In planning for Palawan, an island on the west side of the Philippines, everything kept pointing to the famed “Underground River”. It’s the 7th wonder of the natural world! It’s the most amazing thing you will ever see! It’s cooler than ice cream and better than sliced bread! So, persuaded by the exuberant advertising, we added an extra day to our stay in Puerto Princesa and signed up for a tour.
I had no idea what we were even going to see, really. What exactly is an underground river? I envisioned some kind of ride that descends down a roller coaster into the earth like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. It turns out that the Underground River is water that snakes through the base of an enormous mountain of caves.
The day started with a 7am pickup and a two-hour van ride up a windy road into the mountains. A tour guide sat in the van and gave a tired and over rehearsed monologue of the area’s history. We arrived at a dock and had to wait over an hour to load into the (first) boat. Luckily we were able to buy coconuts and fried plantains in the mean time.
We took a boat out to the site of the caves and waited another 90 minutes for the tour to actually begin. The mouth of the cave is found in a lagoon that would be very scenic if its banks weren’t filled with hundreds of tourists milling around in bright orange life vests. We entertained ourselves by taking more pictures and hunting futilely for monkeys (they were likely rendered blind by all the orange vests and had retreated into the forest to rehabilitate).
Finally we loaded into the boat and departed, but not before a photographer came to take obnoxious group photos that they would later try to sell to us. Because we are terrible people were tired and irritated we gave our best angry and disgruntled faces, much to the chagrin of the photographer. But at long last (5½ hours later, to be exact) we were entering the esteemed Underground River.
By this point I was prepared to be underwhelmed but as we glided through the cave’s entrance I began to understand why it’s such a big deal. The cavern stretched up hundreds of feet in places and stalactites drooped from the ceiling in curious shapes and sizes. Thousands of bats rested on the cave’s damp walls and flitted through the beam of our flashlight.
The guide pointed out rock formations that resembled other things—Jesus, a dinosaur, boobs, a lump of poo—and gave another over rehearsed speech with cheesy punchlines and far too many references to the bible. The cave’s waters stretch 8km through its tunnels but we only explored the first kilometer before returning the way we came in. It was no Pirates of the Caribbean, but the atmosphere of it all was very reminiscent of an amusement park ride.
So was it worth the time and money? Debatable. The caves were magnificent. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I’m glad to have been able to experience it. But it is simply not set up to host the amount of tourists they cram into it, and it was disappointing to spend an entire day traveling and waiting for one 40 minute boat ride. I love to imagine what it looked like years ago before it became a tourist magnet, when monkeys drank from the lagoon waters and the cave was quiet enough to hear the drops of water dripping from its ancient walls. I bet it was unbelievable.