Falling in love with Puerto Princesa

I was sipping cucumber lemonade at a restaurant near the airport when a colleague received a call from our companion who was already aboard the airplane. Stunned, we fidgeted from the couch like military men hearing the command “attention,” grabbed our backpacks and rushed to the airport.

Underground River visitors on a paddle boat

We entered through the exit gate and argued with the airport guards who did not have a choice but to let us in. The ground steward was already looking for us when we reached the departure area. We’re the last people to board the plane, we were told. Then, we boarded the aircraft. With our hearts pounding twice the normal rate, we walked to our seats at the rear of the plane. Everybody was staring at us. It was like a walk of shame. Remember when Cersei, the famous character in The Game of Thrones, was forced to perform a walk of atonement by the High Sparrow? That’s how it felt. We were chuckling when we fastened our seat belts.

No, we were not late. We were at the airport exactly two-and-a-half hours before our flight but when we heard that it was going to be delayed because of air traffic at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, we took it upon ourselves to wander outside the airport vicinity and look for a place to kill time. And that was a bad decision, obviously.

Karst rock formation near the UNESCO World Heritage Site

I wasn’t all giddy about the trip, as I was in Coron the other month. I joined my friends who first stayed in Puerto Princesa for four days before finally heading to Coron. Their feedback? Nothing much to do and nothing much to see in the city except, of course, for a trip to the underground river that recently became one of the New Wonders of Nature in 2012.

On my first day in Puerto Princesa, I was able to prove them wrong.

Our group stayed at a charming hotel, just five minutes away from the airport. Named after the owners’ mother, Hotel Fleuris is a 47-room three-star hotel with relatively modern convenience and basic amenities including a courtyard pool with a jacuzzi, a fitness gym, a Japanese restaurant that also serves continental and other Asian cuisines, a piano bar and a function hall. And the entire hotel is wired with strong Wi-Fi access.

The simple facade of Hotel Fleuris, a charming hotel located five minutes away from the Puerto Princesa airport. Photo by Klara Fernandez

Our amiable host told us that the hotel is already 17 years old and is celebrating its anniversary in September.

In a city where similar hotels are standing along its commercial avenue, Hotel Fleuris boasts the friendliest and most efficient hotel staff. Located in the heart of Puerto Princesa, it is just a few minutes drive to the town plaza, too, our first pit stop in our three-day stay in the city.

The Immaculate Conception Cathedral and Plaza Cuartel are situated near the town plaza. Built in 1872, the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, with its blue facade and pointed symmetrical arches, make it the centerpiece of the plaza apart from being a historical landmark on Rizal Avenue.

Just across the cathedral is a site with a rather eerie yet dramatic background. Plaza Cuartel served as the location of the Hollywood film The Great Raid that starred Filipino actor Cesar Montano. It was a silent witness to many horrifying stories during the Japanese-American war in the Philippines, or World War II.

According to our guide, more or less 150 American prisoners of war (POWs) were detained in underground bunkers in the area. They were brutally massacred by the Japanese Imperial forces. Eleven of the detainees survived. A few decades later, one of them managed to return to Palawan to tell his story.

This episode is now commemorated with a bronze marker at the center of Plaza Cuartel with the names of those who both perished and survived.

As I wandered around the Cuartel, I realized that Puerto Princesa, indeed, has a rich history and the best way to learn of Palawan’s past, is of course, to visit its museum.

Called Palawan Museum, the edifice is a repository of relics and artifacts found across the country’s last frontier. Many of these artifacts have been unearthed from Tabon Caves, including a skullcap of the remains of a caveman carbon dated back to the early Paleolithic Era about 22,000 years ago.

A tour inside the museum is like a virtual journey that will make one understand why the people of Palawan are proud of their roots, and why they care so much about their environment. No wonder, apart from being the least densely populated city in the Philippines, it’s also regarded as the cleanest and greenest in the country and has been internationally recognized for environmental excellence.

Cool drops, okay

Our second day in Puerto Princesa was the most exciting. After our city tour that covered a visit to historical sites, crocodile farm, Baker’s Hill and the Vietnamese village, it was time to meet the real princess of the province—the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River or more popularly known as Underground River.

A view of the entrance to the Puerto Princesa Underground River

Upon our arrival, we were briefed at the entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage Site by our boatman who’s also our tour guide. One of the things that I could hardly forget was his warning about cool drops and warm drops inside the cave. He said cool drops were okay, it was normal in any cave but warm drops were not because these came from the nocturnal inhabitants of the Underground River. Yes, warm drops are bat poops and there are around eight bat species in the cave.

The amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations inside the Underground River. Photo courtesy of gov.ph

This 8.2-kilometer navigable underground river winds its way underneath a mountain range, through the St. Paul Underground River Cave, and then goes out into the South China Sea. The journey through the cave system alone is 24 kilometers long.

The entire area where the Underground River is located is a national park and a model of biodiversity and is home to more than 800 plant species, including almost 300 trees, 195 bird species, 30 mammals and 19 reptile species. This basically explains why this tourist attraction is a must-see. One will not just marvel on the amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations, he will also appreciate how Mother Nature compressed her other wonderful creations in just one place.

Last day

In any trip, the last day is always the time when you get to have some moments to spare. You can just stay in your hotel or you can explore the city, visit the places or do activities travel websites and magazines wouldn’t mention.

Members of the press pose for a photo op at the lobby of Hotel Fleuris before heading back to Manila. Photo by Klara Fernandez

Puerto Princesa is a charming city, slowly booming with commercial centers rising, yet still very eco-friendly. Probably, the next time I visit the city  on my own, I will try to immerse myself in the local culture. The people make what the city is today. Perhaps knowing Palaweños on a different level can give big city dwellers some valuable lessons about sustainable living and environmental care.

Philippine Airlines flies to the city province three times a day. It’s not that hard to go back.

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