The DIY guide to visiting the Puerto Princesa Underground River
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (also known as the Puerto Princesa Underground River or PPUR), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the highlights of the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
Having been chosen as one of the New7Wonders of Nature, the underground river emerges directly into the sea and is a popular excursion for foreigners and Filipinos alike who flock to Sabang to visit the complex cave system.
The national park features spectacular karst landscapes, beautiful forests and diverse wildlife.
Most tourists stay in Puerto Princesa and opt to visit the PPUR on a group tour.
The underground river is actually located in Sabang which is about 80 km away from Puerto Princesa. Prices for a standard day trip from Puerto Princesa to the PPUR, offered by several companies in Puerto Princesa were about 2200 PHP (Philippine Peso) when we checked (March 2017) which we thought was very expensive considering that you only get to spend about 45 minutes inside the cave.
It is however very possible to do the whole thing alone rather than going with a group tour through an agency.
Here’s a step by step guide on going on a DIY trip to the Puerto Princesa Underground River.
1. Get your permit at the Puerto Princesa Underground River office at the City Coliseum in Puerto Princesa
Check the opening hours of the office to ensure that they will be open during your visit. A trike ride from our hostel to the office cost us 50 PHP. We were the only people at the office on a Saturday morning and the permit for our trip to the Puerto Princesa Underground River the following Monday was issued immediately.
No payment is made at this point but an estimate of the total price is given. The permit can also be issued at the Puerto Princesa Underground River office in Sabang but we preferred to get it beforehand just to be sure of securing a place. If you’re on a backpacker budget, we really recommend staying at Balai Esperanza in Puerto Princesa.
2. Get to Sabang
In order to go to the Puerto Princesa Underground River, you first need to get to Sabang. We decided to stay in Sabang for a couple of days, but you don’t have to do this even though we totally recommend it! Buses and minivans depart to Sabang from the San Jose bus terminal in Puerto Princesa.
We read that buses should leave at 7am, 9am and 12am but we got on a relatively full bus at 9.30am which left at 11am. There were no vans to Sabang in sight. So we really do advise you to go to the terminal as early as possible to check out the day’s schedule which seems to be “flexible”.
The bus ride took about 3 hours. Many people on the bus seemed to be carrying the entire contents of their house including lots of live chickens. We were the only foreigners on the local bus which also seems to double up as a transport vehicle.
Different shops passed on goods to the bus driver which were strapped to the rooftop thus resulting in a very large pyramid of goods such as aluminium rolls, metal poles etc. These were dropped off to different people along the route to Sabang. The cost of the bus ride was 125 PHP each.
3. Go to the Puerto Princesa Underground River tourist office in Sabang on the day of your trip
It is best to get there as early as possible in order to avoid the large hordes of tourists from the group tours. We were there at 8am after having had a breakfast is crepes and sandwiches at a nearby shack. The people in the office will charge you the Puerto Princesa Underground River entrance fee (500 PHP), the environmental fee (150 PHP) and an audio guide (85 PHP).
You then need to go to the jetty right in front of the office where you will be asked whether you would like to share a boat or to book your own personal boat. The cost of going on the tour on a shared boat (6 people in total) is 187 PHP each. You should not have to wait for too long to make up the number of people for the boat to fill up and leave.
4. Get to the Puerto Princesa Underground River
The motorised boat will take you to a beach where you need to get off and walk to an area where you are given the audio device and shown to a bangka which is what will be used for the tour. The guy rowing the bangka also doubles up as your guide.
5. Tour the cave system
The bangka will take you inside the cave; the audio guide is very helpful in explaining the history and importance of the cave system and river as well as describing various rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites.
Many of the formations have been compared to religious scenes or vegetables both of which seem to be very important to Filipinos! It is important to observe silence during the tour so as not to disturb the natural environment.
Conservation of the ecosystem of the underground river seems to be given a lot of importance during the tour which we appreciated greatly. The tour only takes you along the first 4 km of the cave and is about 45 minutes long.
6. Make your way back
Your boatman will be waiting for you at the beach to take you back to the jetty in Sabang.
We have been to more beautiful caves than this one and we do feel that the price is rather high for such a short tour. Having said that, it is apparent that the cave and river’s importance do not lie solely in the aesthetics of the cave system and perhaps we could not appreciate its actual wonders fully. The total tour from and back to the jetty took about 1.5 hours.
The DIY trip cost us 922 PHP each excluding transport to Sabang. The bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang cost 125 PHP each so a DIY trip from Puerto Princesa to Sabang and back would cost less than half the price quoted by agencies for group tours. The agency price also includes lunch and possibly some include other attractions such as zip-lining and jungle walk which we were not interested in doing this time round.
With careful planning, it is possible to go to Sabang, do the tour and go back to Puerto Princesa on the same day but we preferred to stay in Sabang.
- Wear flip-flops or other shoes which you do not mind wetting on the tour. You will need to get into knee deep water to get out of the motorised boat.
- Do not wear long garments for the same reason as above.
- You will be given a helmet on the tour. Be sure to keep it on, and do not open your mouth if looking up. The cave is full of bats which have no problems showering you with their poo.
- Bring a waterproof camera.
- We really recommend staying in Sabang for a couple of days, there is more to the village than just the Puerto Princesa Underground River, the area is packed with caves, beautiful beaches and jungle trails all of which can be visited. More on that coming up soon