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Day 70- 72- Puerto Princesa

Underground River, Bike Touring and Bumpy Bus!


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11th February- Arrival
Off the plane it was time to be on our bike again... Well not ours a local Filipino trike of course! En route our driver had managed to convince to book the underground river tour with a company he must also have been associated with. It all seemed a little dodgy as we pulled up outside this hut and all went inside leaving our bags alone outside. If we had not already been traveling in the Philippines for so many weeks it would have been very disconcerting. But unlike the stories cited of high crime rates we haven't seen anything of the sort and although people try to get you to pick them and good a decent deal, you can generally haggle them down to a fair price pretty easily. This is what we did. Although at the time it was unbeknown to us if this deal was a good one. But it seemed fair, we wanted to do the trip and Iz trusted her instincts.

With that all booked we checked into our hostel (Keen's Place) before a wander to the bouvelard to try and catch a glimpse of the sunset! Unfortunately again it was pretty cloudy and the landscape hid the view of the sun going to bed. We haven't had too much luck with sunsets here and haven't found that perfect magical moment in many places as the guide books promised. Although hopefully like with the turtles if we persevere we will find the view we are after.

Being so far unimpressed with Puerto Princesa there was only one thing to do... Find some beer. During my research I had located the rarest of Filipino finds... A local craft brewery! It didn't promise much but it had to be better than the tasteless San Miguel that has become part of our diet. The Palaweño Brewery is a tiny micro brewery tucked away down a side street. When I say micro... Think more the scale you could produce in your shed. Yet it had an aesthetically pleasing entrance with surprisingly good advertisement for their 3 beers; you could tell this place was here purely for the tourists and I imagine it is unlikely to be owned by a local. We ordered two; a honey nut brown ale and an American amber ale. The price was around 3x more expensive than a San Miguel... We just hoped the quality matched. Neither are about to challenge for best beer I've tried, however both were a vast improvement on the only alternative here. Despite slowly enjoying both we weren't blown away enough to order another round, especially as such would pay for dinner alone, so went in hunt for food.

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We came across a very Western style burger diner which sounded ideal to go with the running theme of the evening and as we wanted some comfort food (NomNom Comfort Food). These burgers however came with a little surprise, as the chef clearly enjoyed getting creative with the menu. Again such western flair and gimmicks came at a cost but with the burgers and drinks tasting good we were happy to oblige.

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12 February- The Underground River; pride of the Philippines
It was an early start for our underground river tour. Now this attraction has really place Puerto Princesa on the map and the locals are very proud of it (as are a lot of Filipino's). Now unlike the original 7 natural wonders of the world like the Grand Canyon, I'll forgive you for not knowing this site. However it was made one of the new 7 wonders of the world via a global community vote in 2012 for being the longest navigable subterranean river (5 miles long in fact) and of huge ecological significance. I'm acting all smart here but neither of us had heard of it either until our arrival in the Philippines. It is sites like this that make us want to travel to different corners of the world so we were intrigued.

Our tour guide was very informative and her love for this site was unavoidable. She had been a tour guide for the underground river, making almost daily trips, for over 12 years. She told us how since the listing and recognition by UNESCO how tourism in the area had risen and the changes that it brought. This mainly involved of wealth to the area and increased and improved infrastructure, hostels, hotels etc. She added that when she first started doing these trips the road to the site was almost un-driveable and was horrifically bumpy so much so the locals named it "hard massage" or "abortion" road! They don't pull their punches with their names here. Thankfully with the waves of tourists flooding to the site now the road has been widened and smoothed out.

As with all such tours here it isn't as easy as hopping on a coach getting to the destination, looking around and leaving. There is always some odd little extra process or cost. This we have come to accept as we paid our environmental fee and waited like cattle to be called to jump on a boat to be taken to island where the cave is located. After a further walk through a small rainforest the other side we were at the entrance.... With about 40 other people waiting. As with everywhere in the Philippines it was beautiful and there were definitely worse places to wait for our 40 minute guided tour of a small section of the cave (around 1 mile). You used to just be able to just swim through but with it now under such international regulation measures are taken to ensure it is preserved.

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With all the build up and staring at the caves mouth for a good 30 minutes it was our turn. Headset on (again to prevent talking) we listened to the facts as our guide pointed out with his torch amazing rock formations, stalactites, stalagmites, collums and wildlife such as bats. It really was fascinating, although annoyingly difficult to take photos due to the dark and speed we were moving. I would have loved to spend longer in there to take it all in but it just wasn't possible. Some of the highlights that we managed to picture can be found below if you use your imagination a little you can make out their so called resemblence to various fruit and veg, Jesus, the Nativity scene and even Sharon Stone's arse (disclaimer: it's very difficult to see which I've included from the thumbnails so don't strain yourselves too hard!)

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The water line showing how high the river rises:
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Back on shore there was a bit of time for some monkey and Komodo dragon spotting before a tasty traditional buffet and the return trip back.

