Remembering Puerto Princesa
(I just arrived from Panglao Island, Bohol and all of the sudden I could not help comparing Panglao with Puerto Princesa and Boracay.)
One of the most memorable family vacations we had was made about five years ago, when the we visited Puerto Princesa City in Palawan.
You can't go to Palawan without seeing the underground river. It is a MUST.
It was a real sight. My father was exclaiming "marvelous!", "fantastic!" as we were paddling into the cave. And I was glad we brought him there, a few months after he celebrated his 76th birthday. (He had a stroke in November 2001, a few days after he celebrated his 77th birthday, and while is remains strong to this day, we realized we could not tag him along in our family travels the way we used to in the past.)
I must admit that planning for the trip was quite difficult – our group was composed of members from three generations (including in-laws and a French Canadian brother-in-law) with different needs and expectations
Puerto Princesa is one of the most tourist-friendly (it does not matter if you are a foreign or domestic tourist) places in this country. People are very accommodating in giving directions and extending assistance; prices are more or less standardized you would not feel that you, a stranger in the area, had just been ripped off by the boatman or the driver of the vehicle you just hired.
From Puerto Princesa, we traveled by car for about two hours then took a motor boat to the mouth of the cave. But before I got into the boat, I asked one of the restaurants (more of turo-turo really) in the area to cook our food while we were in the cave so lunch would be ready when we came back. After a short boat ride, we walked for a few minutes -- saw monkeys and even a huge bayawak (monitor lizard) along the way -- to a pool right at the mouth of the cave where another banca was waiting for us.The boat man -- who also acted as a guide, pointing to us interesting rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites -- paddled for about an hour. They allowed us to go into the cave by as much as 1.5 kilometers although the underground river is almost eight kilometers long, more than three kilometers of which is said to be navigable.
The day before, immediately after arriving in Puerto Princesa and checking in the hotel, we went straight to see the live butterfly and crocodile farms.
Our third day in Puerto Princesa started with a quick trip to the market to buy fish, rice, fruits, water and other things we need for our island-hopping trip. The market itself is a sight – you will get to see fishes not usually seen in Metro Manila public markets.
Having secured the needed provisions, we were ready to go to Honda Bay. The maximum allowable number of passengers per boat was six, and since there were ten of us, we had to hire two boats. The boatmen are organized, prices are fixed, everything was orderly. You don't have to haggle and tourists don't feel harassed. And all of us had to wear life jackets provided by the boatmen.
Honda Bay is a good area for snorkeling. Bring along some bread and you would have schools of fishes eating right from your hands. My sister and her husband brought along some waterproof disposable cameras from Canada and the children had fun taking pictures underwater.
Our first stop was Pandan Island were the caretakers cooked the food we brought along. After having our lunch, we transferred to Snake Island, which is an excellent place for snorkeling. This is where we fed the fishes with bread and you could feel them nibble your finger tips.Then we went to Luli Island (actually a short cut for “Lulubog-Lilitaw” or sinking-reappearing ). Since it was already low tide, the island reappeared and we had a chance to walk along the shore where mangroves abound. The shoreline is a lot different from the beaches we are more familiar with.
On our fourth day, we went around the city, dropped by Jolibee to buy hamburgers and went to Iwahig, the open prison where we also shopped for some souvenirs. The following day was a Sunday and we heard mass. We decided to give the oldies – my father, mother, and mother-in-law – a rest day. The kids were contented to spend the whole afternoon in the hotel’s swimming pool.
Guy, my sister’s husband, went scuba diving. It was his first dive in tropical waters and he had many stories about what he saw. He was scheduled to take his qualification dive upon his return to Canada and he felt that all the succeeding dives he would have in his country would be boring after what he saw in Palawan. He was lucky to see a giant turtle, a ray and many other fishes which his instructor dutifully wrote on his notebook after they got back to the yacht.
The following day, we went to a hot spring where the old folks were able to immerse themselves and ease their body pains. After barely an hour, most of us felt sleepy – our nerves and muscles must have really been so relaxed. My eldest son, Tonton described the feeling as something similar to what he feels after being massaged.
We decided to have lunch in a river resort in Iwahig. It is actually a dam for the irrigation of the ricefields in the penal colony. The inmates sell barbecued native chicken and I bought some to augment our packed lunch. We stayed there the whole afternoon and swam for a while. The cool water was really refreshing.
That the evening we were invited to a dinner hosted by Mayor Hagedorn for the midwives who had a conference in Puerto Princesa. He gave a briefing about Puerto Princesa and the progress they had achieved and a cultural show followed after the dinner. It was a nice evening. The kids had fun posing with him for souvenir photos and the oldies felt deeply honored when the Mayor kissed their hands when I introduced him to them.
There were other places which we could have visited -- such as the Tabon Cave, which is about four hours away from Puerto Princesa. But then again, another visit to Puerto Princesa is always a welcome possibility.
Palawan is one of the few cities here in the Philippines that had consciously been trying to manage its environment. Along Honda Bay, for example, the people have been organized into Bantay Dagat (Sea Watchers) teams. They have successfully controlled cyanide (and other destructive methods of) fishing. This is part of their Bantay Puerto program. Our guide is a Bantay Dagat volunteer. In the past, the city's garbage dump was right beside the airport, a few meters away from the school. That has been removed and the city is now hailed as the cleanest in the country.
Its environmental and development programs have been awarded national and international recognition and I just hope that other local governments will follow its example.When we went to the underground river, we saw a team of scientists, apparently doing some ocular inspections or surveys. They have actually increased their forest cover during the past ten years and stopped the highly damaging open pit mining in the area.
To a certain extent, the local government and the community are also conscious that they have to manage the inflow of tourists as this would exert undue pressure on the island.The consciousness has seeped down to the grassroots level. The boatmen, for example, have realized that they have been and will be able to earn a steady income by organizing, enforcing uniform rates and rules and by protecting the islands that dot Honda Bay and which are frequented by local and foreign tourists.
Restaurant and hotel owners are also aware this is what is sustaining them. I just hope that other areas will learn from the Puerto Princesa experience. The civic groups are quite active in the area and the city government had been successful in harnessing the talents and energies of these organizations.
With a husband hailing from Aklan, we have been going regularly to Boracay. The island, famous for its immaculate white sand beach that stretches for over two kilometers, reached its maximum carrying capacity (for tourists) without the benefit of an organized effort in planning for a sustainable development.
I hope they will start doing some area planning exercises for Panglao in Bohol (which I visited a few days ago), where the immaculate beaches could compete with that of Boracay and the many other places in the country that could be developed as viable tourist destinations.
(I will soon be writing about Boracay, Panglao and some not so popular but equally charming places in the Philippines.)