Fiume Sotterraneo Palawan

The Underground River of Palawan: Natural Wonder in the Philippines

Embarking on the journey to the Underground River of Palawan was, without a doubt, one of the most emotional experiences of my life.

A must-visit destination and a highly recommended stop on any Philippines itinerary that includes Palawan—the world’s most beautiful island of the world. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders, the Underground River exceeded all my expectations, stirring emotions I never thought possible.

Gliding through the darkness in silence, marveling at nature’s incredible ability to create such wonders, and learning about the crucial contribution of Italian spelunkers to the discovery and study of this unique place amplified the sense of wonder that defines the essence of travel. I found myself overcome with tears of awe, filled with a deep sense of serenity and gratitude.

Covering a distance of 8 kilometers, with only 2 kilometers navigated by boat through the mountain, the Underground River unveils incredible limestone formations housing a unique ecosystem and providing refuge to an astonishing variety of bats—three species of which are exclusive to this area. Despite being subject to tides like the sea it flows into, the water remains saline within what is arguably the world’s largest cave.

Subterranean River

Amidst high expectations set by Palawan’s breathtaking landscapes, including those of El Nido, the Underground River initially intrigued me the least. However, despite its grandiose titles, describing it as a subterranean river coursing through limestone caves in almost complete darkness didn’t quite capture my usual interests. Yet, it turned out to be an immensely touching and awe-inspiring experience, marking the perfect start to my one-week trip to Palawan and opening my heart to the Philippines.

How to Visit the Underground River of Palawan

Generally, the Subterranean River is visited on a day trip from Puerto Princesa. Located in Sabang, on the opposite side of Palawan Island, it takes about two hours from Puerto Princesa. To protect and preserve this natural wonder, there’s a daily limit on the number of entries allowed into the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, so booking in advance is highly recommended.

For this reason, as well as for convenience and cost-effectiveness (approximately €30-35 per person), I recommend opting for a guided tour from Puerto Princesa. You can approach various agencies locally, purchase packages online, or contact your hotel in advance in Puerto Princesa.

While I usually prefer organizing my excursions independently, as I did, for example, in Thailand for the Golden Triangle tour from Chiang Rai, here, though technically possible, self-organization can be quite a hassle. Besides booking access, you need to register your arrival at the National Park and queue at Sabang port, where motorized boats depart for the beach, followed by a short forest walk to the entrance of the Underground River.

Especially during the peak season from November to June, the queues at the port can be quite long. Opting for a guided tour, your guide will handle all the registration procedures while you enjoy the buffet lunch included in the excursion cost.

Underground River Palawan

The Underground River tour lasts about 8 hours, starting around 7:30-8:00 with hotel pickup in Puerto Princesa and ending with a drop-off in the city around 16:00. It includes all transportation within the Sabang area, a buffet lunch, and an audio guide along the river. Some companies already include the 150 pesos environmental fee, while others require payment to your guide on-site.

Read also: My itinerary in Palwan


Underground River Excursion

We chose to book the Underground River excursion directly through Diakopes Inn, the hotel where we stayed in Puerto Princesa. The same managers operate the agency with which we organized the tour, paying 2,000 pesos. They also arranged the transfer to El Nido at the Salvacion intersection for an additional cost of 700 pesos. This option not only shortens the journey to El Nido to 4 hours (instead of the 6 required from Puerto Princesa) but also saves a day of travel, as you arrive in El Nido in the evening, ready to start island hopping the next morning.

Our van and the delightful guide picked us up directly from the hotel around 7:30, along with our luggage, which we could leave onboard for the entire day. After picking up the other participants (totaling 12 people), we reached Sabang around 10:00, with a quick restroom break at a scenic coastal viewpoint where snacks, drinks, and souvenirs were available, with proceeds supporting the local community.

While our guide handled the registration procedures, we had a 30-40 minute break at a nearby beach, where additional tours through the mangroves or zip-lining were offered for an extra fee. Since we weren’t particularly interested, we opted to stroll along the beach and relax.

We boarded the van again and arrived at Sabang port, where an early lunch awaited us (having had breakfast before 7, we were famished). A buffet with a wide selection of delicious Filipino dishes, and I particularly enjoyed my absolute favorite dish of the entire trip—bihon, simple thin noodles stir-fried with vegetables and sometimes meat, utterly delectable and a highlight of my days.

