Puerto Princesa and Port Barton

8 Mar

We flew into Puerto Princesa very early in the morning and, from what we saw, there weren’t very many Westerners. This took us by surprise since it is the only major hub for Palawan, a top destination for people traveling to the Philippines. We exited the plane and actually did not fall victim to much taxi or tricycle driver harassment. We walked out to the main road, where a tricycle driver told us it was only 10 pesos each to get to where we needed to go, a hostel called Tree House Inn. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Naturally, he was trying to convince us to take tours with him and his company, and we had to do the obligatory stop by his tourist agency so that he could give us a list of pricing for all the available tours. While this usually bothers me, he was really nice about everything and not particularly pushy. He brought us to our hostel and told us that if we wanted any tours or onward transportation we should give him a call. The hostel itself was really clean, except the bathrooms which had lime scale build up from what had to be years past. The wifi was exceptional, probably the best we’ve had in the Philippines, so we absorbed it into our pores before heading out to try to find something to do in Puerto Princesa.

There is nothing to do in Puerto Princesa. Like actually. I have never been in a city in Southeast Asia that offered such few activities. We set out walking that day towards the bay walk, which we hoped would lead us to the sunset. However, the sunset was blocked off by a massive wall that sectioned off the port, We did some wandering in search of a way to see the sunset, but found ourselves in the backyards of village people which was a bit uncomfortable. While walking back to find dinner, we encountered the Plaza Cuartel by chance, which it turns out is a very important place for American History. The Plaza was a military fort during World War II, which the Japanese set fire to on December 14, 1944, in an attempt to burn alive the 143 American POWs there. Of the 143, 11 escaped, with the help of Filipino guerrillas, by swimming across the ocean to Iwahig. The park provides information panels about the shocking event, providing a detailed history and discussing the survivors, and features monuments which list out the names of those who died during the massacre. A sign in the park expresses appreciation towards the Americans for their part in earning the Philippines their freedom. Embarrassingly enough, neither Christine nor I knew about this event in our country’s history. It was a completely humbling experience and a beautiful tribute to American soldiers. Content that we saw such a meaningful place in the city, we headed back towards the hostel and ended up at a fast food place, Chow King, where we ate beef fried rice, dumplings and spring rolls, before heading back to our comfy and clean hostel beds.

We had been deliberating the Undergound River tour, trying to decide if a 1,800 peso tour was worth it. The Underground River is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. It’s basically a massive cave with the ocean water running though it like a river. It is fairly untouched, and there is a massive effort to keep it that way, with the exception of the canoes quietly making their way through. We knew we could probably make it to Sebang, the coastal town that the Underwater River is located near, but we just weren’t sure how to go about it. It was closer to where our next destination would be, Port Barton, but it would also be more complicated to get to Port Barton from there than from Puerto Princesa, or so we were led to believe. We were also under the impression that getting the permit to do the Underwater River and enough people to fill a boat would be a difficult undertaking. So, after much consideration, we called the company of our tricycle driver and set the tour up for our second day in Puerto Princesa, deciding to come back with the tour and stay the night before moving on the next day.

We were picked up really early in the morning and, naturally, were stuffed into the back two tightest seats since we were the last to be picked up for the tour. We first had to stop by some office for the tour guide to get permits for everyone to do the tour, and since there were two other buses under our guide’s management things were kind of hectic. We drove for about an hour down windy roads which made me feel terribly sick in the desperately hot backseats. We stopped at a rest stop for far too long, which set the tone for the day as mostly a waiting game. After the tour guide met us here, we drove to Sebang, where we were told to sit and wait. After about an hour they shuffled us into the restaurant for a buffet lunch of the usual suspects: rice, veg, chickens of different kinds, spring rolls and fruit. We then waited some more, before walking over to the pier, where we waited again and finally got put onto small boats that shipped us across the ocean to the entrance of the Subterranean River National Park. We got handed some snazzy audio devices and walked through the jungle to the entrance of the cave where we, you guessed it, waited again. Christine and I stood on high alert for our boat number to be called so that we could get the prime front row seat. We succeeded in doing so, and once the boat was filled we were off to the cave entrance, adorned in hard hats and life vests. The cave was spectacular and clearly saw very little human contact. The men steering the boat wear torches on their heads, which provide a small yet sufficient light source and prevents the installation of lighting into the caves which could cause harm. We were instructed to refrain from touching anything, as we may carry foreign bacteria into the cave, and to be as quiet as possible. We had no problem keeping our mouths shut after the audio guide told us that water dripping from the top of the cave can contain bat poop and harmful bacterias. The audio tour pointed out different structures and had playful descriptions for a lot of the shapes of rocks. Some people find the cave to be a holy place, seeing images such as the last supper and angels in the rocks. The cave contained an astonishing amount of bats, all of which were undisturbed by our presence. Some were hanging on the side walls of the cave, which was definitely the closest view I’ve ever had of these strange creatures. That evening, after the drive back, we ate at a small Vietnamese place that had a decent rendition of beef pho.

