A visitor seeing a new place for the first time has ‘Beginner’s Eyes.’ I was an absolute beginner when I stepped out of the airport and into the real Puerto Princesa. With dis-orienting speed, the tropical air filled with music and a group of dancers swirled and dipped into action in front of me. Pairs in ruffled costumes stepped and solo performers swished through routines. Costumes morphed and the music rose to final crescendo when they paused for applause. Then the dancers asked to take a picture together!** I’d just discovered the real Puerto Princesa – reflected in it’s people.
Many travelers miss Puerto Princesa entirely as they spin off to other parts of Palawan Island. The northern area is one of the most picturesque in the Philippines, but we didn’t venture to El Nido. We had been diving at Tubbatha Reef for days and wanted to see more of the local culture before returning home. Over four days we took several tours with the city as our base.
Where to find the real Puerto Princesa
While wandering on our own, we scooted around town in one of the ‘Tricycles’ that flow non-stop, 24 / 7. Often drivers would wait for us while we stopped at stores or restaurants and the service was very affordable. One driver helped us over several days. He waited for us while we had dinner, led us through the fish market, then took us shopping for medicine and souvenirs. I had a chance to talk with him about family and work, and cherished his kind openness.
Trim vans picked us up at our hotel for day tours. Filled with cooling AC, our guides would answer questions and regaled us with highlights of local history. Below are some of the spots we visited by van. Most of them were filled with tourists and well-rehearsed speeches but did offer glimpses of the real Puerto Princesa. We asked questions, made requests and listened, listened, listened.
Boardwalk and Firefly Tour
One evening tour took us across town to the city boardwalk. Families were strolling or riding bicycles. Food carts and small cafes filled one side; the bay sat darkening on the other.
Slim boats sat waiting for clients. Our group was motioned onto one vessel and instructed to put on life jackets. It was pitch black as we pulled up to a barge for a buffet dinner. The central table was piled with platters of seafood, stew, rice and salads. A small group of musicians filled the night with exotic rhythms. Soon after we slid into a dark mangrove forest where fireflies put on a nightly show. Floating into the shallows, lightning strikes sporadically illuminated the mountains above. Our guide’s banter was fashioned for the amusement of tourists but we played along and enjoyed meeting other visitors, most of them from Manila.
The Islands of Honda Bay
Tours of Honda Bay are fashioned with something for everyone on several of the small islands close to town. First we stopped to rent snorkels and masks. We were told it was a good idea to wear water shoes to avoid stepping on sharp corals or biting fish. The Pambato Bay park was disappointing with pens, murky water and few fish. Many boats went to the party island, Cowrie, with it’s water sports, bars, music and massages. We headed over to the quieter, Luli Island for lunch and swimming in the shallows.
Although it was late morning, I spoke at length with the bartender who introduced me to joys of Tanduay Rum. (A bottle came back with me to California.) He shared tales about the families who own the various islands. Finally, the excursion ended with a visit to Starfish Island where the roped off area sheltered dozens of unique starfish in the shallows.
Underground River and paddling through mangroves
The UNESCO site of the Underground River is the area’s biggest draw. It’s a 3 hour van ride from the heart of Puerto Princesa. The winding road led us to the Sabang wharf area where we joined scores of tourists while waiting for our turn to board small boats. The boats carry visitors to the Underground River launch area. It was a hot and steamy wait, but people-watching was fun and cold drinks were plentiful.
The River tour was worth every melting minute. Once given a neck-piece audio device with narration in English, we stepped into a rowboat and were taken into the caves. Bats and Sparrows dove above our heads. Everyone was hushed, listening and watching intently. The undulating, limestone cave surfaces are unlike anything seen elsewhere. The fragile environment is being delicately developed with an eye to the future.
After a buffet lunch at the sleek Sheridan Beach Resort, we drove to the small encampment where row boats take visitors up a narrow, mangrove river. It was a stunning contrast to the crowds we’d endured earlier. The only visitors at the time, our guide and paddler led us into the wild world where we spied exotic birds, monitor lizards and sleeping snakes. I especially loved our guide launching into a song on the way back. She was shy and kindly sang of respect for the natural environment. As we disembarked, a group of Chinese tourists began filling the other boats. We were so lucky to have had the river to ourselves.
