Story and photos by Ted Alan Stedman
Catching my first glimpse of Palawan from the air, I began to understand why the province bills itself the “Last Ecological Frontier” of the Philippines. The long, narrow, jungle-clad island looks verdant and primeval, jutting from the Sulu Sea with a mountainous backbone cloaked in mist and sliced by intermittent waterfalls. Even from 23,000 feet, the main island and its orbiting islet spheres seem enormous. The archipelago stretches 280 miles from the Mindoro Straight south to the tip of Borneo, and as the plane banked on its approach I saw a constellation of emerald isles laced by tourmaline coral reefs sprawling horizon to horizon.
Barely an hour’s flight from the Manila megalopolis, I touched down in hot, humid Puerto Princesa. Located mid-island, this is Palawan’s only sizable town at about 250,000 residents. It’s surprisingly prim considering it’s literally carved from the relentless jungle. The main street bustles with scooters and townsfolk, small stores and markets, a handful of hotels and restaurants. It’s agreeable enough, but this countrified island capital is essentially relegated to a traveler’s gateway to outlying excursions – the diving, boating, nature hiking and idyllic island lounging Palawan is known for.
My first destination was offshore at Dos Palmas Island Resort, reached by a one-hour ferry transit into glassy Hondo Bay. En route I met resort staffer Ivan Lim, who explained what I’d already surmised: “In Palawan, we have a love affair with nature and are very strict about maintaining our ecological values,” he stated proudly.
Case in point is the Palawan Logging ban, passed in 1992 not because plundering was no longer profitable, but to be taken seriously as an eco destination the island had to clean up its act. It’s serious enough that the same eco ethos has taken root in town. Puerto Princesa’s Operation Cleanliness program has won international awards for being the cleanest, greenest city in the country. “Under the city’s anti-litter laws, a third offense carries a $1,000 fine plus two months in prison. That’s one reason why we have such clean streets,” Lim added.
Modern-day sensibilities like this are a far cry from Palawan’s untamed past. With a 1,200-mile coastline bounded by the South China Sea to the west and the Sulu Sea to the east, the island lies on the old Chinese and Spanish trade routes and was a refuge of pirates and the scene of World War II atrocities. It was famous for its old growth hardwood forests of mahogany, narra and amagong, all prized for furniture and recklessly pillaged for decades. These spoils, including incredible fisheries and other natural bounties, drew generations of migrants from throughout Asia, making today’s Palawan a melting pot of 81 ethnic groups.
Several indigenous tribes are still intact, like the Tau’t Bato (“people of rock”) who live in the caves of remote southern Palawan. This no-man’s land has more in common with neighboring Borneo than the distant Philippine mainland, and is so isolated, so rugged that an offshoot tribe of the Bato wasn’t “discovered” until 1997.
My stay at Dos Palmas Resort wasn’t nearly as rugged. The small private island is among 13 others in the bay, and perhaps the most opulent of all with modern cottages and suites (some built over the water) decked with amenities and, thankfully, robust A.C. Being off the grid has spawned some original island ingenuity here. The resort has designated a chunk of the island as the Dos Palmas Eco Zone, where environmental programs, sustainable gardens and facilities that produce power and potable water keep guests content. And content I was, whether strolling through stately coconut palm groves, dipping in the pristine freshwater pool or imbibing at the elegant outdoor bar.
Being a bubble blower, I took advantage of the dive shop and spent a few days exploring shallow reefs not more than a five-minute boat ride from the resort’s pier. Visibility was over 120 feet, so clear it was like swimming through air. Stingrays, seahorses, tuna, a kaleidoscopic collection of reef fish, along with all shapes and colors of coral, amounted to an underwater safari. My favorite site was Helen’s Gardens, named after a local woman who helped educate over-zealous fishermen about preserving the beautiful reefs.
There’s an unmistakable feel to Palawan, and just as the brochures proclaim, you get the sense you’re on the edge of a vast frontier. At 6,575 square miles and with 1,780 islands, it’s the largest of the Philippines’ 80 provinces and has the highest concentration of islands while having the country’s lowest population density, roughly 641,000. Thumb through most any guidebook and the references to Palawan are the same: “Thinly populated,” “hundreds of uninhabited islands,” and “few roads with little to no services.”
