Category Archives: Philippines

Whaleshark lovin’ and more at Donsol, Sorsogon

Donsol in Sorsogon was once a sleepy fishing town that was transformed into a prime tourist spot, all thanks to the whale sharks (butanding in the local tongue) that frequent Donsol’s waters every December to May. They were able to create an effective eco-tourism strategy that promotes whale shark interaction, but with minimal impact to the gentle giants.

We were lucky to have the opportunity to swim with these impressive creatures in early 2010 during our trip to Bicol to visit a friend.

Getting to Donsol

From the Legazpi Airport, take a tricycle to the Public Terminal in Legazpi. Look for the public vans going to Donsol and wait for the seats to be filled (Fare is about Php 100 per person). From Donsol city proper, take a tricycle to Dancalan Beach.

For our trip, our host had a car so we drove to Donsol with no problems. We were even able to have fresh coconut juice when we saw some fresh buko being sold along the road.

Dancalan Beach

We arrived in Dancalan and quickly proceeded to the Municipal Tourism Office to register and pay for the whale shark interaction tour.Donsol Municipal Tourism Office

We paid for the boat rental (Php 3,500 for 7 passengers maximum), which we divided among the five of us, registration fee (php 100/person) and snorkel rental (Php 300). At the time, there were only about two or three other groups lined up for the tour so we did not have long to wait before we were ushered in to their office. We watched a video introduction about whale sharks and some general instructions on how to best interact with them. The main point was that we were not supposed to go too near the whale sharks to avoid any accidents and also to avoid disturbing them.

Whale Shark Interaction

After this, we were introduced to our Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). He told us that he would be our guide during the interaction and led us to our boat. The boat crew included a spotter, whose task is to look for the whale sharks so our boat can go near them.

Our boat for swimming with the whale sharks

Our boat for the day

Our BIO instructed us to stay by the side of the boat with  our snorkels already in place, and wait for his signal to jump off the boat when the whale shark is within distance.

Waiting for the whale sharks

Waiting for the whale sharks

We didn’t have long to wait, and at his signal, we jumped into the water excitedly. When I put my head in the water, my initial reaction was fear. The whale shark was huge, as big as a bus!

The whale shark's mouth

Whale shark!

Whale shark!

Then I reminded myself that they were harmless creatures who are only interested in plankton,  so I just marveled at their large size and spotted skin while they calmly glided past us.

Spotted

Spots

The whaleshark’s fins up close

We jumped into the water several times more to see the gentle giants, and I still felt awe every time I see them. Our BIO was very helpful (and very strong) as he dragged the girls (my friend and myself) to keep up with the whale sharks. He also volunteered to take underwater photos of the sharks for us, since we were too slow to get a lot of good shots.

Commensal fish attached to the whale shark

Commensal fishes attached to the whale shark

We hardly noticed the time, and just like that the allotted three hours for our interaction was over. We headed back to Dancalan Beach, tired but overwhelmed from the experience.

View of Mayon Volcano from our boat

View of Mayon Volcano from our boat

Enjoying the sunset

We got back to Dancalan Beach in the mid-afternoon. Our next activity, firefly watching, wouldn’t start until after dark, so we went around Donsol town to look for a place to eat then returned to Dancalan Beach before dark. We still had a few  hours to spare so we decided to hang out at the beach resort beside the Tourism Office. We whiled away the time by enjoying the view of the majestic sunset.

Sunset at Dancalan Beach (photo by Princess Que)

Sunset at Dancalan Beach (photo by Princess Que)

Dancalan Beach (photo credits to Rolly Peoro)

Dancalan Beach (photo by Rolly Peoro)

Sunset at Dancalan Beach

Sunset at Dancalan Beach

Firefly Watching

At about 6 pm, we went to the designated area for booking the Firefly Watching tour. We paid Php 1,250 for the boat (maximum of 7 persons in a boat), which included a guide.

Our guide led us to the bank of the Ugod river where our boatman was waiting for us. The moon was almost full and there were few clouds in the sky so the night was a bit bright, but we were still able to see the trees along the river bank alight with hundreds of fireflies. The view was calming and pleasant to the senses (sans the good photographs since it was dark and the boat was rocking).

