Puerto Princesa, the Philippines
April 7 – 8, 2019
This was a city tour like no other. There was none of the urban area suggested by the term. Touring Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan, was more about roughing it, including but not limited to rock climbing, spelunking, beach bumming, heritage shopping, and exotic dining.
The tour started as a walk in the park, or a zoo, specifically Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, more popularly known as the Crocodile Farm. The crocs that never budged in their cages were no less fearsome. Their jaws of muscles and teeth could snap up a falling tourist in no time. That corrugated reptilian skin that had barely changed from the dinosaur eras was enough to raise the body hair of this mammal.
But this was an educational visit. We were schooled in the difference between freshwater and saltwater species, both found in the southern half of Palawan. The former had streamlined snouts, the latter bulkier and more irregular. It was enough to learn to avoid any encounter with them.
As was usually the case, crocs had more reason to fear humans. The Philippine species had been critically endangered for years, hence the need for a breeding facility. So was the Philippine hornbill, kalaw in the vernacular, hunting and habitat loss to blame. The birds were known for the distinctive casque on their beak, supposedly bright red but colorless here.
Still on chill mode, our party of six cramped into a tricycle to take us to Mitra’s Ranch, the sprawling property owned by the late Senator Monching Mitra. On higher ground, it offered a panoramic view of Puerto Princesa and Honda Bay. A mare and pony grazing in the meadow seemed like tokens to merit ranch status. More than anything, the ranch was a stand-in for a local park for dating and picnicking. A pre-nup sunset shoot was also underway.
The next day, we were ready to werk it. We drove to the opposite coast of Puerto Princesa with touristy stops marking our itinerary. Our first challenge was Ugong Rock Adventures at the aforementioned limestone outcrop. While the rest of the boys chose to sit it out at the restaurant, the girls formed my quad squad.
What better way to work our quads than by rock climbing the hollow interior of Ugong Rock? Confirming the name, I tapped on the rock face to listen to the ugong, or hum, reverberating within. Check! The climb was not as strenuous as I had expected. We were hoisted with ropes and harnesses up impossibly vertical inclines.
At the top, I was shamed by the mere presence of 75-year-old Lolo Orly. With a quarter century on my age, he made the climb up the 75-feet Ugong Rock with his daughters. He climbed a foot for every year he had lived. Age was but a number. Spunky grandpa chose to go back down on foot while I took the wimpy way out – by zip line.
That adrenaline rush deserved a downtime: Elephant Cave Karst Mountain, practically a photo op with the backdrop of white limestone wall, and Cacaoyan Forest Park Restaurant, a lunch stop with native contraptions made for IG moments. The challenge was gastronomic: having a taste of tamilok, a slimy woodworm or mangrove mollusk eaten raw.
The main event was the Philippine contribution to the 7 wonders of the world: Puerto Princesa Underground River. It was my second visit. This time there were audio guides in English timed to the speed by which the boatman rowed the banca. Curiously though, the boatman could not stop dropping jokes about the natural cave formations, mostly speaking over the recording. The tour had an identity crisis: was it stand-up comedy or a NatGeo episode? In the end, it was more of the former than the latter.
The third day of the city tour called for some chill time at Nagtabon Beach, a supposedly hidden beach (tabon being cover in my language) on the farther side of town. After years of being touted as such, it had become an open secret. Our hotel concierge actually recommended it.
Still, the beach was broad and not crowded. We rented a hut for the day and had the fresh fish and meat we had bought on the way cooked. The younger set tried kayaking, the older ones content with watching livestock sashay on the beach.
Pasalubong shopping was the only agendum on the last day. By less than six degrees of separation, we were introduced to Rosal Lim, part owner of Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation, an organization providing livelihood to local women by teaching the art of handloom weaving.
Though not Palawan natives as many business owners were in this city, Ms. Lim and family still championed the country’s culture by bringing the production of heritage items to Puerto Princesa. It was easy to part with money when social action came with shopping.
Not part of the city tour per se, dinners were on our own choice. Kinabuchs Grill & Bar was notable for its croc meat. Exoticism aside, it was awkward at best taking bites of the subject of our conservation tour at the Croc Farm where, ironically, croc sisig was advertised. Kalui Restaurant was the most popular one; it required a reservation. It was a restaurant and an art gallery in one; they offered food for the stomach and the soul.
Who knew Palawan’s famous cashew nuts could be made into a shake? We sipped our fill at Sienatel overlooking Honda Bay. Three days of overeating merited a detox meal at Artisans where they served a humongous plate of salad.
Though it had grown into the country’s second largest city in area, Puerto Princesa never shed its beginnings as a rural town. The city tour, then, turned out to be about nature and heritage. And we were all the better for it.
Thanks to our homey accommodations Balai Princesa for this coast-to-coast tour of Puerto Princesa.