The fourth and final leg of my four part adventure in the Philippines began by lucking into and finding a great taxi driver at the Puerto Princesa Airport. John was young, cheerful, and above all honest. So by the time he delivered to my hotel Honest John had become my new best friend and my driver and tour guide for my few days in town.
Honest John picked me up next morning bright and early for the 76k drive to the Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park. This 8.2k underground river empties directly into the sea and is the Palawan’ Provence’s most treasured tourist attraction. The river boasting both A UNESCO World Heritage Site designation as well as listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature is stunningly beautiful.
The cave’s jaw dropping limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites form wild and fanciful images that with just a little imagination look like actual sculptures of animals, people and other objects from the surface world. But even before you enter the elaborate cave system your eyes feast upon beautifully clear blue green waters, pristine beaches and dramatic limestone cliffs dropping from the blue skies to the blue waters in one continuous ribbon of glittering limestone.
Honest John drove me to the pier where the Underground River tours are booked and depart. He helped me purchase my ticket and got me a seat on a boat to ferry me 30 minutes to the beach and entrance to the cave system. The boat ride to the beach was spectacular eye candy offering views of crystal blue waters, cobalt blue skies for as far as the eye could see, pristine white sandy beaches, and dramatic limestone sea cliffs plunging into the sea topped by eye popping green vegetation. A scene totally devoid of pastels or dull colors. Everywhere your eye roamed the colors were bold and vivid.
And just as you think “can it get any better than this” the boat rounded a cliff jutting out into the sea to enter a beautiful cove tucked away between the massive cliffs with broad sandy beaches shaded by massive coconut trees and another much larger and expansive type of trees that grow both horizontally as well vertically
with big broad green shady leaves.
Once ashore we left the large sea going boat to collect a hard hat audio recorder headset and life vest and then make our way down a sandy forest trail to a picturesque boat landing to take photos and wait for a small skiff seating 10 guests and a boatman to take us 4.3 kilometers into the underground river.
The trip into the river is surreal. It begins with a short paddle across a natural inlet and bay area and as you near the cliffs and the entrance to the subterranean part of the river the audio guide explains the ground rules. No talking, no noise, no touching, no lights except the boatman’s headlamp, and for god’s sake no looking up with your mouth open – lots of bats hanging from the ceiling dropping gifts from above. Lol
As we entered the cave and left the bright sunlight of the surface we gradually moved from twilight to total darkness and with each stroke of the paddle the cave became darker and more quite. Quite except for a weird clicking and high pitched squealing sound which we learned from our audio guide were bats zipping by using these sounds to bounce off of the walls and other objects as a sort of radar/sonar to keep them from flying into a limestone wall or my face.
The boatman would shine his headlamp on interesting formations as we glided along as the audio guide quietly explained what we were seeing into our earphones. Off in the inky black distance you could see pinpricks of light from the headlamps of other boatmen ferrying their boatload of stunned tourists. The entire scene was so foreign – no sound, almost no light, a place where time seemed to stand still provided fuel to supercharge the imagination. For a moment I felt like I might be a lost soul on Charon’s ferry in Hades on my final journey across the River Styx crossing from the world of the living to the world of the dead. But then I felt the plop of a bat dropping on my shoulder and knew I was still among the living. Souls don’t get crapped on – that is a privilege reserved for the living.
And as we gradually emerged from the inky black monochrome world to twilight then to bright sunlight I felt as if I had just drifted into a canvas of a Paul Gauguin tropical island paradise painting.
After a few strokes of the paddle we were back across the quite pool between the cave entrance and small dock where we unloaded, walked back through the woods, dropped off our helmets and head sets and reboarded our boat to transport back to the landing where my taxi and Honest John waited.
