Tuesday, April 16, 2013
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY is a place that had beckoned me for many years but the spark to start a quest there is just really absent in me until I get a nudge from an unexpected source. This trip not only will bring me to Palawan but it will have a Mrs. PinoyApache as my companion. Whoa, this is a very very late honeymoon that took 23 years to realize.
Well, it would have never been possible were it not for CEBU PACIFIC AIR’s continuing promos of dirt-scraping fares. In my own observation, CEBU PACIFIC AIR is now the leading catalyst in local travel and it inspires homegrown tourists to appreciate better their country with affordable fares and regular flight schedules. Tourism have really shot up by leaps and bounds ever since CEBU PACIFIC AIR snared a franchise as the country’s second air carrier. Who would not, when you could pay for as low as P2,378.88 good for two persons to and fro?
The tour package that my mysterious sponsor purchased for me and my wife would take us to the favorite spots around the city; island hopping at Honda Bay; and a boatride tour at the world-famous St. Paul Underground River. To recall, I have voted online for this subterranean waterway to be included as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site where, in 2011, it had gotten that honor.
The package includes free stay of four days and three nights at a small hotel; free breakfasts; free day meals of the second and third days; free airport transfers; free land-and-sea transport; and a very pleasant time with licensed tour guides. All these for a total of P11,300 which our benefactor had transacted online thru ISLAND PARADISE TOURS AND CONVENTION.
We leave Cebu for Palawan at 9:30 AM on February 8, 2013 and arrive at the Puerto Princesa Airport at 10:40 AM. We were met by a representative from our tour provider and whisked us away to ONE ROVERS PLACE – a moderately-priced hotel located near the Palawan Provincial Capitol. We were assigned to a two-bed suite with own toilet and bathroom plus cable TV service.
I have never been to Puerto Princesa before and, to get to know it better, I may have to taste their food. We walked to a nearby restaurant named TIO ROD’S RESTOBAR & LOUNGE and I found the place very airy and relaxing. We chose as our meal crabs washed with coconut cream, lechon kawali1 and vegetable curry. It is a fulfilling noontime meal where I get to pay P697 with which price is fair enough for such food cooked in a traditional manner.
At 1:30 PM, our tour guide arrived to pick us up. Inside of the passenger van were a family of four and another couple from Manila. They were, I learned, accommodated in different hotels but subscribing to a single tour agency like ours. Tessa the tour guide picked up an Italian couple from another hotel before she starts her tour-guiding job.
The route took us first to the baywalk area and Tessa narrated how this place came to be. We did not stop but proceeded to the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Across it is the Plaza Cuartel. I start to take pictures of the church, especially its tall steeples, and its insides. This is where the mainly Roman Catholic population of Puerto Princesa go to attend religious service.
Then I cross the street and focus my camera at Plaza Cuartel. This Spanish garrison was used by the Japanese Imperial Army as a prison during World War II. Story had it that 143 American prisoners-of-war died here when they were torched with flame throwers and tossed hand grenades inside of the narrow tunnels. All told, eleven lived to tell of this gruesome massacre and a monument was erected to symbolize this dark episode of cruelty of the last war.
The tour transferred to the souvenirs market and we had our time looking for items that we don’t find in our dear Cebu. We both agreed to the cashew by-products and go on our separate ways to hunt our own things we think we do need. For me it is the cashew wine and a small bamboo rainmaker while my wife chose cashew nuts and candies and some local fashion accessories for herself and for her daughters.
After 30 minutes of shopping, the van proceed to the loom weavers of Binuatan Weaving Center where the weavers operate wooden hand looms. Materials used for weaving into table runners, bags, rugs and other items are indigenous grasses and the center supply these materials for Calvin Klein and a manufacturer who provide Cordura® fabric for bags.
Next stop is the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center which is home to the Philippine sea and fresh-water crocodiles – captured, rescued or bred. It is a museum and a zoo in itself that aims to educate people about conservation and taking value of wildlife. Among the residents are the Palawan bearcat, the Philippine toucan, pythons, monitor lizards, serpent eagles, Philippine mynah, the bearded boar and other creatures. Sadly, my camera battery failed and I suck it when it was most needed.
When we were done with the crocodile farm, the tour took us to the ranch of the late Senator Ramon Mitra and then to Baker’s Hill where different concoctions of the hopia2 are baked and sold to Palaweños and visitors. The tour ended at 5:00 PM and my wife and I were returned to our hotel.
We later toured the city on foot at 7:00 PM to partake of dinner but found most shops already closed for the day. We settled for HAP CHAN RESTAURANT where I eat beef brisket noodles while the wife indulged on fruit shake. The visit costs us just P150 and we walk back to our hotel and discovered many good restaurants and bars on the other side of the street.
The next day – February 9 – we were ready for the next tour. Our guide for this day is Grace. We left our hotel after breakfast at TIO ROD’S and pass by another hotel to take in four elderly couples. The route would be to Honda Bay and we arrive at the wharf to wait for our designated boat, which is numbered at 78.
