The City in a Forest
18.12.2008 - 23.12.2008 30 °C
Our flight from Calapan (near Boracay) was earlier than planned, and the connecting flight from Manila on to Palawan was delayed, so our day was long and we arrived at the small airport after dark. The hostel we had planned to stay in was full, so after an hour of checking other options in the area, we settled on a small guesthouse called Moana. We had a fan, hot water, a working toilet, and a very sketchy wifi connection - things were looking up. We hadn't yet decided what we would do once we arrived in Palawan as our plans had included a romaticised vision of three weeks travelling around the mostly rainforest covered island, said to be one of the least spoiled by tourism and home to some amazing beaches. However, once we got there and discovered the realities of the road conditions (due to the recent bad weather), the time required to traverse the largely unpaved road network, and the cost of travelling around the island, we decided to head for Port Barton on the west coast, as it had a reputation of being a backpacker hangout - if we liked it, we could stay there for a couple of weeks over Christmas, and if not, we would make the effort to travel the long journey up to El Nido at the north of the island.
Puerto Princesa is one of the largest cities (by area) in The Philippines, but the city limits contain an enormous amount of greenery and rainforest. The residents of the island are very proud of their landscape and committment to the environment. There is a definite young vibe to the place, and a stroll at night takes you past bars and food stalls and people just hanging out. It is undoubtedly very friendly, but there were constant reminders everywhere that we were in a country where gun culture is rife. We were surprised that even in this sleepy little enclave the security guards outside the banks carried shotguns and outside clothes shops and burger restaurants they carry at least a handgun. Despite this there's still a really nice feel to it; rather than feeling like a city it felt more like a very large village, so we extended our stay at the hotel and booked a couple of day trips.
The traffic on the main road - mostly tuktuks
Ligaya had told us about the Underground River on Palawan, and we were keen to see it. It would have been quite hard to visit it on our own without staying overnight in Sabang, the nearest beach, and as it would have been more expensive to travel on to Port Barton from there, we chose to visit it through a scheduled tour from Topstar, where we also booked an island hopping trip for the day after. The tour was a wise move as it turns out. There was a small bus with a family of Australians of Filipino descent, and a lady on holiday from Manila. The tour guide told us loads of really interesting facts about The Philippines, Palawan and the local wildlife as we sped along the bumpy, rocky roads. From the bus we boarded a banca boat, which took us to an even smaller beach. From there we boarded a small paddle canoe wearing very attractive lifevests.
Monkeys were just milling about as we waited to go into the caves
The Underground river is over 8km long, although only 2km is accessable to tourists, and only by using the guided-tour boats . There are other smaller branches off the main river, most of them largely un-investigated. The river has been entered into a competition to find the new 7 natural wonders of the world, and we were proudly told many times that it is currently holding first place. The boatman reeled off his patter, and as much as we knew that he repeated it time and time again, it still made us smile and chuckle. The inside was huge, with formations reaching up and down all around us. We could hear the squeaking of bats and swallows in the darkness and although there were other boats, it was very dark and there was an eery stillness to the place. A few of the formations have been named, and unsurprisingly they take on religious forms, for instance Mother Mary and the face of Jesus.
The face of Jesus in the cave
We found it amusing that the stalagtite that supposedly looked like a naked woman, was named Sharon Stone, indicating that the patter was written some time ago. There were little tiny bats on the walls, which was pretty cute, and swallows flying around in the dark using their chirps as a method of echo location. We had some lunch on Sabang Beach and headed back to the city.
Entrance to the cave
Our view at lunch, on Sabang Beach
The next day and another early start, we boarded a larger bus and headed to Hunda Bay for some island hopping. We met an English couple called Simon and Jill who live in Bangkok, and it was nice to chat to them as they're experienced travellers in South-East Asia and a wealth of information. There are several islands dotted around Puerto Princesa which you can visit but not stay on. We visited a few islands including Snake Island and Starfish Island. We had fun snorkelling and saw lots of really nice fish, but as we're a little inexperienced we didn't fully appreciate the negative effect this type of tour group was having on the local environment. Simon and Jill are seasoned divers, and they told us that in all other places you are asked not to feed the fish and to not stand on the coral. Here we were told that feeding bread to the fish would encourage them over, and no warnings were given about damaging the coral. We were really pleased that at least someone advised us of these issues so we could avoid adding to the problems. It didn't ruin the trip in any way, because the scenery was so beautiful and everything was really quiet. We're pleased that we did these tours, we weren't asked for any extra money and it would have been really hard to try and get there under our own steam. Simon and Jill told us that in most of the other countries we're going to it will be much easier to do this type of thing without paying for a tour. Also, they had previously been to Beijing and agreed that it was one of the most difficult places they had been to, so we felt reassured that we would find it easier on the rest of our travels.
The beautiful scenery at Honda Bay
We had been informed that the electricity supply in Port Barton is only available for a few hours each day, so the next day we visited the local mall to stock up on candles (and mozzie coils), and spent the day chilling out in the city. The next leg of the journey filled us with mild apprehension. We were told by several people that the road to Port Barton was terrible and the only way to get there was to take a bus to San Vicente and charter a boat from there. It was an early start, we took a tricycle to the bus station and found some very friendly people who spoke excellent English and work in a fairly upmarket resort in El Nido. They kept telling us about some shooting that happened at their resort, but wierdly appeared quite pleased about it. They seemed to be telling us that someone from the UK had been shot there. We were responding with 'what a shame' and ' that's terrible', when it dawned on us that they were talking about a film that was being 'shot' there.
Apparently this guy was a little cold - it was well over 30 degrees!
After waiting a couple of hours for the FX van to arrive, we loaded our bags and ourselves and settled down. We've travelled in FXs before, they're reminiscent of the school sports minivan, but the difference being they load up as many people as humanly possible. When we looked outside and saw around 15 people standing expectantly, watching their stuff being loaded onto the roof, it occured to us that they were going to get on, adding to the 5 people already sitting on board - they are designed to take 12. The idea of sitting in a tiny overloaded van for several hours was not appealing, so Brads checked out the main big bus and it definitely seemed the better option. After extracting outselves from the van, we loaded on to another, even cheaper bus where we were allocated a double seat, and our stuff piled on top of several sacks of vegetables, where the backseat would usually be. We had another couple of hours wait as the driver still appeared to be fixing something (his technique seemed to consist of randomly banging the underside with a spanner) but as we watched the FX being crammed with more people and goods, we knew we'd made the right decision.
Anna on the bus
Not very reassuring
The bus journey was long, and a little uncomfortable, but it wasn't too bad. They stopped a few times to let someone off or on, but it was mostly the people sitting on the roof, so it only took a couple of seconds. There was no glass in the windows, so there was a nice breeze but it got quite dusty at times. We arrived in San Vicente in the dark, which was really not ideal. We were a bit worried we wouldn't find a boat at that time of night, but it wasn't a problem. The bus driver tried to charge us twice the agreed fare, but we confidently laughed and just handed over what we'd agreed before setting off. This was the type of thing that worried us the most before we set off on our trip, but we actually dealt with it really well and it's certainly not as scary as it seemed. The boat ride was a little scary at times but defintely cool, especially as we saw glowing flying fish! As the water contains bioluminescent plankton, when something moves in the water it lights up quite a bit. We saw a few flying fish, going at great speed in and out of the water, speeding along. At one point one hit the boat, bounced off and angryly swam away. We were a bit relieved when we reached dry land, and were soon checking into Greenviews, our accommodation for the Christmas period.
The sunset on the bus
At the Underground River