One of the first things a visitor to the Palawan capital Puerto Princesa hears upon arrival is a warning not to toss any candy wrappers or cigarette butts into the gutters.
Thanks to a fervent campaign by former city mayor Edward S Hagedorn, Puerto Princesa must have the cleanest streets in the country. Get caught littering three times and you go to jail! Yes, jail for littering!
Puerto Princesa means City in a Forest. Budget carriers Cebu Pacific, Zest Air, Air Asia or AirPhil offer many direct flights from Manila or Clark at fares from as low as VND420,000.
No matter where you stay, getting around town is easy by local tricycle. There are no car taxis here; instead you hail quaint tin chariots built over motorcycles. Some fit two at an absolute squeeze, others three in comfort. They are all open air, leak like a sieve and transmit every undulation in the road directly to your spine, but they’re functional, plentiful and cost just 20 cents a head for a short trip within town.
The Philippines is not renowned for its cuisine, which is surprising because local dishes like sweet and sour lapu lapu (fish) and pancit canton (a colourful noodle dish) can be delicious and nutritious in one. Seafood is plentiful here - Palawan boasts a 2,000km coastline.
Kinabuchs, a huge outdoor restaurant offers a Palaweño delicacy for the truly brave: tamilok — woodworm harvested from mangrove trees, likened in flavour to oysters but far less appealing to the eye, (if that is possible!).
There are two great day itineraries:
Take a tricycle to the picturesque Honda Bay and hire an outrigger style wooden boat to go island hopping. Swim with the fishes — be warned, they bite, but there’ll be no lasting damage. Snorkelling gets you close to an abundance of tame sea life, you can bake on the expansive white sandy beaches, swim in the clear waters or snack on fresh food offered by roaming vendors, washed down with fresh coconut juice or cold beer. Get caught in a squall on the way back and watch as the tropical downpour smoothes the surface of the sea.
Afterwards head to Kim’s Hotspring on the way back to Puerto Princesa where you can soak in rejuvenating natural mineral pools.
Book a day trip with your own personal driver to the famous Underground River. A visit includes a cumbersome bureaucratic process involving a licence bought in Puerto Princesa exchanged for a ticket after the two hour road journey: no licence, no ticket. Our advice: leave the bureaucracy to the driver and treat yourself to a fresh mango smoothie, American style breakfast and espresso coffee at the expat-run Itoy’s Coffee Haus in downtown.
The underground river is accessed by a boat trip around a point to a staging post where giant monitors wander by the path and monkeys noisy leap from tree to tree high above your head. A raft takes groups on the river journey into giant cavernous caves where tiny bats dangle from exotic rock formations crafted by nature over thousands of years. The guides are passionate about the river and you feel like they’re taking you on a tour of their house, complete with often laugh out loud observations about the decor and the house guests. Be warned!
If you’ve not ventured to the Philippines before, three days in Puerto Princesa is likely to give you an insatiable thirst for Asia’s most underrated travel destination.