Puerto Princesa Underground River, Karst Formation: Nature's Wonder

Palawan's extraordinary underground river system and panaromic karsts on the surface gets the thumbs up from geotourism seekers, and writer Henrylito D. Tacio.

Shapes of sorts await travellers as they enter Puerto Princesa subterranean river, which flows over 8km long

Davao City, 20 Nov 2011. “One of the top natural attractions in the Philippines .”  “An excellent scenic spot to visit.” “A spectacular limestone karst landscape with its underground river.”  These are just some of the descriptions used to describe the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) located in Palawan.

Actually, the amazing subterranean waterway is part of the larger Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park , which was established in March 26, 1971.  The National Committee on Geological Sciences declared the place as a National Geological Monument on December 11, 2003.  Earlier, on December 4, 1999, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated it a World Heritage Site. 

“The focus of the area is a spectacular karst landscape which features both surface karst features, as well as an extensive underground river system,” said UNESCO in a statement. “A distinguishing feature of the river is the fact that it emerges directly into the sea, and that the lower portion of the river is brackish and subject to tidal influences.”

Until the discovery of an underground river in Mexico ’s Yucatan Peninsula in 2007, the  8.2km Puerto Princesa Subterranean River was reputed to be the world’s longest underground river.

Underground river of Puerto Princesa rises up to 100m altitude high, then flows out into the South China Sea

The underground river arises approximately 2km south-west of Mount Saint Paul at an altitude of 100m.  “The subterranean river is the park’s main calling card, and it passes through a mystical limestone cave before emptying into the South China Sea,” UNESCO said.

No one knew who discovered the underground river first.  However, it is believed that the islands' early inhabitants were the first to know of its existence, but their fear of spirits that they believe inhabit the caves prevented them from exploring the cave.

The earliest recorded mention of the underground river was done Dean C. Worcester, Assistant Professor of Zoology at the University of Michigan who later became the Secretary of Interior.  In 1887, he wrote while touring the island of Palawan he heard of some accounts telling him “of a lake opening to the sea by a Subterranean River.”

I had the opportunity of seeing this spectacular underground river up close some twenty years ago as part of the prize that I won in a media contest sponsored by then Senator Heherson Alvarez.  Recently, I returned together with some of the members of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists.

Rules exist to conserve the wonders of nature

The underground river is about 50km north of the city center of Puerto Princesa.  But be warned: you will need to spend about two hours of bumpy and whirlwind ride to get to Sitio Sabang, the starting point. 

From Sitio Sabang, you have to ride a boat that can accommodate from six to twelve persons.  All visitors are requested to wear a life jacket as the boat ride is sometimes tumultuous if not breathtaking.  The boat ride is about 15 to 20 minutes.

Once you get to the park entrance, you have to wait for about 30 minutes before you can get inside the cave.  Our boat guide, Ricardo Mancera, said only half of the 8.2 kilometer-long river is navigable but they ferry visitors only a kilometer and a half into the cave.  The boat ride takes about 45 minutes to one hour.  Entrance fee is 200 pesos for foreigners and 150 pesos for locals.  Kids and senior citizens get a discount.

Be sure to listen to your bangkero as he explained those beautiful images of stalactites and stalagmites.  In the massive cavern called the Cathedral, you get to see an image of Virgin Mary and the Holy Family.   There are several other images: corn, mushroom, carrot, jellyfish, umbrella, man’s head, and part of dinosaurs and ship.  A battery-operated lamp beams on these various formations.

When admiring the limestone cave and different formations, keep your mouth close when looking up. The cave is home to bats and swiftlets, in which case guano often falls from the upper reaches.  “Always wear your safety helmet because you’ll never know if it’s water or the pee of the bat that hits you,” Mancera reminds.

Imaginations run amok at stalagmite and stalactite formations

According to Mancera, we were the 11th group he guided that day.  “On a busy day, we have about 800 visitors who come to this place,” he says.  “Even on lean days, we still have some 600 visitors.”

Cruising down a beautiful underground river is just one of the things you can do while in the 22,202 ha national park.  The Park has a range of forest formations representing eight of the thirteen forest types found in tropical Asia .  So far, researchers have identified more than 800 plant species from 300 genera and 100 families.  Among the common trees are dao, ipil, dita, amugis, and apitong. Other notable plant species include almaciga and kamagong.

Birds comprise the largest group of vertebrates found in the park. Of the 252 bird species known to occur in Palawan , a total of 165 species of birds were recorded in the park. Notable species are the blue-naped parrot, hill myna, Palawan hornbill, and white breasted sea eagle.  The Palawan peacock pheasant has also been recorded in the site (recognized as an internationally threatened species).

There are also some 30 mammal species that have been recorded. Most often observed in the forest canopy and along the shoreline feeding during low tide is the long-tailed macaque, the only primate found in the area. Other mammal species are the bearded pig, bearcat, Palawan stink badger, and the Palawan porcupine.

Macaques and wildlife thrive in Puerto Princesa natural habitats

Notable are the nine species of bats, two species of swiftlets and whip spider found in the cave, and the sea cow (Dugong) and the hawksbill sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) that feed in the coastal area of the park.

It was almost dark when we left the underground river.  There was also a storm coming and everyone was silent as we traversed the sea.   We talked again once we got back at the wharf.  Some of us were already wet as it was raining hard. 

It was good that the place where we were staying at – the Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort – was just a walking distance away.  “Our location is perfect because we are able to support the accommodation requirements of guests going to the underground river,” says chairman and CEO Ruben “Butch” F. Tan, Jr.

We agreed.