Exploring Palawan, day 4: look out below

Now that we’ve seen the city, let’s see what the wilderness has in store for us.

Remembering that breakfast is served at 6AM and pick-up is at 7:30, we woke up early and went down for our first buffet breakfast at Palawan Uno. I was a bit disappointed with the lack of bacon, but satisfied that there was at least cereal with cold milk, bread and butter, and all the coffee and juice you can stomach. While eating as much as we could, a hotel staffer informed us that our tour guide, May, had just arrived to whisk us away for a trip through the world-famous Underground River. Before leaving, we asked the front desk to make reservations at Ka Lui, a restaurant Con told us was one of the most popular in the city, then we were off.

During the ride to the pier where boats would take us to the island where the Underground River was, May gave us more facts about the river, plus guidelines. Stick to the group, no littering, don’t feed the animals, etc. She warned us against bringing plastic bags, even ones not containing food, as monkeys on the island tend to just grab them thinking they can get a treat out of them. She also said the little buggers have actually learned to unzip bags so we should keep an eye on our stuff.

Thinking the place wouldn’t be too crowded since it’s a Monday and people had probably begun heading home, we were met by hundreds of tourists and their own guides, waiting for their turn at the boats. According to Con, it wasn’t this crowded when he first came here in 2007. I guess being recognized as one of the Seven Natural Wonders paid off in tourism. Really well, as it turned out; May says off-peak seasons draw in about 900 tourists a day, while peak months attract as many as 1,500 people. If I could whistle, I’d do it here.

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Finally, it was our turn to take one of the boats to the island. The ride was just as scenic and, happy to report, extremely bright and sunny. Once our boat touched the shore, photos were taken and we were advised to keep our life vests on; we had to wear them going in and out of the river.

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From the sand, we had to walk a few minutes through nature, where monkeys and monitor lizards supposedly roam. We got from one end of the wooden walkway to the other. No monkeys or monitor lizards. Maybe they were busy avoiding the throngs of tourists eager to snap their photos.

The river was brown that day, unfortunately; May said it had rained the day before, so we didn’t get to enjoy the normally blue-green water. At the edge of the river, we were asked to each grab a helmet before getting into a motorized boat that would take us underground. Dani and Dai wanted to sit together in the boat and AJ wanted to sit behind all of us to take photos, so I got the honor of sitting up front and lighting our path,¬†literally.¬†(Whoever sits up front has to operate this big flash light that would help the group see in the dark.)

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Here we go

Inside the cave, the first three things you encounter is the smell, the noise, and the birds flying at your face. The smell comes from guano courtesy of the thousands of bats hanging out (obligatory pun intended) inside the cave, and the noise is from both the night fliers and swallows flitting about. Our guide through the river – not May – was a pretty funny guy, pointing out rock formations that look like salad ingredients, characters from the bible, animals, everything. His knowledge of the place was pretty impressive, and his animated way of explaining stuff would grab your attention. (You probably would’ve rolled your eyes at his jokes under normal circumstances, but knowing he had the power to strand you or upend the boat in a pitch-black cave where creatures from ‘The Descent’ were probably lurking should coax even a polite giggle out of you.) Forty-five minutes later, we reemerged under the sunlight no longer Underground River virgins.

The trek back to the beach where our boat was waiting yielded no sighting of the elusive monkeys and monitor lizards, so we gave up on that. The boat took four of us back to the pier (no, we didn’t leave a man behind; Dai stayed back to do the over-the-ocean zipline), where a lunch buffet was waiting for us. I didn’t realize sitting in the dark in a rickety boat for almost an hour would render me famished, but I managed to put away more food than usual. Slowly, the sky became overcast again, and it started raining. After lunch (Dai had joined us about half an hour later), we piled back into the van for the trip back to the city.

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Bombs away

By 4, we were back at the hotel, so we decided to check out the pool while it was still light out. We had hoped to take a dip once we got there, but the cold wind was blowing pretty hard, so forget about that. We decided to head back to the room to clean up. The front desk managed to get us a table for dinner at 8, so we had a couple of hours to kill.

Things got a little tense as we were getting ready to go out (won’t go into detail; suffice to say, some people lost track of the time), but when we got to Ka Lui, we could see the appeal. It was a large nipa hut-looking restaurant where people eat barefoot. It was warmly lit, and art was splashed all around. Good thing we booked a table, because the walk-in line was starting to build by the time we got there. Their specialty was seafood, so that’s what we went for. Pretty tasty meal, and the prices were reasonable.

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The one place you can come barefoot and still get service

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We took a tricycle back to the hotel and had just disembarked when the driver recommended that we see the pier (the one we drove through during the city tour). We thought, ‘why not?’ and climbed back in. When we got there, the driver charged us Php 150 pesos, claiming evening rates are different from day ones. Php 100 we understand since we did take two rides at Php 50 each way, but Php 150? We didn’t want to argue so we gave in, but still. Fucking highway robbery, man. Not cool.

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There wasn’t much to do there, so we just took a walk. Some of us wanted to rent bikes, but ultimately decided against it and continued on foot, fooling around while burning off the meal we just had (the tension earlier had broken now). After a few minutes, we were tired (and some of us were raring to use the crapper) so we went back to the hotel (and paid the fair rate this time). I was most excited about going to bed this night. Honda Bay beckons.

Coming up:
Day 5, or: how I learned to get over last night’s issues and love finding Nemo

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