The underground river at Puerto Princesa, in the Philippines, first came to my attention when I saw it listed as one of the New7Wonders of Nature. I was intrigued that there was a natural wonder out there of which, until this moment, I was entirely incognisant.
And not just your average wonder of nature either, the underground river at Puerto Princesa knocked the Great Barrier Reef out of the competition, so it must be pretty spectacular.
Was it spectacular?
The Puerto Princesa underground river can only be visited as part of a guided tour. It’s a 1.5-hour drive from the township of Puerto Princesa – where you are almost certain to be lodging – to Sabang, where you will board your boat shuttle to begin the tour.
As soon as you arrive in Sabang, you, or your guide, will need to join an enormous line to purchase your tour tickets (tickets, annoyingly, are not available for pre-sale – I visited in December 2016). Lining up for the tickets will take at least 30 minutes, and could take up to two hours.
When you have your tickets, you’ll need to join another queue – expect it to take another 30 min to one hour – while you wait for your designated boat transfer to arrive.
The boat transfer
The boats used to shuttle you from Sabang to Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park come in the form of the traditional outrigger, which is a good choice aesthetically. Unfortunately these boats are not very stable in rough seas, and as a result the underground river tour is often cancelled at the last minute.
It’s also worth noting that the boats do not muffle their engines, and the 20-30 minutes you spend on the boat will leave you temporarily deafened. As a construction engineer, I know that the human ear can withstand 15 minutes at 85 decibels before suffering hearing loss. The boat engine is louder than 85 decibels, and the ride is longer than 15 minutes; bring your own noise cancelling headphones if you want to protect your ears.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
The outrigger will drop you at a sheltered beach, from where you enter Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Entering the park requires you to join another queue. While you wait you will receive your lifejacket, safety helmet, and headset. If you’re lucky, there’ll be some monkeys running around the ticket area to keep you amused.
Eventually your tour group will be announced, which means you can enter the national park and approach the river, where you will join another long queue waiting for tour boats. This may take another 30 minutes.
Finally, a flat-bellied canoe sidles up to your group; you get in, and you are paddled into the cave mouth. At long last your underground river experience is beginning. Don’t forget to put your headset on.
The Puerto Princesa underground river
Your headset will be blaring in your ears the entirety of the time you are inside the cave. Personally, I found the falsely cheerful pitch of the announcers grating, and the content excessively cheesy; the announcers do provide interesting details regarding the features of the cave, but much of what they say is twaddle.
The voice-over is constantly telling you to look here, and look there, while the tour boat operator – the only one allowed to handle a torch – swings their torch beam in synch. Attempting to admire the cave in a manner of your own choosing is pointless, as the rest of the cave is unlit.
I ended up removing my headset about half way through the tour, and sat in silence for the remainder of the journey. In all, I think I preferred it that way.
How are the caves?
The underground river at Puerto Princesa is a wonderful natural attraction. It’s one of the longest known river caves in the world, and it’s set in a pretty, jungle-filled national park with UNESCO World Heritage protection.
In terms of appearance, it’s a fairly standard river cave, not dissimilar to other river caves that I have visited. You are unlikely, at any point in the tour, to be overcome with awe – which does not mean it is in any way bad, but it may not be as spectacular as you might expect given its listing as one of the New7Wonders of Nature.
And my appreciation of the cave was severely diminished by the tour operators attempt to gold-plate the experience. The incessant queuing, combined with the general cheesiness of the whole operation, made the tour feel like a long, slow, not-all-that-interesting ride at an amusement park.
Does the underground river at Puerto Princesa deserve to be one of the New7Wonders of Nature?
The New7Wonders of Nature were selected following a massive international poll that encouraged residents of competing nations to ring up and vote for their national treasures. Based on that process, then yes, it won the poll; it deserves do be listed.
However, do I believe that Puerto Princesa underground river is better than the Great Barrier Reef?
Is it the best cave I have ever been in?
Not even close.
If you are after an awe-inspiring cave experience, then I would recommend you skip Puerto Princesa underground river, and go to Škocjan Caves in Slovenia instead. If it’s exquisite stalactite and stalagmite formations you are after, then I recommend Jenolan Caves, in Australia.
And if it’s a fun water ride you are after, I’d recommend you skip Puerto Princesa and try Disneyland. The lines are shorter there. 😀
Practical information and how to reach Puerto Princesa:
The city of Puerto Princesa is the capital of the island of Palawan in the southern Philippines. There are regular flights between Puerto Princesa and Manila, Davao, and Cebu. More transport info here.