Puerto Princesa & The Underground River, Southern Palawan, The Philippines

Puerto Princesa Southern Palawan

There isn't a lot to Puerto Princesa. Mostly its the jump off point for Honda Bay and the Underground River. Its a cool little town though, actually its not that little, and it was a great place to start our Philippines adventure.

As per our budget we stayed at Circon Businessman's Inn. It is really affordable but very basic so you need to remember this is a budget hotel. If you wanted something a bit more upmarket, we also stayed at Empire Suites Hotel when we came back through Puerto Princesa to catch a flight out of Palawan, The Empire Suites was much more “hotel” like where as the Circon Inn is very basic but great for the price.

The Businessman's Inn is just off Rizal Ave so a bit quieter than being on the main strip and a short tricycle ride from the Baywalk (river front night eating area). Jake was on crutches so we were slightly limited to browsing for food and after a start in the wrong direction, we managed our way around pretty well.

Tricycles are affordable here: 50 pesos from the airport to downtown which is about $1.50 AUD so you can't complain about that. Around town you just ask for a price before you get in and with the exception of one rip off merchant they were all very reasonable and we didn't often have to haggle. We had a couple of fun trips to and from Baywalk that were very amusing. Noah is 6'4, I'm 6′, Jake is at least 6'2 and well Brad is a hobbit (but that's another story) but a few times we managed to squeeze all in one tricycle and peed ourselves laughing all the way home.

One night we got one back from Baywalk and they have to get up a decent hill coming out of there which loaded up with all us was a clutch burning 3 minutes. I was squeezed on the back of the motorbike and at one point could see a local couple sitting out the front of their house laughing so hard at this poor trike trying to get up the hill. The next night, same thing and lo and behold – the same couple spotted us and almost had a kitten with laughter.

The Baywalk is a great place to eat. Mostly BBQ and Sisig but great food and affordable prices. There are more mainstream restaurants along Rizal Ave but they were a bit western for us and we found ourselves heading down to Baywalk most nights.

Noah had spotted a street stall so one night we headed down there to get dinner. When we got there however it wasn't dinner it was a sweets stall. I can't for the life of me remember the name of the food but it was this purple (yes you read that right – purple) glutenous rice dish. They cooked it in bamboo steamers then squeezed it into a banana leaf, topped it with sugar and shredded coconut and that's how you ate it.

OMG – I'm not a sweets fan really but it was soooo good. Noah was disappointed as he thought it was a meat stick place, but we all loved it and it was great to chat to the ladies preparing it. The only do it for the festive season so we were lucky to catch it really. They looked so cute in their matching uniforms and were so helpful trying to explain what we were eating

We didn't spend our entire time in Puerto Princesa eating. Brad and I did an island hopping tour of Honda Bay one day and then the boys found a cinema, so we spent the last afternoon at the movies watching Star Wars. Not something I would usually have done but I must say that Jake being on crutches meant that we had to ease the boys in slowly which was actually a good thing.

The Underground River, Puerto Princesa

I had booked our trip to the Underground River from home. After some research, it was very clear that there are limited number of permits per day and you have to book early, especially at Christmas time to secure a permit. I booked our trip through Shore-2-Shore travel and we were set for a 7am pick up.

Shore-2-Shore was great, however the local company that they used had clearly forgotten us. We were told between 7am and 7:15 and when by 7:30 they hadn't arrived I called and spoke to a very confused lady at the other end. After getting nowhere one of the drag queens that lived at our hotel got on the phone and shortly thereafter, promises were made and results were delivered. They called back about 10 minutes later and said that yes the van would be there very soon. Around 8am a car arrived, who loaded us up and speeding furiously through town deposited us at the van on the edge of the city. Clearly they had forgotten us, but no harm no foul and off we went.

What Happens When You Get To The Underground River

The process for the underground river is loosely equated to herding cats!

