The City in the Forest

Scene Stealer
By JOJIE ALCANTARA
December 18, 2011, 10:39am

MANILA, Philippines — Puerto Princesa, the capital and only city of Palawan, was historically named by Spanish colonizers after Princess Eulalia who was born in 1864 to the reigning Queen Isabel II and Dr. Francisco de Asis of Spain. After the princess died, the city was changed to Puerto de la Princesa, and eventually, Puerto Princesa as it is known today.

People also attribute the name for its strategic advantages – a seaport that is geographically typhoon-free and can accommodate every sea vessel protectively in its realm, hence, “a princess of ports’.

My excitement upon visiting this place was out of curiosity at first. I come from Davao City which has a lot in common with Puerto Princesa. Apart from both claiming to be the largest city in the country (Davao in terms of land area at 244,000 hectares, and Puerto Princesa at 253,982 hectares), these cities are also constant and proud recipients of Presidential Awards like the Cleanest and Greenest Highly-Urbanized City in the Philippines, among other accolades.

Puerto Princesa is teeming with lush dense forest, amazing and unique species of flora and fauna (I have read that Palawan was once connected to mainland Borneo millions of years ago, thus having a closer evolution to the wildlife of Borneo), even as it is the most progressive urban hub of Palawan. Imagine living the city life in an island tropical paradise setting, or as it is dubbed, “The City in the Forest”.

Puerto Princesa lies in the heart of Palawan and is the center of trade, commerce and industry in the province. Under the steady hands of Mayor Edward Hagedorn, it has become a model and example in cleanliness, ecotourism and preservation, peace and order and good governance. Far from being a huge metropolis, Puerto is laidback in lifestyle. It does not have taxis but multicabs and jeepneys for public transport, and private vehicles for hire. At that time, back in 2004, there was already a strict P200 peso fine for littering.

In a city tour, I was thankful for the van’s tinted glass, for I was almost reprimanded for taking photos inside the famous Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, which was prohibited to protect the identities of prisoners.

Iwahig was established by the Americans in 1904 to house exiled offenders who were banished to the island. This “prison without walls” became a successful penal colony because it allowed detainees to roam freely, and live with their families. Disciplined inmates were taught to create handicrafts and souvenirs for livelihood, apart from cultivating rice and crops in the vast farm. Expect one or two inmates to quietly approach you and offer a bargain for their crafts. If not for their color-coded uniforms (brown for minimum security, blue for medium, and orange for maximum), they look like ordinary vendors who didn’t have a record to their names. Rarely was there an escape attempt, because of constant head counts and the difficulty of escaping from the island.

Memorable places to visit are the butterfly garden, crocodile farm and the Mitra ranch. We bought souvenirs from the Palawan Museum, like fascinating Anito wooden and terra cotta artworks carved by artistic out-of-school youths through “A Boar Land,” an arts program in Aborlan, Palawan to support their formal education. I bought a wooden choker with an oddly-shaped erotic figurine for Php150. Small trinkets cost Php50 and above, while chokers and necklaces cost higher. Large art decors and carvings are more costly at Php400 up. The queerer it gets, the more expensive it becomes.

While the city tour was fascinating, the highlight was still a day’s trek to the primary tourist attraction, the world renowned Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. The navigable part of its river inside the 4,000-acre cave stretches 8.2 kilometers in length (five miles) before it drains out into the South China Sea. While Palawan has claimed this treasure to be the world’s longest underground river, the title was surpassed by Vietnam’s Son Trach underground river reaching seven miles in length. (Latest discovery in 2007, however, gave way to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with an underground river estimated to be 95 miles long.)

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List for being the only national park in the country with a thick tropical forest cover within the city. Its unique and outstanding merits have also earned for itself a nomination and ultimately became a finalist in the New Seven Wonders of Nature, becoming the Philippines’ pride and bet. The Department of Tourism and the government have been going all out in a campaign to make Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) move its ranking to Number One among the New 7 Wonders of Nature exclusive list (joining the Amazon in South America, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Iguazu Falls in Argentina and Brazil, Jeju Island in South Korea, Komodo in Indonesia and Table Mountain in South Africa after a two-year vote among 28 finalists that concluded November 11 of this year).

