The Puerto Princesa Underground River in Palawan is one of the top things to do on one of the most popular islands in the Philippines. It was voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2012 and has also been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO…
Wait, underground river? How is that possible? Yep, that’s right. In fact, the river flows directly underneath the St Paul Mountain Range, found on the mid-western coast of Palawan. The river channeled its way through a series of vast chambers and caverns over millions of years ago. Can you believe that?
Puerto Princesa Underground River - UNESCO World Heritage List
The Underground River, also known as Puerto Princesa’s Subterranean River National Park, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and voted as a New7Wonders of Nature in 2012. It also became a Ramsar Wetland Site in 2012.
The river is now believed to be the World’s second longest navigable underground river, at 8.2 kilometers. The Underground River Tour, however, only covers the first 1.5 kilometers, which takes around 40 minutes.
The Underground River Authority has tested allowing greater numbers of visitors and deeper travel, further into the river, but assessments highlighted that not only did navigation became more difficult but there was also a negative impact on the unique fauna, flora, and bat and swallow population of the caves and area.
Puerto Princesa Underground River is also one of the very few that outflows directly to the sea. The river and caves are home to a complex eco-system that has adapted to living underground here over hundreds of years. Hoe’s that? Well… Many of the animals in the caves are found only here, including certain types of giant spiders, crabs, fish, and snakes, although bats and swallows are likely to be the only ones you’ll see.
The interiors of the caves feature stalactites and stalagmites, as well as several large open cave rooms. These include the Italian’s Chamber – a 360-meter-long open chamber and one of the largest cave chambers in the world.
Besides the cave experience, you can also enjoy a 20-minute boat ride that passes the beautifully dramatic limestone karst landscapes. Once you arrive, you can go swimming and snorkeling off the pristine white-sand beaches.
Is it worth the trip?
Yes, absolutely. It’s an otherworldly experience: imagine paddling through the dark in a small boat – the boatman’s headlamp the only light guiding your way – while the soft click-click of bats, chirps of swallows, and the echoed drip, drip of water from the roof is your soundtrack. You glide through giant cavernous cathedrals, past mushroom-shaped rocks, in-between candle-like spindles of limestone, and into some of the darkest reaches of the underbelly of the cave.
Tours only take visitors up to the 4 km mark, but those wanting to apply for a special permit far enough in advance can tour all 8.2km. This far into the cave, it’s so narrow that boats can’t pass and you have to swim between the rock walls.
The entrance to the Palawan underground river looks like any other innocent beach shore. If I had happened to stumble upon this beach before it became a UNESCO site, I would have no idea that such an amazing natural wonder was hiding right behind the trees. As you approach the shore from your boat you see this magnificent view laid out in front of you.
When you get off, you’ll see monkeys jump around above your head and you have to be careful when you walk so you don’t accidentally step on one. And don’t you dare chased the monkeys inside the cave-like I did or else your tour guide and the rest of the tourist will wonder and bothered. Don’t be naughty and stubborn. Instead, walk through a short path in the forest and a spectacular sight emerges right before your unsuspecting eyes.
When you get off, you’ll see monkeys jump around above your head and you have to be careful when you walk so you don’t accidentally step on one.
And don’t you dare chased the monkeys inside the cave-like I did or else your tour guide and the rest of the tourist will wonder and bothered.
Don’t be naughty and stubborn. Instead, walk through a short path in the forest and a spectacular sight emerges right before your unsuspecting eyes.
The place is well run too with informative guides and a huge focus on conservation which is good to see since some places put that second to making a profit. The tour guides are English speaking and are very knowledgeable about the place. Exercise caution because of the local wildlife. They are fun and friendly. When he took our pictures, he always says “smell” instead of a smile… Helmets and life jackets are provided and must be worn for the duration of the tour (lasting around 45 minutes in total).
Our guide proudly told us about the history of the Underground River and how important it is to the people of Palawan. Using a torchlight to point out the different formations, we got to see the Virgin Mary, corn, and various other shapes. We glided quietly along the river but we humans were not alone. Remember to keep your mouth closed when you look up, as the cave is also home to thousands of bats that fly all around and making noises.
As we were told not to look up and open our mouths, I could only imagine how many thousands of these winged mammals were perched right above our heads the entire time. The boat ride lasted about 45 minutes and when we turned back, I couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars how fortunate I was to witness this phenomenon with my own eyes.