We left the mainland for Pambato Reef. The boat docked at a jetty and we stream to the boardwalks to stare at the pictures of the common fishes that inhabit the reef and then gawk at the the surrounding waters. A lot of foreign tourists and locals arrived on many boat and all splashed into the sea to swim and snorkel along the floating markers.
We left the reef when the jetty becomes too crowded and we transferred to an island which Grace fondly call as “Lu-Li” - short for “lulubog lilitaw” - and which meant that this island vanishes during high tide and appears during low tide. Since it is still low tide, we were afforded of dry land and fine sand.
I swam to a floating hut and an elderly balikbayan3 swam after me carrying crackers. He started to feed the fishes. First there was a school of small fish, then medium ones and then bigger fishes. I swam back to the shore when many tourists found out what we were doing. Once on dry land, I joined my wife for a stroll towards a small forest of mangroves.
We went back when I saw that tide water crept slowly on the the flat sand. Grace herded us back towards the boat to hop on to another island in the middle of Honda Bay. Cowrie Island is vegetated with a line of tall Malabar almond trees giving shade to a row of cabanas and in the center are coconut trees, a massage spa and a bar. There were already many visitors and I opt to take pictures before splashing into its inviting water.
Around the bay are many mountain ranges seen from afar and it summon my exploring spirit which I took challenge of by studying its terrain features for possible routes in the future. I aim to come back to Palawan someday. Meanwhile, Cowrie Island offer me the chance to remove stress and worry and, with my wife, I am transported back to feelings when I first met her. Now I am getting romantic. Meals please!
Grace prepared our food by herself and we have grilled chicken drumsticks, steamed shrimps, grilled lipti4 and eggplant salad as our lunch. We ate all with gusto and that made conversations amongst us visitors a bit more fluid. I get to know this couple who are retired teachers now based in San Diego. They made possible the Filipino language to be taught as a major language in public schools of California and more Americans of Filipino ancestry came to know their roots better.
Our wonderful time in Cowrie Island and Honda Bay are beginning to end and we returned back to the Santa Lourdes Wharf. I gave my paracord whistle-bracelet to a young boatman as my appreciation of his industry and willingness to learn something apart from steering a small boat. Grace sees to it that we reach our hotel safely and we did have a lot of time in the late afternoon which we spend watching cable TV in our room.
We capped our second day in Puerto Princesa with a dinner at KA LUI. The small restaurant is full of diners but, fortunately, a table was reserved for us, courtesy of our benefactor. I choose their main menu which consists of fish steak, steamed prawn with roe paste and rolled-fish curry. Appetizer is seaweed; dessert are sweetened mixed fruits; and drinks were two whole green coconuts. For a price of P635, I consider it very fair since snaring a seat at this restaurant is quite difficult as it has a lot of following.
The third day – February 10 – is the birthday of my better half. The tour to the Underground River is a perfect destination. After another hurried breakfast at TIO ROD’S, we seat ourselves inside the passenger van. Assigned tour guide this time is Roman. We were joined by two couples and two ladies from Manila who are billeted in other hotels.
The subterranean waterway is located 77 kilometers away from the city proper and Roman informed us that we will stop first at an out-of-the-way souvenir shop and at Ugong Cave. The shop sells a lot of fighting sticks of different designs and length in ebony wood and rattan vine but I settle instead for a wooden crocodile to appease my little Gabriel about my sudden absence at home. Anyway, this shop will be my source if ever people badger me about fighting sticks.
We follow the itinerary Roman gave us and we visit Ugong Rock where a cave tour is offered plus a zip-line option if ever we find retracing our route through the cave exhausting and hair raising. Ugong Rock Adventures is a cooperative ran by local residents. This endeavor got support from the Department of Tourism, the ABS-CBN Foundation and the city government of Puerto Princesa and is staffed by matronly guides and able rope riggers.
The rock is made of karst and limestone and the cave entrance is wide enough until it becomes a narrow channel where, in some cases, a tight squeeze. The name Ugong comes from the sound emitted by the cave caused by some rocks which resonate when struck with falling stones or by drips of water. I knocked on one rock formation and it gives off a glass-like sound.
All the same, me and my wife followed our guides and we stooped and sidestepped rocks and passages and ascended steep paths aided by ropes until we passed through to the other end. By then, the route takes onto a series of steep ladders where it led to more caverns and to the top. There is a platform provided to accommodate the more daring visitors who would want to try the cable lines which would bring one to the ground in seconds.
I have never been a big fan of zip-lines because I consider it rather tame. I have tried the crude prototypes in the late ‘80s and we call these contraptions “slide for life” as it does not have safety features and you virtually hang by your arms then release your grip and jump when you are about twelve feet from the ground. You either run or roll when you hit ground else snap a bone if you land carelessly. But it was fun then.
