Coming out from a long trek through the jungle trail in Palawan, I finally caught sight of the underground river’s mouth. There were no crowds of tourists around, only me the boatman, who was intently anticipating my arrival for the guided tour of the subterranean marvel. From the dock, we swept across the tranquil waters going to the cave portal and drifted even further. The cave became increasingly dimmer as if the daylight were avoiding getting too deep inside the inner chambers. We continued our voyage until everything went … pitch black.

The ghastly solace inside the underground river reminded me of tales from Greek mythology, particularly descriptions of the River Styx, which divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. The darkness, calm waters, eerie echoing sounds, and otherworldly rock formations made it easy to imagine as if I were being ferried by Charon on his ubiquitous paddle boat to the land of Hades. Like the hero Aeneas, who saw many illusions while crossing the river styx, the boatman pointed out peculiar cave formations, which resembled real life things from fruits, vegetables, everyday items to human figures, and religious scenes.

Commute to Sabang, Puerto Princesa from Port Barton, San Vicente

The Puerto Princesa Underground River, previously known as the St. Paul Underground River, is located in Sabang, Puerto Princesa (3 hours north of the city proper by land). Since I was coming from Port Barton in San Vicente Town, I had to take the morning (8am) jeepney trip to Roxas (1.5 hours travel time) and climbed aboard a mini bus bound southwards to Puerto Princesa. After an hour, I reached the highway intersection in “Salvacion.” Buses going to Sabang are quite infrequent, I was lucky to have caught one at around 10:30AM (just after a few minutes of waiting).

Highway intersection in Salvacion, Puerto Princesa going to Sabang Beach


Arrival in Sabang, Puerto Princesa

I finally reached Sabang at around 12:45AM. Sabang Pier is the main jump-off point to the Underground River, beside the pier is a similarly named white sand beach lined with restaurants, resorts, and guesthouses. Since I planned to visit the Underground River that afternoon, I headed straight to the tourism information office and bought an environmental permit (day pass)  for P150. Walked to the northern end of Sabang Beach and checked-in at Mary’s Cottages (P400 per night).

Underground River Tourism Office


Sabang Beach


New high-end resort construction


Monkey / Jungle trail to the Underground River

To get to the Underground River, you either have to take a boat from Sabang Pier or go by foot via the Monkey / Jungle Trail. Not only does it cost nothin’, trekking through the jungle and seeing the forest flora/fauna seemed more exciting. I got to the starting point, which was just past Mary’s Cottage, at 2:00PM. From there I hired a banca to cross a river (P10) to the other side of the beach.

Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour Reception


The “starting point” is also where you can book a paddle boat for the early morning mangrove/river tour.


At the northernmost end of the beach

Upon reaching the northernost end of the beach, I walked up a wooden staircase and then to a dirt path laden with stepping stones. The trail meandered through the forest. It was so cool doing all of this on my own. There was certainly a sense of exploration and uncertainty, which felt very thrilling. Standing still, I could hear the sounds of birds, buzzing insects, falling tree branches … awesome!

Wooden Staircase and Platforms

Trail with stone steppings

Loved this natural overhang along the way; Just had to snap a self-portait

Underground River National Park Ranger Office

Park Ranger Office

The stone steppings ended at one point and I arrived at a fork in the path where I had to choose between the monkey trail and the jungle trail. I wanted to do the monkey trail since it takes a shorter time but the path was closed off. I had no choice but to take the other trail. It was jungle time! There was no well-defined path laid down only red markings on the trunks of trees that you have to follow religiously. I was seriously worried that I would miss one of the markings and get lost. Fortunately, I managed to find my way through the right path.

Jungle Trail

After 1 hour and 45 minutes of trekking from the starting point, I was at the end part of the jungle trail and only 15 minutes away from the Underground River. This part of the trail was my favorite. I just loved the rock formations and lush foliage. I didn’t get to see any interesting forest creatures during my trek. Me thinks it was because I went there too late in the afternoon :( I only got to encounter an army of annoying mosquitoes! Better bring along an insect repellent.

Reception area and picnic grounds near the mouth of the Underground River

Paddle Boat Tour of the Underground River

There was a picnic area at the entrance of the underground river. A rowdy group of tourists went out of the river’s mouth on a paddle boat … yeah, I kinda exaggerated my opening paragraph for dramatic effect :) Their tour guide pointed at me and mentioned that I was the only one left for the tour. The tour group was like … huh, really, he’s going in there all alone? I was like … cool, private tour! ^_^

The Puerto Princesa Underground River became widely popular when it became a finalist for the “New Seven wonders of Nature.” It is the longest navigable underground river in the world at 8.2 kilometers. My “private tour” lasted for around an hour and I got to see spectacular stalactite / stalagmite limestone formations, spacious caverns, and the native fauna living in the underground river. The guide made the tour interesting by inserting fabrications of the limestone formation’s look-alikes. He pointed out the vegetable section, cathedral, candle, image of Jesus, half eaten bacon, and all sorts of other things. I wasn’t really paying attention since I wanted to tune him out to immerse myself in the otherworldy beauty inside the subterranean river.

