Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Puerto Princesa: Enchanted with the city in the forest

Isn’t it nice to go traveling and see a different landscape every now and then? But what’s even better is when your office sends you to another island just to unwind and relax sans budget worries and report deadlines. And that’s how my office mates and I found ourselves in mid-July. We were treated to a four-day vacation in Puerto Princesa City. We had our trip arranged by Christy Bongar of BAL Tours. We managed to snag plane tickets at half the regular rate taking a direct Cebu Pacific flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa. 

As the plane was descending over Palawan island, I was in awe of the clear blue-green waters and the lush forest that covered the area. 

When we arrived at the airport, we were met by Ms. Vhanj of Ardent Suites Hotel and Spa. We were brought to Ardent which is around five to ten minutes away from the airport and a stone’s throw away from the Provincial Capitol. We settled in our rooms and had our lunch. At one o’clock in the afternoon, we were picked up by the guides of Tourister Travel and Tours (09275595565 / 09291956827) for our city tour. Since there were fourteen of us, we were divided into two groups. Our group had Shyr Vallejo as guide and Julius as the driver for the duration of our stay.

Puerto Princesa, also known as the City in the Forest, thrives on eco-tourism. The city is clean. They also organized their tourism industry. Tourist vans are of the spacious kind (talk about Grandia, etc.) with Gabay sa Turismo stamped on the side and the travel agency’s info at the back. And the guides and drivers wear their IDs. 


So back on the City Tour. There were just nine of us in our group (including Shyr and Julius) so we were comfortably seated inside the van. Then Shyr started introducing us to Puerto Princesa, the factoids, its people and the places to see. The city is so vast (one of the biggest in the country in terms of land area) such that a place 80 kilometers away from the center is still part of the city. From where I grew up, that’s already covering seven towns from the city center.

We came upon a fork on the national highway. We took the road going south. Our first stop was Binuatan where they wove mats out of indigenous materials such as buri. In the store next to the weaving room are handloom woven products such as bags, runners, place mats and even notebooks.

We then proceeded to the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (aka the Crocodile Farm). Here you'll find the skeleton and the hide of the longest crocodile ever found in the city's landscape. Apart from the wildlife relics, the complex also houses a  mini-forest and a hatchling house for the baby crocodiles. 

Our next stop was the Iwahig Penal Farm also known as the prison without bars since the inmates are quartered in houses spread across several acres of land instead of the dingy prison cells. While serving time, they are involved in various activities to keep them busy. Some would do farming, others would be busy with woodcraft. And still there are those who devoted their time to studies, earning a certificate which would aid them in gaining employment later on. While we hear sob stories of inmates being separated from their family, that is not the case in Iwahig. In fact, those who served or are currently doing their time are lucky to be sharing same roof with their families. When we went around and talked to some of the inmates, we noticed that they wore two colors of shirts. We were told that the color identified them, whether they belonged to the minimum security (brown) or the medium security (blue). 

The Plaza in Iwahig Penal Farm

The Recreation Hall

They have the Inmates Post Exchange wherein products handcrafted by the inmates are sold. Outside the store, the others would try to sell their stuff, usually a bunch of keychains for Php 100.00.

Some of the artworks by the inmates

From Iwahig, we proceeded to Mitra's Ranch, the rest house of then Speaker Ramon Mitra, Jr. From the balcony, we had a breathtaking view of the ranch and the bay. Then we dropped by the Baker's Hill to sample their famous hopia and at the same time have fun taking photo shoots with their life-size figures of Marilyn Monroe and favorite cartoon characters.

Finally it was time to head back to the city center. We passed by their Baywalk (a reclaimed area) and the port. Then we made a brief stop at the Plaza Cuartel, a military fort wherein around 150 American soldiers were burned by the Japanese forces. Those who managed to swim towards Iwahig survived the horrendous act. Nearby the Plaza Cuartel is the Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

Part of the Baywalk

We had dinner at Ka Lui's along Rizal Avenue. This resto has been recommended in many blogs and review sites. I am no interior design expert nor food critic but here's my take of our night at Ka Lui's.

The wooden interiors gave a cozy ambiance. Taking off our footwear and leaving it inside the lockers and baskets outside the restaurant added to the homey feel. Inside, there were various centerpieces of fruits. Works of local artists were likewise on display in their gallery.

baskets for the slippers and shoes

Ka Lui set good for two

As for the food, I tried to keep an open mind in savoring each dish. We ordered sinigang but it was sweet for sinigang. I thought that maybe it was how they prepare it in Puerto Princesa since it was similar to the sinigang that we would have later on in Sabang. Then, we had the Ka Lui Special of the Day, a reasonably priced meal set for two (starters, rice, fish steak, prawns, veggies, fish in coco cream sauce, dessert). The fish steak was bland for an ordinary Pinoy who loves some zing in his food. So there I go again, thinking that maybe it was how they prepare the fish steak here. On the other hand, it would appeal to the Westerners and those who are health-conscious. Prior to coming here, I checked their menu on their website  and their Ka Lui set had chili crabs. So I was surprised when they served the fish in coco cream sauce. The waiter told me that it was their catch of the day. So imagine us having fish overload that night. Overall, the food was okay, nothing extraordinary but then the laidback setting made up for a pleasant dining experience. Do make reservations because the place is usually packed. And I learned from my conversation with a waiter there that they have dining intervals for the groups at 6:15 p.m., 8:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

On our way back to the hotel, we checked out the wood carvings and handicraft at Arte Palawano located next to Ka Lui's. Their products are mostly made of kamagong.


