Day 2: Boats, Bats and Beaches
When one typically goes on vacation, getting up early isn’t exactly on the itinerary. For most, there isn’t even an itinerary. As gorgeous a backdrop as Palawan may be, this trip wasn’t so much a vacation as it was field research for you, our Mango faithful. With our first day (click here to read Part 1) in Palawan spent with crocodiles, island hopping and eating delicious seafood in a giant nipa house, our second day was eager to start at 6:30 AM. The sun cracked through the shutters of our Microtel suite and a rooster crowed boastfully at us. Granted, given the rural setting of the Philippines a rooster crows pretty much at any time of day, but this rooster’s timing was
After a nice longsilog breakfast, our tour guide Hanny was in the Microtel lobby shortly after 7:00. Had he been tardy, our sleepy eyes wouldn’t have looked at him sternly. Within minutes we were back on the main roadway, headed towards one of the gems in this island’s crown: The Underground River.
Travel time from Puerto Princesa to the Underground River is a seemingly daunting 2 hours, more if the road conditions are bad due to weather or hampered construction, but the road there winds through the very definition of the word ‘lush’. The greenery sprawling across some of the valleys is breathtaking and I found myself hard pressed to partake in the power naps my cohorts were using to regain some lost sleep. In between nodding off, however, I found myself understanding the stunning simplicity of this island, and even more, the Philippines. In America, you travel to designated places to witness natural beauty, for most of the Philippines, the beauty is everywhere. I romanticized thoughts of tree-lined mountains in the distance, and the likelihood that very few people, if any, may have set foot on them.
Much of Palawan’s history is intertwined with the country’s involvement in World War II, as it seemed that every factoid that Hanny had about points of interest had something to do with the war. The irony of a war bringing light to such a beautiful place is undeniable. I think it adds an air of context and a good sense of history. After all, one can rarely get by on looks alone.
After traversing the endless greenery we arrived, abruptly, at the launch port to “The Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park”. More boats, I thought. Good thing I love water!
The boat trip to the Underground River was breathtaking. To the left of the boat was open sea, a distinct horizon that was straighter than any line I could draw. To our right, large limestone behemoths emerging from the sun-sparkled water, the bases of them being slapped by waves over hundreds of years.
Just as the boat reached the shore, Hanny pointed out a mountain in the distance, enticing us with one more factoid: “You are going inside there.”
I felt like Indiana Jones, the Goonies, and Jack Sparrow combined.
There is a 30-yard walk from the entrance to the park to the landing where the cave tours embark, but you smell the cave before you see it. Actually, it’s the “brackish” water that you smell: a lagoon where the tidewater comes up into the river and meets with the fresh water pouring out of the mountain. The lagoon is crystal clear and very calm, and as much as you
would want to, you aren’t allowed to swim in it. This is because of the caves inhabitants: bats.
Puttering along in our small paddleboat, with the daylight fading behind us, there is a feeling in the air. A feeling that there are things flying in the dark space all around you. And you are right. Not only is this river unique, but it is also home to multiple species of bats only found in this region, some only in this cave! The experience is both a testament to the power of nature and the vastness of our world. Much like its namesake, the portion of the tour called “The Cathedral” humbles you in the same way the designers of Notre Dame had intended worshippers to feel in the house of God. In many ways, they are very much the same.
In the midst of the darkness and the bats (did I mention the bats?), our park ranger pointed out many rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites that have been forming for the last tens of thousands of years. All of the nicknames the rangers have given the formations are a bit cheesy, but spot on (one definitely needs to see the formation lovingly called ‘Jesus’ to understand). While we were only allowed to go about two or three miles down the river, in the darkness it seemed like almost five miles. Reaching the light at the end of our tour, the fresh island air hit my lungs like the smell of fresh baked cookies: big inhales and reluctant exhales. The way my eyes had to adjust to the bright sun, I felt like I had just come from a movie theater. A movie theater with bats in it and really good surround sound.
When we got back to the launch port, a short stroll down the beach found us at our lunch spot, and a chance to swim on the beach. Over more delicious food in a lush surrounding, I got a chance to have a chat with Johnny Francisco, the owner of Mango Tours and a man that spent a great deal of time poring over the details of this two day trip. Who, when he wasn’t trying to catch up on sleep, was interviewing everyone, from Hanny to our tour guide, to the construction workers at the Microtel about the various facets of their lives here, and figuring out what worked best for his potential travelers. Amidst the thanks and questions, I asked him what its like to work on what many would consider a vacation. Sipping from his coconut, and staring at his family splashing around in the water, he took a moment and said, “Well, it’s work as usual, no matter where I am. It’s only a vacation when I get to do what I love with the ones I love.”
Three hours later, I found myself on a plane bound for Manila, staring at the seatback in front of me. Never had I felt claustrophobic, especially after being in a cave. I chalked up traveling via the water and on the ground (even under it) equaling a rough transition to flying. But secretly, I think it was the idea of adventure that made me restless. The adventure that Palawan is willing to share with anyone that wants to explore it inside and out, trying to offer not only another option in this beautiful country, but a distinct one as well.