The capital of Palawan, Puerto Princesa, is situated right in the middle of the province’s narrow main island. Once considered a stopover city and the jump-off point for the beaches of El Nido and diving in Tubbataha, it started receiving its own fair share of tourists when its subterranean river was voted as one of the world’s New Seven Wonders of Nature — after a massive text-in campaign, of course.
The underground river in Sabang, an hour and a half from the city, remains its most popular attraction. If you’re averse to long lines and theme park-style rides, however, you may want to check out some of Puerto Princesa’s lesser-known eco-tourism sites.
Part of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a 3.5 km-long jungle trek which leads to a mangrove paddleboat tour, both managed by members of the Tagbanua tribe from Barangay Sabang. For a serene 45 minutes, guests ride down a mangrove river whose long, gnarled roots are home to baby fish and an assortment of other animals, including the wormlike tamilok mollusk that’s a delicacy in these parts.
The Tagbanua guides, who once chopped down trees to make charcoal, are now educating visitors on how mangrove forests provide a natural defense against erosion and flooding caused by typhoons and climate change.
Another community-managed tourism site known as the Hundred Caves lies about halfway between Sabang and downtown Puerto Princesa. Here, the locals previously made a living from climbing the cliffs to collect swiftlet nests, which were used in bird’s nest soup. This was a dangerous practice that also damaged the sensitive limestone ecosystem, so community organizers retrained the nest pickers to become caving guides instead.
The cave system spans only about a kilometer, but exploring the many dark and interconnected bat-filled chambers can take up to two hours. Stalactites and stalagmites in unique formations will fascinate spelunkers as they squeeze through tight passageways and shimmy down makeshift ladders.
Ethical practices also extend to the shopping and sourcing scene in Puerto Princesa. Step into a chic hotel and you will find the iconic accessories and baskets woven with burnt black bamboo strips made by the women of the dwindling Batak tribe, who have been able to sustain their culture and traditions this way.
Additionally, Rurungan sa Tubod, a non-profit that seeks to empower Palawan women, is an alternative livelihood foundation that teaches women piña fabric-weaving technology while creating a community of weavers. At its showroom just off the National Highway, you can observe them working on looms while their children mill around, and also peruse the special items they produce, from modern Filipiniana blouses to colorful resort wear woven in light cotton blends.
Ditchay Roxas, a longtime Palawan resident, has made the capital her home for the past 11 years, and runs the much beloved restaurant La Terrasse Café along busy Rizal Avenue. Her classy menu offers French-inspired Asian dishes, using ingredients sourced locally from organic farms or tribes — don’t miss her famous stick-to-your-teeth nougat made with Palawan honey and cashews. Ditchay has seen the bad and good of tourism development and is committed to sustainable practices, having lived in a rustic wood cottage on the island of Boayan for two decades, pioneering efforts to restore and preserve the surrounding precious ecosystem and reef environment.
New projects here leading the charge in green tourism are on the rise — up in the hilly, verdant area past Mitra’s Ranch hides a soon-to-open event space called Butanding Bar. Conceptualized by artist Alexis Oshima, the bar is noteworthy for its experimental use of bamboo.
With simple yet beautiful forest huts constructed by legendary Palawan paraw-builder Gener Paduga, this space will showcase how bamboo architecture should be used in a country regularly beset by typhoons. Climate-resilient and cheap to build, bamboo structures are the future of Philippine architecture, and visionaries like Alexis and Gener are paving the way forward.
Set against the sprawling bamboo ceiling of Butanding Bar are large lamps in the shape of mantas, jellyfish and a life-size whale shark, created by Baguio artist and former Purple Yam chef Perry Mamaril. He also built a traditional Cordillera stone grill where food is to be cooked and meats, smoked — a definite talking point for parties held here.
Where to Stay in Puerto Princesa
Blue Palawan Beach Club
At night, this beachfront resort turns into a buzzy hot spot and event space with rotating guest DJs — it even hosts electronic music festivals. Hidden Beach, BM Rd
Sitting within a 5-ha mango orchard, the hotel uses solar energy and has state-of-the art waste management facilities, making it one of Puerto Princesa’s greenest establishments. Km 62 North National Highway
Atremaru Jungle Retreat
Simple and rustic, nature is this resort’s most luxurious amenity. It has a lot of open spaces, being nestled in a 25ha jungle park with access to a private beach. Brgy Buenavista, Purok Madahon
Where to Eat in Puerto Princesa
A small boutique and café owned by Ditchay Roxas, where you can buy her famous patés and rillettes as well as knick-knacks from around the world. Now that breakfast has been introduced, you can’t miss out on the danggit lamayo. Manalo Ext, Brgy Bancao-Bancao
This restaurant on stilts at the end of a boardwalk is surrounded by mangroves serving great Filipino seafood dishes. Dine alfresco with a view of Honda Bay. Abueg Rd