Palawan has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Philippines. While most backpackers are naturally drawn towards the scenic islets and majestic lime stone rocks of El Nido, going to Puerto Princesa in the south has a few advantages: It is cheaper, both in terms of flights from Manila and in terms of accomodation, and it offers some unique sights that one should not miss when visiting Palawan.
Puerto Princesa Subterrean River
Puerto Princesa proper has not much to offer except a lot of restaurants, bars and night clubs. However there is one attraction well worth visiting: the Puerto Princesa Subterrean River, an underground river roughly 2 hours away from the city. Geographically, Sabang, home to the Subterrean River, is situated midway between Puerto Princesa and Port Barton. However, because of the layout of the roads, one has to come back to Princesa to be able to drive to Sabang.
To get to the river, you have to book a tour at the Sabang Visitor Centre. There you have to pay an environmental fee plus the costs of the boat. Even if you are alone, the staff of the visitor centre are very helpful and can arrange group tours to split the costs. All in all, a tour of the Subterrean River should cost no more than 1000 Pesos (19 USD).
The boat takes you to the mound of the river, where you have to go the rest of the way on foot. There one receives a life vest and a helmet plus an audio guide.
Once at the entrance of the actual underground river you hop on a rowing boat and begin your journey into the darkness. The river flows through a cave that was formed millions of years ago. The cave, known for its sheer size and its varied rock formations, is unique in the world. 1999 it was acknowledged as a World´s Natural Heritage by UNESCO. One can easily sense why. Once you are in the cave you enter a totally different world: a stone cathedral of majestic size, home to enormous stalactites and thousands of bats (because of that you should keep your mouth closed when you look up in the cave).
At one point during the tour the captain will switch off his flashlight, and you will be surrounded by total darkness. However, most of the time, the guide will use his flashlight to point out a variety of iconic rock formations, e.g. the head of a T-Rex, a female looking structure dubbed Sharon Stone, or a series of rocks looking like vegetables. You don´t need a lot of imagination to spot the formations and the variety is impressive. All in all, I can whole-heartedly recommend a tour through the cave since it is unique in the world and truly breath-taking.
Honda Bay Island Hopping
If you are in Puerto Princesa for more than one day, you should also consider an Island Hopping Tour at Honda Bay. If you are not familiar with the concept, this is how it works: You rent a boat for a day and arrange for the captain to go to a number of small islands for a fixed price. There you spend as much time as you want, before you signal the captain to head to the next islet.
To get from Puerto Princesa to Honda Bay you best ignore the taxi offers and take a Jeepney, which takes about 30 minutes. At Honda Bay you pay a fixed price for your boat, depending on the islands you want to go to. To reduce costs, it is good to be in a large group or to join one, which the tour guides are more than happy to help you with. The price for 4 islets is 1000 Pesos (19 USD).
The first island on my tour was Cowrie Island, just a few minutes from Honda Bay. Cowrie is privately owned, like most islets in the area. If you are not staying at the island resorts, you have to pay a visitor fee of 50-100 Pesos (1-2 Dollars). Cowrie Island is most known for its fine white sand and the clean beach. You can swim here and eat the restaurant. Otherwise there is not much to see, and it is not a Snorkeling spot, so I would not recommend spending more than 1 hour here.
The second stop was Starfish Island. The island got its name due to the many Starfishs that can supposedly be seen here (however I did not spot a single one). It is a Snorkeling spot, but not a great one because the marine life here is rather dull and not impressive compared to the many corral reefs in Palawan.
The next island was technically not an island, but a man-made platform in the ocean. Here you can see huge swarms of sardines and snorkel at an extensive corral reef. The corrals might not be as colorful as in places like Moalboal or North Pandan, but the fish here are pretty big and impressive. An absolute highlight of the Island Hopping Tour.
The last island – Luli Island – is remarkable because of its C-shape. It consists of a circular sandbank which is only visible at low tide, and a mangrove forest. It is also a Snorkeling spot where some impressive schools of fish can be spotted in the shallows.
All in all, Island Hopping at Honda Bay was worth it – even so if you consider that you can get at tour for as cheap as 450 Pesos (8,5 USD) per person. The islands all have fine white sand, crystal clear water and nice vegetation, even though they are not as impressive as the limestone islets of El Nido or Krabi, Thailand. However, if you are looking for some island fun for a reasonable price, Honda Bay is THE place to go in the Philippines.
On average, expect to pay 1600 Pesos (30 USD) on an Island Hopping day:
Island Hopping: 450