The underground river... New Wonder of the World...
Where do I begin??
The disappointment that you need to have a permit?? Or that even when getting one you find out that it is booked through may. If you're lucky they will put on a wait list. None of these events occur in Sabang, and it's necessary to go to Puerto Princessa.
An incredibly tour operated corrupt system. The only possible option is to go with a tour guide company( as they have booked/bought the spaces) 1,500p. But a permit costs 250+40 environment. Plus 700p for a 6 ppl boat. All this began in March, needing the permits.. and clearly is not efficient yet. The 'Fixers' clean up on tourist situations, and offer to take the closed hiking trail into the park prior to 8 am ( official opening) its not the cheapest option, but a desperate one.
Another drastic measure is to wake up early and wait for tour buses to arrive. Maybe they have a cancelled
Client or space available and you can purchase the permit from them.
- this is what we would do.
The whole thing seems like you're doing the impossible! Desired by all travelers, most that aren't aware of the crowded situation.
But that night in Sabang we met a pleasant environmentalist older man that had some serious connections. We might just luck out. 'Simon' has worked at the underground river since 1979, taking tourists on guided boat rides through the caves. He helps to organize the growth of tourism an merchants in Sabang. He helped implement the new regulations for the undergoing river.
We talked for most of the night about his life and views of the environment. One of the first questions he asked us was if we believed in God. As we are Catholic it was an easy answer. And with his sparkling eyes he smiled ' maybe God will help you find a way to see the river'
Tomorrow he would introduce us to his boss and maybe we could get 2 permits. After all 'Simon' has worked here for many years and is an important figure and influence for locals of Sabang. We are so lucky to have met him.
We wake up bright and early for our sunrise swim. And only an hour later Simon told us that we would meet his boss after he eats. He asks me to brush my hair wear nice clothes because it is a formal meeting. I haven't thoroughly brushed my hair since being here. After I get cleaned up, Simon and I go toward the pier to meet his boss. Carl was asked to stay behind as it would be a quick introduction. On the way to the pier Simon and I talk about all sorts of Sabang fun facts. We talked about the increasing tourism, the property sales, environmental concerns and lots bout the underground river. I'm nervous to meet his boss, but I know this guy can help us see the new wonder of the world. Continuing to walk, Simon picks up the litter and points to the trees he's planted around the area. Soon we get to the permit office, and Simon is eager to introduce me to his colleagues and friends. I meet other park officers and the receptionists in the office. I couldnt understand much of any conversations because they were speaking in their native language. But I understood Simon was explaining our situation.
So fast I hardly knew what was going on.
I was asked to write our names and age on a piece of paper and sign the bottom.
So I did. At the top was written Simons name.
" come back in the afternoon for a boat" I was told.
I looked over at Simon in awe... He was smiling at me and said that he was happy we would get to see this magical place. He needed to leave now, but we woul see him later that night after our trip.
As I walked back toward Carl on the beach in front our hut... I tried to process what just happened.
It seems easy... But these permits are bought out for the month of may by your guides, preferences for cancellations are always given to phillipino's and it really seems like we just did the impossible.
I told Carl all about it. We were getting in!!
We went to the pier to pay permit, 250, envi fee, 50... We got the stamp and we're ushered to the dock area where 10's of people waited for their chance on a boat. Next we needed to pay the boat fee that would take us to the cave. A min of 4 @ 700 php. We were only 2 and still paid that price.
Our names were in cue now for the boat. Slowly ppl were getting in their boats and our number came up. We were on boat 3... And it arrived.
We climbed down the cement wall and steppes onto the nose of our Banca. We were the first 2 on it.
And now we were pulling away...
We are the only 2 on it!! A private boat!
- a little ridiculous, it's true, we would have rather shared, but things aren't practical or logical here... It's essentially moderately organized chaos.
So we are on this Banca, The two of us, heading for the underground river!! It's happening! We were really fortunate meeting Simon.
We got to the shore/ national park where the river was. It was located about 10 min ride by boat (80 min hike on monkey trail). Upon making the corner into the bay, your first view is a swarm of Bancas. Loads of them. All Parked and waiting for their tourists to return. But seeing beyond these boats, is the white sand beach, coved in by beautiful limestone cliffs. It's no wonder people of this land came here to search for healing medicine.
Off the boat our boat guide brought us into the park, which was a desk to check your permit and surrounded by rainforest. We followed the wooden path, and other tourists to the beach and cave entrance.
It was so serene. ( aside from the herds of people) the cave seemed elusive beyond the touch of our hands without a boat. carved under the limestone cliffs, it's a mystery where it will take you.
Again we waited for our turn to board a boat. This time they were much smaller. About 8 ppl packed tightly together, all with neon lifejackets on in a small blue boat that seemed to barely float. Our boat captain sat at the back with his paddle an gently pushed us off into the caves.
Carl and I sat at the back of the boat, so we were fortunate to hear everything our captain was saying about the caves. Not so fortunate that we couldn't see directly ahead.
It didn't really matter once you were inside the underground river though.
The walls were stripped with limestone colors. All shades of dark brown, grey or black. The water was calm enough to see a perfect reflection of yourself. But being inside a cave, the darkness grew the further inside you were. We had a large flashlight at the front of the boat, and 2 lucky kids searched the caves using it. Once inside the ceiling seemed to drip... You could hear splashes in the water and sometimes on your shoulder. At first we thought it was gifts from the hundreds of cave swallows that flew about the cave - and maybe some were... but we were only hit by water drops.
Sailing along the underground river has been described as seeming like a prehistoric dinosaur environment... And maybe slightly.
It seemed to me just like a giant cave would be! I think that was the most significant fact about this site. It is ( we think) the longest navigatable underground river in the world. Its walls tower to a height of 72 meters. The formations you can see are incredible. The guide told us local perspectives about the formations, the two carrots, giant mushroom, jesus's face, even a man and woman's nudey bits. The boat ride took a total of 40 minutes and was highlighted when we arrived in the cathedral of the cave, which had figures of Mary, Jesus and other significant symbols. Looking up you realize how magnificent and unique this river truly is. One begins to appreciate the thousands of years of water slowly etching out the inside, the water reseeding to a point that we can finally see a caved entrance, and the huge cavity where abundant water used to be.
We are here. Experiencing the newest 7th wonder of the world. Amazing!!
What used to be a hidden gem is now over run with tourism and regulations. But still a strangely insightful, perceptive place to see.
After the cave we were again greeted by our boat guide, who took us back to the boat and we headed back for home.
A chaotic ordeal!!; A quick finish, and a lifelong memory.