Have you ever seen a river that flows underground? Probably not, since it’s underground and hidden, but there are several such underground rivers in the world and I got to visit the one in Philippines recently. Like normal rivers, the underground river starts inside the rocks of a mountain range, but instead of flowing above the ground, it flows underground through caves until it empties into the sea. The only way to enter the river is through a cave opening by the sea.

The underground river can be found on Palawan Island of the Philippines. It’s named the Puerto Princesa Underground River or PPUR for short. Puerto Princesa being the administrative capital of Palawn Island. The PPUR is a UNESCO World Heritage site and recently in 2011 it was added as one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world. So it’s really worth your time to go see it. The PPUR is located near the village of Sabang, and in order to get there means that you have to get to Sabang from Puerto Princesa.

Only visitors with valid permits are allowed to enter the PPUR, and there are 2 ways to get your permits. First, is to join an organized tour where they handle all permits and transportation to and from Sabang. This is probably the easiest and best way if you don’t want the hassle of handling getting permits and booking transportation.

Second, is to DIY everything from applying for the permit, paying all manner of fees, and finding transport to Sabang. I had limited time for my trip so I decided that the first option was the best. The packaged tours are definitely more expensive, sometimes costing 2x the price of the DIY option, but they usually include some other side tours and meals to make it more attractive. From what I read, there only a limited number of permits allocated for each day, and the tours can be fully booked out during peak season. It’s recommended to book at least 2 months ahead if you plan to come during peak season (November – June). If you want to go the DIY route, here is a useful website that tells you how to go about it.

Most of the tours leave from Puerto Princesa and cost more because they include the cost of return transportation from Puerto Princesa to Sabang which is roughly 80km apart and takes 1.5-2 hours of travel time. If you stay in Sabang, then the tour prices are lower since they don’t need to include transport costs.

Getting to the PPUR first requires that you board these out-rigger boats at Sabang Wharf. They will bring small groups of visitors to a landing point near the PPUR where you will transfer to smaller paddle boats that can enter the narrow cave and river mouth.
After a short wait, my boat came and I had to remember the boat number, as I would have to take the same boat back to the wharf. Plus, the life jackets on this boat will be used throughout the tour, so I had to return it to the boat’s captain.
We left Sabang Wharf and made our way to the PPUR. It’s a short boat ride of around 20 minutes.
Somewhere behind those steep cliffs lies an underground river.
Now is the time to let you know that you have to jump onto the beach and get your feet wet. The best is not to wear expensive shoes during this tour. Flip flops are actually a good idea.

After getting off the boat, our boatman went ahead to register us for the next part of the tour, which is to transfer to the small paddle boats which will take us into the underground river proper.

The meeting point and registration buildings near the PPUR. If you need to go, there are toilets here and a rest area.
A sign which shows how much of your entrance fees goes into supporting the PPUR.
It’s a short hike of less than 5 minutes to the paddle boats. I would advise you to go in the early morning as it’s cooler and less crowded, since the majority of tourist hordes have not arrived yet from Puerto Princesa. This probably means you should stay in Sabang.
Finally we arrive at the mouth of the PPUR where the paddle boats were stationed and waiting to bring visitors into the underground river.

At first glance, the cave looks like one of those sea caves that I had visited in Phuket previously. But for the PPUR, fresh water actually flows into the sea, and it has it’s own unique ecology within the caves.

In order to preserve the ecology of the PPUR, no excessive noise is allowed in the caves. So each one of us was given a personal audio device which narrates interesting facts about the PPUR through an earphone.
And so we head towards the cave entrance of the PPUR. The smell of guano, or bat poop hits us in the face. If you need to puke, now is the time to do it.
As we went further into the cave, it gradually got darker until it was pitch black. The only light was from the head mounted torch of the boatman. He would shine his torch at prominent landmarks as pointed out by the narration from the audio device. I wondered how he could sync so well with the audio narration. Did he have his own audio device or he just knows it from pure memory?
And we could see the millions of bats which make the caves their home. As we were warned in the audio narration, we had to keep our mouths shut as we looked up or risk getting a mouthful of bat guano. Besides bats, swiftlets also make these caves their home.
Most of the time, we were paddling through low rocks and narrow passages…
But there are a couple of large caverns with ceilings as high as 60m above us. The sight of giant stalactites and stalagmites is quite impressive.
Finally we came out of the underground river back through the same opening that we had entered. The tour lasts for around 45 minutes and we had traveled around 2km or more of caves. The PPUR itself is thought to be 24km long, and only 8km of it has been explored.

We returned our audio devices and retraced our steps back to the main boat on the beach where our boatman was waiting for us.

Despite the interesting boat ride into the depths of the Earth, I much prefer taking a boat ride under the Sun. We sped back to Sabang Wharf where the tour ends.

Besides the PPUR, Palawan does offer more for the intrepid traveler, so stay tuned for my next blog post where I’ll show you what else you can do on Palawan Island.

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2 thoughts on “The Underground River

  1. Palawan has been on my wishlist for a really long time. El Nido and this underground river are among the places I most want to see on the island. It looks like you beat the crowd by arriving early!

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