Butterflies and Palaw’an Tribesmen
Our final city tour took us to several spots around the town. We walked through the private WW2 museum full of artifacts about the key role Philippine soldiers played in battles against the Japanese. A Crocodile Farm housed giants and babies, local animals and a huge souvenir shop. Driving up into the suburban hills, Mitra’s Ranch mansion was a pleasant spot to cool off for a few moments before stopping at the Butterfly Garden. There were few butterflies, but behind a wall in the back we stepped into another world.
Several natives from the Palaw’an tribe sat waiting for visitors. They shared their hunting prowess with blow dart demonstrations and, through an interpreter, we learned about their musical instruments. The tribesmen come down from the jungles to earn money to buy chickens, we were told. It was encouraged to help preserve wildlife, but I wonder who is preserving who! The outpost sold beautiful handcrafts and I think of those gracious, young men when I admire the trinkets we brought home.
Bakers Hill and Gardens
Bakers Hill and Gardens had a theme park ambiance with statues of cartoon characters, selfie spots, snack bars and climbing gyms for the little ones. We mimicked other visitors snapping up boxes of purple Ube in the bakery (More about the local foods in this earlier post.) The small, creamy cakes are filled with Taro and traditionally made with ‘pork oil.’ We passed them around inside the van, trading more stories as we rode back to the hotel.
Plaza Cuartel and the marketplace
The morning we were to return to the US, we took a tricycle over to the WW2 memorial, Plaza Cuartel. The Spanish fort is gone but what does remain is a reverential space spotted with signs commemorating the Japanese massacre of American Soldiers. (Read more about that in this earlier post.)
I played hide and seek with a young boy in the gardens. He was thrilled to get his picture taken and followed me across the street to the Cathedral where a funeral was taking place. His family were attending but his mischievous spirit was more interested in finding someone to play with!
Puerto Princesa is a bustling but modest town that is well worth exploring. Four days makes no one an expert but, while it’s easy to share pictures of the beauty and rich colors of the region, I found that the wonders of the real Puerto Princesa are found in its people.
**About that dance: We weren’t the only ones being welcomed to Puerto Princesa. There was a delegation of media from South Korea arriving at the same time!
A huge thank you to everyone who made our stay so special. I hope you visit Puerto Princesa one day and explore the Philippines. I look forward to returning one day. Disclosure: Our tours were hosted by iTravel Tours and Philippine Tourism offices in Los Angeles as well as in Puerto Princesa. As always though, all opinions are my own.
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I have never heard of Puerto Princesa but it so looks like a visit! Especially as we are in the midst of winter here 🙂
It was steamy. Home in San Diego we’re going through a bit of a heat wave so thinking of you and winter weather is calming. Thanks, Tandy.
Wow! Sounds like a pretty incredible trip! Sights well worth seeing! I’m up for just about any adventure involving boats and water, so it sounds like just my kind of thing!
One fun time for sure, Rachel. I’m a water baby so spending time exploring a tropical island makes me so happy!
What an amazing trip. It looks like you really dove in head first and experienced the culture of Puerto Princesa. It’s certainly a beautiful part of the world. I would love to go one day.
I hope you get the chance to check it out one day. Perhaps you’ll go to the TBEX in the Philippines next year?
What a fun and authentic time you spent here! It looks like the culture is still very ingrained in the community.
Thanks, Susan. After floating on a boat for 5 days it was a treat to explore the city and culture in port. Highly recommend it!
I’ll definitely give this city a few days before heading to El Nido – thanks for this timely post!
So welcome, Aaron. I hope you enjoy yourself. Check out my post about the food scene there as well.
Palawan Island looks like a beautiful destination destination. I didn’t make it to that part of the world yet. For some reason I don’t feel very attracted to Asia, although I’d love to see some parts of it by all means, especially the Philipinnes.
Interesting as travelers how we’re drawn to certain parts of the world. As a scuba diver, the Philippines have been on my radar for years. It’s a demanding sport in so many ways. I haven’t spent enough time in your part of the world, Europe but hope to visit Croatia and Slovakia next year.