Sidetrip: Cagsawa Ruins

Since the access to Donsol includes passing by Albay (Legazpi Airport), we made sure to slip in a visit to the famed  Cagsawa Ruins Park. The area was devastated by Mt. Mayon’s explosive eruption in the 19th century. What remained of the previous Cagsawa town and nearby areas was the belfry of the Cagsawa Church, which is now postcard-famous for its picturesque view of Mt. Mayon as the backdrop.

We took a jeepney from Legazpi town proper then a tricycle to the ruins. We were lucky to have visited on a bright sunny day, our view of Mayon Volcano was perfect!

Cagsawa Ruins

Cagsawa Ruins

There were kids offering to take our photos for us, and it was a good thing we relented despite our initial hesitation. They seemed they know their way around cameras, so we happily obeyed their instructions to pose this way and that. The photos looked great and we enjoyed our photoshoot. We decided to give the kid Php 50, although he didn’t really say how much he wanted.

The giant in Cagsawa (one of the many shots our young photographer took)

The giant in Cagsawa (one of the many shots our young photographer took)

Our Donsol adventure was really worth the trip. Seeing the majestic creatures up close was really a treat. Watching the fireflies and seeing the perfect cone of Mayon Volcano was an added visual bonus. This trip will remain one of my most memorable experiences.

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History lessons and ghost hunts: The Corregidor overnight adventure

Corregidor is a small island at the entrance of Manila Bay that served as an important defense fortress of the Philippines, from Spanish to American and then Japanese colonists. The US, in particular, made it into a world-class military encampment, before they themselves destroyed the facilities in WWII during the retaking from the Japanese. It is now a famous tourist destination for people interested in history, or even for those who just want to have an interesting get-away. Corregidor is very near Manila and is therefore a very convenient day tour or overnight trip for tourists and locals alike.

Map of Corregidor Island

Trips to Corregidor from Manila can only be arranged by Sun Cruises Philippines, which offers day tours and overnight trips. I highly recommend the overnight trip based on my experience. There are a lot of things that Corregidor has to offer, and 5 hours in the island would not cover it.

Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor

Rates are posted in the website of Sun Cruises. Day tours are available daily for 2,099 Php/person, inclusive of roundtrip ferry transfers, entrance and terminal fees, fuel surcharge, guided tour of the island and buffet lunch. Overnight trips cost an additional 1,500 Php for a double-occupancy room. You can reserve in advance by calling their reservation hotline (contact information here).

Location of CCP Terminal and Dock AreaWe went to Corregidor last June 2011. We called for a reservation and we were advised to be at the CCP Bay Terminal before 7 am (yes, it’s very early!) to secure a slot for that day’s tour (Recently though, they added an online booking feature in their website). And so we were there by 7 am… and they were still closed! Ugh. I hate waking up early, but I hate it more when it turns out that there was really no need to do so. The guard let us in a little past 7 am, but the staff arrived at around a quarter past. At around 8:20 am, they rounded up the passengers and took them to the dock area by a mini bus, which took all of 5 minutes. (The delay in the schedule might have been caused by the typhoon a few days prior to this trip. Tours were cancelled for a few days before our tour schedule.)

The ferry of Sun Cruises

At the dock area, they checked our tickets before letting us board the ferry. Inside, seats were pre-assigned and the passenger area was air-conditioned. During the trip, they played a documentary from the Department of Tourism that showcases different scenic sites of the Philippines. Hmm and also, a few people were not feeling very good (the waves were higher than usual because of a recent typhoon), so make sure to drink meds if you easily experience motion sickness.

Inside the ferry

We arrived in Corregidor at around 10:30 am (I think the journey should take around an hour and 15 minutes, but the strong waves made our trip longer) and were greeted by colorful tramvias that would take us around the island. That day, there were three vehicles available: two for English-speaking tourists and one for Japanese speakers. We hopped on one tramvia and were easily captivated by the stories of Sir Armando, our tour guide. He told us we would have a war memorial tour, and he proceeded to tell us about the structures and bombed areas in Corregidor, as well as the important events that occurred. The engrossing war stories and some bits of nice-to-know trivia here and there really made the ‘history lesson’ interesting. Oh, and there were a lot of monkeys in the island! We spotted some along the road.

We first visited the Battery Way (“battery” means a group of guns in an area) and the Topside Barracks during the first part of the tour while the guide told us about the modern (at the time) amenities that America built for the island, such as cinemas, swimming pool and other sports facilities, commissary, and hospital.

