The Underground River was just recently announced as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. It is reputed to be the longest navigable Underground River in the world. The Underground River is one of the must-see places in Puerto Princesa (1-hour plane ride from Manila). However, this natural wonder is far from the city center, and requires a full day to visit (it’s worth it, of course! You haven’t really gone to Puerto Princesa if you did not go to the Underground River…). It is located in Sabang, a good 2- to 2.5-hour trip.
A lot of tourists choose tour packages available from local tour companies. The rates are uniform all over the city, since the local government are overseeing the tour companies and tour guides. If you want to visit the Underground River without worrying about the logistics, you can of course sign up for a tour package with any of the local tour companies. The tour usually costs Php 1,500 (35 USD). This includes air-conditioned van transfer, motorized boat transfer, beach cottage rental, picnic lunch, permits and entrance fees, licensed tour guide. You can also choose to rent your own van for 3,500 Php (80 USD), if you want to go at your own pace (and if you can afford it).
The tour packages only allow for a day’s trip to Sabang. There are a lot more sites to see and things to do in the area. Commuting is ideal for those who want to stay overnight in Sabang, since you can choose your own pace and not rely on the schedule of the tour packages. Also, the price for the tour can sometimes be a little steep for some local tourists. But more than the price, some people prefer to be adventurous. A little more comfort is good for some, but others prefer to rough it out, just because it’s more fun. Being a local from Puerto Princesa, I have been to the Underground River about 4 or 5 times by commute. I think it’s more exciting that way.
So if you want a little more adventure, here are detailed instructions for an Underground River trip, backpacker style 🙂 <Of course, this guide assumes you are already in Puerto Princesa and have reserved at least a day to visit the Underground River.>
1. SECURING A PERMIT: At least ONE DAY BEFORE your trip, you need to get a permit at the Underground River Booking Office (the earlier the better! get your permit upon arrival). From wherever you are in Puerto Princesa City, you can ride the city’s unique tricycle (Minimum Fare: 8 Php/person) and tell the driver to bring you to the Underground River Office at the City Coliseum (Telefax 048-434-2509; Email: email@example.com). You need to pay 275.00 park fee/person if you are aged 21 and above. Getting the permit as early as possible is important to ensure that you can be scheduled to go inside the cave at the earliest possible time (there are a lot of visitors ).
*UPDATE: The number of tourists have been increasing, so the local government advises tourists to personally secure the permits as early as possible. They are planning an online booking system, but for now at least one person should go to the office with the IDs of his/her companions for booking. See the official notice and other announcements here.
2. GOING TO THE TERMINAL : On the day itself, you should take the multicab or tricycle to San Jose New Market. This trip will take around 10-15 minutes. The multicab fare is 12 Php from the Rizal Avenue, but the availability depends on the time of day. They might not be available early in the morning. The tricycle fare is more flexible since it’s like a taxi on three wheels. The price you pay depends on your haggling skills. It can range from 20 Php to 60 Php 🙂
3. TRANSPORT TO SABANG: At the San Jose New Market, look for the terminal of D’Christ jeepneys/buses. Here are the trip schedule from Puerto Princesa to Sabang: 7:00 am, 9:00 am, 12:00 nn, 2:00 pm. Remember that these jeepneys/buses are the only means of public transportation. You should try to be there early to get a good seat. The jeepneys/buses will not reject passengers, no matter how full they are. That means a passenger can ride on the roof or stand on the door and even on the windows of the jeepney if there is no more available space inside. It’s a helluva crazy ride 🙂 Be prepared to ride with sacks of rice, blocks of ice, fruits and vegetables, bamboo poles… well, you get the idea (or maybe you won’t until you actually ride it). It takes 2 or more hours to get to Sabang, depending on the stops the jeepneys/buses have to take to deliver the produce to the areas along the way. Fare: 125 Php for locals (Filipinos), 200 Php for foreigners.
4. ARRIVAL AT SABANG PORT: Upon arrival, proceed to the Underground River Office with your permit.
If you did not register at the city proper, you can register here but you might be scheduled to enter the cave at a much later time, and your day would be wasted from waiting in line. You have to hire a boat for a 20-minute ride to the cave. Hiring a boat would cost 700 Php round-trip (the same boat will take you back to the Sabang Port). You can easily look for other tourists who would be more than willing to share the boat ride with you. One boat can have up to 6 passengers, so you can spend as low as 120 Php for the round-trip boat ride.
5. ENTERING THE CAVE: The boat will bring you on the beach near the cave. The short walk to the cave entrance will feature monitor lizards and monkeys (don’t bring any plastic bags as the monkeys will grab them from you!).
Don’t get too distracted by the wildlife! Take their photos and enjoy their presence after going inside the cave. You should immediately go to the cottage by the shore across the cave entrance and look for the person-in-charge. The line could be really long so you should try to move fast to overtake as many people as possible. Write your name in the logbook and wait for your name to be called. While waiting, make sure you take a picture of the cave’s mouth, it’s a famous postcard scenery 🙂 When your name is called, you will ride the small 12-man paddle boat, and the boatman will take you to the pitch-black cave with wonderful stalactite/stalagmite formations. *Tips: 1. Try to sit in front and be the person holding the flash light for the best cave experience; 2. Listen carefully to enjoy the boatman’s jokes!*
6. GOING BACK: After this, you go back to the Sabang Wharf by the same motorized boat. Depending on your itinerary, you should try to catch the scheduled trips from Sabang Port back to Puerto Princesa city proper: 7:00 am, 9:00 am, 12:00 nn, 2:00 pm (Fare: 120 Php). Take note that the last trip at 2:00 pm makes your visit short! You also have the option of trying to ride the air-conditioned vans that cater to the group tours. Just go to the parking area and try to ask if extra seats are available in the vans. They usually charge 150-200 Php per person for the fare back to Puerto Princesa city proper.
Extras: SABANG BEACH: While waiting for the scheduled trip back to Puerto Princesa, you can relax and enjoy the white-sand beach.
There are beach-front resorts with lunch buffet, but be prepared to pay from 250-500 Php per head. You can, however, choose to eat lunch at the carinderia or the restaurant stalls near the port for a cheap meal (50-80 Php). If you want to spend the night at Sabang Beach, you can inquire at the beach-front cottages for vacant rooms. The rooms will range from 350 Php (non-aircon nipa huts with common bathroom, make sure to ask for mosquito nets!) to 1,500 Php (air-conditioned rooms). There are fancy hotels too, but this will defeat the purpose of your adventure trip, wouldn’t it?
OTHER ATTRACTIONS IN SABANG: If you decide to spend the night in Sabang and you have some time to spare, you can ask the Underground River Office for information on the: mangrove paddle-boat tour, bird-watching, Sabang Waterfalls, Ugong Rock Adventure.
If you choose this backpacker-style trip to the Underground River, you need to prepare ~750-900 Php (20 USD). Add a little more (400-1500 Php) if you are staying overnight. I hope this blog entry helps, and I wish you will have a pleasant visit to the Underground River, whether you choose the comfortable package tour or the adventurous commute.