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Time for planning activities next destinations, updating blog, uploading photos and touching base back home is tough to find. Contrary to popular belief traveling is tough and time consuming. Especially as there is so much we want to see to really make the most of our time. Due to the fast pace we took a few hours out to pay attention to some of these areas before heading for dinner. We really couldn't decide what to have and ended up in a McDonald's. This is the worst McDonald's we have ever eaten and won't be making that mistake again. I'm not sure how they call those things nuggets!!

13th February- Aqua Park & Crocs- thankfully not at the same time
With our new plan in place we found somewhere to rent scooters. As has been the theme here it seemed shady and we really didn't like the fact we had to hand over a passport but also as has been our Filipino experience all was fine. With gas in the tank, (money in the bank, I got news for you baby, you're looking at the man- sorry impromptu Killers lyrics) we zoomed through the countryside to an aqua park we had found. The biggest one in Asia aparently.

Despite a little issue parking we made it in one piece (see hand below)! The scooters are really difficult to control at low speeds and over bumpy terrain. The parking area had both of these things! However as we approached the counter we were worried.... Our bike was the only one in the car park and other than the receptionist there appeared to be no one around! Our fears were eliminated when she happily took our payment and we boarded a van to the start point. Although when there it quickly became apparent we were actually the only people here that weren't employed. After a short briefing we had this huge inflatable water park to ourselves. A guide showed us around and demonstrated how each obstacle should be completed until we both tried and made a pig's ear of it!

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We laughed pretty much the whole way round. It was tough, especially when falling in, but it was so fun. Well that was until we reached the 35 ft foot side. Our guide asked if we wanted to get to the top the easy way... Or the hard way. Opting against the stairs Izzy was all up for the vertical rock wall style climb. She started with gumption but soon realised that it was a lot harder than it first appeared. Like even getting on to the thing from the water was tough enough. Plus the hand and foot holds looked a long way apart as Iz had to stretch for each with slippery hands and feet. Despite her clear terror, and my awful commentary, she obviously made it look easy... Well until the section where the wall bulbed outwards. You cannot see on the video quite how petrifying this section was. The hand holds are literally above and behind your head and you have to let go trusting your current hold and lunge towards one and get a good grip, or risk plunging 35 feet down into the water below. Iz made it though and somehow so did I although our guide, probably rather fortunately, forgot to press record! At the top both of our legs were like jelly and we needed a few minutes to recover.

The challenge didn't get any easier though as after we had our breather we still had to throw ourselves down the slide which was the whole point in the first place. This didn't particularly look like an enticing prospect either. But wanting to get back in the water we both went down, flying off the end and hitting the water with a splash. We were feeling good before we were told this was just the warm up for the big 40ft slide. But with no climbing wall involved we were more confident. Unfortunately we don't have a good video of this slide to share but you can take it from us it was fun. Even if the second time the 10 ft water entry drop left Iz with a massive bruise.

All that was left was to try the human catapult! Basically a huge bean bag where one person lies one end and like people jump on the other... Firing them through the air and crashing into the water. We had practice runs but the effects were not up to our guide's desires as the air was low. After a pump up we went again. And oh f**k did you fly! Iz went first and we joked about her doing a summersault but the momentum actually made this happen. Micheal Jordan would be jealous of the hang time she got. It looked incredible and terrifying; which Iz confirmed once she caught her breath. Next it was my go. I lay there nervously waiting before swooosh I was flying through the air and then all of a sudden I was face down and water was approaching fast! Not again I thought! It was like round two of the rope swing. Fortunately though as I was completely upside I entered without too much issue. I had felt I'd flown higher than Iz! I hadn't. I'd hate to know how hers felt. It certainly got our blood pumping.

As we had already had around 30 minutes over our alloted time and having completed the course we got out, dried off and headed to the next stop. Now this stop isn't your standard tourist spot or even one most would consider. But having read a blog about it we decided we had to go and see it for ourselves... Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm. Yes you've read that right we were heading to visit a prison. This isn't just any prison either; this penal farm allows it's inmates to wander freely around the complex with many having jobs such as tending to the garden or making crafts to sell to tourists. Now you are probably thinking as I did that ok these prisoners must be all like white collar criminals like fraudsters and security must be ridiculously high... Right. Well based on what we had read this was wrong on both counts. Although it is intended as a compound to help with rehabilitation, these individuals include murderers, rapists and all of the above. The colours they wear indicate the severity of the crime. Also we had read there are guards at the front but basically the place is run by the prisoners and they can wander freely, apparently they just don't leave as the conditions here are better than many would have on the outside. This was a scary thought that you could literally be killed and nobody would know for a while. However sense dictated that this was unlikely as it would not work in their favour, plus it appeared they heavily relied on tourists for income.

