The capital of Palawan, Puerto Princesa, is situated right in the middle of the 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 parkstyle rides, however, you may want to check out some of Puerto Princesa’s lesser-known eco-tourism sites. Palawan still has half of its original forest cover, making it a prime destination for the adventure and nature traveler, with the potential to ease the burden of coastal tourism.
Part of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a 3.5 km-long jungle trek which leads to a mangrove paddle boat 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.
At the community-managed tourism site known as the Hundred Caves, 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, helping visitors explore the cave’s many dark, interconnected bat-filled chambers.
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.
Urbanized yet green, expansive yet densely populated, and full of great seafood restaurants —Puerto Princesa is Palawan’s center of commerce that’s underrated as a tourist destination. Ditchay Roxas, a longtime Palawan resident, has made the city her home for the past 11 years, and runs the beloved restaurant La Terrasse Café along busy Rizal Avenue. The kitchen uses ingredients sourced locally from organic farms or tribes to make wonderful bites of food — don’t miss her unforgettable nougat made with Palawan honey and cashews. Ditchay, having seen the bad and good of tourism development, is committed to sustainable practices — she’s 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
- 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; bluepalawan.com
- Astoria Palawan: Sitting in a 5ha 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; astoriapalawan.com
- 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; +63 915 846 4895
Where to Eat
- Ameng Balay: This cozy and rustic art café not only offers astonishingly good breakfasts, rice bowls and pastries, but also a small but tasteful collection of beautiful objects from around the world. Manalo Ext, Brgy Bancao-Bancao; +63 917 104 7723
- La Terrasse: This sophisticated restaurant is a long-running Puerto Princesa favorite, and it’s easy to see why: the classy menu serves Palawan’s best ingredients and dishes, with a French inflection. 359 Rizal Ave Ext; +63 908 691 7917
- Badjao Seafront: 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; +6348 433 9912