DIY Underground River day trip from Puerto Princesa

After our day stop over in Manila we flew to Palawan where our overland and oversea adventure was to begin. First stop was Puerto Princesa where our main goal was to visit the Underground River in Sabang before heading up to El Nido.

Step 1 in visiting the underground river independently is obtaining a permit from the office in Puerto Princesa, located on the ground floor of the City Coliseum building (350 Rizal Ave) – this was within walking distance of our hostel – slightly north of PP proper. Their opening hours are 8am – 4pm weekdays and 8 am – 5pm weekends (with a break 12 – 1pm for lunch on the weekends). The permit will cost 250 pp for a foreigner and they require a form of ID (Passport, drivers licence, etc) – the ID means there is no way for the permits to be arranged in advance (we were hoping our hostel might be able to organise this, unfortunately not). There are 100 permits allocated for independent travellers and when we went in there were over half of these left for the following day (Oct ’16) and barely any taken for following days.

Next task was to organise transport the morning of. We had tossed up the idea of renting a motorbike for the day however in the interests of saving time we instead decided to head to El Nido from Sabang after our underground river tour. This meant relying on the local transport. The cheapest method we found was a (larger) jeepney which left from the San Jose terminal which is a short ride north of PP proper (you can get a jeepney here from along Rizal Ave for around 10 php pp, there is a market right next door for some breakfast/brunch/dinner/etc). We elected to go on the first which was a 7am departure, from what we could tell they and other buses left at different intervals up until around 2pm. It took us a while to find the jeepney as you walk past the bigger bus terminal (cherry etc) then the pricier vans, then the slightly cheaper vans, then finally the location of the jeepney. Just keep walking and asking – the going rate is 150 php pp (200 – 300 for a van, more for a bus). This (return) also works out as around the same as motorcycle hire for 2 people for 1 day (600 php). The only thing to consider is that the jeepney seems to leave Sabang around 2pm as it’s last trip of the day which does limit your time a little bit, however we were back in Sabang just after 12pm so it is definitely very doable.

As I mentioned before, we had decided to instead continue to El Nido, this resulted in us organising a van from Sabang for 700php pp at 2pm. Something to keep in mind is that although they advertise it as a Sabang to El Nido trip, no vans or buses go directly so you will have a short (around 15 minutes for us) stop over at the big intersection (pictured below, there is a small shop as well) while waiting for a van from PP to pick you up.

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After arriving at Sabang (we arrived around 9:30am) you will need to pay an environmental fee (40 php pp) and an audio guide fee (85 php pp). The audio guide is to try to reduce the noise levels in the caves to reduce stress on the inhabitants however your guide will talk regardless to point things out and provide some commentary along the way. Both of the fees are compulsory.

We also wanted to store our luggage somewhere for the day and were directed to the police station which is just on the corner near the dock. They were happy to look after our things for no fee.

Your next decision is whether to visit the UR via sea or land – these options cost roughly the same amount – 170+php pp for the boat return trip depending on number of people and 200php pp to walk the trail return (not entirely sure why it costs so much to walk but there you have it). Due to the poor weather and the idea it would be slightly quicker we opted for the boat journey. As we were only 2 people we asked if we could be paired with another group at the counter on the dock – this did cost us 200 php each in the end however it also meant we jumped the queue. It was very easy to do as there were lots of people around – when we returned at around 12pm there were very few people waiting so if you’re looking to share the boat with other people I’d recommend arriving in the morning.

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You’re then hustled onto the beach (keeping your life jacket and remembering the number of your boat), allocated an audio guide (although this seems to be just for fun – M was given 4 different audio guides at different stages before we actually started and I was switched right before the boat launch) and guided down a track to the mouth of the river. At both the beach and river you will be required to walk in the water, potentially past knee depth, so either barefoot or some sort of sandals/thongs/water shoe is a good idea.

The proper tour finally starts here as you are paddled into the system for quite a distance and then return via the same route. We really enjoyed ourselves – we really enjoy caves in general – and there were some beautiful rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, and some of the comparisons to what they resemble were a little interesting – rotten papaya included.

We then returned via the boat, had lunch (the cheapest option we found was 75 per meal, to the right of most of the restaurants) and then got on our van to El Nido – stay tuned for details of our DIY 4 day kayaking trip camping on the islands and visiting the tour stops independently!

Total costs per person (php):
Permit: 250
Transport to San Jose bus station: 10 (20 return)
Transport PP – Sabang: 150 (300 return)
Enviro fee: 40
Audio guide fee: 85
Getting to the entrance: ~200
Lunch: 75
Van to El Nido: 700

Total (including lunch): 970 (return to PP) 1360 (PP to EN) – cheaper than the 1400+ pp tours we were quoted around PP! And very easy to do.