My wife faced a dead end at the top and she dread to retrace the steep path back to the cave entrance 165 feet below and she has no other recourse but to steel herself and try her first ever zip-line ride at 51 years old. I have also no other recourse also but to follow suit my spouse. So both of us came after the other in a stream of 21 seconds from peak to ground.
Winded of the effort, we discard helmet, harness, carabiner and gloves to find relief inside the vehicle where the drinking water is. Roman the guide rallied the rest of his clients inside the van and we proceed to Sabang but we made a quick stop at Elephant Cave for a quick photo ops. Another set of tourists followed our hint and disembarked. We quickly returned and focused on the last leg.
We arrived at 11:00 AM at Sabang where a wharf that service the boats that will take tourists to the underground river and back are always full. The sea is rough caused by the northeast wind and the Coast Guard do not allow sea travel with full passengers. Too few boats and too many visitors. Roman jostled among other guides for two boats so he could divide the eight of us into each which meant that there would be ample room between four of us in one boat.
We arrive at the Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park and registered ourselves. There were already a lot of visitors waiting for their turn to ride boats for a cruise inside the underground stream. I begin to worry about the carrying capacity of the park, the river and the boats itself due to too many people. Extreme high times of usage should be avoided by park administrators and tour providers to prevent the park and the river from overuse and, to a certain extent, water mishaps.
Our turn may be an hour or less away so I busy myself, to kill time, taking pictures of the lagoon, the limestone cliffs, the sand, the stranded flotsam, the huge trees, the river outlet to the sea and, of course, my model – Mrs. PinoyApache. I am using my new KODAK EasyShare M23 Camera for this trip, with which item is a gift from another kind benefactor.
When our time came to board our boat, the boatman carefully studied the seating arrangement of the boat. We were nine good-sized persons in the boat, cluding the boatman, and his instinct and knowledge is justified for the boat edge is just three inches above the water. Besides, a poorly balanced boat is difficult to steer, especially going upstream with a paddle.
Slowly, the boat lurched forward through the lagoon, the cave entrance and into the dim waterway itself. Each boat has a single torch powered by a 12-volt car battery. The boatman act as the river guide and, as he paddled and steered the boat through calm but dark waters, he explained to all the names of the different rock formations and the minerals which composed it. We passed by thick columns, dripstone curtains, huge chambers and high ceilings roosted by bats and swifts alike.
Along the way, we passed other boats going the other way and, some hundred meters behind, another boat. The channel is wide enough to accommodate two boats passing each other and the tour length is only 1.5 kilometers long. I asked why is that when the river is supposed to be eight kilometers long? The boatman said that the park only allow people to get inside the whole length of the underground river with a special permit for a scientific purpose.
As the boat made a U-turn at one of the big chambers, my worry about the boat getting capsized is shredded in half and it diminishes as we approach the cave entrance which turned out to be dramatic by my perception. By the time we are out into naked light and terra firma, I heaved a sigh of relief and follow the path to the Ranger Station.
Along the way, I see a bull Philippine macaque being the object of the visitors’ attention and their cameras and then another one. I explore a little of the park and I saw a huge monitor lizard unmoving but very wary. The reptile took careful attention of my movement and turn its head when I maneuver at its flank. It raised its head higher when I walked away from it.
The surf have not abated even though it is now low tide and we board the boat back to Sabang Wharf. When all have taken refreshments, our passenger van took us back to Puerto Princesa and it is a 90-minute drive. We arrived with hours to spare and we decide to visit the souvenirs market where my wife bought more fashion accessories. Getting wiser, we spend dinner at a roadside common-man’s eatery and eat braised pork, calamares5 and taro leaves to our heart’s content where we pay only P115.
We woke up early to take our last breakfast on February 11 but, this time, with more relish and lots of time. We visit the Palawan Provincial Capitol and a convenience store for more of the hopia. Our flight back to Cebu would be at 10:30 AM and we are getting ready for this.
Palawan is indeed the country’s last frontier. I have observed that there are still a lot of open spaces and I believe the city and provincial governments should be very strict in land use and zoning. It is a good thing to preserve whatever existing natural resources in order to attract more tourists to give business opportunities for small stakeholders and to maintain its status as a premier eco-tourism destination in the country.
The Puerto Princesa slogan of “Clean as you go” is a very apt statement where concern for the environment should start from the very self then spreading out to small communities, businesses and local government units. It instills self-discipline and responsibility of your actions. The more positive your actions be, the better will people begin to understand the wisdom behind all this and Palawan will move forward by this phrase.
We arrived in Cebu and settled down to our usual chores but the memory of Palawan and Puerto Princesa City lingers. The itch to return there is strong and only time will tell when. My thanks to our silent donor for giving us the opportunity to visit the place and I see instead a wide field for my future plans. I hope it will be realized so soon, God willing.
Document done in LibreOffice 3.3 Writer
1Crispy fried pork.
2Moon cakes. Baked pastry with fillings either of mung beans, purple yam, ground pork, soy beans or pineapple.
3A returning countryman, usually of dual citizenship.
4Plectorhincus pictus – a reef fish.
5Fried squid rings