A couple of weeks have already passed since I went on a Tao Expedition in Palawan, but I’m still hung up on the experience.
Palawan is beautiful, no one can argue with that.
In fact, in the latest survey of their readers, the Conde Nast Traveler has again included Palawan in the top 5 most beautiful islands in the world, where it once hogged the first place three years running.
While writing about my experience with Tao Expedition, though, I was distracted by a question from a couple of readers: is it possible to go on a DIY (do it yourself) tour of the Puerto Princesa Underground River, or is one really required to buy a travel package? How do you go about it?
The Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) is a UNESCO world heritage site and recently named as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. This 8.2-km subterranean river runs under a protected cave that features spectacular formations of stalactites and stalagmites.
With these and its limestone landscape, it is considered as one of the world’s most complex cave systems.
Just like any popular tourist attraction, it can be expensive to go to the Underground River. A whole day’s tour will set you back P1,800 each, a little steep for an experience that takes less than an hour.
That’s why I said that a DIY tour of the Underground River is a good idea. It would be cheaper by half, one, and two, going on a DIY tour means you get to do other things in Sabang aside from just going to the Underground River.
Among others, for example, you can take the paddleboat mangrove forest tour, appreciate the Elephant Karst Mountain Cave and Ugong Rock Caves, and maybe even have a photo shoot on Sabang Beach.
You can also hike the Jungle Trail (we took the Monkey Trail), and although it takes hours longer than the usual boat ride from Sabang Port to the Underground River, it’s much more exciting and fulfilling, especially for those who love hiking.
Now, on to the details.
What to Expect at the Underground River
The Puerto Princesa Underground River is located in Sabang, a town approximately 80 kilometers from the city proper. This means that from the Puerto Princesa Airport, you need to go to the San Jose Terminal and ride either a jeepney or van to Sabang, which is 2 to 3 hours away.
However, you can’t go directly to Sabang. You need to secure a permit in the city first. Upon your arrival, immediately go to the Underground River Booking Office located at the City Coliseum, present a valid ID, pay the fee, and get your permit.
You will then need to go to Sabang port (more on how to get there, below), and when you get there, head to the Tourism Office, present your permit, and then pay the environmental and boat fees. (At the cave entrance, you’ll also need to pay for the audio device/guide.)
You will then be assigned a boat that will take you to the PPUR entrance in 20 to 30 minutes.
From the entrance, you fall in line to take a smaller boat that will take you inside the Underground River. (This line can get really long during the summer months, March to May). Using a search light, your tour guide/boatman will show you the cave’s rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, as well as its inhabitants.
The tour lasts around 45 minutes. A bigger boat will then take you back to Sabang port where you can either head back to the city or spend the night in town.
How to Get to Sabang, Palawan
There are many ways to get to Sabang from the city of Puerto Princesa.
Jeepney or Ordinary (Non-air-conditioned) Bus
From your hotel in the city, go to the San Jose Terminal. It is located in the San Jose New Market, which is less than five minutes away from Robinson’s Mall. A tricycle ride, which costs P80, is convenient when you’re traveling with a group. Another option is to ride a multicab, which costs P12 per person.
From the Terminal, you’ll find jeepneys and ordinary buses that leave for Sabang Port at 7am, 9am, 12nn, and 2pm. Travel time ranges from two hours and 15 minutes to three hours, which includes several stops along the way.
Also note that, despite their scheduled departure time, jeep and buses don’t leave until all their seats are filled. Advanced booking is not available, but if you’re traveling on a budget, this is the cheapest option. The fare is P100 for Palawan locals, P120 for local tourists, and P200 for foreigners.
If you highly value your personal space, you may not appreciate the crowded conditions of these vehicles. The dispatchers will try to squeeze in as many people as they can inside the car.
Even if the jeep can only accommodate 15 people, they’ll be getting up to 20 people. And more often than not, bins of fresh fish and seafood will be joining you on your trip. There’s a good chance that you’ll end up smelling like fish or shrimp by the time the trip is over.
There are also a lot of shuttle van services from Puerto Princesa to Sabang. If you opt for this, you can get to Sabang within two hours or just an hour and 45 minutes.
Tickets are priced at P150 for Filipinos and P200 for foreigners. These sell out fast, so the best way to secure a ride is to book a roundtrip reservation by contacting any of these numbers: +63 912-100-2651 or +63 917-585-9602.
You can also get in touch with Lexus Shuttle services by visiting their Facebook page. Shuttle vans have three trips to Sabang in the morning, and three trips in the afternoon, starting from 7:30am and up to 5pm.
A caveat: the van drivers love going really fast. If you suffer from motion sickness, it would be a good idea to take Bonamine before the trip and bring a plastic bag, just in case.
A taxi is the most comfortable of all available modes of transport to Sabang. It also allows you to travel at your own pace, which means you can stop at roadside stalls selling seasonal produce or at scenic spots where you can take selfies or photos of the stunning landscape.
The only drawback: taxi rides are quite expensive, with the one-way fare from Puerto Princesa reaching P1,500.
Tips in Planning Your Underground River Tour
When is the best time to visit the Underground River? When choosing a travel date, one of the most important factors to consider is the weather. Puerto Princesa’s dry season is from January to April while the wet season is from May to December.
Scheduling your trip during the dry season is recommended, as the waves tend to be calmer andthere are less chances that your trip would be canceled due to inclement weather.
What are the things to bring during the tour? Be prepared to get wet during the tour since you will be getting in and out of the boat. Opt for light, comfortable clothes and, if possible, wear flip-flops, trekking sandals, or any waterproof footwear.
Also bring waterproof cases (for your gadgets), mosquito repellent, drinking water, and sunblock. Ditch the plastic bags, as monkeys like grabbing these from guests.
Where to stay in Puerto Princesa? While you can stay overnight in Sabang, I would still recommend that you just go there and spend the night (or more) in Puerto Princesa. There are lots of hotels, inns, and pension houses in there that can make your budget planning easier. Click: Where to stay in Puerto Princesa.
There you go, a guide to doing the Underground River Tour in Palawan all on your own. I hope it will help you in planning part of your Palawan trip! Safe travels!
Note: If you don’t want the hassle of a DIY trip to the underground river, you can book your tour online and have everything taken care of for you: Puerto Princesa Underground River Day Tour.
Have you been to the Underground River? How was your trip?