Here’s why Puerto Princesa is a hidden treasure

Palawan's capital city is making a conscious effort to become an attraction in its own right

Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park

It’s hard to tell where the beer buzz ends and the crackling yet intimate atmosphere of Palaweño Brewery begins.

Palaweño Brewery’s Ambog Ale

The rustic second-floor bar seats about 30; a tight fit for our dozen-strong group. Palaweño’s co-proprietor Malu Lauengco offers us a craft beer sampler featuring five beers from their ever-changing lineup. “Since you’re new to this, start with the light beers first, so you don’t overwhelm your senses right away,” she tells us.

From the light Palaw’an honey Kölsch to the briskly hoppy Ayahay IPA, they’re all practically flawless. Over the past five years, Malu and her partner Ayah Javier have honed their craft beers through constant critique and validation (thankfully, more of the latter) from foreign tourists who stop at Puerto Princesa as they head to Palawan’s further reaches.

“We have German guests who drink the Palaw’an and say, ‘It’s a proper Kölsch!’” Malu explains. “Word of mouth is working for us — [British paper] the Guardian came here, and the BBC is going to be here next week for an interview. We’re just stoked that we’re being noticed. We’re putting Puerto Princesa on the map.”

Game changer

Honey-infused craft beer is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when one mentions Puerto Princesa. The Palawan capital was once content to coast on the Underground River, island-hopping around Honda Bay and its reputation as the Philippines’ cleanest and greenest city — but lately, its residents have been itching to present a more contemporary, culturally connected vibe.

The cultural ferment shows how change has come fitfully to a city that sometimes feels
little removed from its days as a frontier town. Low-slung buildings, tricycle-choked streets and mangrove-fringed shorelines still make up the majority of Puerto Princesa’s landscape — but developments like new malls, a hilltop City Hall complex and a
brand-spanking-new airport terminal have brought the city headlong into the 21st century.

A creative meditation session at Balay Kalipay

The airport is Puerto Princesa’s main game-changer. Inaugurated in May 2017, the new P3.8-billion International Airport terminal has shifted Puerto Princesa’s center of gravity north and west, replacing the old terminal along Rizal Avenue south of the runway.

“This is recognized as a regional international airport, connecting the city of Puerto Princesa to Asian cities and countries,” explains Mayor Lucilo Bayron, who succeeded the long-serving Mayor Edward Hagedorn in 2013. “We have flights from Cebu, and once the international routes become operational, we’re sure we’ll get flights from Asian cities and countries. We’re just waiting for the passengers and the planes — everything is ready!”

Delicate balancing act

The new airport terminal feels nothing like its run-down predecessor: after deplaning onto the tarmac, we glide through a modern building that easily matches newer Asian airports in style and comfort, before exiting west to Puerto Princesa North Road.

Creative sessions are meditative exercises in Balay Kalipay

Where most other travelers immediately depart for the five-hour road trip to El Nido up north, we settle for a considerably shorter commute: a two-minute ride brings us to the 49-room Canvas Boutique Hotel located almost immediately across from the new airport gate.

The hotel opened its doors in 2015, and was designed from the ground up to meet the needs of a younger, savvier travel crowd. “For modern travelers, it’s not about luxury anymore — they want to see the connection to what’s unique about the place,” explains Belle Camarsi, head of marketing for the hotel’s proprietor Oak Drive Hotels and Resorts. “Not like before: sure, you had luxury but no connection to the destination. We wanted the hotel to be pretty, but we wanted the prettiness to also have meaning.”

The NGO’s business development director, Rosal Lim

Modern artwork underscores the hotel’s connection to Puerto Princesa, despite the industrial-chic look. An asymmetrical chandelier above the check-in counter recalls the stalactites hanging inside the Underground River, the subterranean attraction that’s widely credited for pulling in tourists. The avant-garde plywood furniture in the hallways was hand-crafted by artisans from the Iwahig penal colony upriver, and murals depicting natural destinations around Palawan grace each room, painted by Filipino artists like Electrolychee and Hannah Liongoren.

“It was a delicate balancing act,” Belle says. “The look had to be globally appealing, but with that vernacular touch.” The overall effect is warm and welcoming, nonetheless. The hotel was home for the next few days, so it was a relief to start on the right note — a hearty lunch of binagoongang baboy (pork with shrimp paste) and rice at the ground-floor Painted Table restaurant, followed by a short nap in one of their airy, light-filled guestrooms (with Hannah Liongoren’s depiction of an El Nido snorkeling session adorning the wall). We wake up feeling ready to take on the rest of the city.

