Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Puerto Princesa Underground River

It's not every trip, every year, or every lifetime that you get to see one of the wonders of the world. New Seven Wonders launched an online campaign a few years ago to update the list the 7 wonders of the world, both man made and natural. It's a very cool website, and the seven wonders are being decided by online voting open to anyone in the world. Vote now. The finalists for natural wonders (see complete list here) is down to 28 from about 160 choices. Until now, I've personally seen five of them: Komodo, Grand Canyon, Mt. Vesuvius, Jeju Island, and Cliffs of Moher. I can now add the Puerto Princesa Underground River to the list.

From Puerto Princesa (a fairly un-noteworthy town, also the administrative capital of Palawan), you drive about 90 minutes to the national park. Then you take a boat to the lagoon, followed by a short walk to this eerie site, surrounded by mangroves, chirping monkeys, and boats disappearing into, and emerging from, a hole in the mountain.

Eight people and one guide enter the river in a small paddle boat, armed with one flashlight. The lucky guest seated in the front has the honor. I wish i'd known!

Inside the cave, the guide goes on to explain there are some 6 different species of 50,000 bats living in the cave, various species of terribly venomous spiders, snakes, and other amphibians. Did i mention it's also very dark? As we pass a mountain of bat guano, he reminds us that when looking up, be sure to close your mouth. If you feel cool water dripping on you, don't worry; it's just purified water dripping from the mountain. It's the "warm water" you need to worry about. Because you've just been sprayed with bat urine. Possibly in your mouth.

Amazingly, these caves are inhabited. At the south end of the cave dwells an indigenous filipino tribe that regards the cave as sacred, and understandably so. Permits are required to enter and no motorized vehicles are allowed. It's terrifically quiet and peaceful, with the dripping water and the guides commentary occasionally breaking the spell. Photography was difficult and after a dozen or so failed attempts, i decided to just enjoy the ride. Our guide pointed out dozens of rock formations by name: Banana Tree, Giraffe, Head of Dinosaur, as well as christian scenes like the Nativity, the Virgin Mary, and Face of Jesus. Every one of these looked strikingly similar to their names, like someone had carved the stalactites with purpose.

Also amazingly, these caves only get about 10,000 foreign visitors a year, but that number has almost doubled since the announcement of it's potential Seven Wonders status. The caves steadily see over a 100,000 filipino visitors every year. This place is no secret to locals, but i'm glad we were allowed to share in this small piece of national pride.


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