The Puerto Princessa Experience

Written : Feb 5, '08 3:02 PM
Photos by: Olay Rullan and Fernan Santos

Last February 2007, me and three other friends booked a flight to Puerto Princessa on a whim. It was during one of those one-peso domestic seat sale and we knew that it would only take minutes before the slots were gone for good. With a swipe of a credit card, we immediately purchased tickets online for a September flight. Only problem was, we were pretty much clueless on what Palawan had to offer aside from great beaches. So me and my friend Tina came up decent itinerary as none of us wanted to waste any minute getting lost and asking for directions. The internet and the ever-reliable blog community proved to be efficient resources, and in less than a week, we were able to form a three-day itinerary which contained everything we wanted – tons of places to eat, the beach and relaxation.

So it was last September that we found ourselves on the tarmac of the Puerto Princess airport. Though it was officially the rainy season the air carried the intensity of summer. As we exited the airport, hotel personnel armed with placards scrawled with unfamiliar names waited for us across the street. I spotted a girl clad in a green uniform. She greeted us with a warm, friendly smile. As we walked towards the parking area, she started to give a description of our hotel. She said it was a one and a half hour drive to our hotel but I knew from the web advertisement that it was only minutes away from the airport. I rechecked the placard she was holding and realized I had grabbed the wrong girl! Fortunately, we found the right person to bring us to our hotel when we returned to the airport.
We got our first glimpse of Puerto Princessa as we drove a hired van with transparent ceiling panels. Unlike Manila, the streets are abundant with trees and the air amazingly fresh! It was quite rural and did not feel like a city at all. We checked in at the Lucky Garden Inn and Suites after a 5 minute ride. It was one of the cheapest and best rated places we found online, thanks to patrons. At nearly P300 a night (actually it’s more like 1,190 (net) a night but we split it between four people) the rooms came with air-conditioning, cable TV, and most importantly, showers with hot and cold water because one of our group threatened that we deal with her with no bath for three days if we opt for the cheaper rooms with plain showers. No complaints from me because barely 5 minutes into the inn lobby, I immediately liked the place. It felt like home and the staffs were friendly and professional. We had to pay first before we get to our rooms though.
A few minutes later, we began our Palawan adventure!

Through our hotel, we rented a van to take us to the Sta. Lourdes Wharf where the boats to Honda Bay are docked. Honda Bay is one of the premier destinations in Puerto Princessa. It’s an island surrounded by white sandy beaches isolated from the modern world.
We reached Sta. Lourdes wharf in 30 minutes which, gratefully, has its own information center who is responsible for finding a boat you can rent for the day. Not having to endure any haggling with the boatmen (rates are standardized by the way about 1,100 per boat) we focused on nothing more but enjoying a whole day of Island hopping. But first, since none of us had time to eat since we arrived in Palawan, we immediately headed to Snake Island, the only island which
served food according to the locals. The boat ride from the wharf to Snake Island took about 30 minutes. Water looked so inviting I couldn’t help but soak my feet in the water while the boat was running (that’s after I asked the boatmen if there were sharks in the area – luckily they said there were none this side of Palawan). Along the way to Snake Island, we saw tons of corals, some birds and other islands like Cowrie island (home of cowrie shells) and Starfish island.
When our boat finally docked at Snake Island, we ordered food from a small nipa hut store which served grilled squid and other sea food. Snake Island doesn’t really have a “restaurant” but it has some little cabanas made out of coconut trees where you can hide from the sun and eat. There’s even a rest room near the swamp made of dried leaves. We ordered squid, tuna, a bit of corned beef, rice, and softdrinks. Guess what?! Everything added up to only 426 pesos. Food wasn’t the only thing we tried on the island, though. We went out on the water and feed some fish with bread we bought back at the docks. Our guide even took us to deeper waters to see a school of fish. It was quite scary at first because when you look into the water, you won’t be able to see the ocean floor but the school of fish was so amazing you’d forget how deep the water is. Now I know how the Little Mermaid felt like. Fishes are amazing creatures. They’re so friendly. However, we were warned to stay away from the pink fishes because it’s territorial and its bite stings a bit. I actually encountered one while I was swimming away from my friends and as soon as I spotted it in the water, I swam for my dear life to avoid unpleasant bites. I should say that the pink fish that got me swimming frantically was only about 5 inches long. Geez.

One of the highlights of the Honda Bay experience is Pambato Reef where you can skin dive for corals. We had to register first before going into the water. By the way, some of the other islands except Snake Island have entrance fees ranging from 30-50 pesos. The registration area here is pretty cool. It’s a small hut floating in the middle of the ocean. Entrance is at 50 pesos. From the hut, you need to go down three steps from a wooden ladder to get into the deep, blue sea. It actually took a while before two of my friends went into the water. It was a bit freaky! We swam around the area to tour the corals. Our guide’s really good. He’s well-trained, only 16 years old but he knew most of the corals. We saw soft corals, mushroom corals and a whole lot more.

