The Underground River is located at the end of a 20-minute boat ride from Sabang. That confused me at first since I had never heard of Sabang. I visited the Underground River in the summer of 1974. Back then, there was no Sabang. That was 37 years ago, I just computed, when I graduated from high school and was about to enter college. It was a memorable summer because it marked a transition in my young life–the summer between high school and college. I’ll make sense of my confusion by narrating about it in another post, but for now, let’s talk about what to expect, geographically, when you visit the Underground River (this rolls over the tongue more easily than its other name, Subterranean River).
The next photo shows the route of most tourist traffic.
Most travelers from Puerto Princesa city visit the Underground River in three steps: overland by shuttle van and followed by two boat rides. The banca rides make an interesting contrast.
The shuttle van–mostly Toyota Hiaces and Nissan Urvans–makes the overland distance in 120 to 150 minutes (two to 2.5 hours). The overland portion begins at their hotel and ends at the wharf of Sabang. That’s the solid line above that ends at the Sabang Boat Terminal.
By the way, we used Bakawan Travel’s services. I do recommend them. They’re based in Puerto Princesa and their phone numbers are 0915.915.4246 and 0947.803.0988. Ask for Cheryl.
Once the van arrives in Sabang, travelers disembark and wait until they are able to board an available banca.
Contrasting banca rides
I mentioned that you’ll take two banca rides and that they make an interesting contrast. The first boat ride will be on a “muscular” banca. These bancas are equipped with more powerful engines than 90% of all bancas in the Philippines. That’s because these bancas will cross the incoming waves of the South China Sea (or should I call it the West Philippine Sea?)
The second boat ride will be on bancas made for slow-speed, group travel. It’s the right type for navigating the cold, flowing, and opaque waters of the Underground River.
This type of banca holds 10 passengers plus the boatman.
There are two well-known locations called Sabang in the Philippines. The first Sabang is a barangay in Puerto Galera which, in turn, is located in Oriental Mindoro. Puerto Galera is a popular travel destination. Among other things, it’s a beautiful dive spot and the Sabang there is at its heart.
The other Sabang is associated with Palawan. It’s the jump-off point to visit the Underground River. This Sabang is a purok (a site) in barangay Cabayugan.
You may request the driver, through the guide, to briefly stop for pictures. If you want karst formations, like the group in the photo above, you’ll have several photo opportunities in the latter half of the overland trip. The Underground River flows through a series of caverns. It’s a long system of caves that stretches over eight kilometers (five miles). The water that flows through it must come from tropical rainfall and underground aquifers.
When it rains–it pours. That saying, used to console your feelings, after bad things occur in a row, is literally true in the Philippines. The skies will open and dump a deluge. For 10, 15, sometimes even longer, minutes, water will fall as if being poured from a bucket. They form sheets of water that are very unlike the orderly, almost musical, frequency of regular raindrops.
I never realized clouds could hold that much water.
And then, just as suddenly, as if someone turned the spigot back, it’s sunny and the clouds are white again. I blogged about that observation before, here.
The water exits the underground river and joins the sea at a spot near Sabang. That spot is the cave that’s a 20-minute boat ride away from Sabang.
If you want more planning information for your trip, this link about Sabang has useful detail.
I was told that in November, the Underground River park was being visited by as many as 800 visitors a day, weather permitting. The park is open from early-morning to mid-evening.
Boats carry a maximum of six passengers.
You’ll be treated to spectacular scenery. It wasn’t a sunny day when these photos were taken so distant objects have a bluish-gray hue over them.
The banca ride to the cave
Your boat ride will trace this route.
The boat’s route from Sabang to the cave is five kilometers long. The typical ride is 20 minutes long.
Have your camera ready!
We didn’t see dolphins leaping through the waves but we spotted a predator.
Those were my best photos of the raptor. I was using a DSLR–my first one–but the longer-range lens wasn’t mounted when this raptor was spotted. There was no time to switch lens. The raptor was in view for, maybe, 10 seconds. I had to make a quick decision while not knowing how long the bird would be visible. We were going east to the cave. The raptor was going west, back to its nest. Our banca was facing east and the bird was heading west. And besides, our banca was bobbing and pitching the whole time.
Relating photos to map
Here are three sets of images. Each pair consists of a photo of the real thing and its representation on the hand-painted map (this was the first photo in this post, above).
That cliff above is represented by the hump below.
That’s one of the boulders below.
Those cliffs are spectacular! (By the way, all images are zoom-able, just click on them.)
This massive cliff is nearest to the cave.
You’ll disembark in knee-deep water. The water will be turbulent because on this side of Palawan, its west coast, the beaches face the open waters of the West Philippine Sea.
There, I did it. I crossed the bridge. I now join our President in calling the South China Sea by its new name.
You trek up the beach and wait in a native shelter, a rectangular wooden structure erected over two large trees. It’s tropical forest dark.
There are signs all around that you’re in a deep forest.
One of my companions made a funny remark. “It smells like a zoo,” she said. I overheard her, laughed, and pointed out that it’s the other way around. The zoo is a slice of the wilderness. The zoo smell is a smell of a slice of the wilderness. At that moment, we were standing in the wilderness. It was the real thing but it was the same zoo smell!
With pride, we note that all planks were recycled.
With shame, we also note that Filipinos still haven’t made a habit of disposing of litter properly. (I’m referring to the bottle cap that I just noticed and if it wasn’t a Filipino who littered, why didn’t the staff pick it up?)
The mouth of the cave
Finally, we’re here!
Each “caving banca” (i.e., a banca for exploring the cave) holds up to ten travelers.
The journey inside the cave–you penetrate less than two kilometers before turning back–lasts 45 minutes.
I counted less than 15 caving bancas. At ten to a banca, that means that the Underground River accommodates less than 150 visitors at any given time.