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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