Battery Way

Inside the barrel

The Topside Barracks, almost a mile long, was the world’s longest military barracks at the time is was built. The US really invested in Corregidor!

Topside Barracks

We visited the Spanish Lighthouse next. The windows of the lighthouse were made of Capiz shells, similar to the rest of the buildings in the island. We were told that this is the reason why we couldn’t see any glass shards around the bombed buildings.

Spanish Lighthouse

After that, we visited the Flame of Freedom sculpture and the Pacific War Memorial dedicated to Filipino and American soldiers. Beside the memorial is the Memorial Museum, which houses photos, guns, model airplanes, and even money that were used during World War II.

Flame of Freedom

Pacific War Memorial

We then went to two more batteries, Battery Geary and Battery Crockett. Battery Geary was one of the worst-hit batteries in Corregidor since the Japanese air-raided it.

Battery Geary

Battery Crockett was the location of the ‘disappearing guns’. The giant guns required 30 men to service each weapon (talk about labor intensive!)

Disappearing gun at Battery Crockett

We had lunch at Corregidor Inn at around 1 pm. The buffet lunch was part of the tour package. The feast consisted of Filipino dishes, but the menu lacked seafood. We were told this is because Corregidor has its own power generator  so food preservation of seafood is not in their priority.

After lunch, we were brought to the Filipino Heroes Memorial. It consists of bronze wall sculptures of major uprisings and revolutions in Philippine History, from the Battle of Mactan in the 1500s to the Edsa Revolution in 1986.

Filipino Heroes Memorial

The epitaph says that it was “dedicated to the Filipino who knows how to die for love of freedom and liberty.” There was also a monument for the two presidents (Quezon and Osmena) during the American colonization, as well as a statue dedicated to the Filipino Woman.

“Dedicated to the Filipino who knows how to die for love of freedom and liberty”

“We shall not forget”

We then went to the Mindanao Garden of Peace, which was dedicated to the Moro youth victims of the Jabidah Massacre in Corregidor in 1968.

Mindanao Garden of Peace

The next stop was the Japanese War Memorial. Most of the structures built after the war were for Filipino and American soldiers, but this area is a “Tribute to the Brave Japanese” (though the word Japanese was scraped off by an angry American war veteran, or at least that was what we were told).

Dedicated to the brave —–

The last part of our tour was the Malinta Tunnel Light and Sound Show. It costs an extra Php 150 per person, but I think anybody interested in Corregidor war history should not miss it.

Malinta Tunnel Light and Sound Show

Malinta Tunnel is a bombproof shelter that protected Americans and Filipinos during the Japanese air raids. However, the tunnel was only bomb-proof from the outside. Parts of the tunnel were destroyed when the Japanese soldiers bombed themselves inside before they can be captured by the Americans.

The day tour ended at around 3:30 pm, and the other tourists took the ferry back to Manila.

Since we were staying overnight, we checked in at the hotel after the tour. Our tour guide joked that it is the only 31-star hotel (uh… each of the 31 rooms is a one-star accommodation? 😉 ) The amenities are basic (airconditioned but no TV), but the rooms are generally clean. They also have a swimming pool.

The 2nd floor corridor (NOT the Malinta tunnel :p)

Standard Room at Corregidor Inn

We realized that there were one or two more inns in the island with cheaper rates, and camping in the island is also allowed for Php 50 per person. However, the hotel accommodation included sunset tour and ‘ghost hunting’ in the hospital and Malinta Tunnel in the late afternoon, and a sunrise viewing tour and exploration of Japanese Tunnels in the early morning.

Just before the sun set, a guide brought us (at the time, the hotel only had four guests, I think it was because of the typhoon that just passed) to the western end of the island for the guided tour. We visited the hospital first. For me, this was one of the creepiest part of the tour. The big empty rooms and the dusk make for a good horror ambience. It was eerily silent and the only sounds we heard were our own voices.

Hospital ruins

We also went to Battery Grubbs, which also has disappearing guns. We tried to explore the destroyed buildings on the other side of it, but we only got to the entrance, cowards that we were haha. The place gave me the creeps, with the encroaching vegetation and being reminded of the fact that several soldiers died there.