With our hearts still pounding from the water park we pulled up at the huge gates, a little intimidated. But then a guard came over and informed us that the prison was closed to tourists today. He didn't provide any further information on why. Actually really disappointed as we knew this would be one of those rare and unique travel experiences we turned away debating the reason. I imagine it is likely to have something to either do with the Corona virus or an incident has happened such as one of the inmates has died. Annoyingly a car pulled up behind us and were allowed in which made us feel it is likely to be the latter and maybe they are relatives. Without a plan b we googled nearby attractions and came across a crocodile farm and Filipino animal sanctuary- you know one prison to another (of sorts). Entrance was less than a £1 each and it actually was pretty interesting due to my new found love and appreciation for crocodiles after Sydney. We were initially taken into the breeding tent whereby there were around 100 baby to adolescent crocs kept together in containers of 8-12 (both freshwater and salties). This was a little odd and our guide didn't really explain why, but she again did highlight their importance to the ecosystem and informed us that they are separated at a certain age when they become territorial. Next we passed by a tent which contained animals recovered from airports and illegal trade. Before walking along a metal bridge over 10 huge fully grown crocs. Even though most lay creepily still it was still a little unnerving. We even saw one without any teeth, apparently at a certain age their teeth fall out but no-one is sure of the reason. Such a croc wouldn't survive in the wild. Most had been captured after getting too close to human settlements or had become hurt too old like this toothless guy.

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The rest of the park was complete with native and endemic animals. But again we were seemingly the only people there and it was a bit eery. The place looked really run down, cages hidden in the middle of a mini jungle, reached by bridges we were not certain would hold our weight. It definitely looked a place whereby people could easily disappear. We saw some interesting looking animals (the bird with the large appendage on its head being a highlight!) and it was a good way to pass the time before we needed to head back. We also spent a long time getting the little black birds to copy us and laughing at how funny we were!

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With the bike returned, a disappointing lunch inside us and having been reunited with our bags we sat waiting for our transfer to Port Barton... That we were unsure would ever arrive. We were given the rather sceptical time of somewhere between 4.15 and 5pm. While sat out front we got chatting to the hostel owner an ex Cornish guy who had ventured over here with his Filipino wife 11 months ago and set up a hostel that he was currently in the process of doing up. As we grew anxious about our ride as the time grew closer to 5pm, we chatted about his life in England and how he came to make the decision to move out here; his health and the weather appearing to be the main drivers. Just as we were about to take him up on his offer to call the company, our van arrived. We assumed we must be the last and the van would be full but were wrong it was empty... Result! Or so we thought. We were soon to realise this was just the start of our rather odd trip.

After a 20 minute drive we pulled into some kind of bus terminal. And were told to get out with our bags. We thought this van took us the whole way but clearly it didn't. After telling a woman at the desk where we were going, without the need to show her any ticket or name, we waited for around 5 minutes. Before our driver then told us to get back in the van but to put our bags in the back as it was full. This seemed like such an unnecessary process and so random, especially moving our bags. But we have come not to question such things. Back in the still empty van we thought we would now be on our way. And we were... Well to a parking spot the other side of the station where our driver gets out again we assume to get food or something. However he returns and again tells us to get out, before transferring our bags to another, yep, empty van with a new driver. Just so random. The whole time nobody says anything about what is happening.

Now around 6pm we were wondering if we were ever going to be on the way. Our new driver started the engine and stopped at the exit check point whereby they check the van and tell him off for not having the right t shirt on. And we were away. Well 5 minutes in the wrong direction to get petrol first... Because you know why fill up before you get the passengers. Although the advertising for the new management of the garage did provide light relief as I considered how many English legalisation they would have breached, you can see one example below:

10 more minutes down the road we pulled over again. At this point we have no idea what is happening and whether this is ever going to get us there. Some random guy gets on. No one speaks. Does the driver know him? Is he supposed to pick this guy up? So many questions no answers. This same process happens a number of times with a number of locals getting on at various random points in the road. There are a number of signs in the van telling you to report any unscheduled stops. The problem is we have no idea if they are scheduled or not. Around 1.5 hours later everyone else had gotten back off and it's just me and Iz left. Google tells us we are headed in the right way but with our mute driver and darkness surrounding us it didn't make us massively more comfortable.

Around 40 minutes outside Port Barton and around 1 hour after our expected arrival time our driver finally speaks. We can't really hear what he says but mentions something about getting dinner as it's expensive in Port Barton. So we pull over at what appears to just be someone's house. He knocks on the fence and enters. Again we don't know if we should get out. If he is eating there or buying something to take with him. Some woman cooks up something while we wait confused and a little frustrated. He does get back in and we are off again. The final section of the journey was not expected. The road basically disappeared and we were left navigating our way over huge rocks and pot holes, with cliffs on either side in the dark. This is the kind of road that I imagine got the nickname "abortion road". Such a bumpy ride is not good for Izzy who suffers quiet badly with motion sickness and you also knew that there was no way we were getting over this road in 40 minutes. You could however tell our driver had done this trip many times, knowing where every ditch and hazard was.

Around 10.30pm we reached Port Barton bus station. Where we were told to get out. We believed our transfer was door to door. This did not seem to be the case as our stuff was loaded onto a trike, but there was no discussion of cost. Fortunately it was only a 4 minute drive again over some rough terrain and it only cost us 80p. At the hostel we checked in and got to bed quickly to recover from our eventful trip.

Posted by Bears on Tour 03:19 Archived in Philippines

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