with permission from Frequent Traveller magazine.
Princesa the Southern Gateway
Underground River a Must
Natural Cathedral Cavern
Not Only for Divers
Ideal Resort Location
Natural Beauty, Adventure
Princesa the Southern Gateway
Puerto Princesa shows itself a place with all the goodies you expect to
find in a Filipino town - a legion of gaily painted tricycles and
tricikads - mobile works of art - to adorn the streets; a central market
brimming with colour and with humour, and friendly faces everywhere that
show you all the time they're glad you came to see their town.
Yet here in Puerto Princesa there is something else, a sensibility, that
had the place looking very spic and span, hospitable, as well as very,
"Yield to children crossing";"Help save our children -
jail the pushers"; "I am a law abider. I support oplin linis
(law and order)"; "I am a Palaweno, I am not a reckless
driver", say signs along the roadside. Then you learn that Edward
Hagedorn, the town's mayor, is dedicated to civil order, personal
security and conservation. It seems the mayor's strategy is paying off.
The pristine forests of Palawan had not long ago been subject to
decimation through rampant illegal logging. This has been completely
The best way to see Puerto Princesa is to walk or take a tricikad
(pedaled taxi) along Rizal Avenue. It's the main thoroughfare that runs
the length of town, from its leafy western outskirts, right down to the
port . This was a trek that I found myself doing as often as I could, if
only to enjoy the contrasts - country, town and port - all in the space
of two or three km.
Filipino ports are always irresistible destinations. There's the promise
of a fishing village - maybe on stilts - colourful outrigger boats, and
hospitality from the people of a type unmatched anywhere in the world.
The little port at Puerto Princessa had all of this and, as I was to
find, just that little bit more.
Until now I had never found the pluck you need to negotiate the rickety
planks that serve as rail-less walkways in the villages on stilts.
"You can go, my friend - NOT DOWN!" came the constant cry of
my newly acquired companions as I tentatively poked my way along the
walkway. I tried not to look at the muck below that would gobble up
entirely the fallen.
Pushing on, a sign informed that this was "Camia footbridge,
Matahiank Zone 2". It's astonishing what the people here have
managed to erect on stilts. I came upon the Santo Nino chapel built on
stilts, with a notice promoting the Benefit Dance to be held there soon;
there was the billiard parlour on stilts, a bingo hall and lots of
little shops. I imagined, if I looked a little more, there'd be a fire
house and police station too.
The further out I walked, the skinnier the walkway got, until at last it
was just a couple of spindly sticks with quite a depth of water
underneath. I wondered at my weight as I tip-toed along, and wished I
didn't have my camera bag.
"You can go, my friend - NOT DOWN!" And with this, by golly, I
made it to the end - well almost to the end. I looked to see the gallery
that were there to share my triumph. "Hey man, give me one
shot!" (take my photo!) was the anthem I received.
River a Must
Having come to Palawan there was no way I could miss the underground
river. It's what most tourists come here for. A friend of mine in
Melbourne told me he had walked there from Princesa - a two day hike.
Thankfully, I had a combi and a guide. Even so, heading northwest out of
town, we bumped along dirt roads for two and a half hours before we
finally reached St. Paul National Park.
Here you start to see big limestone rocks jutting up on both sides of
the road. These, I was told, are part of the St. Paul mountain range,
all of which is "karst" limestone.
From the port of Sabang we travelled for 20 minutes in a pump boat to
the beach at the entrance to the park. Here, in the shade of "Dita",
"Salakin", "Piris", "Kalimutaim", "Mabunot",
and "Malugail" trees (all conveniently labeled), we shared our
picnic lunch with three fearsome looking iguanas. They themselves had to
contend with an impish bunch of monkeys who scampered in to steal scraps
from underneath the iguanas' plodding feet - funny stuff.
The underground river, a five minute walk from here, runs for no less
than eight and a half km through the limestone mountains. To explore it,
you pay 150 pesos (US$3.75) for a paddle "banca". It takes you
1½ km up the river. Soon the only light you get comes from the guide's
torch. With this you are shown the astonishing phenomena that nature
here has managed to contrive. These are giant limestone caves, in some
parts 20 m wide and 65 m high. Clumps of fruit bats cling to the
slippery stone, and brisk little swifts clickety click their way around
the caves, narrowly missing your head. The river is also home to eels
and sightless fish. Who needs eyes in a place as black as this?
Then there are the "look-alikes" - stalagmites named for their
resemblance to the 'giant mushroom', a 'sub highway', lots of
'grottoes', 'dinosaurs' and 'statues'. The clincher is 'The Cathedral'
with its giant candle, confessional, tabernacle, and sculpture of the
holy family. We had come to church by boat.