We did not dare enter. hehe

We waited there for the sunset. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy (as I said, the typhoon just came), so no beautiful sunset for us 😦

Sunset with no visible sun 😦

When it became dark, we proceeded to the Malinta Tunnel. We were made to wear hard hats and they gave each of us a flashlight. We explored the lateral tunnels (only the main tunnel was accessed in the day time), and our guide led us to the ruined areas where the Japanese soldiers were said to have bombed themselves rather than surrender.The guide pointing out the lateral tunnels that we visited We got to see the backstage control room of the Lights and Sounds Show, some of the rooms of the military officers, the hospital wing, and other interesting parts of the tunnel.Bombed areas of the Malinta Tunnel There was one part where the guide showed us a charred human bone. We also found some interesting animals inside the tunnel like the crab, hermit crab, and tuko (gecko).

Charred human bone

Creepy crawlers in the Malinta Tunnel

We were also made to walk in total darkness, and we ended up bumping into each other before the exercise was over. The entire experience was pretty cool. Of course we didn’t see any ghosts (nor did we expect to), but there were some moments when I felt a little spooked out (but only a little! :p)

The next morning, we had to wake up before 5 am to catch the sunrise, but the sun was still elusive (boo!). After the failed sunrise viewing, we took a short hike to visit the ruins of the commissary and then went inside the Japanese tunnels. The tunnels were built by the Japanese when they occupied the island. They were not cemented like the Malinta Tunnel. They were just small tunnels dug in the clayey soil, just big enough for one man (or woman) to pass through. The tunnels reminded me of the small-scale mine tunnels that I usually see during my fieldwork.

Havaianas: not for hiking!

Oh, and because I did not bring shoes, my sandals gave up on me while we were walking in the clayey soil. Fortunately, I was with my Macgyver, who fixed my slippers with a coconut leaf! 🙂 I had to buy slippers at the hotel after that. So if you ever visit Corregidor for an overnight stay, wear shoes!

After the tour, we had lunch at the hotel along with the day tour participants of that day, and then after lunch the hotel car brought us to the dock. The last statue that I saw before we went back to Manila was that of General Douglas MacArthur with his famous words, “I shall return.” And indeed, I shall! (Hopefully with a bike and a tent next time 🙂 )

Puerto Princesa on a budget: backpacking advice from a local lakwatsera

Puerto Princesa — one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the Philippines, dubbed as The City in a Forest. It is home to the famous Underground River, to the beautiful islands of Honda Bay, and to a lot of other unique and wonderful sights. And of course, let’s not forget it’s my home town 😉

It’s a famous tourist destination among locals and foreigners alike. The only problem is that visiting the sights can sometimes get too costly. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting the thriving tourism industry in Puerto Princesa. If you like to relax and travel in comfort, please visit this site for a list of travel agents (or you can contact Mars of Travel Portal Duo at +639166151856).  Although the prices for the tour packages are reasonable and the tours are more comfortable and hassle-free, a cheaper alternative is to do it the backpacker way. Of course this means roughing it out! I will give an ideal itinerary for visiting the famous tourist destinations and try to give some advice (based on personal experience from bringing visitors to the tourist sites) on how to save by doing the tours on your own.

First, let’s get you there. Major local airlines such as PAL Express, Cebu Pacific, and Air Asia each fly to Puerto Princesa several times a day from Manila. There are also some flights from Cebu.

Next, you should book your hotel or pension or resort, whichever is right for your budget and needs. You can choose where you want to stay on this site. My suggested hotels/pension houses would be: Liane’s Place (nice native theme, reasonable price and most convenient location in the city center just in front of the Provincial Capitol) or Tenzai Pension House +63484330189 (cozy place, reasonable price with airport transfer and free breakfast). If you need help with booking for accommodations in other hotels/inns, Jeffany (licensed city tour coordinator) can help you pick out the ideal accommodation for your budget, at no extra cost to you 🙂 (Contact her at +639272864350 or email her at belvone14@gmail.com).

How long should you stay in Puerto Princesa? Well, you of course want to make the most of your time there, so I would say you need at least three full days (on a tight schedule), but four days would be just right. Below is an ideal itinerary, including the comparison of getting the tour package and “doing-it-yourself”:

Day 1- City Tour

It is better to have a morning flight so you have more time for touring the city.