Located about 50 km north of the city of Puerto Princesa, the park features a limestone karst mountain landscape with an 8.2 km. navigable underground river. A distinctive feature of the river is that it winds through a cave before flowing directly into the South China Sea. It includes major formations of stalactites and stalagmites, and several large chambers. The lower portion of the river is subject to tidal influences. At the mouth of the cave, a clear lagoon is framed by ancient trees growing right at the water’s edge. Monkeys, large monitor lizards and squirrels find their niche on the beach near the cave.

We took a lengthy, rough ride by private van to Sabang town for two hours, passing through beautiful limestone and marble cliffs of Cabayugan. In Sabang, we rode small motorized boats for 20 minutes to St. Paul National Park, giving us glimpses of scenic mountain ranges, while coasting through emerald waters. After a short walk through a thick canopy of trees, we were accosted by monkeys who tried to rob us of our snacks. A lonely, huge monitor lizard ignored us nearby. We reached a quiet lagoon and put on helmets and life vests to start a two-hour underground voyage with a funny and entertaining boatman named Oteng.

Darkness closed in on us once inside the spacious and dank cave. Natural ventilation provided cool air even as we went deeper into an abyss decorated with stalactites, stalagmites and chambers that were cathedral-like. Oteng, the cheery boatman began naming these uncanny natural rock formations as we passed by: a Holy Family tableau, St. Peter with a dog not a rooster, large vegetables hanging from walls, a sexy figure of a woman, two cats and genital patterns that made us laugh. Once, my helmet fell off because I stupidly looked up at the bats. We had to row back and retrieve it as it quietly bobbed in murky, silent waters.

This was not a good place for claustrophobics, by the way. Its eerie blackness and alternating narrow and wide passages will somehow consume you after 30 minutes, which is still halfway through the cave. The only light that shone was on the helmet of the boat’s first passenger. Whenever an interesting area was being pointed at, we waited until light would swing in that direction. I asked Oteng to hold the boat steadily so I could shoot various pillar statues in one spot, and he jokingly offered to drop me off and just come back for me later.

While we were a noisy bunch of Pinoys, we passed by boats with foreign passengers who were hushed and stiff as cardboard cutouts, apparently nervous of the pitch black journey. We laughed our jitters off and made jokes all the way back to the mouth of the cave, relieved when almost blinded by sunlight. The long but thrilling ride in those deep chambers was certainly worth the experience, more when your senses become attuned in the darkness. Your imagination runs wild at sudden noises around you. It doesn’t help when your boatman nonchalantly tells you, “Oh, it’s just a crocodile”. For the record, there are none inside that river.

Other destinations you can’t miss in Puerto Princesa are Honda Bay with its white beaches and islets including Snake Island and Dos Palmas Resort; the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, pristine waterfalls, enchanting lagoons, caves, mangroves and dive sites, Plaza Cuartel and the Vietnamese Village. Don’t forget to wine and dine in inviting places like Kalui Restaurant and Balinsasayaw Chicken Grill & Restaurant. Your special goodies, delicacies and pastries for pasalubong can be bought at  Baker’s Hill.

Air travel from Manila to Puerto Princesa takes an hour and a half and is available daily. Travel agencies are on hand to facilitate your trip arrangements. Hotels with good accommodation and reasonable rates are flourishing in Puerto. Getting around can be by tricycles, jeepneys or car rental services. Motorized outrigger boats can transport you to islands and beaches.

For more information, its official site is http://www.visitpuertoprincesa.com.

Jojie Alcantara is a Dabawenya is a travel photojournalist based in Davao City. View her adventures in www.pbase.com/jojie_alcantara or www.dabawenya.me. [Article link]