First Solo Backpacking Trip: Palawan

Sabang, Palawan

Its been years since I planned my last backpacking trip. Reminiscing reminded me of my first solo 3 days and 2 nights escape to Palawan.

Cebu Pacific launched its first flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan in 2003. And guess what, I grabbed it! Why Puerto Princesa? Because it is home to one of UNESCO’s Natural World Heritage Sites, The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP). It used to be called St. Paul’s Subterranean River.

I got the flight in short notice so I wasn’t able to scout and book for my accommodation. Good thing I was able to grab a map at National Bookstore the night before. I was only staying for 3 days and 2 nights so I just packed light, bringing only what was necessary: 2 blouses, 1 shorts, 1 jeans, enough undies, a First Aid Kit, toiletries and anti-mosquito lotion (a MUST!), camera, pen and notepad, scarf/hat and a water bottle. Plus the blouse, jeans, and ever-reliable Teva I was wearing.

I was extra cautious about losing and forgetting stuff in my excitement so I tried to stick with what was really important. Everything I carried was sort of disposable. Papa had driven me to McDonald’s for a quick breakfast on the way to the airport so I was still full. With only around Php2000 cash on hand I boarded the plane bound for Puerto Princesa.

The flight was early morning and I arrived before rush hour at the Puerto Princesa Airport. I didn’t have check-in baggage so I headed straight outside, waved at a tricycle and asked to be taken to the terminal going to Sabang. I was told several trips leave in the morning. However, since the bus took a couple of hours to leave the terminal, I gathered that it was the only trip!

I was 3 hours behind my schedule and I began to worry if I’d still be able to go see the mountains and caves in Southern Palawan.  I was flanked by local folk in an ordinary provincial bus in a dusty dirt road. I was almost daydreaming when my thoughts were impeded by a sudden pffft! uh-oh, a flat tire! (you get the picture?)

So I decided to be productive and nudged my seatmate for an enlightening conversation about the local buzz at the Subterranean River. Then I remembered I didn’t have a place to stay. So I asked if he could suggest a decent enough room for me. I can hardly remember the name. But I remember walking to the farthest end of the beach away from the direction of the Underground River. I was somehow glad to have the chance to pass by the stretch of the beach. If only I could just leave my stuff and plunge. How I wish I just did that!

I had wanted to stay in a resort named

Sabang, Palawan

Dab Dab but it was not operational at that time. They had nice cottages with wooden sculptures and a small garden. Finally, I reached the Blue Bamboo Resort. What intrigued me was the native style huts. The walkway was lined with solar powered lighting fixtures that blended nicely despite the native-style huts. I decided to stay there to make my stay as close to the locals as possible. It was near the local village of fisherfolks.

I left my stuff and strolled along the beach on my way to the ranger station. All guests were required to register at the ranger station right at the end of the road where the bus drops off all passengers. It’s the road that leads to the beach so there’s no chance you’d miss it.

beachfront near fishing village Sabang, Palawan

Fortunately, I was the only one who registered that afternoon. I simply wanted to be briefed so I can go up the Monkey Trail early the next day. The ranger said I’d see a number of lizards, birds and macaques along the trail. I was having doubts about going on my own, but hell, I won’t miss the chance!

I strolled back to Blue Bamboo just in time to have my dinner served, Sinigang. I’m not that much of a meat eater so I simply feasted on the veggies and the sour broth. I spent some time chatting with the attendants as there were no other guests. Palawan is mostly occupied by Tagalogs and most can speak English just as well.  I ordered a glass of fresh fruit juice and brought it to my room…er hut. From my porch, the moon shined so brightly. It was so peaceful I would’ve stayed out longer had the mosquitoes stayed some distance. But that’s sheer luck. I’m a mosquito magnet!

My hut’s flooring, just like authentic native huts, was made of bamboo slats. I was thankful that the wash and shower room was in concrete. The water was so cold but at the same time refreshing from my day’s dusty bus ride. I forgot to text papa before I left the city. There’s no signal now so there’s no chance I’d get to tell them how beautiful the beach was. Papa knows I love the sandy beach. Sigh. Tucked myself under the sheets because I was so scared the mosquitoes will keep me awake all night.

