Puerto Princesa – and the search for the Bearded Pig

Concluding our amazing tour of the Ilocos, me and my wife had 1 day to rest and prepare for another trip. Next stop for us will be Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Unlike the reservations we did for the Ilocos trip, the Palawan trip was more convenient and less stressful as we booked our package through PAL’s PALakbayan Program.

Still nursing a stomach gone haywire which I suspect must have been caused by eating too much “Poqui-poqui” (a dished made of eggplant, tomatoes, scallions and onions mysteriously cooked with egg resulting to a soft and tasty omelet) in Ilocos, me and my wife packed our bags, re-charged our camera batteries and emptied our memory cards to prepare for this trip.

Our package was for a 4-day, 3-night stay at the Microtel Inn, Puerto Princesa. Unlike the hotel room we had in Ilocos, our room at the Microtel Inn was a big improvement. We had so much space, impressive mood lighting and an amazing seafront view of the Puerto Princesa Beachfront. Unlike other beachfronts, the one at Microtel Inn was lightly strewn with Mangrove Trees. Microtel Inn did a good job in making use of these trees by installing “Capiz” lanterns on them making them stand out during the evening. Another great thing about the beachfront is that every sundown, the sea level recedes leaving the mangroves accessible. Throw in a clear evening sky, full moon and cool sea breeze and you have the makings of a Hollywood-like evening stroll.

Beachfront View at the Microtel Inn Puerto Princesa

Another scene at the beachfront –
Microtel Inn Puerto Princesa

Before coming to Puerto Princesa, we tried to arrange in advance for tour packages to the popular destinations around the city. (Although the PALakbayan is a package itself, it only covers the airfare and accomodations. Any activities such as Island Hops, Spelunking etc. are usually not included. However, you can be assured that almost all hotels in Puerto Princesa have contacts to tour providers and Microtel Inn is not any different.) To our surprise, we learned that since it was summer it was that time of the year when tour packages especially for the Underground River are fully booked. We were alarmed to find out through most of the contacts we found over the internet that the Underground River tour actually requires an early reservation sometimes even a year in advance so that the proper Environmental Permit is secured.

Not letting this dampen our spirits, we thought that its not the end of the world if we don’t get to see the Underground River. There will always be a next time and we believed that there are other activities to do. But as luck would have it (again), upon arriving at the Puerto Princesa Airport I asked around the Tour Providers inside the building and came across one tour provider who just had some reserved bookings opened up because of some customers backing out at the last minute. So there it was, instant booking for us to the Undergorund River! (which I paid for right away).

Come to think of it, was I really lucky or was I just too excited that I allowed my gullibility go to an all-time high? Although it turned out legitimate I just came to realize that travellers always have to take risks at times. The seriousness of the risk actually depends on the propensity of the individual but that is what people like us are for because we are the ones who come back to tell our stories and share useful information.

On our first day, we went through the standard stuff. Airport to hotel transfer, hotel formalities and a few hours of rest before the eagerly awaited City Tour.

As always, coming to a different place is always a feast for the senses but one thing that stood out and impressed me is that Littering is a strictly enforced violation in Puerto Princesa. Being a natural litter bug like most of us city rats are, I honestly had to deal with this rule and for several times had to control myself which was actually good. I wish it was enforced and taken to heart the same way in Manila. The problem with Manila I think is that despite that it is “enforced”, there is still a lot of shortcomings and double standards so visible that we simply don’t get the whole point. Imagine being fined for Php 1,000 for throwing a piece of candy wrapper on the street and finding out after walking to the next street that the Public Market has its trash lying just about everywhere. It makes one think that the “rules” seem to apply only to those who can afford. What happens if a beggar throws his plastic bag on the street. Obviously no amount squeezing or reprimand will make him cough up with money to pay for the fine.

Facade of the Puerto Princesa Cathedral. The blue and white theme is reminds you of Thunderbirds Resort at Poro Point which takes inspiration from Santorini, Greece

This statue at “Baker’s Hill” doesn’t leave much room for imagination.

A pool of flowers found at Baker’s Hill

Besides its warm-hearted citizens, Puerto Princesa boasts of a developed city that almost resembles parts of Manila. Business establishments are present, Cellphone stalls here and there, parks, markets and interesting restaurants can be seen everywhere. The place is busy enough that you don’t have to worry about being disoriented.

Crocs a’ plenty at the Crocodile Farm

A furry and contorted version of the crocs waiting for some cuddling

Our itineraries for the City Tour were:

PUERTO PRINCESA CATHEDRAL
PUERTO PRINCESA BAYWALK
BINUATAN HANDICRAFTS
MITRA’S RANCH
BAKER’S HILL
CROCODILE FARM

Our tour guide actually told me that there are other places of interest around Puerto Princesa but she said that some attractions have been maintained poorly and they felt visitors will be “unimpressed” to see them. If you ask me, I thought she was just being modest.

