By George Rajna
Having heard that Palawan in the Philippines is a worthwhile destination from a variety of travelers over the years, I was excited to be heading to the island’s capital, Puerto Princesa. Rissa Gatdula-Lumontad and Ricky Tio at Cebu Holiday Tours set up our accommodation and itinerary in advance, and so we were picked up at the airport by a representative from Hotel Centro, a misnomer since the hotel is located a few kilometers outside of the city center in a quiet area near Robinsons Place Palawan mall.
Constructed only two years ago in 2011, Hotel Centro has a variety of rooms to choose from including deluxe, superior, as well as honeymoon and family suites. The hotel puts on grill nights near the pool and has implemented an eco-friendly stance with programs to help the environment, such as their towel initiative; Hotel Centro was in fact awarded the 2011 Puerto Princesa City’s Cleanest and Greenest hotel award and is the 2012 Agoda.com Gold Circle Award.
The “Soul Pool Bar” offers Happy Hour discounts each night (60-peso local beers from 5 pm-8 pm; 50%-off margaritas and mojitos from 8 pm-11 pm) to help guests kick off evenings while relaxing at the bar adjacent to the pool and outdoor Jacuzzi. Hotel Centro’s amenities include a souvenir shop, fitness center, spa, business center and five conference venues. Fine dining is available for clients at Expressions Café but we had a romantic date night at Badjao Seafront, a highly recommended oceanside seafood restaurant where we sampled shrimp salad, crab soup and a tuna filet served with a side of vegetables and rice.
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we departed to the underground river at Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and perhaps Palawan’s biggest tourist draw alongside El Nido. The underground river is also cited as number two of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Formed by limestone karst formations, the underground river is open from 8:30 am-3:30 pm and issues 900 daily permits (which must be secured ahead of time; tour groups like AMIKA Tours can make the arrangements). We were picked up by April, a representative of AMIKA Tours, and en route we passed by Puerto Princesa’s largest mountain, Mt. Cleopatra. In keeping with Palawan’s theme of cleanliness and green eco-tourist stance, solar streetlights and trash free streets were evident.
At Sabang Village we set off by boat to the underground river’s entrance where monitor lizards and monkeys frolicked. Our underground riverboat guide, Nel, mentioned that the underground area is 27-feet deep and has a population of 20,000 bats. However, tourists are restricted to visiting only 1.8 kilometers of the total underground river. Local people believe that bad spirits haunt the cave. During our hour tour, Nel pointed out various rock formations that appeared like objects that we recognized from our above-ground world. Nel explained that we had to wear helmets to avoid being struck in the head by bat poop. We found the underground river to be impressive and unique but we were somewhat dubious of the site meriting UNESCO WHS status. We returned that evening to Puerto Princesa and dined in the Robinsons Place Palawan.
The following morning, April from AMIKA Tours returned to take us on the Honda Bay Island Tour where we would visit three islands. Palawan’s natural beauty was immediately evident after leaving Puerto Princesa behind. We first disembarked on Luli Island, literally a sinking and floating island at low tide. Lisa hula hooped to the en vogue Philippine song by Fruitcake titled, “Kirri Whoops,” and then we went snorkeling with required life vests in a roped-off area for safety purposes. Soft coral-colored orange and purple were visible along with unique heart-shaped coral that I had never seen before. Even though the seawater was murky, the beach itself was attractive and relaxing.
The tour’s second stop was Starfish Island. While April set up our luxury picnic feast, we snorkeled off the island and spotted a jawfish, the first one I had ever seen. The fish was round and lived in a hole with a face that likened a smashed frog face.
We consumed a tasty lunch that included grilled fish, vegetables, salad and mixed fresh fruit. Afterwards, we departed to the third and final island of the day, Cowrie Island, named after the commonly found cowrie shell. From the island we snorkeled out to a dock. I swam out with bread rolls I had purchased to feed the fish and I was swarmed by dozens of sergeant majors and needlenose fish. Lisa later hula hooped and this time April joined in the fun. We took a long stroll to take in the beautiful setting. The mangrove islands reminded us of the scene in Life of Pi with the meerkats.
As we returned to the Palawan mainland by speedboat, I took in the lovely natural setting. However, even back on the mainland, Palawan appeared beautiful with lush landscapes and attractive blue and green hued seas. After this initial taste of Palawan, we looked forward to our upcoming travels in Palawan to Kamia Bay and visiting the outskirts of Puerto Princesa.
About the Author: George Rajna, M.B.A., Masters of Science in Communications Disorders, is a bilingual speech therapist who has traveled to over one hundred countries across six continents. He composes music on the guitar and ukulele, and spent two years working in rural education for Peace Corps Paraguay. He is the co-author of Traveling in Sin. Since July 2012, George and Lisa have been living abroad in Southeast Asia, follow their journey at We Said Go Travel.