> If you got the City Tour Package from a travel agent, you will be toured using an aircon van with a licensed tour guide. Your destinations more or less include: Crocodile Farm, Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, Binuatan Creations, Rancho Sta. Monica, Butterfly Garden, Baywalk, Plaza Cuartel and Cathedral. City Tour Package: Php 600/person

> However, you can also opt to do the tour by yourself. There are several ways of doing this, depending on how many you are in the group. If you are in a group of two to four, you can hire a tricycle (serves as the taxi in the city, only it’s three-wheeled) for half the day for Php 400 to 700 (I recently met this hardworking tricycle driver when I toured my friend – contact him directly to inquire: Regel Villegas +639105811183) . If you are in a group of five to ten, you can hire a multicab for 800 to 1,000, depending on your bargaining powers (multicabs are like small jeepneys that accommodate 10-12 persons). If you are in a group of ten or more, renting a van with driver is a better option (Php 1000-1500, refer to the link of tour companies, they also offer van rental services, or contact IC of Isee Palawan Travel & Tour Services at +639178859494 / +639098849494.)

If you are adventurous enough and are not afraid to get lost, you can also rent a motorcycle and roam around by yourself. Rates are at Php 50 per hour or Php 500 per day. The motorbikes for rent are just beside the airport exit gate. If you prefer self-drive car rental services, please contact Plong Car Rental at +639175530889 or 09197260367.

If you are alone or in a group of 2, you can choose to use public transport, the DIY Price is Php~200/person for combined tricycle/multicab fares. Here is my suggested route:

Binuatan Creations: If your hotel is in the city proper, take a tricycle (Php 8 per person within the city proper) to Rizal Avenue, preferably at Jollibee and ride the multicab with the route “Pajara-Sta. Monica-Bunkhouse”. It is better to sit near the driver so you can tell him to drop you off at PPSAT (Puerto Princesa School of Arts and Trade), at the road to Employees Village (fare Php 12 to 15 . From there, you can walk to Binuatan Creations (it is a bit far, though, about a block or two from the main road), or if you have Php 8 to spare you can ride a tricycle. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions if you are unsure 🙂

(photo from their website)

Binuatan Creations is a place where you can experience making handloom woven mats using indigenous plant fibers. Their products are world-class exports and you can buy these native products at the source. You can click here for their contact information.

Palawan Butterfly Ecological Garden and Tribal Village. After the handicrafts, you can return to the main highway (walk or take the tricycle) where you were first dropped off. From there, take the multicab with the same route “Pajara-Sta. Monica-Bunkhouse” and tell the driver to drop you off at Butterfly Garden (fare Php 8; Entrance fee Php 50, Php 35 if you have any valid Philippine ID).

Butterfly Garden is a place where you can observe and interact with different species of butterflies as well as flowering plants. If you are lucky, you can see butterflies emerging from their pupae (yey!). Aside from butterflies, they also have a small collection of insects and reptiles. Recently they added a tribal village to their attractions showcasing the culture of the Palau’an, an indigenous group in the province.

From pupae to butterflies. Watch the magic unfold at the Butterfly Garden!

Baker’s Hill. After butterfly garden, you can walk to the main highway (about 100 meters away) and ride the tricycles idling there to Baker’s Hill (fare is Php 10 per person or Php 20 if they take you there alone; Free entrance).

Baker’s Hill is a bakery/restaurant with a very nice mini park. You can have some snacks while enjoying the landscape. It is a pretty famous dating spot for locals 😉 The bakery’s specialties are the Hopia Ube and Hopia Baboy.

Mitra Ranch. You can climb to this next destination if you are up for it, but tricycles are waiting just outside Baker’s Hill to take you to the Rancho (fare Php 8 to Php 10; Free entrance).

The Ranch is owned by the former governor of Palawan, and provides a nice view of the city. Recently, they added the Rancho Zipline, which costs Php 500 for 3 lines and boasts of a 360-degree flip at the end.

Crocodile Farm (aka Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center). You can walk back to the main highway or take a tricycle (Php 10). On the main highway, take a multicab with the route “Irawan”, and tell the driver to bring you to Crocodile Farm (fare Php 10 to 12; Entrance fee Php 40).

The crocodile farm has, of course, lots of crocodiles! You can even have your photo taken while holding a live baby crocodile. They also have a park which feature Palawan’s endemic species such as the Palawan Bear Cat, bearded pig, mynah and other exotic animals.