  • Its about a 2 hour drive to the port.
  • From the beach you get a banka (local boat) to the beach
  • You walk across the beach to get to the inlet for the underground river
  • Then you get into a canoe to do the actual 45 minute river tour

Now, seeing as you have to pre-book your permit so early, I would have thought that it would be easier to give you an a proximate time window that you would be leaving the port? No that doesn't happen. When you arrive at the port your guide has to then register you. Once you are registered you go on the list for a boat. So what that means is that you get there, and then have to queue for a boat. Another two hours goes by and of course you get sick of sitting in the sun so you have to go and spend money at one of the restaurants to get a drink and stay in the shade.

Eventually your boat gets called, and this is a very confusing process because they give you a group number and a boat number but the PA is so bad that you can't really hear so everyone is crowded around trying to work out where the numbers are at so you don't miss your boat.

Our Boat Breaks Down

We get in the boat which takes about 5 minutes to start (slightly disconcerting) and off we go. Maybe three times between the pickup point and the beach where you accedd the underground river the boat conks out. Each time there is much scurrying about and the fuel line is removed, sucked out, blown out, replaced and off we go again. The fourth time – there is no starting it. We are of course now getting very close to being swept on to the rocks and for the only time in the trip from the port to the beach there is not another boat in sight. Excellent!

Do we survive?

Of course we do.

​The boys are looking very concerned about the rocks. I myself am not exactly calm but Brad of course hasn't even noticed there is rocks, he is just trying to stick his head down the hatch and see what's wrong. In the nick of time another boat arrives, ties us on and tows us to the beach. We jump out and head to the meeting point only to be told that there is now a line up for the canoes so we have to wait on the beach. Its a beautiful beach so I mention a swim however both the boys and Brad have already seen a HUGE no swimming sign. Of course – you can't swim at the beach because of all the boats coming and going so yet again: we wait.

Another 2 hours goes by and we get to make our way over to the river.

Did the crutches help?

Alas no. This was the one thing we did that the crutches didn't help. We had skipped all sorts of check-in lines, immigration lines and skipped the queue's for so many things due to Jakes crutches but sadly, they didn't help us here. I thought they might keep them at the canoe post but nope – we all got in our canoe, crutches and all and off we went.

The Boat Tour Of The Underground River

Once you get into your canoe, they rig you up with an audio tour which is great. They are very conscious about not disturbing the bats in the caves but of course there is always one idiot and a guy in the canoe behind us was talking very loudly and getting shushed by all the guides.

The river is around 8km long, however you only go in about 1500 meters. Its very impressive and while as soon as they say don't look up with your mouth open (for fear of a bat shitting in it) you immediately want to look up, we all managed to get in and out without getting crapped on. As usual in Asia they name everything so there was quite a few formations tht had names. Like the vegetable garden which has formations that look like eggplants, tomatoes carrots and broccoli. I couldn't see any of it myself they just looked like cave formations but of course you smile and nod and seem to be impressed with their ability to see food stuffs in the cave.

Don't get me wrong – the river and cave was very cool and even the trip over and back is a nice boat trip but the whole disorganization and hours and hours of waiting are very off-putting. We wanted to do the zipline on the way back but we didn't get back to the port until 4pm. The we had to eat our lunch and get back to Puerto Princesa. It was well and truly dark by the time we got home so we had spent the whole day either driving or waiting for a 45 min trip into the Underground River.

How Could They Make The Underground River Experience Better?

If they could allocate you a time slot for your boat, and manage the timing better it would be a great morning or afternoon trip but the fact that its a whole day spent waiting, makes it really hard to rave about it. Make your own decision I guess.

Would I recommend it? Yes I would. Despite the shear chaos of the day, it is definitely a must do if you are ever in the Philippines. ​There are heaps of options on Viator for the Underground River so you can browse at leisure and choose the best one for you. Of course as always I love Get Your Guide for tours and some options they have are shown below. 

Underground River Tours From Puerto Princessa


Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 101 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes.

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