The second day found us visiting the Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site which features unbelievable rock formations inside a cave which is navigable by a boat through an underground river. Reaching the Park though is a challenge on its own starting with a 2 ½ hour van ride from hotel to Sabang wharf with a stopover at a local store to buy water, food and insect repellant; two boat rides – from Sabang wharf to the entrance of the park and another boat ride into the underground river. All this to catch the 7:30 am start of the tour.
The view on the way to the park was enough reason to take the tour. It was really amazing! Water looked even cleaner this side of Palawan! After what seemed like 15-20 minutes, we reached the entrance of the Puerto Princess Subterranean River National Park. It also showcased some other animals like monkeys and lizards roaming freely around the park. We had to walk some 3-5 minutes over wooden planks towards the river entrance which was amidst a plush, thick forest. I was quite grateful for buying a mosquito repellant because there were mosquitoes everywhere. We had to wait about 20 minutes before getting on a boat. Even if it was not a peak season, there were a lot of people waiting for their turn to tour the underground river. Our guide informed us that we were 40 in the group all in all. I took advantage of the waiting time to take pictures by the dock. Due to the rainy season, the water was very murky and brown unlike the pictures I saw from other people’s blogs where the water was blue, quite disappointing because I was hoping to see beyond the water. Finally it was our turn to board the boat; we had to wear life vests and helmets before getting in though. Our boatman’s really funny and he knew the cave well. He was able to point out every amazing rock formation like the Cathedral, face of Jesus, vegetable garden, even this mushroom with a penis. It was quite dark and cold inside. There were tons of bats too which were hanging from the stalactites but they were all asleep. I’m not a cave person, so after 5 minutes, I began to feel bored and sleepy. I did enjoy the rock formations and drinking water from a stalactite though.

After the boat ride, we headed to Taraw beach, walking distance from the Sabang wharf to eat lunch and swim. The water looked so inviting so I hurriedly ate buffet lunch which consisted of liempo, grilled fish, chicken adobo, adobong Kangkong, soup, rice and a serving of buco juice served in its shell. It was very, very, very good! I finished eating in 10 minutes then I immediately went into the water. I felt like I was in heaven! The sand was powdery soft! The water was so clear and not too salty. Unfortunately, we swam for only an hour, since we were part of the tour group and had to leave on the same time like everyone. We left the resort around 2:30 pm but we were able to do a little shopping here. A little tip: the sarong Capri pants are cheaper here by 5 pesos than in Sta. Lourdes wharf.
We decided to explore the city so we rented a tricycle for 500 pesos – that’s good enough for a whole day of touring. It rained so hard before we left so the weather was cold but comfortable. We were able to take a lot of great shots, something that is harder to do when you rent a van because they move quicker. We were able to go to Iwahig Penal Farm where I bought some trinkets. I believe the proceeds go to the funds of the prisoners. I got a statue made of Mabolo which normally sells 150 pesos everywhere else at half the price. They also sell cool key chains made out of plastic cups at 12 pcs for 100 pesos. The designs come in starfish, crocodile, seahorse, etc. I also got a dream catcher necklace embedded with real pearls at 50 pesos. We also visited the Crocodile Farm (where I got to feed a croc), Plaza Cuartel (a hide out of the Americans during World War II) and Immaculate Concepcion Church (one of the oldest churches in the country). We did the tour in about 5 hours. Our trike driver was really nice and he knew all the places, as well as historical data linked to the place. He’s actually trained by their tourism authority. It’s actually one of the things I love about Palawan – their tourism program is highly organized plus almost everyone speaks Filipino and English.
Along the way we were able to sample some local treats and experience some unforgettable dining in the city. Like the no-footwear policy and jaw-dropping delights from Ka Lui – one of the most popular restaurants in Puerto Princessa. It felt like being a visitor in an ancestral home and as soon as food is served, you feel like a little kid being offered the most delightful array of candies. There’s also the fear factor food experience at Kinabuch Bar and Grill where we sampled Tamilok, a type of worm harvested from trees. They serve it as it is plus vinegar on the side. They’re not moving anymore though. What it feels like : Chewy and super slippery. NBot all food in Palawan is exotic though, there’s Puerto Princessa’s answer to your coffee cravings: Itoy’s Coffee Haus and oine of the best foods I’ve eaten in my entire life: the pineapple rice with chicken barbeque at Balinsasayaw Grill. Ambiance is also plenty in Palawan with Badjao Seafront Restaurant – we came here particularly for its famous sunset view. This restaurant is located in an isolated part of the town near the ocean and as you eat, you can hear the waves from the shore and feel its cold breeze.
Three nights and four days is all the time we had to take in the beauty of Palawan. I know we’ve only seen a portion of the great things it had to offer but it was enough to leave a burning memory of a pleasurable vacation. By writing this, I hope to repay this town that had welcomed us like its own and convince you to visit and experience the magnificence of Palawan - the Last Frontier.

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