– Palawan Heritage Center. This museum can be found at the back end of the Legislative Building of the Palawan Provincial Capitol. (Just tell your vehicle to drop you off there.) The center is fairly new, and boasts of a nice collection of artifacts depicting Palawan’s history with a special focus on the indigenous people of Palawan. Pretty neat place! They are open during office hours. Entrance fee costs 40Php for adults and 20 Php for students.

At the entrance of the Palawan Heritage Center

At the entrance of the Palawan Heritage Center

Plaza Cuartel – Cathedral – Baywalk. From the crocodile farm, you can take a multicab back to the city (Fare Php 18 to 20). Tell the driver to bring you to the Cathedral (it is usually the end of their route).

Immaculate Conception Cathedral

Immaculate Conception Cathedral

*You can also visit this last part after the Underground River or Honda Bay Tour, it is within the city and the fare only costs Php 8 by tricycle if you come from anywhere in the city proper.

The Plaza Cuartel is very near the cathedral’s main entrance. It used to be known as “Lover’s Park” for local teenagers (during my teen years, anyway). It used to be a Japanese garrison during WWII, and is now a memorial park for war victims. From the Cathedral, you can take a tricycle to Baywalk (Php 8) or walk the 3-4 blocks if you still have the energy. The Baywalk is now a popular place to stroll, bike (available for rent), and to try street food while enjoying the view of Puerto Princesa Bay.

The peacock is the symbol of Puerto Princesa, and is incorporated in the design of the Baywalk

Optional destinations (i.e. not part of the DIY Price computation):

Iwahig Firefly Watching. This is an option if you still have the energy (and money) in the early evening. Or do this after the island hopping or the Underground River Tour the next day. You can hire a tricycle or multicab to take you to Iwahig and wait for you until you finish (about Php 300-600 for a tricycle OR you can include this in your itinerary if you hired a vehicle for the day and prepare to add a small amount to the quoted fees above). A small boat for 2-4 persons costs Php 600, and a guide will row the boat for you. Remember to bring some snacks since you will have to spend until dinnertime in Iwahig.

DIY Price: Php 600/2-4 persons + vehicle rental

Firefly Watching Tour Package: Php 1,100 (includes van transfers, shed rental, boat rental, tour guide, DINNER at the site)

Sta. Lourdes Hot Spring. If you have more time to spare, you can spend an hour or two relaxing in the hot spring pools in Sta. Lourdes. The place is out of the way from most of the destinations I indicated above, and is much closer to Honda Bay and along the way to the Underground River. But if you have the means (hired vehicle), soaking in the hot water pools can also be a good way to relax. The rental is on a per pool basis. Rates vary from Php 350-1000 per pool, depending on size and on how fancy the resort is (the hot spring resorts are just beside each other).

Day 2 – Underground River (I have a separate blog post on this, just click on this link)

> Tour Package: Php1,500/person (details on this blog entry)

> DIY Price: Php750-900/person  (details on the blog entry mentioned above)

Day 3Honda Bay Island Hopping

> Tour Package: Php 1,400/person including airconditioned van transfer, licensed tour guide, picnic lunch, entrance fees, environmental fee

*If you came alone or as a couple, it might be better to avail of the tour package (as you will see when I discuss the commute option) (refer to my list of tour coordinators above for contacts).

> Doing it yourself:

First things first. You need to be prepared for the tour. (Note: Cutoff time for boat hire is at 2:00 pm, so make sure you are at the Honda Bay well before that time).

1. Buy lunch/snacks at the city proper if you want to save on food costs (They offer fresh seafoods that they can cook for you at Snake Island *about Php 150-500* but other islands don’t have much to offer).

2. If you have a snorkel set, you can save Php 100 since this is the cost of rental (but it’s a must to enjoy the amazing beauty under the sea).

Then, you need to get to Honda Bay, which is a thirty- to forty-minute ride from the city proper. There are a few multicabs that ply the “City Proper-Honda Bay Sta. Lourdes” route (fare Php 20 to 25), but then you might have a problem getting a ride back to the city afterwards. If there are no multicabs or tricycles waiting, you need to walk about 1.5 kilometers to the main highway and try your luck getting a tricycle or van to take you to the city (chances are slim, though).

A better solution is to hire a tricycle (for 2 to 5 persons; Php 300 to 500) or a multicab (for 6 to 10 persons; Php 1000 or more) for round trip service that will take you to Honda Bay AND return for you in the afternoon to bring you back to the city.

