Updated: Mar 9
Underground River Palawan, Philippines: The Puerto Princesa underground river is a true natural wonder of the world. It’s the world’s longest navigable underground river and makes for an exciting experience in one of the Philippines’ most popular islands.
Wait, underground river? How is that possible? Yep, that’s right. In fact, the river flows directly underneath the St Paul Mountain Range, found on the mid-western coast of Palawan. The river channelled its way through a series of vast chambers and caverns over millions of years ago.
The cave system stretches for a total of 24km underneath the mountains, and the river itself winds its way through 8.2km of it. Besides being one of the longest underground rivers in the world, the Palawan Under RIver is also one of the very few that outflows directly to the sea. The river and caves are home to complex eco-system that has adapted to living underground here over hundreds of years. Many of the animals in the caves are found only here, including certain types of giant spiders, crabs, fish and snakes, although bats and swallows are likely to be the only ones you’ll see.
Puerto Princesa underground river
This UNESCO World Heritage site will surprise, delight and astound any visitor as they take a boat ride through bright blue waters to a hidden underground river connecting directly to the ocean. The cliffs and mountains views as you climb onto shore will leave your mouth agape in wonder. And that’s just the beginning of why this new wonder of the world has been so aptly named.
Is it worth the trip?
Yes, absolutely. It’s an otherworldly experience: imagine paddling through the dark in a small boat – the boatman’s headlamp the only light guiding your way – while the soft click-click of bats, chirps of swallows and the echoed drip, drip of water from the roof is your soundtrack. You glide through giant cavernous cathedrals, past mushroom-shaped rocks, in-between candle-like spindles of limestone and into some of the darkest reaches of the underbelly of the cave.
Tours only take visitors up to the 4 km mark, but those wanting to apply for a special permit far enough in advance can tour all 8.2 kilometres. This far into the cave, it’s so narrow that boats can’t pass and you have to swim between the rock walls.
The entrance to the Palawan underground river looks like any other innocent beach shore. If I had happened to stumble upon this beach before it became a national park or UNESCO site, I would have no idea that such an amazing natural wonder was hiding right behind the trees. As you approach the shore from your boat you see this magnificent view laid out in front of you.
When you get off, you’ll see monkeys jump around above your head and you have to be careful when you walk so you don’t accidentally step on one. And don’t you dare chased the monkeys inside the cave-like I did or else your tour guide and the rest of the tourist will wonder and bothered. Don’t be naughty and stubborn. Instead, walk through a short path in the forest and a spectacular sight emerges right before your unsuspecting eyes.
The place is well run too with informative guides and a huge focus on conservation which is good to see since some places put that second to making a profit. The tour guides (bankeros) are English speaking and are very knowledgeable about the place. Exercise caution because of the local wildlife. They are fun and friendly. When he took our pictures, he always says “smell” instead of a smile… Helmets and life jackets are provided and must be worn for the duration of the tour (lasting around 45 minutes in total).
Everyone piles into a small canoe to enter the longest navigable underground river in the world, boasting caves full of natural rock formations made of dissolved limestone. An audio guide is available and provides lots of scientific information about the river and the caves, as well as accompanying atmospheric music.
Our guide proudly told us about the history of the Underground River and how important it is to the people of Palawan. Using a torchlight to point out the different formations, we got to see the Virgin Mary, corn, and various other shapes. We glided quietly along the river but we humans were not alone. Remember to keep your mouth closed when you look up, as the cave is also home to thousands of bats that fly all around and making noises.
As we were told not to look up and open our mouths, I could only imagine how many thousands of these winged mammals were perched right above our heads the entire time. The boat ride lasted about 45 minutes and when we turned back, I couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars how fortunate I was to witness this phenomenon with my own eyes.
Underground River Palawan
I’m a virgin when it comes to the natural wonders of the world and the Palawan Underground River lived up to all its expectations for my first one. This is well worth doing if you are on Palawan Island, not to be missed. We are very happy after the tour.
Tips for Visiting the Puerto Princesa Underground River
It takes three trips from Puerto Princesa to the Underground River. From our hotel in Puerto Princesa, we went first to Sabang. Second a boat trip from Sabang docks to the bay where the river lies. Then a short walk to the river entrance.
You need a permit to enter the national park. Since we went with a tour company, they arranged our permit for us beforehand. Book the tour a week or two early if possible to give the tour company time.
If you go on your own, you’ll have to arrange the permit on your own in Puerto Princesa
Wear shorts and flip flops, you’ll be getting into the water a couple of times
You can bring a DSLR camera but put it in a plastic bag or waterproof backpack. You can use it during the boat ride and you definitely want to take lots of photos!
No one should travel to the Philippines without witnessing this amazing feat of nature, which exceeds 20 million years of age.