The cultural ferment shows how change has come fitfully to a city that sometimes feels little removed from its days as a frontier town

Fashion for life

Abanico Road forks from a highway leading up to City Hall, diverging into a sleepy housing subdivision. Parts of this two-lane road have been torn up for resurfacing, making me almost miss the fenced-off compound that houses the Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation.

Founded in 1999 to build livelihoods for women in Puerto Princesa’s farms and fishing villages, the Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation hires about 25 weavers, who mostly work from home to produce the cotton, piña cloth (sourced from wild pineapples growing in Puerto Princesa) and abacá that goes into their portfolio of fine Filipiniana dresses, casual cover-ups, bags and shawls.

The retreat’s spare but colorful sleep quarters

A handful of weavers prefer to work together in the NGO compound’s “innovation center”, where they enjoy a far more sociable setting and demonstrate their work to tourists (like myself) who come to browse the adjoining showroom’s collection of formal and casual wear in a variety of natural colors.

“There’s so much work that goes into our products — in Rurungan sa Tubod the whole process is from fiber to textile to finished product,” explains the foundation’s business development director Rosal Lim. “If you buy a shawl, one of the weavers might think, ‘Oh, I made that!’ You buy these products, you support their livelihood, and you’re allowing them to continue doing what they’re doing.”

Business has been buoyed by a growing demand for apparel derived from traditional techniques and locally sourced materials: I find both in equal and hearty measure as I browse through the inventory, picking out a gorgeously colored shawl to take home with me.

Art is everywhere in Balay Kalipay

“We looked through different weaving techniques in the Philippines — ikat, suksok — and we developed our own designs inspired by those techniques,” Rosal explains. “The designs are inspired by traditional techniques, but they’re really original.”

Sacred simplicity

As our time in Puerto Princesa winds down, I decide to seek out a holistic experience touted to work in unison with Puerto Princesa’s pristine environment, not apart from it.

Puerto Princesa travelers come to Bahay Kalipay’s widely spaced nipa huts to fill the varied voids of modern life with art therapy, yoga, raw food and guided meditation. It’s a mutual, intentional community: one’s fellow travelers in Bahay Kalipay meditate, eat and socialize in a spartan setting; a stark departure from the our hotel’s arty warmth.

Balay Kalipay co-founder Daniw Arrazola

Bahay Kalipay touts what its co-founder Daniw Arrazola calls “sacred simplicity”: a return to minimalism that dovetails perfectly with Puerto Princesa’s connection to nature.

“We’re very near the airport, but you wouldn’t even feel like you are in the city anymore,” explains Daniw. “We’re so near the beach, we can do walking meditation there. Fifteen minutes away we have a hot spring; 40 minutes away, you can go to a waterfall.”

Visitors can choose immersive detox experiences and yoga retreats lasting from half a day to a week or more; Daniw recommends the one-day experience for transiting visitors. “Even [in] half a day, our guests can have a taste of what a holistic lifestyle is like,” Daniw explains. “You can find yoga, meditation, [a] raw food detox diet and inner dance, in one place, in one day.”

The ultimate goal, Daniw says, is clarity: “You’ll be able to clear your mind, and then you can decide on so many things — you’ll even be able to cope with whatever city lifestyle you have!”

Calling it a night

Javier and Lauengco’s brand of Ayahay Craft Beers

Which takes us full circle to Palaweño Brewery’s dinky downtown walk-up bar, where as a final act for our trip we cloud our minds again with several frosty mugs of artisanal beer from Puerto Princesa’s only craft brewery.

The ever-bubbly Malu reveals the latest seasonal brew, a pitch-black oatmeal stout called Nog Nog. “When you put it up through the light, no light passes through it, that’s how dark it is,” she explains, shining a light, in turn, on what the future holds for their craft.

“There are, like, 750 styles of beer, man!” she exclaims. “We’ve already brewed about 20 styles — so there’s still 730 more to go! We’ve hardly scratched the surface!”

With closing time upon us, Malu ushers us out into the dark. The
clock reads 10:30pm. For all the ferment, some things never change: Puerto Princesa still keeps frontier-town hours.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Photographed by

Al Linsangan

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