When you arrive in Honda Bay, proceed to the Tourist Information Office and rent a boat. The rates are standard: Php 1300 or Php 1600 (the rate depends on the motor power) for one motorized boat good for 6 persons, plus Php 220 for any additional person. You also need to pay the terminal fee, which is just Php 18 per person and the environmental fee for Php 40. Note that you can share the boat with other tourists, if you find shoestring travelers like you in small groups also looking to rent a boat. It’s a good way to make new friends! 

Oh, and buy lots of stale bread before you go off to the islands. It’s really fun to feed the fishies!

You can have your pick of the islands to visit, and each island has their corresponding entrance fee (ranging from 25 to 100 Php) that you can check out when you get there.

Personally, I recommend:

Snake Island (free entrance; cottage rental Php 50; currently closed) – The island boasts of a long stretch of white sand. It is named after its long snakelike shape.

Strolling the long stretch of white sand with the resident island dog

A sari-sari store in the island sells snacks, drinks, fresh buko juice, and fresh seafood that they can cook for your lunch (Php ~150-500). But the best part of this island is underwater.  There are literally A LOT of fishes in this sea 😉 You can feed them bread (which you can buy at the port where you paid for your boat rental) so they will swarm around you.

Starfish Island (entrance Php 50) – As the name implies, there are a lot of starfishes!

But more than that, the best part of this island is also underwater. You can ask your boatman to take you snorkeling near the shore.

Pambato Reef (Php 50 for snorkelers) – This is just a floating hut in the middle of the sea, but the coral formations there are the best in Honda Bay and even in Puerto Princesa. One tip: the waves are stronger in the afternoon so it is better to visit Pambato Reef early. Just ask your boatmen for their advice.

Other islands that you can visit include Pandan Island, Lu-li (lulubog-lilitaw) Island, and Cowrie Island.

DIY Price: Php 1800 for 4-5 persons + 200/person for entrance fees (lunch not included)

Day 4 – Dolphin Watching (my blog post about this experience can be found here)

This tour is ideal on the day of an afternoon return flight, as the tour is usually done before 11 am.

Excerpt from the blog: If you want to see the spinner dolphins swim, play and do somersaults,  just show up at the Baywalk of Puerto Princesa at around 6 am and look for the boats along the bay (we paid Php 700/person at that time). However, this method might not be reliable as you cannot be guaranteed a space in the boat if you did not talk to them ahead of time, so it might be better to contact a travel agency (Tour Package rate: Php 900/person).

There you go! I hope the information above can help you enjoy Puerto Princesa, whether you choose to avail of the tour packages or to tour around on your own. Have a great time!

P.S. I am also including a list of my recommended restaurants in the city. To reach these restaurants, just take a tricycle from anywhere in the city center (Php 8 per person) and tell them the restaurant name. Prices quoted are estimated on a per person basis.

> Ka Lui (Rizal Ave) – offers delicious Filipino food with a very “native” ambience. It is a bit pricey, but the food is really good. (Php 250-500)

> Chicken Inato (Manalo St) – their specialty is chicken barbeque that is very, very tasty (Php 100-200)

> Balinsasayaw (Rizal Ave) – this restaurant also offers chicken barbeque as their specialty, but they have a variety of Filipino dishes as well (Php 60-300)

> Neva’s Place (Taft St, beside Children’s Park) – This is a pizza and pasta place with very great ambience and good food (Php 70-250)

> Bona’s Chaolongan – Vietnamese dishes are very popular in Puerto Princesa from when the Vietnamese refugees came to Palawan. This restaurant has been a favorite for local students because of the price AND the taste. (Try the beef stew noodle with garlic french bread!) BUT if you are particular about ambience, I suggest you go to a fancier Vietnamese restaurant (Price Range 50-100)

> Rene’s Saigon – This place is the “fancier” Vietnamese restaurant, and also serves good food. *This place is a little far from the city center, farther than the airport so the fare is a peso or two higher.

Yum yum!

> Rustic Avenue (Rizal Avenue in Dagomboy Village) – It’s a newly opened restaurant that serves Pinoy food (but their signature dish is the honey garlic chicken) and some cakes and pastries. It’s a cozy little place for a quiet lunch or dinner and a drink or two in the evening (Price Range 50-135)

Rustic Avenue's Honey Garlic Chicken

Rustic Avenue’s Honey Garlic Chicken

> Kinabuch’s (Rizal Avenue, near Capitol)- This is more of a dinner/after-dinner place where you can chill and have a beer while trying Palawan’s exotic dishes such as tamilok(mangrove worm) or crocodile meat.

