Puerto Princesa in our Minds

Jul 12, 2012

by Mike & Gardy Baños

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This is coming through a haze of approximately 24 months distant so you’ll have to forgive a slip here or there, especially names imperfectly remembered now. It’s an old adage how a person’s first impressions last, and last, and last. Perhaps nowhere is this truer and more important than the tourism industry.


My wife Gardy and I were going to Puerto Princesa City courtesy of the Department of Tourism Region X office. I had just won the first ever Kaabag Tourism Journalist of the Year in the Writer Category and my good friend Boyet Varias won in the Photojournalist Category. Among the awards was a complimentary overnight stay at The Legend Palawan in Puerto Princesa with our airfare courtesy of Air Philippines. Our thanks to Joji Salaver of Air Philippines and Rollie Estabillo of Philippine Airlines for assisting us with our bookings.

Since there was no connecting flight to Puerto Princesa from the Manila Domestic Airport which would coincide with our arrival on Friday, April 27 from Cagayan de Oro, we decided to sleep over in a hotel near the airport.


Unfortunately for us, we chose to travel just as the domestic travel industry went into its peak season, so we were frantically burning up the lines trying to get our friends to book us into any available hotel near NAIA II.


In hindsight, that’s a mistake you wouldn’t want to make twice in your lifetime. We ended up in this really seedy hotel named Carlston, with service so lousy it’s a surprise anyone in his right mind still actually stayed there. The phone’s so bad you can hardly hear the other party talking, and we got into an argument with the front desk, coming and going, believe it or not.


Can you imagine sending off your van to pick up a guest without describing him to the driver, or at the very least giving him the guest’s name! So we waited an hour and a half at NAIA II for the pick-up which was supposed to be there already when we arrived. And then the front desk again had the nerve to bill us P300 for the short trip from the hotel to NAIA II because it wasn’t included in the bill daw. Forewarned is forearmed!

We took the morning flight to Puerto Princesa on Saturday, April 28 and it was raining when we arrived towards noon in what residents claim is the country’s largest city. We were delightfully bewildered that a band was playing a welcome when we arrived. Who were the VIPs we had on our flight, we wondered? Then, we were met on the tarmac by no less than City Tourism Officer Boots Mohammad and her staff, who put welcome leis on the two of us.


When we asked Boots about the band, we learned that the welcome band, as well as the welcome drinks we were treated to when they whisked us off to the City Tourism Office annex at the airport (larger than what we now have in Lumbia), are all standard welcome procedures 365 days of the year for a city who’s main industries are tourism and agriculture.


After a short wait in the comfy annex, we were off to the Legend Palawan, then billed as Puerto Princesa’s finest, and indeed it was. It was just newly opened then, and the city could rightfully be proud how its facilities, amenities and service stands tall with the best other cities and metros around the country can offer. Check out the chorizo at Tanglaw Coffee Shop for an unforgettable gustatory experience!

After we had checked in and admired our room, we had to obey our growling tummies. A couple of directions from the hotel’s guard, and we were off to Ka Lui, reputably the city’s best seafood restaurant.

Just 10 minutes by tricycle from the airport, Ka Lui is as ordinary looking from without as it is extraordinary within. Constructed mostly from indigenous light materials like bamboo and nipa, it has interconnected rooms each with its own distinct character, including an art gallery showcasing local artists. Wind chimes tinkle all over and paintings as well as other artifacts give it a homey ambience with its lush gardens, birds of paradise and mini-waterfalls lulling you to dreamland.


Since we were asked to leave our shoes at the door, we really enjoyed the cool bamboo slat floor which reminded Gardy of her grandparents’ cool farm house in Lumbia back home. Visitors can either sit on regular tables and chairs, or on pillows scattered on the floor around each table.


Ka Lui serves only seafood, fresh vegetables and fruits. There are no colas, just fresh fruit coolers and shakes. We ordered the Ka Lui Special, a set meal good for two, with vegetables, lato (seawood), tuna steak, steamed prawns, and grilled fish with halaan (clam soup). Fresh, healthy and delicious!
After the sumptuous lunch, we were picked up by our guides Rene Baylon and Marianne Cacho from the City Tourism Office who told us that our Puerto Princesa adventure would start off with a City Tour.


Our first stop was the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm (IPPF) about 30 minutes ride from the city proper. The IPPF was started in 1902 by the United States to house Philippine prisoners who had fought against the American colonization in the country.

The IPPF is unique among other penal institutions in the country, literally a “prison without walls.” Although some of its 2,300 inmates have been convicted of homicide, the majority consists of minimum security prisoners and are not locked up behind bars but rather live in dormitories and work on one of the many agricultural projects located within the prison farm.


Of course high-risk inmates are still confined to medium or maximum security areas under 24/7 surveillance but many of the minimum security prisoners have even been permitted to live out with their families in the farms.

Now, the IPPF is developing most of its 26,000 hectares for massive rice production to help the country address its perennial supply problem. This two-pronged thrust towards tourism and agriculture is not an exception to the rule but an integral part of Mayor Hagedorn’s vision for Puerto Princesa, which brands itself the Ecotourism Capital of the Philippines. And mind you, it’s not just a catch-phrase. In its developmental vision, Puerto Princesa has recognized the destructive effects of mining and industrialization.


Despite the vast potential of these sectors to bring wealth and prosperity to its residents, the city has chosen instead to focus on agriculture and tourism as its development drivers, recognizing (and rightfully so!) that mining and industrialization are not sustainable over the long run and would destroy the forests and lands which make possible its agriculture and tourism, hence its branding as “The Ecotourism Capital of the Philippines.”