Back in Puerto Princesa, I put this last claim to test when I embarked with a private driver on a marathon overland crossing to the famed Bacuit Archipelago and the El Nido Marine Reserve in Palawan’s northern reaches. But first things first. A couple hours from town was Palawan’s signature attraction that any self-respecting traveler couldn’t miss: a guided boat journey into the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site eons in the making.
The greatest part of this adventure isn’t cruising inside the subterranean spectacle. No, that would be the 20-minute ocean transit from the village of Sabang on the roily South China Sea. Along with a few South Korean tourists, I hopped a wet seat on an overgrown Philippine banca boat – basically a huge dugout with spindly bamboo outriggers and an oversized lawn mower engine – and we launched from the beach. Remember the wall of waves Tom Hanks crested during his island escape in the movie Castaway? That was practically what we faced during our escape.
The limestone cavern mouth of the Subterranean River looks more like a placid lagoon than a cave-carving river. But once inside you see a rare spectacle that’s taken thousands of years to sculpt. On small electric motorized dugouts, our little flotilla journeyed in about three river miles, listening to our guide point out geologic features resembling natural gargoyles while bats strafed our heads. At the furthest point we turned off our search lights and experienced absolute darkness while dripping water rained over us and the screeches of bats echoed into the void. It’s a creepy place, but at the same time remarkable in a Jules Verne-Journey to the Center of the Earthkind of way.
From Sabang I traveled the rest of the day and through the night to reach the village of El Nido. It’s a rollicking drive negotiating minefields of potholes and deep puddles, ravines and small landslides. The thick rainforest is occasionally interrupted by towering white limestone cliffs sprouting like jagged sentinels above the jungle. What few clearings I saw were transformed into liquified rice paddies with attendant kalabaw, Philippine water buffalo.
When we passed through hamlets I saw bronzed children playing au naturalewhile adults fussed with their daily chores. When night fell, the cooling landscape became an inkwell in which electricity and lights were virtually nonexistent. The only illumination through this rural wilderness was the golden glow of cooking fires and lanterns emanating from thatched bamboo homes perched on poles. It was as if time had stood still here.
Bacuit Bay and the islands of El Nido are arguably the most stunning area in the Philippines, reminiscent of southern Thailand’s Phi Phi area. Perpendicular limestone precipices crown most islands, seducing you with their paper-white sand beaches and lazy coconut palms arching over the bluest of water. The sleepy seaside village of El Nido is the launching pad into the protected marine reserve, where I spent several luxuriant days diving, kayaking, beach combing and fulfilling a near castaway fantasy (with perks) at El Nido Resort on Miniloc Island.
Water is the central theme in El Nido, and I racked up a dozen phenomenal dives near surrounding islets prowled by fish large and small. But you don’t have to be a diver to appreciate this water world. From the plush resort’s pier, guests snorkeled and tossed morsels of bread while the water erupted in a feeding frenzy of hundreds of colorful, and quite benign, tropical fish. Beach lounging, spa pampering, buffets beyond belief are all on the menu. But in my mind, the best offering was a half-day of sea kayaking on the island’s backside, where Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon awaited.
These are two of the most iconic, photographed natural sites in all the Philippines – immense turquoise-colored lagoons surrounded by steep cliffs with flowering botanicals, and alive with birds and monkeys. With my guide we paddled over the most gorgeous colored waters I’d ever seen, glowing with every imaginable hue of blue and green. Fish the color of rainbows darted beneath us while long-tailed macaque monkeys and hornbill birds shouted at us from above.
As we reveled in our surroundings, my guide talked about nature and ecology. “You can see why Palawan is often called the ‘Last Ecological Frontier’ of the Philippines,” he said.
Yes, I nodded. “So I’ve heard.”
INFO TO GO
California-based Wilderness Travel (www.wildernesstravel.com) offers 13-day guided snorkeling and kayaking adventures on Palawan. Philippines-based Lakbay Pilipinas (www.lakbaypilipinas.com) offers a three-day Palawan package that includes the Subterranean River National Park and Puerto Princesa. The company also books connecting flights from Manila. For more information on the Philippines, visit www.experiencephilippines.ph. For detailed information on Palawan, visit www.palawan.ws.
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