From a choice of other day trips that included the crocodile farm and an
open penal colony where convicts live 'useful lives', we opted for some
island hopping at Honda Bay.
Honda Bay is another kind of fishing village. It's built on a thin
peninsula, and exemplifies the Filipino capacity to create beauty from
the simplest of materials. The nipa huts are artfully and sturdily
constructed, many of them decked with blooms of bougainvillea. All
manner of fish were laid out to dry on huge stretches of bamboo lattice.
Among the nearby islands you can visit, is Starfish Island, where there
are plenty of starfish; Bat Island where there are plenty of bats, and
Snake Island where there are no snakes at all. All are pristine little
sandy gems, empty but for a few nipa cottages, and shelters used by
fishermen. At Starfish, you can stay in a family cottage for 800 pesos a
night (US$20) or a double for 500 (US$13).
The pump-boat ride itself is splashingly good fun, and as Andy, my
guide, said as we bumped along at a show-ride pace: "This is really
hopping - like a kangaroo."
Palawan is the Philippines' last frontier - one that is now ardently
protected by a government intent on saving the island's forest
treasures. Puerto Princesa bears testimony to the shared will of the
Palaweno people - to do things with a mind, not only to the security of
the people, but also to the conservation of the land. It is this above
all else - yes, even above the cricket on TV - that makes the town a
pleasure to be in.
That El Nido is a paradise for divers is well known. But as I was now
discovering, snorkellers, swimmers and even strollers on a pier can also
get their sub-aquatic thrills. Though I must admit, my free introductory
dive had not yet qualified me for the kinds of depths where lurk the
mighty whale shark, manta ray, eagle ray and giant clam, all of which
Ian assured me he had seen on recent dives. Sure I was just a little
jealous, but thrilled just the same with my green sea turtle encounter,
along with the schools of angelfish and barracuda that finned
quizzically around me on the reefs.
There are more than 20 dive sites around El Nido's Bacuit Bay. These
range from graded slopes to drop-off's, and from wall dives to flat
reef. The more intrepid may wish to tackle the tunnels and caverns
nearby El Nido town. South Miniloc teems with ribbon eels, angelfish and
barracuda. The table corals at Twin Rocks are home to seawhips and rays,
while Tres Marias' mammoth boulders harbour painted crays, mackerel and
white-tip sharks. Visibility is good to nearly 30 m and is best from
March through May.
Yet you don't have to dive, snorkel or even tickle your toes in the
shallows to be inspired at El Nido. Scenically the place is
another-world. The area takes its name from the fishing town that lies
on the north-west shores of the Philippines' most westward and far flung
island province, Palawan.
El Nido, though, has come to be synonymous with the surrounding islands.
Viewed from the plane - the 19 seater Dornier that transfers you to El
Nido directly from Manila - the islands seem to have flaked off Palawan
as would crumbs from a giant slice of tart. And these are not your
regular island specs. Commanding serious respect, they soar out of the
bay as giant shafts of limestone - vertical and incredibly tall - 609 m
in the case of Cadlao. Formed over 250 million years ago, they towered
then even higher than today before being eroded by the rain.
Seeing all these soaring monoliths close up, I was immediately reminded
of Sarawak, and the famous limestone pinnacles that spear up through the
mountain mist in Mulu National Park. I was not surprised to learn that
Palawan in the ice age was part of the Eurasian Plate, and attached to
north-east Borneo. Until the 19th century it was politically attached to
Borneo as well, until the Spanish managed finally to wrest control of
Puerto Princessa, the island's capital, from the Sultans of Jolo.
Limestone has a way of creating fantastically dramatic and artistic
effects. In El Nido it has outdone itself. Around the various island
coasts it has formed almost labyrinthine lagoons flanked by those
awe-inspiring walls - sometimes bare, sometimes clad in shrubbery and
vines. There are caves and giant fissures to explore, at least one
'secret beach' which you access by snorkeling through a small hole in
the 'wall'; and coves that sport gleaming strips of sand between their
mottled emerald waters and forest-covered steeps.
Two such coves are given over to resorts. These are Miniloc and Lagen.
As a guest at these serene and perfect places the first thing you are
made aware of - aside from the exuberant friendliness of the Filipino
staff - is the environmentally conscious nature of the properties. The
management are determined that neither their presence or yours will
interfere in any way with the pristine nature of what is an official
Marine Reserve. Their philosophy is enshrined in 'Ten El Ni-do's",
which in essence exhort you to take nothing but photographs and leave
nothing but your footprints in the sand. Everyone (one hopes) complies.
Both properties are equipped with sewage treatment plants and
desalinisation plants. Both play an active role in the conservation and
policing of the bay.