Tamilok (worm from mangroves). Best eaten fresh, and with beer 🙂

> Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri – This is a coffee shop with a very nice ambience.

> Itoy’s Coffee Haus – The more popular coffee place since it is located in the city center

>> There are also fast food establishments like Jollibee, Chow King, Shakey’s for on-the-go meals. Farther from the city center is the newly-opened Robinson’s Mall in Baranggay San Manuel, so there’s now a great number of franchised restaurant food choices (although I still recommend our local restaurants for that unique Puerto Princesa experience).

Just don’t forget to try chao long, french bread, tamilok and croc meat and of course, lots and lots of fresh seafood!

***Oh, and the souvenirs! The cheapest souvenirs can be bought in the LRC Pasalubong Center in San Miguel, almost across Mercado de San Miguel (ask the tricycle drivers to bring you there). Typical food souvenirs include cashew, dried fish/squid/tahong, spicy dilis, hopia (from Baker’s Hill). For souvenirs that last longer, you can buy the rainmaker, cultured pearls, and assorted knick knacks of native products.

They offer the most diverse options and the cheapest prices of souvenir items

LRC Pasalubong Center – They offer the most diverse options and the cheapest prices of souvenir items

Roughing it out: A backpacker’s guide to the Puerto Princesa Underground River

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: info@puerto-undergroundriver.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.

 

 

WOW Philippines, more than the usual

This is a video from the Department of Tourism promoting the Philippines as a travel destination. I saw this video a year ago on a plane, when I was coming home to the Philippines from abroad. I couldn’t help but feel pride when I saw this ad.

In light of the new administration’s flop tourism campaign, I just want to post this here to show that we don’t need another reinvention. We just need continuity and growth. Because the Philippines is already “more than the usual”…

Dolphin watching at Puerto Princesa Bay

Because I miss home…

Click here for a video of the dolphins

The link is a video taken last May 2010 during our dolphin watching at the Puerto Princesa Bay. I am a local of Puerto Princesa but last May was my first time to see these magnificent creatures out on the waters of our city. My friends and I showed up at the Baywalk at around 6:30 am, just in time to enjoy the sunrise. I walked along the bay and tried to figure out where the boat for the dolphin watching is parked. It wasn’t hard to locate, since the boat was the only place with people milling about at that early hour.

As the tour started (around 7am), I enjoyed basking in the early morning sun during the 30-minute to 1-hour boat ride to where the dolphins are. I took pleasure in the beautiful view of the blue and calm waters, feeling the sea breeze on my face.

The tour guide explained that we would see spinner dolphins (local name lumba lumba), which is very common in Puerto Princesa waters. For a long time, the local fishermen thought of these dolphins as a nuisance, since they usually eat the bait that was intended for catching tuna and other bigger fishes. Dolphins getting trapped in the fishing nets used to be a common problem. Now that there are dolphin-watching tours in the bay, the fisher folk earn a little extra from dolphin spotting. They are the ones who send SMS messages to the tour guides on the locations of the dolphins. Together with the local government and concerned individuals, the fishermen of Puerto Princesa Bay are helping in the conservation efforts for the spinner dolphins.

When we finally saw them, I was taken by surprise. In my mind, when they said “dolphin watching”, I thought I would be seeing five dolphins at a time (like in the dolphin shows). I was really taken aback by the number of dolphins that I saw! There were just so many!

The dolphins were very playful! They ride with the waves that the boat makes. The dolphins are so close I can almost touch them (but of course, I didn’t :p)!

After about two hours of watching the amazing creatures, we headed back.We got back to the Baywalk at around 10.30 am, still full of fascination for the spinner dolphins. 

If you want to see the spinner dolphins swim, play and do somersaults,  just show up at the Baywalk of Puerto Princesa at around 6 am and look for the boats along the bay (we paid Php 700/person at that time). However, this method might not be reliable as you cannot be guaranteed a space in the boat if you did not talk to them ahead of time, so it might be better to contact a travel agency (Tour Package rate: Php 900/person). You can find a list of the travel agents in Puerto Princesa here. They have uniform rates. This tour is ideal on the day of an afternoon return flight, as the tour is usually finished before 11 am.