The Puerto Princesa Underground River
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Puerto Princesa Underground River, also known as the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, is located 75 km outside the city of Puerto Princesa in Palawan.
The underground river is hidden beneath huge limestone rock formations and is in fact, the longest navigable underground river in the world. As well as being a hugely impressive natural wonder, the surrounding National Park also offers incredible wildlife spotting opportunities and there is also a zip-line over the landscape for thrill-seekers. (Did you know that Komodo Dragons are residents of the National Park?)
Should you choose a Puerto Princesa Underground River Tour or go it alone?
There is no simple answer to this question as it largely depends on your travel style. As the Puerto Princesa Underground River is one of the Philippines’ most popular tourist attractions, it will be filled with tourists, regardless of which option you choose. Despite the inevitable crowds, it is still an incredible destination and one we definitely recommend you visit while you’re in the country. (For more unmissable places to visit in Palawan, don’t miss this post!)
For backpackers short on time, a tour is great because everything is organised for you, including your return transport from the city. It also is a great way to meet other travellers and establish relationships. However, the tours afford a small degree of flexibility and sadly, not all of them are well organised.
Visiting Puerto Princesa Underground River independently is great for backpackers who have plenty of time in the area and don’t mind putting in the effort to organise their visit. Hiking enthusiasts would benefit from choosing this option as there is a long trail which you would not get time to trek on a guided tour. It is also a good option for those who dislike an organised group schedule and prefer the independence of doing a DIY visit.
How do I visit Puerto Princesa Underground River independently?
In order to arrange your trip to the Underground River, you would first need to apply for your tourist permit. There is a maximum number of tourists allowed in the river daily which means pre-planning is essential if you are not using a tour company.
Head to the Puerto Princesa Underground River Booking Office in the city and fill in the form provided to apply for your permit. Tickets cannot be purchased online and will be paid for once you arrive at the Puerto Princesa Underground River Tourist Office in Sabang. Alternatively, you can purchase your permit direct from the office there.
You will need to head to Sabang by bus, which you can catch from the San Jose Bus Terminal. Although there is a rough timetable, departure times don’t always match so it is best to arrive as early as possible to secure transport. The ride takes around 2 hours and can be a little bumpy. Expect to pay around 125 pesos each ($3USD) for the journey. It is worth staying in Sabang for a night to ensure you are still able to visit the Underground River in case of any transport hiccups. Check out accommodation options in Sabang here.
Head to the Underground River Office early and pay the fees. There will be an entrance fee (500 pesos, about $8USD) an audioguide fee (85 pesos, around $1.50USD) and an environmental fee (150 pesos, $2.50USD). All of these fees are mandatory.
You can’t enter the river on foot so you will need to find a boat. Unless you can afford to hire the entire boat, you will need to wait for other passengers to arrive so you can go together. Luckily, owing to the popularity of this attraction, you shouldn’t have to wait long. Boats carry a maximum of 6 passengers and will cost an additional 187 pesos each (€3USD). There is also the option to walk the 3km to the Bangka boats which will be used for the guided tour inside. This costs 200 pesos each ($4USD).
Upon arriving at the beach, you will be given your audioguide and shown to the next boat. Your driver will also be your guide inside the river. It is not possible to go into the Underground River without a guide. Unless you have a special permit, you will only be able to venture around 4 km into the river. You will be inside the Underground River for around an hour.
What Should I Consider When Choosing a Puerto Princesa Underground River Tour?
There are various different companies that offer return tours from your hotel to this beautiful location and of course, who you choose can drastically change your overall experience on the day.
The main criticisms of Underground River Tours are that sometimes the tour guides are allocated to several groups which can cause confusion. There are also reports of permits being badly organised and transport not being up to scratch.
We’d always recommend asking in the South East Asia Backpacker Facebook Group and looking at TripAdvisor for recent reviews. All of the tours vary in price and getting a bargain doesn’t always result in the best adventure!
When is the best time to visit Puerto Princesa Underground River?
- Rainy season: July – October
- High season: November – June
Although there is no bad time to visit the river, conditions are generally better in the high season as the sea is calmer and the weather tends to be on the sunny side the majority of the time.