I was ready for lunch so we hit a Filipino all you could eat buffet. One look at the options and all I could eat was watermelon. The rest of the crap looked like someone else had already eaten and regurgitated it. So once again I ate melons and water for lunch. How I wished I could eat a Baby Ruth again. Lol
Returning to Puerto Princesa I found a KFC in the mall and enjoyed a two piece original with mash potatoes and cole slaw – real food for real people! It is interesting Filipinos and I guess all Asians crave rice like we crave potatoes or fresh baked bread. They eat rice and dried fish for breakfast, rice and pigs ears or feet for lunch and rice and pig fat, or baby duck fetuses still in the boiled egg or Kari Kari for dinner. Asians have no interest in bread or potatoes and I have never seen ribs or pork chops on a menu here.
Next day Honest John drove me to what he said was a nearby and very nice beach. It turned out not to be so near and not so nice. I took as 2 hours to reach the beach and the first place we went had a beach but no amenities. No lounges, tents, or towels for rent and no cold drinks or hot food to eat. I had John ask where the umbrellas and lounges were. Answer – they blew away in the typhoon.
The second beach we visited at least had umbrellas and chase lounges for rent so I bought a warm soda and laid down on the lounge. I’m not sure if I was attacked by some kind of tiny insect at that beach or from the sleeping bag on Mount Apo but by next morning I was itching with bites all over – and I mean ALL Over! Honest John stopped at a pharmacy on the way to the airport and bought me something for the bites but I couldn’t get relief until much later in the day after flying to Manila transferring planes and then on to Legazpi.
In keeping with this cosmic joke played on big fat ass American men the clerk working the Cebu Pacific ticket counter grinned and told me he was giving me a special seat because of the size. When I boarded the plane I found that the first two seats faced backwards and were half the size of regular seats. Had I been able to lift the arm rest and use both seats I might have been comfortable but I had to not only squeeze my ass into a seat only wide enough for an anorexic, heron addicted New York fashion model but had to turn slightly sideways and curl my shoulders in so as not to hang over half way into the poor guy’s seat next to me. Maybe the longest two hours of my long life.
The Legazpi airport is small and they roll portable stairs to deplane on the tarmac and walk across the tarmac to the baggage claim in the departure terminal. Normally it is a pain doing this because it is hot and windy but today it was perfect because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and a perfect kodak moment with Mount Mayon.
After collecting my bags I found a taxi driver that looked honest and I was off to my hotel. On the way we discussed and made an agreement on a rate for him being my driver for the next 48 hours. We started the next morning by driving to a place that offers ATV tours from town to the 2006 lava wall on Mount Moran. I used to ride motorcycle when I was young but never an ATV. Turns out there is nothing to driving one and away we went.
Our route took us through some pretty rough terrain through flooded streams, up over rock piles and into thick soupy muddy bogs but it was a blast and sure as hell beat walking. We stopped and parked our ATVs at an outdoor center and hiked the rest of the way to the 2006 lava wall. And that is as far as is legal to go on Mount Mayon which is still an active volcano that erupts every few years and sends then local running for their lives. Hiking is now prohibited because a group of hikers got caught in an eruption a few years back and all died – a group of par boiled Italian trekkers makes for really lousy tourism advertising so the lava wall is as close to the summit as you can get.
There was a zip line back down to the outdoor center that I was hoping to try but it started raining and I was told the don’t operate in the rain. I guess maybe the break on the cable doesn’t work so well wet so I had to walk back down. Bummer – I’ve never experienced a zip line. After another hour of racing around on the ATV’s scaring the hell out of a bunch of cows we made it back to the rental shop and loaded up for the next location.
That location turned out to be a very nice waterfall that we hiked down to and then crossed the stream and continued downstream to a little café for a cup of tea and some conversation with the locals.
It seems after a lifetime in politics I can’t seem to get away from it. The national election here is May 9 and everyone wants to talk about their favorite candidate. Most people seem to be favoring BongBong Marcos (son of the former dictator Ferdinand and Amelda Marcos) a few the current female vice president and my porter on Mount Apo is all in for boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.
After our tea we made tracks back to the car and drove to the very interesting Hoyop-hoyopan (blow of the wind in the local dialect) Cave. The 280 square meter cave with 3 separate tiers was formed sometime around 4000BC and has been used as a refuge of last resort during typhoons and volcanic eruptions through the ages.
