When visiting Palawan, a western island in the Philippines, there are a few things that come up as must-do’s. One of them is visiting the Puerto Princesa Underground River, a 24 kilometer long cave, named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The Puerto Princesa Underground River is situated in a protected area and is only accessible by a 20 minute boat ride from the nearby village, Sabang, or by hiking 3.75 km along the Jungle Trail. Once you arrive at the cave mouth, you can take a 45 min boat ride along the river inside for 1.5 km. If you want to go deeper inside the cave, you can also arrange a permit for a boat to take you. As we didn’t inquire about that option, we can’t give any recommendations.
Costs for a Self Organized Trip
- Entry to the cave and fee for the boat ride inside the cave: 900 pesos pp
- Fee for the boat ride to & from the Underground River OR for the hike to & from via the Jungle trail: 200 pesos pp
Getting to Puerto Princesa Underground River
You can either stay in the small but nice village, Sabang, which is the closest town to Puerto Princesa Underground river, or get there from Puerto Princesa on a daytrip. If you’re staying in Puerto Princesa, you’ll either need to go on an organized tour from the city, or to obtain a permit for the cave if you want to arrange the visit by yourself. If you’re staying in Sabang you can visit by walking to the nearby office and paying your 900 peso fee. From Puerto Princesa you can get to Sabang by local jeepney (2.5 hrs) or by minbus (1.5 hrs). While the village itself isn’t too special, the location and surrounding scenery are beautiful. The white sand beach is lined with palm trees and it isn’t uncommon to have the beach to yourself. Most of the accommodation in Sabang is pretty basic (bamboo buildings with thatched roofs), but there are two fancier resorts at the beach if you’re willing to spend more.
The Jungle Trail
At the right side of the harbor (looking toward the ocean) you can find a stall with a sign calling out the Jungle Trail. Here you’ll pay your 200 pesos per person and a guide will walk you along the trail for an hour. The first 20 minutes of the hike follow a sandy path along the beach past hotels and guesthouses, before turning right and entering a private property. We had to pay 10 pesos each and then continued another five minutes to the official start of the Jungle Trail.
The trail is small but always well marked and would have been easily doable without a guide (one is required though). First the path leads along a river with mangrove forest and then continues deeper into the jungle. We passed giant trees with impressive roots and a few small caves. We had a quick look into one of the caves and our guide pointed out some old monitor lizard eggs high up on the wall.
For the first half hour the trail is mostly flat, and then has a 15 minute uphill stretch. Once we had made it up the hill, we found ourselves on top of a karst mountain. Here the jungle path turned into a wooden boardwalk with stairs across and down the spiky rocks. Most of the karst rock was overgrown by trees and plants and there were some deep holes that the boardwalk led us past. After about 10 minutes we arrived at the end of the stairs at the bottom of the karst rocks, and only a few minutes later to Puerto Princesa Underground River. The walk is easy enough for just about anyone and is a scenic way to get to the cave.
Puerto Princesa Underground River
Unless you arrive at the Puerto Princesa Underground River the very first thing in the morning (which might be tough if you walk via the Jungle Trail), expect there to be large crowds of people depending on the time of year. We visited the cave on a weekend, which meant more visitors than on weekdays. We were led to the riverbed at the opposite site of the cave entrance by our guide and then had to wait for 15 minutes until we were able to fit in a boat. Small boats that fit ten people ferry people in and out of the Underground River constantly, while other groups wait for their turn. The group running the tours seems to take safety very seriously, and provides everyone with life vests and a bright orange helmet. While things seem very safe, unfortunately there wasn’t a feeling of adventure that we had hoped for and encountered in other caves in Asia. Everybody was given an audio guide, which was very informative, but not expected on a caving trip.
There is no artificial light installed in the cave, so the only source of light is the boat guide’s strong headlamp and the lights of oncoming boats. The boat is paddled by a guide, so we were floating along slowly while the audio guide explained the origins of the cave and the special ecosystem. Over our heads there were almost constantly bats or birds flying around throughout the ride. The audio guide was interesting until it came to a long portion where it simply explained what different rocks could look like with some imagination. The boat driver didn’t hesitate to point out all the formations as the audio guide went along. At one point we passed a portion of the cave where the roof was 60 meters high, which made us feel pretty tiny in comparison. After 1.5 kms and abo0ut 20 minutes, the boat was turned around and we were paddled back out the same way. While the trip was interesting, it felt a bit bland as there isn’t a way to explore on your own.
We walked back to Sabang on the Jungle Trail, but it is also possible to take a boat for an additional 200 pesos per person. Just before heading down the path, we saw a few brown macaque monkeys running around and a couple of huge monitor lizards next to a small building. Both species are regularly in the area, and the monitors were the largest we’ve seen, excluding the related Komodo dragons.
If you’ve visited the likes of Phong Nha Cave in Vietnam or Konglor Cave in Laos, you may end up slightly disappointed by the Puerto Princesa Underground River. While the supplied audio guide was well done and taught us a bit about the cave, it also made the experience less adventurous. Everything at Puerto Princesa Underground River was very much catered to mass tourism, which can take away from the sense of adventure. The cave itself, the setting, and the thousands of bats inside were very beautiful though. Getting there via the Jungle Trail made our trip to the Underground River a lot more interesting, especially walking on the boardwalk over the karst mountains and exploring the small caves. If you haven’t had the chance to see a river cave anywhere else yet, then definitely give the Puerto Princesa Underground Cave a visit since it’s very impressive in its own right.