground River in the world, on the registry of World Heritage sites and shortlisted for the New Seven Wonders of the World. "Perfect!" I exclaimed to myself, "All we have to do is sit in a boat. Nothing strenuous about that." Perhaps you can guess where this is going.

We started out bright and early, with the tour van picking us up from the hotel at 7:30 to take us to the river. None of the guidebooks that I saw really spent any effort discussing the trip TO the river from Puerto Princesa. Here's the short version: it's hell in a minivan. The trip is supposed to take a couple hours, on extremely bumpy and swervy roads that are unpaved for long stretches. It took us an hour and a half. The driver was a maniac, going at maniacal speeds around maniacal turns on maniacal roads. It was harrowing. And very uncomfortable.

Arriving at Sabang beach, a beautiful bay of resort-quality beach surrounded by green mountains, we quickly boarded a small banca (boat with outriggers to the side) to cross the bay to the mouth of the underground river. Considering how green around the gills many of us were feeling from the car ride, the boat ride seemed like a lot to undertake, but it really wasn't that bad and only about 15 minutes long.

Arriving at the mouth of the river-cave, we donned life vests and hard hats and piled into small, paddle-powered boats to explore the cave. Marc and I were in front, where he seemed rather nervous about the car battery sitting in an inch of water at our feet (the battery was there to power a hand-held light we used to see where we were going). Heading into the cave, we went about a kilometer in before our guide started talking, pointing out the formations and lore surrounding the rooms we were in (many of them religious - we saw Mary, the Nativity Scene, Jesus' face and the three wise men all formed out of the natural rock). He was funny, with jokes he had clearly honed over many trips up and down the river.

The cave itself was quite remarkable. Carved out of a mountain of marble and limestone, most of the walls were gray with streaks of yellow and brown. There were thousands of bats in the cave with us, most of them nesting on the ceiling but quite a few flying around our heads, and the occasional swallow loudly chirping up and down the cave (they've learned to fly with echolocation, apparently). The cave smelled awful from all the guano, particularly near the entrance - deeper inside it wasn't so bad. In the largest room, which our guide dubbed the "eyeful tower" (so-called because if you look up you get an eyeful of water - or batshit), the ceiling yawned 250 feet over our heads. It was very impressive.

Afterwards, we putted back across the bay to lunch on the beach, a buffet-style affair with a really good coconut soup, pretty good meat and VEGETABLES - string beans, spinach and eggplant - which Rebecca and I piled high on our plates. They weren't actually that great (especially the eggplant), but we didn't care: it was just so nice to get a little balance in our meal.

The ride home was like the ride out, only worse since we were already tired and sea-sprayed with the boat travel under our belts. It felt like forever before we got home, and I for one was fighting nausea much of the time. Dana had a very rough time of the day, despite popping some pain pills, but she tried very hard to maintain a positive outlook throughout. Once we got back to the hotel she brought up the idea of going back to Manila earlier than planned with a disheartening amount of enthusiasm, and elected not to join us for dinner - hopefully she'll feel somewhat better tomorrow morning.

For dinner, we took a trike to Ka Lui, enthusiastically recommended by all the guidebooks. A trike, or tricycle, is Palawan's primary mode of public transportation: it's basically a motorcycle with a metal hood/sidecar on top of it, and up to three people can cram in for short, hair-raising journeys on the chaotic roads. Turns out Ka Lui is less than a mile away, so we just walked back. The restaurant itself was awesome, by far the best food experience we've had yet in the Philippines. Its specialty is seafood, with a very limited menu of whatever's fresh that day. We had a full meal of clam-ginger soup, fresh fruit shakes, giant prawns, seaweed (blech), greenbean-calamari salad, tuna steak, rice, coconut-fish rolls and fresh fruit for dessert for three people for $20. Total. The atmosphere was great, too: an open air bamboo and rattan tiki-style house, with masks from all sorts of cultures lining the walls and a no-shoe policy, there was something in the building that I swore made it smell like apple pie (it wasn't, sadly, actual apple pie). I would strongly recommend this place to anyone coming to Puerto Princesa. We very well might eat there again tomorrow.

After dinner, Rebecca and I wandered around downtown PP a little bit. I regret to say it is not a very pretty town. The streets are dirty, loud and smell of diesel fumes from all the motorcycles, and the shops are haphazard and largely industrial (lots of auto supply and repair). But we were perfectly happy to finally get out, on our feet and on our own, to explore the world around us. We stumbled across a high-school talent show where the audience seemed to be comprised entirely of other students all sitting with their backs to the band performing Dashboard Confessional covers on the stage, preferring to socialize with each other and, in some cases, rehearse their own acts. We think maybe the whole thing was a just a rehearsal.

Tomorrow, the plan is to get up fairly early and take a short guided tour of the city to get our bearings and see if there's anything that we want to explore further. We had contemplated the Honda Bay tour, the other big destination on Palawan, but it sounds like an awful lot of time on a boat, which nobody in our group is really excited about. So we'll play it by ear and go a bit lower-key, hopefully allowing some time to recharge and recover. Maybe there's a nice beach around here we could go sit on...

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