Our day started early. By 8:00 a.m. we were already travelling northward to Sabang. And we were definitely in for a ride. After a two-hour zigzag, massage and roller coaster (coined by our guide) ride, we finally reached Sabang wharf. Shyr collected our ID cards and registered us for the underground river trip while the rest of us were busy taking pictures. Everything was organized at the wharf. The boatmen didn't have to scramble for passengers. Instead, the boatmen were called to ferry passengers according to their boat numbers. Each motorboat accommodates six persons only plus the boatmen (a reminder especially for those who will be travelling in groups). The travel from the wharf to the St. Paul mountain range took 20 minutes. 

Just a segue: When I was still in high school, I knew of this place as the St. Paul Subterranean National Park (it was one of the most-asked questions during quiz bowls) because it was located in the St. Paul mountain range and the St. Paul river was close by. In this recent trip, I learned that the national park is now under the management of the city government, hence the change of name to Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

Back to regular programming. We traversed the long boardwalk towards the mouth of the cave for another registration and to sign up in the list that would hopefully include this tourist attraction among the new seven wonders of the world. 

Another boat that would accommodate eight persons would take us inside the river. We suited up again for this adventure by wearing helmet and life vest (never a single day during our whole stay in Puerto Princesa passed by that we did not wear life vests save for the last day when we on our way to the airport). Ann and I were seated in front so the cave guide approached us and told us that we would be the "Tagapagpaliwanag." Uh-oh. Bubble thought: I haven't been to this site before so how can I do justice of explaining the factoids and the wonders inside the cave. It was only when we were entering the cave when I realized the significance of Kapitan Jun's (our cave guide) instruction to clip on the cable to the battery terminals. Ann and I would be taking turns holding the lamp for the 45-minute trip covering 1.5 kilometers of the cave.

I've been to a few caves in the past but this trip was by far the easiest for me. No puddles of water or river to cross, no mud-packed shoes and apparel and most of all, no small passages (point of no return moment) inside the cave. All I had to do was sit, carry the lamp and marvel at the stalactites and stalagmites which took centuries to take shape. Plus, Kapitan Jun kept throwing punchlines, we never noticed the time.

From the underground river, we went back to Sabang and had buffet lunch near the wharf. Heavy downpour bade us adieu as we headed back to the city center. We made a quick stop at Buenavista to have a view of the bay. And while we were on the road, our guide pointed to us the lamp post powered by wind, the sun and of course, the electricity. Thus, roads are lighted should any of the power sources conk out.

Later in the afternoon, our guide brought us to the tiangge for some pearl shopping. A pair of cultured pearl earrings can go as low as Php 20.00 while the South Sea pearl earrings were priced at around Php 3,000.00.

We had dinner at the Badjao Seafront Restaurant down Abueg Road. I was told by my friend to go there when there's still some light to enjoy the view. So we went there before 6:00 p.m. We had to cross a bridge flanked by mangroves to get to the restaurant. A table at the corner with a view of the mangroves was reserved for us. 

We had three orders of their meal set good for four priced at less than a thousand pesos per set. We enjoyed the clam soup, crabs, sizzling squid, kare-kare, lechon kawali and a host of other yummy dishes. The food was really good and it was reasonably priced so it was worth it. Definitely a must-try resto when visiting Puerto Princesa.

After dinner, we dropped by the Neon Box located at the Turissimo Hotel for some vocal exercise. However, our group singing was cut short because we had to share time with the other patrons. We requested for a private room but these were all fully booked. We learned that there were only a handful of establishments that offer private videoke rooms for uninterrupted videoke fun.


You might be wondering why I spelled it that way. According to our guide, it should be spelled that way since the word in Spanish means deep silence underwater. I searched my Spanish dictionary and the closest word to hunda is hundir which means to go underwater.

Leaving Santa Lourdes wharf

Our guide took us to Santa Lourdes which was the take-off point for the island hopping in Hunda Bay. It was almost an hour boat ride to our first destination, the Starfish island. We only stayed there for thirty minutes.

Our next stop was the Snake island, famous for the curvy sandbar that looks like  a snake. Too bad, it was already high tide when we got there so the sand bar was not that long. But it was still worth taking snap shots. And of course, we enjoyed snorkelling and meeting the comrades of Nemo and Otep.

Our last stop was the Pandan island where we had lunch and we swam till our skin turned dark. We enjoyed the white sand and the clear blue green waters.

After the island hopping, we headed back to the hotel. Some of us had to rest our tired bodies but those who were still oozing with energy decided to explore the tiangge and the city center.

This Puerto Princesa trip was one of the best vacations I had (apart from the beauty of Mother Nature to make this trip memorable, the other operative words here are paid vacation). But the city is just the tip of the iceberg. There's much to explore in Palawan, the country's Last Frontier. So I am now setting my sights on Coron and El Nido. Who knows? I might find myself in Palawan again...hopefully soon.

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Thank you for visiting Traipsing Chronicles. I hope you will continue walking with me as I wander and see the world. Cheers!

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