Our recommended Puerto Princesa Underground River Tour
If you’d rather do the trip with a group, we recommend this Puerto Princesa Underground River Tour run by the friendly Corazon Travel and Tours out of Puerto Princesa. Traveller, Katie Finch, and her boyfriend David, took the tour back in May 2019 and below you can read a step by step review of their day…
Corazon Travel were excellent communicators and sent all the relevant information regarding the morning pick-up from our hotel, the night before. The 7 am hotel pick-up was included in the tour as we were staying within 15 km of the airport.
In the morning, we were greeted by our guide, Roman, and we gave him our passports to photograph as proof of identity for our river permits. After this was done, we decided to return them to our hotel room before getting on the bus to keep them safe!
The van was fully air conditioned which was a relief in the hot Filipino heat! Roman informed us he’d accompany us on the trip as would our driver Robin. We then visited two other hotels collecting guests and became a small group of eight. This was great as it meant the van (which could seat 14) was spacious and not too crowded. A lot of transport in the Philippines can be pretty cosy at times so this was a welcomed surprise!
Roman explained that it would take around 1.5 hours to get to the community of Sabang, where the boats depart to the National Park in which the Underground River is located. Corazon Travel and Tours always provide a fully trained tour guide so Roman was able to inform us about life in the Philippines, even teaching us ‘Thank you’ in the native tongue of Tagalog on route to the site.
Roman put the group at ease by introducing everyone to each other which made the journey much more pleasant as we really got on and there was lots to chat about. As we left Puerto Princesa, we began to see long stretches of jungle and luscious greenery which Roman explained was home to some of the oldest indigenous tribes in the Philippines.
After an hour, we stopped off at a local community shop for a quick 15-minute toilet break and the chance to buy drinks or snacks. Whilst at the community shop, we’d suggest getting up to the viewpoint just above and looking out at how far you’ve travelled! It was a stunning view.
Arriving in Sabang
As you approach the village of Sabang, Roman pointed out that the gigantic towering limestone cliffs to our right were the start of the National Park. The locals recently installed solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint and there is a constant awareness about the importance of persevering the area’s natural beauty for generations to come. It is apparent that both Roman and the people of the community care greatly about maintaining this unique natural site which became one of the Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011.
On arrival at Sabang, your guide will organise the boats and permits with the port office which takes roughly 15 minutes as only a certain number of people can be transported at once. Roman informed us that our boat would leave in around an hour and there were a couple of options for what we could do in the meantime. We were given the following choices:
1. Chill out on the beach and grab an iced coffee.
2. Take part in other local activities such as the zip-line across the National Park.
3. Tour the nearby mangrove forest.
The zip-line and mangrove tour is run by the local community and costs an extra 300 pesos per activity (around $6USD). Payment is made to the community but there is no pressure to do the extras and our group were happy to sit and chat in the sun while waiting for our boat.
Once the hour was up, we met with Roman who informed us we’d be travelling via the traditional wooden bamboo boats to get to the National Park. Here we would park on the nearby beach. All of the time Roman was with us to ensure we were all together and prepared for each stage of getting to the caves.
Journeying into the Underground River
Once on board, the trip takes around 15 minutes and eight passengers can be seated in total. The boat owners provide life jackets and these are mandatory at all times when inside. The view from the boat was pretty impressive as the National Park came into view!
Once we reached the beach we departed the boat (which would wait for our return) and headed to the entrance of the Underground River. On route, there is a chance to see the local wildlife, including the Long-tailed macaque and even the Komodo dragon! (And you thought you could only see Komodo Dragons on Komodo Island!)
A short 100 m walk took us to our final destination before entering the caves and Roman informed us there would be another short wait for a boat here. This is a great opportunity to take pictures of the epic scenery and spectacular cave opening. When boarding the Bangka boat, we were joined by a new tour guide who would paddle us through the Underground River whilst Roman waited for us back on the shore. Again, life jackets are mandatory and we were also given hard hats for safety.