On our second day, we arranged for an Island Hop tour which will take us to Honda bay and its neighbouring islands. Being the peak time of the year, the Port going to Honda Bay was packed with tourists. If the city tour did not make us disoriented, we were at the Port. Recalling our previous Ilocos Trip which we arranged for a private tour just for me and my wife, our tour for the Island Hop had us grouped with other people. I believe our group was somewhere around 11-12 persons large. One of the drawbacks I quickly realized on being in group tours with people is that you have to mind about time limits provided by the tour guide. If the tour guide says, we have 45 minutes on this island before moving on to the next, you have to make it a point to follow that. Me and my wife were actually guilty of not following it for several occasions but we’re glad our guide was patient. I don’t know for the other people in the group as they were all silent :). By the way, this kind of arrangement may not work for some people particularly if your primary interest is to admire the place and take some very good photos. Having a time limit simply does not give you the freedom to bring out your creative side as you have to constantly rush from one place to the next.

Despite the volume of tourists, it is not difficult to find your spot at Pandan Island

Our Itineraries for the Island Hop tour were:

PANDAN ISLAND
SNAKE ISLAND
STARFISH ISLAND
SNORKELLING AT PAWIKAN REEF

From afar, Pandan Island was striking with its lush trees and smooth shoreline. Despite of the number of visitors at that time, it was not difficult to find your spot on the beach. We spent several hours here and we had our lunch here before moving on to the other islands.

During the course of our island hop, I was under the impression that we will see a long sandbar in one of our destinations. After going to several islands I wasn’t able to bear the itch longer and I asked our tour guide. She told me that the island with the longest sandbar at Honday Bay was Starfish Island. Having seen it, I was not convinced that this is the one I knew I should be seeing, I realized later on that what I had on my mind was White Island in Camiguin (I was reading too much travel blogs). But anyway, White Island or not, the sights were great.

Saving the best for last, we lined up the Underground River tour on our third day. Unlike the boat ride during the Island Hop tour the previous day, the boat ride to the Underground River was short but very very crazy. Since I was nursing a perturbed stomach, I didn’t ate a lot during breakfast. If I did, I could have easily goodbye to my breakfast right there (and if that’s not enough, be fined for littering also). Waves at the time were huge and we were already wet even before hitting the beach.

One thing I observed at the Port going to the Underground River is that despite earning its place in the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World and with all the number of visitors coming day in and day out, I cannot understand how nobody has never thought of providing a safer (and dryer) way to allow passengers to board the boats. In our case, I saw that boarding the boat not only involves timing but a great deal of balance as well. Timing, because you have to read the wave patterns and predict how much time you got before the next big wave comes to board the boat and Balance because if you don’t you might as well say goodbye to your gear.

Not wanting to miss out opportunities in this trip, I brought with me my important lenses and my relevant camera gear. So just imagine how worried I was to lose my balance and fall straight to the sea with all my gear. One boatman actually told me story that a foreigner Photographer suffered that fate weeks ago and he was packing so much gear with him at the time. The foreigner wanted compensation for what happened but unfortunately this is a do-it-at-your-own-risk package. Let’[s not forget also how this arrangement poses risks and setbacks for the elderly. Even old folks deserve to see the Underground River. Hopefully the local government would hear this out and do something.

The entrance to the Underground River

Tourist on their way in to the cave

For our final day in Puerto Princesa, me and my wife decided to just hang out and relax until later in the afternoon for our flight back to Manila. After all the adventures we’ve done from the warm city people, great food, crazy waves and death-defying boat jumps we wished we could have stayed longer.
For a moment I was lost imagining myself hoping on and off boats again.

But we have to pull the plug and save the memories.

Despite all the searching, we were disappointed not to find the Bearded Pig…and somehow I get the feeling pun was intended when I was told to pose for this shot.

The PALalakbayan Program provides tourists a convenient travel and accomodation package to most of the famous destinations in the Philippines. Due to tie-ups and the benefit of the partnership of a large company together with a network of hotels, customers are assured of good deals rather than booking plane fares and hotels separately. As of this writing, the PALakbayan link is being updated but you may check it out through PAL’s website (http://www.philippineairlines.com/home/home.jsp) or better yet inquire through phone at: (632) 855-8888 daily from 6:00am to 10:00pm. In our case, we booked our package over the phone and paid at Terminal 2 after 1 day.

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