We knew we didn’t want to take the vans to Port Barton with their excessive 500 peso charge, so we decided to go with the local buses, which we have had amazing luck with so far in the Philippines. We had to take a tricycle to the bus station that morning and right when we got there, someone was trying to shovel us into a van. At the call of my “cheap, cheap” request, a man ran over and guided us to the local bus, where people sat smiling at us and the bus driver put on American tunes. We took off, windows down, along a beautiful coastal drive, with the most random of music playing on ridiculously loud speakers, including but not limited to Taylor Swift, Cali Swag District and Lil John, which seemed like strange choices given the amount of old Filipino people surrounding us. To get to Port Barton, you need to turn off the main road that runs up and down the length of the island, onto a dirt road that leads you from the east to the west coast. The drive is brutal and bumpy. However, they are in the middle of constructing a paved road now, which leads me to believe it’ll be a popular tourist spot in a matter of time. I had briefly googled places to stay in Port Barton, most of which are small guesthouses that don’t have any online presence. I had read in a blog about a cheap place called El Busero, so I pinned it on the map and once we were off the bus, we set off walking along the beach to find it. We passed a woman who called herself Lovely, and told us that anything we need we should come to her for and most importantly that we should come to her bar, the Purple Turtle, that night. We talked to her for a bit before walking the short distance to El Busero. They had a single room with two double beds available for just 300 pesos each and we happily snatched up the offer. It was definitely hot, and power in Port Barton shuts off daily from 3:00 AM to about 8:00 AM, shutting the fan off. I awoke most nights either to the heat, or the surprisingly loud sound that the geckos make all night long.

Alter eating some quesadillas and slugging a cold beer at a small Spanish-owned joint, we decided to set off walking to a waterfall that the guesthouse owner told us about, since we felt like we hadn’t moved in days. It was definitely hot and we definitely sweat a lot. The waterfall didn’t appear on Maps.Me, but we knew the general direction so we set off walking. Somehow, at a fork in the road, we missed the sign indicating that Pamuayan Village was to the left and Pamuayan Waterfall was to the right, so we ended up walking down into the little village in search of a waterfall. Children tried to point us to the right direction, which we were unable to understand and finally we found a family that told us we had to go all the way back out towards the main road. While it added a decent amount of time onto our trip we were happy to see this lovely little village and its friendly people and animals going about their business. We walked back out of the village and towards the waterfall, which was farther than expected and ended up on a nice little nature walk to get to the small pool, where we of course saw Lovely again, who chatted us up for a while and asked us to come see her and her friend perform at the bar later. Spoiler alert, we didn’t make it to the bar that night, nor any other night due to our sheer tiredness, but we saw Lovely plenty more times. We made it back from the waterfall exhausted and terribly sweaty. After a shower and some lay time, we headed out to dinner at a place that was the cheapest for beers that we could find on our walk that day. I had some noodle soup and sweet potato fries while Christine enjoyed a curry pasta dish. We had a few beers and then headed back to the guesthouse to go to sleep, running with our heads down past the Purple Turtle so we wouldn’t get caught ditching the night out.

We decided to take the Island Hopping tour from Port Barton after hearing that it was totally beautiful and an overall nicer experience and half the price than the better known one in El Nido. We woke up early and headed down to book it the day of since it was a perfectly sunny day. With only a few other people on the boat we set off. We snorkeled over the most beautiful reef I have personally ever seen. At first, I was searching for fish out of habit and not finding anything spectacular, but once I looked past at the coral I was mesmerized and tried to make my way around and through the lot of it. We then made our way to the area the turtles are usually found, and our boat captain, Jacky, set out swimming to find us the turtles before we even had to jump in. We ended up seeing two turtles that day, the first there and then another later in the afternoon when we returned to the spot to look for the bigger turtle that Jacky said they had seen the day before. Luckily, Emma, one of the girls we were with, had an underwater camera and got some spectacular turtle pictures for us. We headed to Paradise Island for lunch, which had some of the clearest water I have seen yet. The beach was stunning and the rock formations were perfect against the water and the distant island backdrop. Here, the boat crew made us a fantastic lunch of full grilled fish, eggplant, cucumber and tomato salad, curried vegetables, rice and fruits. Filled with all the fresh food we set off for an area where the water is shallow and calm enough for starfish. It was a similar scene to the starfish spot on our Komodo tour, but we got to pick them up this time and actually examine them. Last time, we had been unsure as to whether or not they hurt you and it turns out they don’t. When you hold the starfish in the palm of your hand nice and still they release their little suction cups from underneath them to maintain their position. It is both a cool and very strange feeling. That night we went to the same place for dinner, with both Sophia and Emma from our boat trip.

We decided to stay a third day in Port Barton and spent the day on White Beach along with Sophia and Emma, which is about a thirty minute walk south of the town itself along a mostly decipherable dirt trail. Two dogs followed us all the way from the town and actually stayed with us on the beach until we made our way back in the afternoon. The beach was super quiet, but the shallow water and coral pieces on the ocean floor weren’t very conducive to swimming. We were super tired, however, and were okay spending the majority of the day sleeping and reading on our towels in the shade. We met back up again for dinner and tried a new spot called Paella, where Christine and I split, you guessed it, Paella. It certainly wasn’t authentic and erred on the side of Asian rather than Hispanic, but it was still delicious and contained lots of fresh squid.


Earlier that afternoon we had stopped by the office for the local bus we took from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton to ask about local options to get from Port Barton to El Nido. While at first he was trying to get us to take the van option, he eventually realized we were serious about wanting to take any form of public transportation. He told us to be at the church at 8:00 AM the next morning, where a jeepney would be waiting. We took a jam packed jeepney the next morning to Roxas, a town near the junction at the end of the road leaving Port Barton. In the shoddy jeepney it took us over an hour to make it to Roxas, but it was worth it. I sat next to the most adorable family and had my finger grasped by a tiny baby girl for a part of the journey. When we got to Roxas, we grabbed some baked goods and then got on the first bus that was going to El Nido. We pulled into El Nido at around 2:00 PM, with our 180 saved pesos in our pockets, and embarked on the short walk into town to find ourselves a place to stay.

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