Underground River, Palawan

sunrise Sabang beach, Palawan

beach at Sabang, Palawan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprisingly, I woke up just before the sun went up. I hurriedly prepared for my early morning trek. I walked straight to the other side of the beach, roughly 10 minutes, across several larger resorts reaching the ranger station where they book for the mangrove river tour; Passed the bridge (not sure if it has been renovated) and over to the start of the Monkey Trail.

mangroves near Monkey Trail jump-off

The beach from Mangrove River Tour jump-off

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time check, 7am. I was hoping to reach the underground river in 2.5-3hours. Even if I could’ve ran up the trail, I walked as leisurely as I could trying to spot some interesting wild life. There were a number of lizards and some bashful snoopy and aloof crawling creatures. But my trip would never be complete if I don’t meet the macaques. So I grew anxious as I crossed halfway and was almost near the limestone cliffs.

Lonely Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

As the Almighty would have heard me, I saw 1 macaque slowly approaching the wooden path. Now at the limestone cliffs, which was laid over with a long wooden bridge to make the trail safer for all ages, I waited as another macaque slow-motioned towards me.

I’m glad I didn’t bring food or they’d have smelled and fished for it in my sack. When I sat and waited for them to go away, they drew closer and came within my reach. They may see sudden movement as a threat when one snapped at me and revealed his fangs. Nice monkey…so I decided to back off a little.

Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis), not-so-lonely after all

A few minutes passed. Still no one passed the trail and I was stuck with 2 macaques in front of me. I began taking their pictures. I guess I irritated them with the flash. They slowly retreated, one to the other cliff and the other to the foliage nearby. Maybe they decided they couldn’t extort anything from me.

Obviously, guests have been feeding them in this part of the trail so they have established this area as their territory. The slightest scent of food will make them aggressive. One sad reality of eco tourism is disrupting natural habitats. Simple instructions like “Don’t feed the animals” are often neglected.

Macaque bullies

I reached the underground river in time to be the next to paddle inside. They limit the number of boats to make sure they leave the least impact on nature. The Underground River gets around 300 to 1000 visitors daily! I went in March but was so glad that instead of sharing the boat with 8 or 9 people, I had it for myself! It was as solemn and spiritually satisfying as can be. I learned from my boatman that they have to undergo special training to be able to ferry tourists into the cave. Thank goodness, safety is a priority. I’m claustrophobic so it’s a big deal for me to go inside a cave. (But somehow I’ve conquered my first crawl in a small cave in Puerto Galera or was it Subic?) They have rigid rescue trainings because, as he said, visibility is very difficult once inside the cave. Each boatman carries a high voltage lamp. Like most rural fishing vessels, the boats are equipped with a car battery as energy source for light inside the cave. And they have to be ready to secure an alternative in case the batteries ran out while inside the cave.

Entry to the Underground River, Sabang, Palawan

At the opening of the cave, I feel a chill rise up my spine. It’s very cold and creepy inside. But my fright (I’m claustrophobic) calmed as I began to be amazed by the rock formations inside. Very beautiful and magnificent indeed! My guide says the river flows farther and deeper, but guests who want to go farther need a municipal permit and the boatman need more back up equipment to proceed.  I wonder when I ‘d be able to swim inside a cave. Yeah right!

In the meantime, I enjoyed the beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations inside the cave. Some were too far for my old cam to capture. My guide says there are around 7 chambers accessible by boat but require permit from higher authority as the cave is being protected from abuse. It used to be the longest underground river until the underground river in Yucatan Peninsula was discovered in 2007. On the walls, small bats have gone to sleep. Some are grouped together making interesting formations along the walls and on the ceiling.

stalactite in Underground River, Sabang, Palawan

5 more minutes and I was taken back to shore. I walked towards the shore and wondered if I was going back the Monkey Trail or take the large banca back to the port. While I was making up my mind, a medium-built guy who was trying hard to hide a baby armalite under his towel approached me and offered me packed lunch. I declined and said I wasn’t with the tour. A number of guests had poured in from a large banca just as I alighted from my river escape.

He insisted, saying they had prepared too many. Oh, so now I’m having free lunch. That’s nice. I was crossing my fingers I’d get to hitch on their boat, too. It was almost noon and I realized I better be running now if I wanted to make it to the last trip back to Puerto Princesa. By the way, the last trip back is 2pm. If you plan to stay overnight, check with the ranger station upon arrival to make sure of departure time the next day.

Once again, the Almighty heard my prayers! I made it back to Puerto Princesa. I had a more luxurious return than when I came having ridden with a prominent politician’s entourage. Too bad my cam flopped and I totally lost my photo inside his Chevy. Talk about being helped by a total stranger with a baby armalite. He explained later that it was for the protection of the VIP guests he had to escort. I just wish I knew his name so I can thank him for getting me back to the city.

And so goes the first installment of my first solo adventure.

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~ by theorangehut on December 5, 2010.

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