At the “Cathedral,” the largest cavern in the Puerto Princesa Underground River

Giant Candle 

The “Nativity” scene is somewhere here

Hanging Corn Cobs / Vegetable Section

The paddle boat tour only goes until the 1.5km mark from the mouth of the cave

The most surprising part of tour was when we went inside one of the smaller caverns. We were on our way to the cave exit when the boatman took a right turn. I was pointing the flashlight left and right but saw nothing remarkable. The boatman then told me the dark cavern was called the “bat cave” … and so I looked up and saw hundreds of bats just within a couple feet from me. I’m not scared of bats but seeing them so close to my face caught me off guard. There were so many bats, their dark skin made it look like the cave ceiling were moving.

Mandatory Boat Ride Back to Sabang

After the tour, I spent some time on the riverbanks and shoreline to take pictures. Since I couldn’t cross the jungle trail again, which closes at 3PM, I had to rent a pumpboat to take me back to Sabang Pier. Had to pay the whole P600 transfer fee since I was the last person there (with nobody to split the fee with). Bummer!

Beach near the mouth of the underground river 

There’s an overwhelmingly healthy marine and forest ecosystem here because the area is a protected national park

St. Paul Moutain Range in Sabang

Around Rustic Sabang

Walking around Sabang in the late afternoon, the village felt very rustic and laidback. Conditions were very different during mid-mornings, when swarms of tourists going on packaged tours would have their picnic lunch at Sabang Beach. I liked the peaceful scene of Sabang better and was happy I did a do-it-yourself (DIY) overnight sidetrip to Sabang rather than taking a packaged day tour from Puerto Princesa. Expenses for both were just the same … doing it DIY would’ve been cheaper if I took the monkey/jungle trail back from the Underground River.

Locals on their afternoon basketball game

High-end Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa

Sabang Beach fronting Sheridan

Palawan’s abundance of beautiful beaches was so surreal! The province had gorgeous white sand beaches cove after cove … island after island (well some are off-white … but still) . There’s a seemingly endless supply of beautiful spots to visit in this corner of the Philippines!

Overnight at Mary’s Cottages

I returned to Mary’s Cottages at 5:30PM and got to meet a few solo backpackers also staying there. Got into lengthy conversations with Jose. An anthropology teacher based in Barcelona, Spain who told me about his interest at the Spanish influence on Philippine culture, particularly, the language and dialects. Like Gen and Nick, who I met in El Nido, he was surprised that Filipinos still use Spanish words to count money and refer to common landmarks. He said the Philippines has many similarities to Latin America, which is probably true. I wished I could visit South America and Jose’s hometown of Barcelona in the future.

Restaurant at Mary’s Cottage

Nipa hut cottages at Mary’s

My room at Mary’s Cottages was a basic aptly sized nipa hut cottage, which had a bed good for two persons. The shared TB was located in another hut steps just behind my cottage. Food was priced at a premium. My dinner of chicken curry with vegetables, rice, and buko juice cost me P201. I think there are cheaper and better accommodations for solo travelers in Sabang. I decided to go with Mary’s Cottages despite the negative reviews I read online since it was nearest to the starting point of the jungle trail. I was in a hurry because I arrived in Sabang too late in the afternoon.

Overall, I enjoyed my trip to Sabang. I think, going there just for the underground river isn’t enough to fully appreciate the naturals wonders that it has to offer. While abroad the boat transfer from the Underground River to the village center, I got a glimpse of the colorful corals gleaming through the waters and a sweeping view of the breathtaking mountain ranges and lush forests of the national park. I still want to explore more of Sabang.

Puerto Princesa Underground River Tips

  • Port Barton to San Jose (highway intersection) Jeepney (1 to 1.5 hours) – P100
  • San Jose to Salvacion highway intersection going to Sabang (1 hour) – P60
  • Salvacion highway intersection to Sabang Bus (1.5 hours) – P60
  • PP Underground River environmental permit (day pass)  – P150
  • Monkey trail from Sabang to PP Underground River mouth (1.5 to 2 hours)
  • Boat transfer from Sabang to PP Underground River mouth (20 minutes) – P600 per boat (6 persons max capacity)
  • Mary’s Cottages – P400 per night (fan cottage good for 2 persons with shared TB)
  • Meal at Mary’s Cottages
    • Chicken curry with vegetables, rice, and buko juice – P201; Verdict – Average taste and overpriced
    • Filipino Breakfast (corned beef, egg, rice) – P115; Verdict – Average taste and overpriced
  • Sabang to Puerto Princesa City (San Jose) Mrket Terminal (3 hours) – P120
  • Puerto Princesa Underground River / Sabang, Puerto Princesa Travel Guide