Despite our guide having us listed at Sabang port, we still had to wait for about another hour after lunch before boarding one of the motorized boats that would take us to the entrance of the underground river in about 20 minutes (a bit bumpy, by the way). I can’t imagine the waiting times during peak season!

From Sabang port, the group was divided into two, as each boat could accommodate a maximum of six people, and even inside the Underground River, we remained divided.

Welcome to the Underground River

From the landing beach, it’s about a 500-meter walk through the forest—beware of the monkeys! They’re undeniably cute, but did you know they can be quite mischievous and snatch things from your hands (or bags!) if they catch their attention—especially food and plastic bags? So, avoid using them and keep your bags in front, with pockets and zippers securely closed.

Grab the audio guide and hop on the small rowing boats that will take you inside these incredible, unique, and thrilling caves for about 40 minutes.

Here, silence reigns, broken only by the guide’s occasional flashlight pointing out particular rock formations, intensifying your emotions. As we glided on the water, my heart swelled, marveling at “mere rocks” in ways I never expected. Incredible stalactites and stalagmites surrounded us in this surreal environment, while the eerie sounds of bats echoed off the walls. Here’s an “umbrella,” a “ship,” a “carrot,” and even the “Virgin Mary,” culminating in the “Cathedral”—an immense cave with a towering ceiling resembling a European cathedral entirely made of limestone.

The audio guide narrates the peculiarities of this environment, urging us to look around and marvel but always keeping our mouths shut—not just to avoid talking but to prevent water full of bacteria dripping from the walls or worse from falling into our mouths… above us, it’s teeming with bats responsible for the formations of guano that adorn the Underground River. Okay, this part is gross, but you’ll be so captivated by the uniqueness of the place that you’ll overlook it.

As we approach the exit, the light intensifies, and the audio guide recounts how an Italian expedition of spelunkers made important discoveries about these caves and this ecosystem. The idea that everyone visiting the Underground River of Palawan hears this story made me immensely proud to be Italian!

Stepping off the boat with teary eyes and a heart full of gratitude—it was a fantastic start to my journey in the Philippines, and now, after returning to the port, a long journey awaits us to El Nido.

Again, through the hotel, we arranged for a van transfer at the Salvacion intersection, with an additional cost of 700 pesos for the excursion (the Puerto Princesa – El Nido transfer would have cost the same). So, we don’t have to return to Puerto Princesa and save about an hour and a half of travel. From Puerto Princesa to El Nido, it’s over 6 hours by van, but with this transfer, you’ll arrive in El Nido in the evening without losing a day in transit. This option is highly recommended, and you can safely leave your luggage on the first van all day and then transfer it to the second van at the intersection!

Fiume Sotterraneo

Tips and Things to Know about Visiting the Underground River:

  • To embark and disembark from the motorized boat that takes you from Sabang port to the underground river beach, you’ll need to wade through water, getting wet up to about mid-calf. Remember to wear (or bring to change into on the van) water shoes or rubber shoes and wear knee-length comfortable clothing. You might also get wet on the boat, especially if the sea is rough, so it’s a good idea to have an emergency change of clothes and a waterproof bag (or a cover bag).
  • The temperature inside the cave is quite cool, so if you’re sensitive to cold, you might need a light sweater. However, keep in mind that you’ll need to wear the life jacket and helmet throughout.
  • Inside the cave, you’ll listen to the audio guide’s explanations through earphones, and it’s forbidden to speak loudly to avoid disturbing the numerous bats living here. Also, remember to keep your mouth closed when looking up—drops of water containing dangerous bacteria and bat guano might fall from the ceiling.
  • There are many bats in the caves, and you’ll often catch glimpses of them flying by. It’s also a very dark and subterranean environment, which could generate a sense of claustrophobia even though it’s very spacious. If you have such phobias, it’s best to avoid this excursion.

Dentro il fiume sotterraneo

In conclusion, if you’re planning a trip to the Philippines and wondering if it’s worth it, my answer is an emphatic yes. Palawan is the world’s most beautiful island according to several magazines, and El Nido and the Underground River of Puerto Princesa are two must-visit destinations.

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