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Palawan, Philippines

Puerto 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, very green.

"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 stopped.

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.

Underground 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 1 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?

Natural Cathedral Cavern

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.

Divers Delight

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.

Not Only for Divers

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.

Ideal Resort Location

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.

Natural 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 town.

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 walls.

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 their shapes.

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 by hand.

Information Box

When: The best time to visit is the dry season from November through April.

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.

The above was reproduced with permission from Frequent Traveller magazine.

See also: Exclusive HD video interview with Mr. Joesyl M. Vasquez (Josh), Country Manager- Thailand for Philippine Airlines, Exclusive HD video interview with Ms. Ina Israel of Coco Beach Island Resort in Puerto Galera, Philippines, Exclusive HD video interview with Dean Cid, General Manager of the Microtel by Wyndham Mall of Asia in Manila, Philippines and Exclusive HD video interview with Art P. Boncato JR., Assistant Secretary of Tourism Regulation, Coordination and Resource Generation (TRCRG) at the Department of Tourism of Philippines.

Topics covering the Philippines: Philippines - Hotels in Manila, Bars in Manila, Money and Exchange Warning in the Philippines, Money Tips and Currency Converter, General Information on Manila, Rolex, Hotels in Cebu, Restaurants in Cebu, General Information on Cebu, Hotels in Boracay, Hotels in Palawan, General Information on Palawan, Transport in the Philippines, Pictures of the Philippines. HD Videos about Philippines: Exclusive HD video interview with Mr. Joesyl M. Vasquez (Josh), Country Manager- Thailand for Philippine Airlines, Exclusive HD video interview with Ms. Ina Israel of Coco Beach Island Resort in Puerto Galera, Philippines, Exclusive HD video interview with Dean Cid, General Manager of the Microtel by Wyndham Mall of Asia in Manila, Philippines and Exclusive HD video interview with Art P. Boncato JR., Assistant Secretary of Tourism Regulation, Coordination and Resource Generation (TRCRG) at the Department of Tourism of Philippines.

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