>By Mary Ann I. Ranola
FROM WATCHING DOLPHINS FROLIC in the wild to extracting and eating woodworms from fallen logs, tourists can be sure of full schedules in Puerto Princesa, 253,982 hectares of lush tropical vistas and rich ecosystems in Palawan.
Our recent four-day stay proved to be fully packed, insanely busy and far too brief - we had to skip the sea ranching and island hopping, two of the things that had to be scrapped from the itinerary due to time constraints.
Here's a guide to going around the city to make sure you don't miss out on the really good stuff:
While everything the city has to offer cannot be missed, the Underground River remains the real deal. This premier feature of a world-renowned natural World Heritage Site, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is the world's longest navigable underground river. The park is now being promoted as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
No dolphin, no pay
Just a few minutes from the city proper, Puerto Princesa Bay is home to at least 400 dolphins. Three kinds are known to inhabit the area: the bottle-nosed, the spinner and the spotted dolphins. For P350, inclusive of snacks, you are guaranteed an hour of watching dolphins playing in the wild - or you get your money back.
Although dolphins can be seen all-year round, the best time to visit is in the summer, February to May. Dolphins are most playful in calm seas under sunny skies.
This time of year is just as good a time to see something else moving in their natural habitat. It's quite a treat to see wild ducks up close as you wouldn't typically chance upon them in the wilderness. So far, four birding sites have been set up around Puerto Princesa for bird-watchers.
Two artificial ponds created from a creek comprise the birding area in the V. Macasaet Farm in Sitio Iratag. For now, the farm owners, Valentin and Melissa Macasaet, have opened their site to the public without charge. (The general practice is just to ask for permission.)
Remember to bring binoculars as the wild ducks can only be viewed from a distance. Whatever the time of day, you're bound to see at least one.
"There are at least 14 bird species found only here and nowhere else in the world, not even in the closest neighboring islands of Mindoro," said Joie Matillano, a professor from Western Philippine University and member of Bird Watch Palawan.
Fireflies and woodworms
Fireflies and woodworms are also abundant in the lush ecosystems of Puerto Princesa. The former is a sight to behold at night, while the latter are offered as a surprisingly yummy treat.
In the morning, take the mangrove paddle boat tour along Sabang River, where old growth mangrove forests can be found. Tourists are expected to develop a better appreciation of the ecological significance of mangrove ecosystems and the unique features of different mangrove species.
The local facilitators are an added treat on this ride - they proved to be knowledgeable, well-trained and entertaining. Towards the end of the trip, they break into a song number, delivered in both the local dialect and English. They would also offer you perhaps one of the best-tasting fresh catches ever - the tamilok.
These are woodworms found inside logs or branches that have deteriorated or fallen off mangrove trees. Tamilok is basically uod (worm), if bigger, slimier and stretchier. Thankfully, they look lifeless and do not curl up like most worms do, making it easier to eat raw (meaning, alive). The taste and texture are very similar to oysters, such that it's hard to tell the difference. If you like oysters, you'll like the tamilok, too. Tip: Bring vinegar to rinse it for added taste.
The mangrove paddle boat tour costs P100 per person, with a minimum of eight persons per boat.
To catch the beautiful sunset, go cruising on the Iwahig River, about an hour away from the city proper. As dusk settles, fireflies slowly appear on the mangrove trees. Deeper into the night, the surrounding areas turn pitch-black, so that aside from the bright stars, only the blinking and moving lights of the fireflies can be seen. It's an experience akin to Christmas, with the fireflies and mangroves resembling lit pine trees.
To take part in the river cruise, it's best to get in touch with the island divers. Rates start at P800 per person, minimum of eight persons per boat, from 5 to 9 p.m. The Legend Hotel offers a package that includes land and boat transfers, packed dinner and entrance fees for P1,100 per person, minimum of six persons. Part of the profit goes to the guide-island divers.
Dip into the waters of Pambato reef just a few minutes away from Sta. Lourdes Wharf. Like a small Tubbataha Reef, another World Heritage Site found in the neighboring Sulu Sea, Pambato is home to a huge marine sanctuary within Honda Bay.
Coral reefs can be found as close as five feet from the surface to as deep as 20 feet, creating stunning underwater vistas for both diving and snorkeling enthusiasts. Entrance fees are currently P50. Pambato reef is being managed by the Honda Bay Boatmen Association.
Take a detour to Sitio San Carlos, an alternative to Sta. Lourdes Wharf, as a takeoff point for the exploration of marine sanctuaries within Honda Bay and for island hopping.
Cruise through Bacungan River, which is lined with 378 hectares of mangrove forests, where you may explore spots for crabbing, catching oyster and tamilok, and fishing.
The San Carlos community manages the entire mangrove area. The Foundation aims to help alleviate them from poverty, seeing the potential of the sitio to become a top eco-tourism destination.
Interested parties may get in touch with the Foundation and Gerry Ortega at 0917-5076719.