During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in WW II Filipino gorillas and over 1000 locals hid in the cave for 3 years before the Japanese occupiers located the cave. The cave hideout included both a hospital and orphanage. During Ferdinand Marcos’ rule and martial law the locals built a concrete dance floor in the room they call the cathedral so they could drink, dance, sing karaoke and party all night despite the curfew.
Stalactites and Stalagmites form interesting formations resembling a chicken drumstick, statue of the Blessed Virgin, a hanging snake, a hand formation, sexy lady with long hair, hanging man, and statue of Moses.
One strange moment occurred when a group of local women asked my driver if I would have a photo made with them. This happens a lot to me in both Asia and Africa and I usually try to accommodate and stand for photos even though it makes no sense to me. As we began taking photos even a couple of guys not even with the women jumped into the pictures. Lol. But the amusing thing was once I entered the cave for the tour the lady in the red pants in the photo asked my driver to tell me that she would like to be my wife for the night if I was so inclined. Obviously I was not so inclined but I was amused!
Next day we spent half the day trying to get a PCR test for my flight to Bali. Despite advertising claiming dozens of places offered PCR test nowhere in the city actually offered them. I had to get on line and make an appointment in Manila at the airport the next day to get a rapid test and pay extra to get my results in three hours.
After the PCR disaster of a morning I spent the afternoon visiting local landmarks. First stop was the Simbahan Ng Daraga (Our Lady of the Gate Parish Church in English) built in 1773 in the Baroque style. It’s walls are constructed from huge volcanic rock which is found everywhere in the area then coated with lime to protect from deteriorating. The arch over the entrance has an inscription in Latin which once interpreted reads “Well founded is the house of the Lord on firm rock”. The octagonal belfry has carved images of the twelve apostles.
This church was built on a hill overlooking the active Mount Mayon Volcano after the Spanish settlers in the nearby settlement became concerned about the danger of increasing volcanic activity. And when the church of Cagsawa and community was destroyed in 1814 this church replaced Cagsawa.
Next we visited the ruins of the Church of Cagsawa originally built in 1587 but burnt to the ground by Dutch pirates in 1636. It was rebuilt by Franciscan friars in 1724 but destroyed for good along with the entire town of Cagsawa in the 1814 eruption of the Mayon volcano. After the eruption covered the entire area in hundreds of million cubic meters of molten lava killing thousands only the belfry and parts of the convent survived. More of the structure was damaged collapsed during the earthquake that hit the region in the 1950s.
And the last things I did while here in Legazpi was eat the Filipino delicacy Lechon (whole cooked pig). It lived up to its billing and was delicious even though the crispy hide was a little hard to chew lol. Second thing was I got to try out a Jitney.
The jitney is a unique form of public transportation only found in the Philippines and again is a testament to the locals ingenuity. After World War II the locals took old U.S. Army and Marine Jeeps welded on a longer body, moved the back axle and had a vehicle that could carry 20 people comfortably on two long bench seats running the length of the Jitney. People hop on and off pulling a string connected to a bell to get the driver’s attention. Pesos are passed from one rider to the next forward to the driver. The vehicles are covered in bright colors and chrome and built with the sides open for maximum airflow since they are not air conditioned.
And having completed my bucket list of drinking the night away in a karaoke bar, eating lechon, riding in a Jitney, seeing the Hanging Coffins of Sagada for myself, visiting the famous and beautiful rice terraces, hiking to Mt Pinatubo’s crater lake, touring the WWII sites, shooting the rapids and crashing through a raging waterfall on a bamboo raft, canyoneering down a raging river, attempting and failing to climb Mt Apo, visiting the famed (not so brown) chocolate hills of Bohol, floating 2 kilometers into the subterranean river of Puerto Princesa and visiting the waterlogged beaches of Boracay it is now time to move on to Bali and visit my little friend Risky who I met when she was just 16 and was my volunteer tour guide for a day at the Hindu Temple complex of Prambanan back in 2019.
But I can’t leave the Philippines without once again noting the way everything here is built for small people – airplane seats, tricycles, tables/chairs, tents, sleeping bags, boats even the toilets are all miniature or kid size. I felt like Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians.