Can't Have Enough of Sabang

Trip Start May 19, 2010
Trip End May 23, 2010

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Where I stayed
Taraw Beach Resort

Flag of Philippines  , Puerto Princesa,
Saturday, May 22, 2010

A day tour of the Underground River is little different from looking at a good, wide-screen video of Sabang's most popular tourist destination. Unless you fall off a boat or run into a python, when you bus in (van in) for the day, you remain a spectator and never really experience what the Underground River and the St. Paul Subterranean River National Park is all about. But why go to Palawan in the first place?

The Jungle Trail and St. Paul Subterranean River National Park

Even if the Underground River is the Palawan "Must See," the Jungle Trail to/from the Underground River is for me and many others, a "Must Do." The 4.2 km. trail is not a stroll in the park but those who've done the route say it was the most memorable and most fun part of their visit. And no wonder. The 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hour trek is an enchanting, up close experience of virgin forests as well as of the otherworldly (for most of us Pinoys) ridges, peaks, pinnacles, shafts, and limestone cliffs of a tropic karst area. You'll see if not traverse different kinds of forests - karst, freshwater swamp, lowland evergreen tropical rain forest, riverine, beach, and mangrove and if you're out early (the best time for birdwatching is early in the morning), you should be able to see some of the area's 165 species of birds, including 15 that are endemic. You'll very certainly have a chance to interact with long-tailed macaques and monitor lizards, perhaps spot a Palawan's Bearded pig, Bearcat, stink badger, or porcupine.

The jungle trail and the underground river won't take a whole day. It really is possible to begin the day at 9:00 (leave Puerto Princesa at 7:00), visit the underground river, and do the Jungle trail while the others in your van return to the village for lunch and some swimming. Unless you're super slow, you should be able to make it back to civilization by the time your van gets ready to leave. But you're in Palawan because you're on vacation so what's the big rush?

When our van driver brought us to Taraw Beach Resort at about 4:00 in the afternoon of Palawan day 1, we asked him to return for us at about 2:00 p.m. of day 3. Our schedule was very flexible but I did include in our itinerary, a paddle boat tour of the mangroves, a visit to Ugong Rock, and some walking around Sabang (it's by walking around that you are able to lay claim to any place). I also wanted to fit into day 3, dinner in Vietville and then Puerto Princesa's famous Fireflies tour.

Mangrove Paddle-Boat Tour

Mangroves are critical for biodiversity, stabilizing shorelines, and providing protection from storms. Mangrove conservation is therefore a very big thing for environmentalists. We do have mangroves along our coast (Bacolod City), but my childhood memories include an abundance of mangrove shoots or whatever, sticking out of the sand and making my grandparents' beach so much less than fun. For this reason, the Mangrove tour didn't sound very interesting. My favorite Sabang website, Travel Guide for Sabang and the Underground River however described the tour as "This is a fantastic thing to do." I had never seen a real mangrove forest and since we've gone on a few river cruises that were just creative ways of getting tourists to shell out cash, I figured we owed the mangroves and the local community that protected the mangroves a little bit of the pie. At worst, we would get what the website described as "on-the-spot information," "relevant and enriching." If "The local guides speak about this place with passion," perhaps it was worth finding out why.

We were out of the resort by 7:00 a.m. as we hoped to see whatever birds and wildlife there would be in the quiet of the early morning. What we hadn't considered was that the volunteer guides in charge of the paddle-boats do not live in the vicinity of the mangroves. We hadn't left notice of an early start and since the center opens at 8:00, we passed an hour searching for kingfishers and hawks in the forest across the river, looking for squirrels, taking macro photographs of tiny crabs and mud skippers on the beach, playing checkers, and trying to keep the two little boys, Dan and Ice, entertained so they wouldn't drive us crazy with a tantrum.

Hum But Don't Wake Up the Snake describes one visitor's experience of the mangroves in beautiful detail.

This protected swamp, around 30 meter-wide water strip, hosts old-growth mangrove trees as tall as an eight story building. Birds of various feathers and sounds love it here. The old, dark trees' wicked roots and branches crisscross each other like evil giants locked in arms and arched over the river, making this forest a Jurassic dead-ringer on a grey overcast. Try going onshore past the interlocking mossy roots and stand still, if you haven't slip yet, facing up to the sharp lime cliffs that seem to shoot up to the sky. You can feel birds and snakes and who-knows-what lurk behind the shadows. . . .

The peace and quiet gave me a natural high, a true break from the urban mess. . . . If you long for a nice peace and quiet, or want to reflect on whatever, or simply enjoy nature and its living side without having to scour a large area, try this Mangrove Paddle Tour in Sabang River, Puerto Princesa.

