Justly one of Palawan’s top attractions, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (aka Underground River; wwww.puerto-undergroundriver.com), protects a unique underwater river system that cuts through the limestone hills for 8.2km before emptying out into the South China Sea. The caves are completely natural and unlit, ranging from fairly low-lying passages to vast, stadium-like caverns. It’s also a refreshingly well-managed and untouched slice of Palawan, with visitor numbers restricted by a daily quota.
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From Sabang, you’ll take a twenty-minute bangka to the next bay along, followed by a short 150m walk through the forest to the river – languid monitor lizards often congregate near the rangers’ hut, while macaque monkeys hang out in the trees, looking to grab any loose snacks – don’t feed them (or the lizards). If you are arranging independently you’ll need to show your permit before getting into the special pump boats that paddle into the caves. Your boatman acts as a guide, pointing out the various rock formations and wildlife inside (there are over 400,000 bats). Memorable features include “the Cathedral”, a vast chamber containing stalactites that resemble Mary, Jesus and friends, and a second 62-metre-high cavern that soars into the darkness. Visitors get to see just 1.5km of the cave (45min); you can travel up to 4.3km into the system, but you’ll need to arrange a special permit three days in advance from the park office in Puerto Princesa (11 National Hwy, just north of Rizal Ave t048/434-2509).
You can also hike to the caves via the Jungle Trail (5.3km) or Monkey Trail (5.2km) from Sabang, though this is steep and sometimes slippery, especially after rain.
Visiting the Underground River
Access to the national park is by guided boat tour only, and numbers are currently restricted to 600 people per day (a quota that is often filled). Day-tours from Princesa are P1500 per person, departing at around 7.30am, and including all fees, a basic lunch buffet on Sabang beach and a short time for swimming. If you want to stay on in Sabang they’ll drop you off after the tour. Renting a whole van for a day-trip to the Underground River will be at least P3500.
While taking a tour is the most convenient option, it’s much cheaper to arrange a visit independently, especially if you have a group. You’ll need to take a minivan or jeepney (2–3hr) to Sabang Wharf from the San José Terminal in Puerto Princesa; at the wharf’s Tourist Assistance Information Center you can buy the permit (P200/person) required to visit the national park, and arrange a bangka (P700/boat, return trip) to take you to the entrance. Because of the quota, you’ll need to get here early. Your permit includes the cost of a guide and the second boat into the actual cave. To save the bangka fare you can also walk to the cave from Sabang.