If the Philippines strike you as remote, here’s a reason to go there instead of Thailand or Laos: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River [www.puerto-undergroundriver.com]. A beguiling shade of aquamarine, the river is the main draw at the national park named after Palawan province’s capital, Puerto Princesa City, which lies 600 kilometres southwest of Manila.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River’s twisting course starts with a tree-lined lagoon that lures monkeys, monitor lizards, and squirrels. On its way into the South China Sea, the river covers eight kilometers.
That endurance feat makes it the world’s longest navigable underground river – one of several claims to fame that help it live up to its classy name.
Another is it made the finals of New7Wonders of Nature [www.new7wonders.com/archives/wonder/puerto-princesa-underground-river], amid stiff competition including Venezuela’s Angel Falls and Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. In addition, the river is UNESCO-listed. UNESCO describes Puerto Princesa Subterranean River as “spectacular”.
UNESCO also describes the river’s “faunal diversity” is “moderate”. But the usual take on the river is that it teems with wildlife. Of the 252 bird species whizzing around Palawan, 165 have been seen at the river.
Watch out for the white-breasted sea eagle, the Blue-naped Parrot, and the Palawan hornbill or Talusi, as locals call it, which boasts regal looks: predominantly black plumage, a white tail, shiny green “upper parts” and a splendid creamy beak crowned with a helmet-like “casque”.
Some curious mammals give the hornbill a run for its money in the presence stakes. Watch out for the long-tailed macaque, the bearded pig, the bearcat – a cute, nocturnal mammal whose name reflects its looks – the Palawan porcupine and a small skunk strikingly named the Palawan stink badger, which resembles a pig crossed with a badger.
Then there is the common reticulated python and the green crested lizard. Frogs and bats also enter the picture, as do swiftlets, the whip spider, the sea cow (dugong) [http://aboutpuertoprincesa.com/palawan/dugong-seacow.html] and the hawksbill sea turtle.
Magic. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River bolsters the Philippines’ tropical paradise image.
Keep it clean
Some sources fret that Palawan is set to degenerate into a party island and that, as a result, the underground river could become a sewer. But that nightmare looks unlikely to unfold for a simple reason.
Palawan is one of the Philippines’ cleanest islands – residents aim to keep it that way. Good news for tourists, bearcats and all the other residents of the cathedral-like limestone twilight zone.
How to get there
Puerto Princesa is on Palawan Island, an hour from Manila. Cebu Pacific Air and Air Philippines also conduct flight from Davao and Cebu City.