Mention was made of the same yellow-striped black snake that we saw "curled and sleeping on a branch directly above our passing boat." Doesn't that snake move? No wonder our guide was certain we'd see it on the way back. We also saw a small boa constrictor but no big and fearsome reptiles. Manuel kept joking about crocodiles, as if sighting a wild one nearby would make us laugh. As in the Underground River, Ice wanted to run his chubby hands along the murky waters. With the rich biodiversity of such a pristine mangrove area, who was to say whether the waters were safe for little hands? The guide assured us that there are no crocodiles in the area, also that the water looked murky only because we were in the shadows plus the river bed was rich with detritus. The water was actually quite clear and we did not need to be afraid of dangerous creatures lurking in its depth. Suffice it to say, none of us adults felt like dipping our hands into the water.

Walking Around Sabang

After the Mangrove tour, Manuel and the children would have stayed in our cottage in Taraw if I had not insisted that we explore areas we hadn't been to. Manuel and I have this thing about walking around, something the kids don't really share. So the first part of the walk around was just Manuel and me. I'd read in A Travel Guide for Sabang and the Underground River, in truth my Bible for the Sabang trip, about how "Nothing in Sabang comes close to the beauty of DabDab." Unlike the unremarkable and very public Taraw beach cottages, DabDab's nine cottages are in an idyllic garden setting and are exquisite samples of what a creative designer can do with wood and bamboo. My Sabang bible describes the owner of the resort as as "an inspired craftsman and has sculptured some extraordinary furniture out of giant Ipil hardwood roots left behind by the loggers. The restaurant is adorned with his creations, and his artistic flare extends out to all of Dab Dab’s cottages and gardens." We were so impressed that we hurried back to tell the children about what they'd missed.

Sabang Waterfall

A prominent sign in the Sabang Wharf points to the different places of interest in the vicinity. About a kilometer and a half away, just along the coast was a waterfall that a number of websites highly recommend as beautiful and great for


swimming. The water practically falls directly into the sea, making the waterfall unique. We went despite warnings that there wasn't much water because of the dry spell. We wanted to see what we could of Sabang, the rock-strewn beach promised a different experience, and it seemed unexcusable to miss a tourist destination a kilometer and a half away (If I am not mistaken). Besides, how can a waterfall worth its name become really dry up during the dry season?

The 1.5 kilometer walk to the waterfall turned out to be a real test of determination. The rocky terrain often seemed like torture, especially for my daughters who were wearing rubber tongs. Although there were hardly any loose rocks, we had to be careful not to slip or to sprain an ankle. This was one time when we had to enjoy the moment, the waves crashing against the huge boulders, the beautiful crystalline fragments of rock, stones veined with metal or marble, the occasional stretches of beach that were easy to walk on. Along the way, we passed a Buddhist shrine and then a resort that seemed to be the registration point for visitors to the waterfall. Without these and the Welcome to Waterfall sign to lead us to believe that the falls were nearby, we would have given up.

I have not added a picture of the falls here because the the picture does not do justice to one of Sabang's tourist attractions. Michelle calls the falls, the "False Falls." After the long tortuous trail to and from the False False, we of course enjoyed the lunch of freshly caught fish (P80 per kilo) and ice cold water and soft-drinks which we hadn't had since we arrived in Sabang.

Ugong Rock

Not exactly part of Sabang but if you enjoy roughing
it out and the Jungle Trail is your cup of tea, you shouldn't miss
exploring Ugong Rock in Tagabinet (a short detour from the road the
connects Puerto Princesa and Sabang).

The "Rock" is a 71 meter high limestone pedestal almost in the middle of ricefields. From the outside, it doesn't look like it's worth the P150.00 entrance fee that the Tagabinet Community Tourist Association charges (P200 to P250 if there's a tourist agency to make a commission so convince the local guide that except for the van driver, you're on your own). There is a lot more to the Rock than meets the eye, though.

The upward maze goes through some very interesting (read - challenging and yes, beautiful) passages, some too narrow, some too low, some too high, some too small, some too steep. Safety helmets and mittens are provided by the Association and for good reason. Just like in the Monkey/Jungle Trail, ropes and walkways are in place to make the climb possible for visitors but our female guides told of exploring the Rock long before these aids were installed. My children who used rubber tongs had a difficult time so plan to use walking shoes or sandals that will be comfortable and safe for climbing rock surfaces.

After your visit to the Rock, the halo-halo in the Tagabinet Association's restaurant will be really refreshing. And if you need to go to the washroom/comfort room/water closet, near the restaurant is a "Composting Toilet" that's very clean, is ecologically friendly, uses no water, and is without any smell.

Back to Puerto Princesa

From Ugong Rock, our driver brought us back to Puerto, passing first through the famous Vietville Restaurant for a brief look of Vietville and a delicious dinner that all the children enjoyed. We were going to go on the famous Firefly tour afterward (costs P1,100 if you join a tour group) but the paddle boats were fully booked til 10:00 p.m. If you want to do the tour, it's cheaper to go on your own but you have to make reservations. If you don't, the tour agencies will fill up the earlier slots.

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