During Lagen's construction - a quite recent event - not one of the
property's trees was felled. The 12 by 25 m pool was dug an even 1.22m
deep, end to end, so as not to disturb the root-system of the forest.
Strolling through the gardens here, the feeling you get is that of being
enshrouded by a canopy of green. Kingfishers and hornbills splash their
own brilliant colours on the palms and cottage roofs. Flitting at times
perilously close to your nose are the swiftlets that nest in the higher
limestone niches and on the ceilings of the caves. Their tiny nests are
eagerly sought after, especially by the Chinese, for their gourmet birds
nest soup. Local gatherers climb way up the sheer face of cliffs,
unaided in their quest by either ladders or ropes.
Miniloc is the older of the properties, and the more Filipino in style.
Its stilt 'water cottages' allude to a traditional Philippine fishing
village. They are built of native materials: 'cogon' thatch for the
roofs, woven bamboo for the interior walls, 'narra' for the floorboards
and checkerboard 'capiz' - a mother-of-pearl-like shell - for the doors
and window screens. Your balcony view is that of the brilliant white
sand beach fronting the cottages and clubhouse that take refuge in the
foliage at the base of the soaring cliffs behind. A man-made breakwater
ensures protection from the swells. Beyond this are anchored a flotilla
of bancas - Filipino outriggers. They are there solely to serve the
needs of guests.
Beauty, Adventure Abounds
Both Miniloc and Lagen offer a veritable raft of activity options: beach
picnics, island hopping, hikes, hobie cat sailing, kayaking and dives.
You are also given options as to whom you do these with: fellow guests,
your friends, your partner or even on your own. With so many
unfrequented islands in the bay, there is no trouble finding a private
beach, especially for honeymooners who might wish to be alone.
I spent most of my time accompanied by my guides. In Miniloc this was
Dante. As natives of Cebu, Dante's parents discovered the marine-rich
waters of El Nido on a longer than normal fishing trip. They decided to
stay. "Did your parents have any trouble getting land and a
house?" I asked. "No," answered Dante, "they just
squatted like everyone else." With a home-grown local as my guide,
I decided to take up what is another tour option: to take a trip to
El Nido is a more substantial fishing town than you might expect. Though
most of its private homes are of nipa and bamboo, its more substantial
buildings are cement: the main street shops, municipal buildings, the
disco and the gym, aptly named 'Hard Rocks Cafe'. The people are
typically super-friendly Filipinos. They love to welcome visitors, pose
creatively for pictures and share with you the funny side of life.
Not only Filipinos have been enticed to live in town. A bunch of
Europeans have settled here as well. In the Mac Mac Restaurant I met the
Austrian proprietor, Max. "It's such a beautiful place, I could see
no reason to leave," he says, as he and Marilu, his Filipina wife,
took turns to bounce their baby boy on their knees. Most of these
expatriates run guest houses offering island hopping tours, or
restaurants catering to European tastes.
Commercial fishing in the Marine Reserve is banned. Small private bancas,
though, are permitted to fish, thus helping to sustain the town. One of
the more spectacular sights at El Nido is that of one of these spindly
little vessels edging its way along the base of the towering island
The best place to witness such unforgettable scenes is from the
viewpoint on Pangulasian Island. Getting there entails a 40 minute trek
up a bougainvillea- and forest-shrouded track. Arrival at the top sees
what is left of your breath snatched summarily away. For from here you
are given a panoramic view of nearly all of Bacuit Bay with any number
of those monolithic land forms nudging the clouds that try to replicate
El Nido has to be one of the most spectacularly gorgeous spots on earth.
And to think that just below the surface of those gleaming turquoise
waters another even more enticing, more enchanting, 'other world'
awaits. Divemasters know exactly where the choicest patches are, to let
you savour to the utmost El Nido's watery delights. But remember, it may
not be such a good idea to try to feed the whale sharks and manta rays
Airline: Philippine Airlines fly to Manila from Melbourne four times a
week, from Sydney five times a week and from Brisbane once a week. They
fly to Cebu from Melbourne & Sydney once a week. Philippine Airlines
fly to Puerto Princesa, Palawan from Cebu twice a week and from Manila
When: The best time to visit is the dry season from November through
Bring: Light cottons, sun hat, sun block, repellent, swimwear, slide
film if required
Buy: Palawan baskets are famous for their elegant design, and especially
for their incredibly fine and intricate weave. They are available at the
Puerto Princesa market and at handicraft shops in town. Judge the
quality by the fineness and tightness of the weave
Visa: None required for stays of less than 21 days
covering the Philippines:
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Money and Exchange Warning in the Philippines,
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