I’m a virgin when it comes to the natural wonders of the world and the Palawan Underground River lived up to all its expectations for my first one. This is well worth doing if you are on Palawan Island, not to be missed. We are very happy after the tour.
Update: I love our Puerto Princesa Underground River tour but after watching Descent movie Part 1 and 2, for some reason, I became nyctophobic. In the movie, shortly after they go underground, a cave monster is briefly visible before vanishing. This is the first hint that our explorers aren’t alone. The whole point of the movie is to have the cave monsters lurking in the shadows. If you love watching horror movies, you can watch Descent1 and 2 on Netflix or Stan.
Tips for Visiting the Puerto Princesa Underground River
I highly recommended Puerto Princesa Underground River which exceeds 20 million years of age.
It takes three trips from Puerto Princesa to the Underground River. From our hotel in Puerto Princesa, we went first to Sabang. Second a boat trip from Sabang docks to the bay where the river lies. Then a short walk to the river entrance.
An Entrance Permit restrictions therefore apply, to keep any impact, by visitors to the cave, to a minimum. This mostly takes the form of maximum visitor numbers each day but visitors are also only allowed one visit a month. Since we went with a tour company, they arranged our permit for us beforehand. Book the tour a week or two early if possible to give the tour company time.
If you go on your own, you’ll have to arrange the permit on your own in Puerto Princesa
Wear shorts and flip flops, you’ll be getting into the water a couple of times
You can bring a DSLR camera but put it in a plastic bag or waterproof backpack. You can use it during the boat ride and you definitely want to take lots of photos!
As I said earlier, the Underground River Tour itself is only 40 minutes, but there is some waiting around and you will be away from Puerto Princesa for a whole day; the journey from the City to Sabang takes around 2 hours, the scheduling of your visit is undertaken on arrival by your tour guide, and you may take lunch before boarding a boat to take you to the entrance site. From there you will again await your turn to board the wooden kayaks that will be your viewing platform as you’re paddled down the River.
How to get to Puerto Princesa Underground River
We went to the tour company and they the ones who arrange everything for us. But if you want to do the DIY travel to Puerto Princesa Underground, here’s our guide for you.
Jeepney or Bus
From your hotel in the city, go to the San Jose Terminal. It is located in the San Jose New Market, which is less than five minutes away from Robinson’s Mall. A tricycle ride, which costs ₱80 ($1.80), is convenient when you’re traveling with a group. Another option is to ride a cab, which costs P12 (¢0.25)per person.
From the Terminal, you’ll find jeepneys and ordinary buses that leave for Sabang Port at 7 am, 9 am, 12nn, and 2 pm. Travel time ranges from two hours and 15 minutes to three hours, which includes several stops along the way.
Also note that, despite their scheduled departure time, jeep and buses don’t leave until all their seats are filled. Advanced booking is not available, but if you’re traveling on a budget, this is the cheapest option. The fare is ₱100 ($2) for Palawan locals, ₱120 ($2.50) for local tourists, and ₱200 ($4.50) for foreigners.
If you highly value your personal space, you may not appreciate the crowded conditions of these vehicles. The dispatchers will try to squeeze in as many people as they can inside the car.
Even if the jeep can only accommodate 15 people, they’ll be getting up to 20 people. And more often than not, bins of fresh fish and seafood will be joining you on your trip. There’s a good chance that you’ll end up smelling like fish or shrimp by the time the trip is over.
There are also a lot of shuttle van services from Puerto Princesa to Sabang. If you opt for this, you can get to Sabang within two hours or just an hour and 45 minutes.
Tickets are priced at ₱150 ($4) for local tourists and ₱200 ($5.50) for foreigners. You can also get in touch with the Lexus Shuttle services FB page. Shuttle vans have three trips to Sabang in the morning, and three trips in the afternoon, starting from 7:30 am and up to 5 pm.
A caveat: the van drivers love going really fast. If you suffer from motion sickness, it would be a good idea to take Bonamine before the trip and bring a plastic bag, just in case.
A taxi is the most comfortable of all available modes of transport to Sabang. It also allows you to travel at your own pace, which means you can stop at roadside stalls selling seasonal produce or at scenic spots where you can take selfies or photos of the stunning landscape.
The only drawback: taxi rides are quite expensive, with the one-way fare from Puerto Princesa reaching ₱1,500 ($32).