Mouth of the Underground River Opens into Turquoise Lagoon
Beaches, boats, bats and caves – for an experience like no other, put the Puerto Princesa Underground River on your bucket list. The Underground River, as it is also known, or shortened even more to PPUR, was recently officially named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Where else can you combine tropical white sand and waves, outriggers and canoes, stalagmites and stalactites, monkeys and monitor lizards all in one experience? Oh, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, besides!
The Underground River is located in the Philippines, on the island of Palawan. If you look at a map of the Philippines, Palawan is the long skinny island off by itself at the westernmost part. Palawan is known as the Last Frontier of the Philippines, as it is one of the least developed islands, with the most virgin forest still intact.
Our family is proud to call Palawan our adopted home. We first moved here about 30 years ago, in the early ’80s, so have seen the island grow and change. We really love Palawan. And we like to make sure our visitors fit in a trip to the Underground River when they come.
I personally think the entrance to the Underground River is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. And getting there is half the fun. Once you are in the Philippines, Puerto Princesa, Palawan is a quick one-hour flight from Manila. Then from Puerto Princesa, you take a van or jeep up to Sabang, two hours north. You will be fascinated by the bamboo huts, quaint villages, huge tropical trees and virgin forest along the way. At Sabang, you hire one of the Underground River boats to take you 20 minutes up the coast. This is a spectacular ride on a motorized outrigger. The west coast of Palawan is absolutely gorgeous.
The boat will beach at a perfect little beach. From there it is a short hike through the wood to the mouth of the Underground River. Along the way, be entertained by the families of monkeys living in the trees overhead. Our native monkeys are called Philippine long-tailed macaques, also known as crab-eating macaques. And watch for the monitor lizards – a huge Palawan native lizard.
Beach on South China Sea - Mouth of the Underground River
Monkey and Monitor Lizard, Side by Side
Philippine Long-tailed Macaque
Now it is time to put on your hard hat, and enter the guided canoe for the trip into the side of the mountain. The canoe is paddled by hand. Whoever sits in front gets lantern duty. They will be in charge of shining a high-powered flashlight to illumine the sights inside the darkness of the cave.
Suited Up for the Adventure!
The cave is home to two colonies of flying creatures – bats and swiftlet birds. The swiftlet has narrow wings for fast flight, and the ability to catch insects in flight. The swiftlets in the Underground River are quite unique among bird species because they use a simple but effective form of echolocation to navigate in total darkness through the chasms and shafts of the caves where they roost at night and breed.
As you navigate into the Underground River, you will hear the swiftlets’ clicks or calls echoing overhead, as they hunt for insects. Don’t be surprised if one wings by and actually bounces off your helmet! Happily, the bats stay up in the roof of the cave during the day, and only venture out at dusk.
The stalagmites and stalactites have whimsical names, such as the Mushrooms, Skull, Bacon, Holy Family.
The Puerto Princesa Underground River is the second longest underground river in the world. Named Cabayugan River, it starts back in St. Paul Mountain approximately 5 miles (8.2 kilometers) inland, and is navigable for almost 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of that distance, before it dumps out into the South China Sea. The geology of the area, limestone karst, is responsible. Over eons, water has eaten away at the soft limestone and created this river as well as the craggy formations all up and down the western coast of Palawan.
In 1999 the area was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the basis of its “important and significant natural habitats for conservation of biological diversity,” and for its “exceptional natural beauty.” The area contains the complete spectrum of a mountain-to-sea ecosystem, including rainforest. It is home to many protected species of birds and plants. Now in 2012, being named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature is added to that honor.
This sanctuary is protected by the local government because of its rich biodiversity. Capacity of the Underground River is limited to 780 persons per day, so it is advised to plan ahead when visiting Palawan.
After your tour of the Underground River, be sure to allow some time to relax at Sabang Beach.
And when you return to Puerto Princesa, more fun awaits. Puerto, as the locals call their city, is full of inexpensive restaurants of amazing variety and fun places to shop for wood carvings, sarongs and pearls. This article, Three Days in Puerto Princesa, will get you started.
For an explanation of the geology of limestone karst, and how underground rivers and caves form, see this article.