Never heard of Puerto Princesa and thanks for sharing it with us.
You have captured culture and everyday life pretty well. Loved those candid shots.
Thank you, Himanshu, It’s a special place and I’m certain there’s so much more to be discovered. Glad you liked the shots too.
How wonderful, what an incredible experience that must’ve been. I love all your pictures and that you were able to interact and capture the personalities.
This is so very true, “A visitor seeing a new place for the first time has ‘Beginner’s Eyes.’ “
Alyssa, your sweet comment makes me so happy. I will be cherishing this trip for a long while. Thanks.
Getting to know the people of an area always makes the experience more special. I think it’s great how much you went out of your way to learn more about the culture. And how nice of the bar tender to introduce you to Tanduay Rum! 😉
It was great to be in such a foreign place and not have a language barrier. Especially when it came to chatting with that bartender!!
I’d love to go to the Underground River and speak to locals about their culture. I’d love to know more about the food. I don’t think the Honda Bay islands would have been for me but really interesting to read about this place. Thanks for sharing
Glad you enjoyed the post, Kate. There’s something for everyone in Puerto Princesa and area.
What a great summary post about the amazing activities that can be done at Puerto Princesa. When we go I hope to see the fireflies and also to do some diving in Honda Bay.
Thanks for stopping by, Christina. I hope you do get a chance to see the fireflies and at least snorkel in Honda Bay.
I don’t know about people skipping Puerto Princesa for other parts of Palawan but I’ve been reading more and more about Puerto Princesa lately. I haven’t been but from the sound of it alone, I’d love, love, love to check out Starfish Island & Underground River one day. Soon, I hope!
I hope you do get a chance to visit Puerto Princesa one day. The starfish were a sweet encounter.
I’ve not been to the Philippines yet so I’d definitely step off the plane with beginner’s eyes. (Great expression!) Palawan is definitely on my radar, though Puerto Princesa is new to me. I really appreciate your write up. Thanks for sharing it on #TheWeeklyPostcard.
By the way Elaine, when I tweeted your post via the sharing is caring at the end of the story, it said “via @Shareaholic,” not “via @TripWellness.” Not sure if you knew that, but I thought you might want to change that setting. Cheers!
Thanks for the comment and the alert, Linda. Palawan is a huge tourist magnet but most miss Puerto Princesa entirely. It’s a bit grittier than the resorts for sure.
Sounds like you had such a fun and interesting trip! It’s nice that you went somewhere a bit different. Good to know Puerto Princesa is such a great base to explore more of Palawan. I would love to check out that underground river!
You’d be fascinated by the river tour, Jen. We intrepid travelers have to step away from the tried and true sometimes.
What a colourful and fun place to visit. And what a fabulous welcome.
That welcome truly blew me away!
What an incredibly authentic experience. Sort of reminded me of my time in the Amazon. Loved reading this story and really getting an insight into this local culture. #Megashare and also #weekendwanderlust
Thank you Kerri, I really wanted to share the visit in an authentic way, so your comment means a lot. Appreciate the share too.
I have never heard of Puerto Princesa but it seems like you have peeked behind the curtain and seen the true place and it’s awesome! You’re so lucky to get the river to yourself, I hate crowds, it can really spoil the experience but you got it just right. Great mix of activities here too, I’d love them a go if I find myself in the Philippines 🙂
Thanks, Melissa, I’m with you about being uncomfortable with crowds but there are some I’ll gladly join – the Underground River & Cave tour, and Disneyland stand out!
Looks like the little boy you were playing hide and seek with completed your visit in a GREAT way! Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us. It looks as though it was life changing.
That kiddo was a sweetheart! So glad I took the time to play.
What a trip! I love how the entire experience was so heavily influenced by your interactions with the local people. They seem thrilled to share their world with you, and what a lovely world it is! The caves and river sound especially interesting to me. Well worth the extra journey!
It’s something I don’t often take the time to report but meeting people on the road makes a trip so memorable. Those are the things I’ll truly remember once the pictures are put away.
Awesome!! Really enjoyed reading this. Glad you got a real feel of what the Philippines is like!
Thanks, Anna, One island of thousands! There’s so much more to explore in the Philippines & I hope to return.