A journey through southern Palawan represents one of the last great travel challenges in the Philippines. Much of the area is sparsely populated, with limited accommodation and nothing in the way of dependable transport, communications or electricity. The major attraction is Tabon Caves, a little south of the town of Quezon, one of the country’s most significant archeological sites. On the east coast, around Brooke’s Point, travelling becomes a little tricky as there are hardly any buses and few jeepneys, but if you do make it here you’ll find unspoilt countryside, quiet barrios and deserted, palm-fringed beaches backed by craggy mountains.
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The small town of NARRA, about two hours by bus and 92km south of Puerto Princesa, makes a good introduction to the south, with several empty beaches in the area and Rasa Island, 3km offshore, the only place in the wild you can see the endangered Philippine cockatoo (there are around 70 birds here). The island is a thirty-minute boat trip from the village of Panacan, a short tricycle ride from Narra. Further offshore, the Isla Arena Marine Turtle Sanctuary is a major nesting site for green turtles, where the tiny hatchlings are protected before being released into the wild.
Inland, the most rewarding excursion is to the Estrella Waterfalls, around 15km from Narra on the road back to Puerto Princesa. The water is wonderfully fresh and pure (you can swim here), and the falls are surrounded by lush jungle inhabited by monkeys.
It was inside the Tabon Caves in 1962 that archeologists discovered a fragment of the skull dubbed “Tabon Man”, dating to 22,000 years ago, making it the oldest known human relic from the archipelago at the time. Crude tools and evidence of cooking fires going back some 50,000 years have been unearthed in the caves, along with fossils and a large quantity of Chinese pottery dating back to the fifth century BC. Most of these items have been transferred to the National Museum in Manila for preservation, though some artefacts are on display in the caves. It’s still intriguing to wander through the damp caverns and tunnels, which may have been a kind of Neolithic workshop for making stone tools; researchers are still working here and are happy to show visitors the latest finds.
A number of hotels and travel agents in Puerto Princesa organize day-trips to the Tabon Caves for around P1200 per person, which is definitely the easiest option if you are short of time. Alternatively, you can catch a bus to Quezon, a fishing village consisting mainly of wooden houses on stilts, around 150km from Puerto Princesa. At Quezon’s wharf, bangkas can be chartered for P1000 for the thirty-minute ride to the caves and back. Stop first at the National Museum near the wharf in Quezon for orientation and information. There are actually more than 200 caves in the area, but only 29 have been fully explored and of those only three are open to the public (same hours as museum). The best place to stay close to the caves is the Tabon Village Resort (t0910/239-8381; P499 and under) in the village of Tabon, which has simple cottage-style accommodation with fans and private bathrooms right on the water, plus a good restaurant.
Brooke’s Point and Mount Mantalingajan
Brooke’s Point and Mount Mantalingajan
Deep in the southern half of Palawan, 192km from Puerto Princesa, the town of BROOKE’S POINT is flanked by the sea on one side and formidable mountains on the other. The town was named after the eccentric nineteenth-century British adventurer James Brooke, who became the Rajah of Sarawak (now Malaysia), after helping a local chieftain suppress a revolt. From Borneo he travelled north to Palawan, landing at what is now Brooke’s Point and building an imposing watchtower there, the remains of which stand next to a newer lighthouse. Accommodation in Brooke’s Point includes the functional Silayan Lodge (t0928/347-0075; P499 and under) in the plaza opposite the town hall. There’s not much to do in town, though if you’re looking for adventure you can hire a guide at the town hall to climb nearby Mount Mantalingajan, at 2086m the highest peak in Palawan. This is a tough climb that can take up to five days, so make sure you come well prepared; there’s no equipment for hire locally. The usual route actually starts on the west coast from the barangay of Ransang near Rizal (6hr from Princesa by Charing Bus Lines). In Rizal you can stay at the Castelar Lodge (t0921/504-4108; P499 and under).