By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

PALAWAN OFFERS the picture of the perfect island life, with beaches and secluded islets ideal for swimming and diving. It isn’t surprising that Conde Nast Traveler magazine named Palawan the world’s best island in 2014 and 2015. But Palawan has more to offer — capital city Puerto Princesa has other secret weapons to lure its tourists, both local and foreign, to keep them coming back for more.

Puerto Princessa Sights: Iwahig at daytime. -- Iwahig Firefly Tour
Puerto Princessa Sights: Iwahig at daytime. — Iwahig Firefly Tour

Last year, the tourist arrivals in Puerto Princesa hit 800,000. “We are expecting one million tourist arrivals [in Puerto Princesa] for this year,” city tourism assistant officer Demetrio Alvior, Jr. told BusinessWorld during a media visit on Feb. 16 to 18.

The increased number of flights is one of the reasons for the increasing tourists arrivals, said Mr. Alvior. For instance, there’s now a direct flight from the city to Taiwan twice a week. The members of the media meanwhile flew via AirAsia, which has direct daily flights from Manila to Puerto Princesa.

The city is also reinventing its offerings to attract more tourists.

First on the list is the new audio tour of Puerto Princesa’s famous underground river, its most famous attraction, luring 1,200 visitors a day. The local government has decided to mute its bangkeros (boatmen), who often draw loud cheers from their passengers thanks to their witty puns and jokes, in favor of an audio tour which started being offered in January. This way, the bats inside the 8.2-kilomoter (km) river — said to be the longest underground river in the world — can roost at peace.

Puerto Princessa Sights: The new Canvas Botique Hotel, near the airport, is one of nearly 1,000 hotels in the city.
Puerto Princessa Sights: The new Canvas Botique Hotel, near the airport, is one of nearly 1,000 hotels in the city.

Located 80 km north of the capital city, it takes a 45-minute trip by land to reach the Puerto Princesa Underground River, which is a World Heritage Site and also one of the New 7 Wonders of the Nature. The subterranean river journey costs P250 for foreign tourist and P175 for local tourist. To reach the cave, tourists must travel a further 20 minutes by sea, with a risk of seasickness when big waves hit. Upon arrival at the shore outside the cave — and taking a few pictures at its pristine beach — visitors are asked to pay an extra P85 for earphones. The language options include Filipino, French, English, Japanese and Chinese. According to media friends who visited the river before, while the pre-recorded explanation aims to reduce noise inside the cave, they said they missed the live interaction with the bangkeros. Sometimes the recordings are not in sync with the pace of the tour so it gets hard keep up. But one can opt not to wear the earpiece, and instead, marvel at the cave’s natural beauty at your own pace.

Stalactites and the stalagmites fill the underground river’s course, some formations glistening as if adorned with diamonds, some rough and edgy. “Nature is a good artist that likes to incorporate textures,” said the recording. Some rock formations look like fruits and vegetables, others seem to offer more religious imagery. “Use your imagination,” the recording encouraged the tourists.

The tour lasts 40 minutes before the banca turns back, even though the river stretches farther into the pitch darkness. Much of the river still remains uncharted.

The trip to the Underground River requires a full day. But if you still have the energy for another trip after, the Iwahig firefly adventure should be included in the list. After all, it happens once the sun sets.

Puerto Princessa Sights: The city’s Plaza Cuartel which is part of the historical tour. -- Melo Villareal
Puerto Princessa Sights: The city’s Plaza Cuartel which is part of the historical tour. — Melo Villareal

The Iwahig firefly tour — two-km river cruise that lasts for 30 minutes — started being offered in early 2000, thanks to the initiatives of the locals and its partnership with ABS-CBN Foundation.

Thirty minutes away from the capital city, on a dark river illuminated only by the bright stars in the clear sky, tourists play hunters in the jungle, searching for the alitaptap or firefly, whose bioluminescence attracts both mates and prey. According to our boatman, Jonathan, fireflies thrive among the bakawan or mangroves. Once a common sight all over the country, including the cities, pollution has shooed these twinkling insects away. Now, to see an alitaptap in the city is almost impossible for they can only live in a place with clean air — such as that in Iwahig. The Ihawig firefly tour is so popular that sometimes, especially at the peak summer season, there can be tours as late as two in the morning. The boat ride costs P600 for three persons.

The Puerto Princesa goverment is preparing another tourist attraction that is adjacent the Iwahig firefly tour: the Iwahig penal farm.

At 28,333-hectares, Iwahig — one of the largest penal farms in the world — is safe to visit. There is barely a fence to mark its boundaries, but the prisoners aren’t tempted to escape. After all, the inmates under rehabilitation are allowed to earn their own income to help them once they are free. The penal farm — established in 1904 during the American Occupation — is green, peaceful, and scenic, home to vegetable farms, crocodile farms, and the Balsahan river, which, according to Ihawig Superintendent Antonio Cruz, is slated to be eventually have its own version of Bohol’s Loboc river cruise where one can eat lunch on a boat while leisurely sailing down the water. The plan, however, isn’t concrete yet.

Puerto Princessa Sights: Going into the bat cave that is the Puerto Princesa Palawan Underground River.
Puerto Princessa Sights: Going into the bat cave that is the Puerto Princesa Palawan Underground River.

The visiting media were able to visit the penal colony’s souvenir shop, which offers artworks and souvenirs made by prisoners from found objects.

In the works are historical tours of the city said tourism officer, Mr. Alvior. The city, after all, is celebrating the 71st year of Palawan Liberation on April 21 to 23.

“The role of Palawan guerrillas who liberated the island from Japanese invaders during World War II was crucial to Philippine history,” said Palawan Governor Jose Ch. Alvarez in a statement. “It’s about time we recognize their heroism through historical tourism programs.”

The new tourism package offering includes a heritage tour and visit to the World War II Museum, which features the role of the Palawan Special Battalion who fought side-by-side with the Americans. A walkable tour, the tourists can hop from one heritage site to another, including the creepy Plaza Cuartel, found in the heart of the city. Here, explained our tour guide, lie the bodies of American soldiers who were tortured, burnt  and buried alive by Japanese soldiers.

Whether a trip to the beach, an educational tour of an underground river, or a trip down memory lane, one’s visit at the Puerto Princesa, Palawan begs to be remembered and revisited.