As part of the experience, we were also provided with an audioguide which has one earpiece. This was to provide us with information as we went through the cave. The audioguide is a great tool allowing you to learn about the cave and the history of the heritage site. It is also a great tool to protect the environment as speech is not allowed inside. This is because it impacts the bats’ ability to move around. During the journey, our guide pointed out formations of interest while we listened to the audioguide.
The river itself is calm and the cave can be dark at times but we never found the space to be claustrophobic which I was a little worried about. The tour guide’s head torch led the way as we meandered through the Underground River. We even came across large cave formations, some of which are a staggering 65 metres high! The whole boat tour takes around 45 minutes. The river is 8.2 km, however, on most tours, you’ll be exploring the 4.3 km which are accessible by boat.
On exiting the cave, Roman was ready to greet us and lead us back to our original boat on the beach. From here, we headed back to Sabang for lunch. A lunch buffet is included in the cost and we were presented with an array of Filipino food as well as some live music to accompany the meal.
Optional afternoon activities
Once we’d filled our stomachs, the minivan was waiting to collect us. Roman then informed us that we could either return to Puerto Princesa (it was around 1.30pm now) or we could visit another local attraction on route back. The options were the Palawan Wildlife and Conservation Centre (Crocodile Farm) or Ugong Rock. We needed a majority vote as we all had to travel together. After some deliberation, we decided to see what Ugong Rock had to offer.
Upon arriving, we were given a presentation by a community member. The activities that they run consist of two zip-lines, caving and bamboo bikes suspended in the air. The park is solely run by the community so payment would be made to them.
I appreciated that no pressure was put on the group to participate in an activity. Roman informed us that some people love to do more activities after the Underground River whereas others are tired after a busy morning. Either way, the group needed to decide together. Making a decision with people you’ve only known for 6 hours can be tough! Luckily, our group were in agreement that we were a little too tired to partake and we made our way back to Puerto Princesa. After an hour of travel, we were returned to our hotels (around 4 pm) and waved goodbye to Roman and our driver.
We truly believe that tour guides can be the make or break for guest experience and luckily, Roman was the perfect guide. From picking us up with a smile at 7 am (early for most), to guiding us through each stage of our day seamlessly, we always knew what was going on. This was definitely a huge plus after hearing other travellers complain about disorganisation and lack of communication on different tours.
Corazon Travel and Tours efficiency and experience makes them a leading company who we’d definitely use again. Not only did they make us feel at ease, we felt that the tour was great value for money and took the stress out of figuring how to do the visit by ourselves. As well as offering tours to the Underground River, Corazon Travel and Tours also offers trips all over Palawan from Firefly Watching Night Cruises to the famous Island Hopping in El Nido.
What should I bring on an Underground River Tour?
Water: Never travel anywhere without a bottle (or two!) of water; there is a chance to stop and pick some up but it is always wise to have some on you to ensure you stay hydrated!
Shoes: We started the trip in trainers with flip flops in our rucksack. Once you arrive on the boats you’ll need flip flops as you’ll be getting on/off boats on the shoreline and getting your feet wet.
Flip Flops are generally suitable, however, if you plan on doing another activity such as the zip-line, then we’d advise wearing trainers; the last thing you need is to lose a flip flop to the jungle floor below!
Jumper: Personally, we like to carry these for van rides as sometimes the air-con can get a little chilly.
Camera: You won’t want to miss taking photos of the trip and the magical underground caves. Make sure you’ve got a camera with a flash as inside the caves without a flash everything is pretty dark!
Travel Sickness: If you get travel sick we’d suggest taking some medication or sitting at the front of the bus. The road to the park is windy and could cause a little motion sickness if you’re prone to it.
Coins: The facilities on route and at the site are run by the community, therefore, if you want to spend a penny (use the toilet) you’ll need to leave a donation. This goes towards the community upkeep.
Rucksack or Dry Bag: This is entirely up to you. You will get wet getting on and off the boats but the water will only come up to your knees at most. While some people brought their everyday handbags, we opted for a dry bag to keep the camera in. This then went inside our rucksack with our other items. The choice is yours!