Time Travel in Palawan (Part 1): Of Pacts and Underground Wonders

The road to the Underground River circa 2006

“EVEN if it’s no longer us,” a boy — or was it the girl? — once said, “let’s still go to Palawan, together.”

“Whatever the circumstance?”

“Yes, whatever the circumstance?”

“Deal.”

That pact took place shortly before the turn of the millennium, when it was difficult – and expensive – to set foot in Palawan, a place only few had the chance to demystify.

That pact took place shortly before the turn of the millennium, when it was difficult – and expensive – to set foot in Palawan, a place only few had the chance to demystify. 

Air travel was prohibitive — the P1 fare was yet a far-fetched idea — and this made a dream trip to Palawan all the more of a fixation between two wistful youths coming to grips with what togetherness meant and how fleeting it seemed.

But the break up with this girl with whom the boy shared a number of dreams did not happen. Instead, they tied the knot a year – or was it two? – from the day of The Pact. And just as quickly, we – that’s right, the boy and that girl – were gifted with our firstborn.

That meant Palawan had to wait another six years.

Outside our homestay, a mistimed jump shot 2006 B.I. (Before Instagram) #nofilter

All that time, my wife Bretha and I built our nest and watched it grow, but we kept tabs about Palawan’s soaring repute as a must-see destination, thanks to the now ubiquitous promo fares that have made the common travelers’ desires within reach.

And so in 2006, Bretha and I, as wife and husband, took that first of three trips to Palawan that chance finally afforded us.

Our first few steps in Puerto Princesa under canopies of imposing trees took us to a number of shops with remarkable woodcraft and other items made from indigenous materials on display.

See that wooden frog? We took home a pig sculpture as big as that back home. That’s our backpack at the homestay, by the way.

Shopping for souvenirs had never been our thing, but we ended up with a good number of Palawan woodwork and handicraft, some the weight of a small human, including a slender “boat” longer than my arm span, a couple of traditional reed mats, and a wild boar sculpture. (How we brought all those items back to Cebu now escapes me.)

The Puerto Princesa City tour, which included the Crocodile Farm and the Iwahig Penal Colony, and the island hopping in Honda Bay were obligatory. But it was the Underground River in the city’s edge that we were dying to see.

At that time the road leading to Sabang was bad, with a long stretch dusty and unpaved. But as our van neared the village, the sight of the karst outcrop of the St. Paul mountain range emerging from the blur of thickets made us giddier. The guide onboard explained that the underground river stretched through a cave within the mountain range.

At that time the road leading to Sabang was bad, with a long stretch dusty and unpaved.

Halo there, monitor lizard 🙂

After a bumpy three-hour ride, the van reached Sabang, from where we took a picturesque 20-minute ride on an outrigger boat to an unspoiled strip of sand hidden behind karst cliffs that jutted into the South China Sea. The cave entrance was another five-minute hike in a forest trail mostly on a wooden pathway.

Walking past loitering monitor lizards and monkeys got Bretha and I more excited, but nothing could have prepared us for what waited inside the St. Paul cave.

Wearing the mandatory hard hats and life vests, we sat with a group of fellow tourists on a tiny river boat. At the rear was the boatman stirring the water with a paddle.

The boatman would instruct one of the tourists to point the spotlight at a section of the cave, and as though on cue the stalactites and stalagmites would come to life.

As the unsteady light from the slow moving boat animated the rock formation, the boatman, in his stand-up best, would give its name.

“That’s called the T-Rex,” he’d say, pointing to what looks like, well, a dinosaur’s head. “And that’s the vegetable section,” he’d add, drawing muffled laughter from his audience, although those thinking about sea snakes writhing under the boat wouldn’t be amused.

Going underground

“Are there snakes in the water,” one tourist who couldn’t hold it any longer finally asked.

“Maybe,” said our boatman cum tour guide. Few asked questions after that.

Behind us, the cave’s mouth disappeared in the darkness. The sound of dripping water surrounded our boat, so did peculiar odors, probably from bat poop and pee.

Before the Underground River blew us away

Gradually, the subterranean river’s hidden treasures were revealed: stunning natural rock formations of different shapes, sizes and shades, some rising as high as the ceiling’s caverns or hanging from the eerie walls.

The tour took roughly an hour or so, but the immense beauty of the place only began to sink in as we reached the river bank outside. We explored only a fraction of the 24-kilometer-long subterranean cave, and we can only wonder what other secrets it holds.

Surely, it takes more than an hour of touring – and far more than a boatman’s imagination – to appreciate a geographical wonder of caverns and labyrinths formed roughly 20 million years ago.

It takes more than an hour of touring – and far more than a boatman’s imagination – to appreciate a geographical wonder of caverns and labyrinths formed roughly 20 million years ago

Time to leave the Underground River

In awe, Bretha kept still beside me as the boat heads to the exit, the faint light of the cave entrance flickering at a distance.

And I wonder what thoughts are flowing through her head.

Perhaps it took her back to a time when a girl and a boy made a pact to be as one in Palawan.

Karst outcrops at the entrance of the Underground River

(Another version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

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