Puerto Princesa Underground River, Palawan, Philippines
The last time I was in a situation like this was at Disneyland. I was six years old and, despite being at the happiest place on earth, was starting to get a bit t-i-r-e-d as kids often do after a day of excitement.
The entrance to It’s a Small World was looming in front of me.
Perhaps my parents were trying to escape the crowds outside or maybe they thought it would be good for me to be trapped on a ride for 15 minutes. Either way, I was dragged onto a boat and taken on “the happiest cruise that ever sailed around the world”.
I don’t think I was happy. I mean, seriously, is anyone really happy at having 300 animatronic children sing the same line of song at them for that long?
It may be a small world after all, but it feels like a very long one when you can’t escape from that annoying shrill singing that just seems to go on and on and on.
This experience comes to mind thousands of kilometres away here on the island of Palawan in the Philippines more than 25 years later.
Once again I am being loaded onto a boat with a bunch of strangers to be taken into a dark tunnel where I will be trapped with no escape. Thankfully, I’m looking forward to it this time.
What is the Underground River?
I’m at the Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the six World Heritage Sites of the Philippines and a natural wonder.
It’s on the island of Palawan – the fifth largest island in the country but with a population of less than a million people.
Palawan is dominated by vast stretches of virgin forest and dramatic mountain ranges. It feels like the kind of place where nature gets lost amongst nature.
The river does a good job of hiding itself. There’s an entrance in a stone cliff, half submerged by a saltwater lake that feeds directly to the ocean.
But this entrance is the only clue to the existence of the tunnel beyond. And what stretches out in the darkness really is quite remarkable.
The Puerto Princesa Underground River is the longest navigable subterranean river in the world. It goes on for more than eight kilometres, completely underground, with unique rock formations all the way along.
It winds along slightly, sometimes dividing in two, sometimes with smaller streams shooting off in angled directions.
The height of the roof varies as you travel through it – one minute quite low and the next turning into a grand chamber more than 60 metres high.
How do you visit the Underground River?
Going to see the Underground River is a tale of three trips.
Firstly, you need to get yourself to the small town of Sabang, about 40 kilometres north of the island’s capital, Puerto Princesa.
From here you need to wait for a boat to take you around the coast to a nearby bay where you can access the river. It is possible to walk there instead (it’s about 5 kilometres away) but the views of the coastline are stunning from the boat and it’s not to be missed.
Arriving at the bay, it’s a short walk to the Underground River’s entrance where you’ll be put in another boat for the tour inside the tunnel.
You can only go about 1.5 kilometres along the river even though it stretches out for another six or seven. But don’t worry, the 45 minute round trip underground is enough to get a great sense of the site.
The young man paddling the boat I’m in also gives the tour and he’s a really slick performer. With a cheeky smile (I presume – it’s too dark to really see), he throws in plenty of jokes as he tells us about the geology and the animals.
“Don’t open your mouth when you look up,” he warns. “It won’t be water but bat droppings that fall in!”
With a torch, we illuminate the important parts of this fascinating natural wonder.
There are the stalagmites that look like people, the strange shapes growing out of the wall, the cathedral cavern that could well be a church… and the thousands of bats that are probably its parishioners.
This is a boat trip that makes me happy – it’s such a unique and special place and even though there’s a very slick and omnipresent tourist operation about the whole thing these days, it can’t take away from what the environment has created here for us.
You know what – Disney had it wrong. This isn’t a small world at all. It’s a huge one with new things to discover every single day.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Expedia UK but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.