Lovestruck in Palawan: Smitten by Puerto Princesa

In today's Travel Tuesday, guest writer Joan Katrina Cruz shares her first encounter with the beautiful islands of Palawan.

I have a theory that the most beautiful things in life are beyond the reach of words. I can rave on and on about how soft the sand felt against my toes, how the sun lingers across my skin, how the sea calms me or awes me while watching the tumbling waves roll towards the shore, but it may not even come close to the real thing.

Palawan has always been my dream getaway since I started to earn my own money. The Final Frontier of the Philippines they called it, all I could ever do was hallucinate about flying there because of the sheer impossibility of the idea of a “getaway” based on my salary as a nurse. So when the heavens smiled upon my career and blessed me with a job in London, I promised myself that should I come back for a vacation, Palawan would definitely be a major destination.

After booking the tickets and accommodation, there I sat in my London flat, wide-eyed and smiling, in my mind tickling my checklist and savoring the feeling of a dream come true. It was even more surreal when finally the plane descended upon my homeland and I got my first glimpse of Palawan: clouds unraveling the view of tall mountains with lush stretches of green, bordered by the ocean quietly complementing the trees nearby with its unbelievable shade of teal. I inhaled with my eyes closed and waited.

I had everything booked for the six-day trip: from the flights, transfers, accommodation and tours, and thanks to Pal Eco Tours, I had a hassle-free itinerary in the islands. I am a fussy customer but they were the most patient human beings and worked with my requests from the pick-up times to the seating arrangements in the van. For people who prefer spontaneity, it is also quite easy to find travel packages upon arrival as we were swarmed with offers two steps away from the airport.

Puerto Princesa

Pool at the Royal Oberoi Resort
The main means of transportation in Puerto Princesa is the trusty, convenient tricycle, which is also a great way to mingle with the locals. According to Kuya Jhun, you can also opt for the jeepney in going around the city and there is an emerging population of taxis but I only saw one and it was empty. He was a proud local and started to point the places where we should definitely eat and do sightseeing—all the while driving us to our hotel. The people are helpful, friendly, and on top of everything, genuine. No one asked me for tips or begged me for coins, which is like a telltale sign of being in Manila.

We checked into the Royal Oberoi, a resort hotel with a homey feel situated 20 minutes south from the town proper. Despite their website claiming an Asian, Caribbean and European influence in design and cuisine, I found it dominantly Filipino. Think strong wooden furniture embellished with carvings of intricate detail and wooden figures of people in unimaginable sizes. The only thing missing was the uniquely Filipino giant spoon and fork in the dining area.

The ambiance was very distinct, the rooms very clean and I have the highest regards for the staff. For those on a budget, there are cheaper alternatives to this accommodation that are even nearer the town proper, but I doubt they offer the same level of pampered service as the Royal Oberoi. It is worth the travel and extra pesos if you are after a more laid back experience.

Puerto Princesa Underground River

We were up early the next day to jumpstart our tour with a visit to the Puerto Princesa Underground River, a world heritage site I looked forward to witnessing. I volunteered to be seated in front of the banca going into the cave. Why not when it will offer you the best view? However, the guide will ask the ones on the front seat to point a lamp towards specific directions from time to time, but for most of the tour you are free to point it wherever you want—and I sure as hell did because it was pure darkness inside.

In one word, the place was majestic. Once the banca lazily drifted into the mouth of the cave, I felt the air change and I was overcome by an eerie feeling that I was about to see something spectacular. Meters deeper into the cave, the darkness started to swallow us and my jaw dropped as I looked up upon the walls of the cave. Giant rock formations loomed over and beside me in grand proportions, unintentionally taking the form of famous figures such as the Buddha, Jesus Christ, The Nativity, and even The Last Supper (yes, table and all.). More trivial formations inside are a giant garlic, fish with mascara, figure of a sexy lady, a boulder that looked like Double Dutch ice cream, and a giant jelly fish. It’s a natural breeding place for bats too so you can spot them hanging from cave ceiling—so keep your mouth closed.

It’s a kind of destination that would render you feeling unimportant and that’s absolutely fine. I felt small and insignificant against such grandeur and it made me think of all the useless sense of self-importance this social-media based era has brought upon all of us.

A few tips when doing this tour: first, do bring a good camera. The flash from smartphones does not work and will only leave you with great shots of pure darkness. From the town proper, it will take 2 hours to get to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, 1 hour of which is land travel, 30 minutes boat travel and the rest is queueing up for something. Do take note that the entrance to the national park is filled with stealing monkeys so keep your bags near and don’t be fooled by their “friendly” disposition.

Honda Bay

I love marine life, and my best friend often teases me about it. He abhors vast entities of water because he claims it swallows him whole but I’m not losing hope that one day he’ll come to share my admiration for the sea. (Hi to Pepe Samson, owner of this blog!)

The Honda Bay is a must-see in Puerto Princesa if you love snorkeling and countless hours of baking under the sun with a majestic beachfront view. The tour packages usually include a buffet lunch in one of the islands so worry not of starving away in the middle of nowhere. The island beaches are breathtaking and even the journey of getting from one point to another was thrilling because I got to see more of the famous Palawan limestone cliffs as the boats cruised along.

A forty-minute drive from the town proper was the boat deck for Honda Bay and from there, we started visiting each parcel of paradise. There are many islands to see, but our tour guide brought us to Pandan and Cowrie Island. I personally requested for Starfish Island but Isla Pandan was bursting with starfish that I totally forgot about it.

The variety of fish readily seen a couple of meters from the shore was surprising. I was beyond ecstatic as I went snorkeling, fish feeding and simply indulged myself and laid down the beach to dig my toes into the sand. It was a daylong moment of Zen, of looking out into the horizon as I inhaled the salty air. As I was having a moment in the beach, I thought to myself: Fuck, why can’t I live like this every day?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Palawan Series. In the next installment, the author talks about beautiful El Nido, and why, when you're in Palawan, going home doesn't feel like an option.

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