Puerto Princesa City Mayor Edward Hagedorn stands tall behind that moniker. Even if his jurisdiction is rich in mineral which hold the promise of great wealth for his constituents, mining is banned in Puerto Princesa. Hagedorn’s math is as basic as it is simple: if an enterprise, no matter how profitable, destroys the land and makes it unfit for living, residents want no part of it.


Thus, besides its ecotourism link, Puerto has also gained a well-deserved reputation as the “Environment Capital” of the Philippines as a result of Mayor Hagedorn’s innovative and pioneering environmental conservation and protection programs which have made the city a Hall of Fame awardee for winning the annual nationwide “Clean and Green” program for three consecutive years, on top of the United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environment protection, conservation and sustainable development programs.


We met some of the inmates at the souvenir shop and we talked with one who was due to be released after serving his full term. Perhaps the country could use more prisons like the IPPF which works for the salvation, rather than damnation, of those who’ve made mistakes in their past.


Going back to the city, we next dropped by the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, or perhaps what’s better known to most Pinoys as the Crocodile Farm. It’s on the National Road, Barangay Irawan 30-40 minutes’ travel from the city proper.

The Center was established in 1987 with the help of the Japan International Cooperative Agency mainly to conserve the two endangered species of crocodiles, C. porosus (more commonly known as the Australian Saltwater or Man-Eating Crocodile) and C. mindorensis (Philippine Freshwater or Mindoro Crocodile) and to introduce and develop suitable farming technology to uplift the socio-economic well being of the Philippines.


However, the eight-acre facility has limited space and can accommodate only about 4,000 specimens. The number was further reduced in 1998 when a typhoon and flooding allowed some crocodiles to escape into a nearby river.


One of the structures is a “”hospital”” for sick and disabled crocodiles. It also conducts product research to make good use of the raw materials derived from crocodile skin.


When it was converted to the PWRCC, research studies and preservation activities were expanded to other endangered species. In fact, the place maintains a mini-zoo containing some of Palawan’s endemic animals, with the supervision and management of DENR-PAWB.


Together with other visitors, a guide toured us around the main hall that also served as the exhibit area. We found several skeletons of alligators inside including the infamous 25-foot man-eating crocodile captured live in Surigao and airlifted to Palawan by then Sec. Ramon Mitra which would put the Great White Shark of Jaws fame to shame with the size of its jaws.


The Philippine crocodile is a relatively small species – males generally do not grow larger than 3 meters, with females being smaller, has a relatively broad snout for a crocodile, and heavy dorsal armor. In contrast, the saltwater crocodile is the largest living crocodilian species based on confirmed measurements. It is also the world’s largest living reptile in terms of mass. Adult males can reach sizes of up to 6 meters (20 feet) with possible reports of exceptionally rare individuals of nearly 7 meters (23 feet).


After the audio-visual presentation, we were ushered into the post-natal and growing-in room. The two types of crocodiles are segregated and our guide said the DENR does not allow either to be kept as pets as both are endangered species, especially the Philippine Crocodile. We also learned it is only the saltwater crocodile which is distributed for commercial crocodile farming and then only the very young (about 3 feet long) are used for crocodile leather production.


The older and bigger crocs are kept in bigger concrete tanks where visitors can feed them. Beyond this compound is a mini-zoo park where some of Palawan’s endemic animals and birds are kept. Among others we saw monkeys, a pair of ostrich (donated by Limketkai family of Cagayan de Oro) Calamian deer, Palawan mouse deer (Pilandok), bear cat, leopard cat, tarsier, Palawan peacock pheasant, scaly anteater, porcupine and monitor lizard. The male bear cat proved to be literally an exhibitionist (or a flasher, if you must).


There were also some of Palawan’s endemic birds such as the famous swift (known locally as balinsasayaw, which produces the basic ingredient for the famous bird’s nest soup) and the endangered Palawan Peacock-pheasant.

Before we left, we bought a genuine crocodile egg for our boys to gape at back home.


On our way back to the city, we dropped by Rancho Sta. Monica, the ranch (more of a vacation home) of the late Senator Ramon Mitra overlooking Honda Bay which is now open to the public. It’s located on a hill so it has a panoramic view of the sea and city. On the way up (or down, depending which direction you’re taking) to the rancho is Baker’s Hill, an amusement place cum bakery famous for their ube hopia which sells like hotcakes and fairyland effigies.


The next day, Sunday, April 29, we went “island-hopping” in Honda Bay in the city’s eastern coast. Before we got on the boat, we followed Marianne’s advice to put on sunscreen, which fortunately are also for sale at booths in the Sta. Lourdes Wharf Info Center operated by the HOBBAI (Honda Bay Boat Owners Association Inc). whose members are mostly from Barangay Sta. Lourdes.

The HOBBAI is one of the six beneficiary people’s organizations of the P1-million Pasyar (a local word meaning ‘travel leisurely’) Developmental Tourism Project conceptualized by the Palawan Network of NGOs Inc. (PNNI) to sustain poverty reduction and community empowerment by facilitating community development through ecotourism.


The initiative has been labeled developmental tourism since it encourages people to participate in the development of their respective areas through their own “self-determination”.


Tourism services around Honda Bay used to be monopolized by rich families from Barangay Sta. Lourdes. Now, most of the tourist traffic is handled by HOBBAI’s 44 members taking turns in manning their 62 boats. Most of the members’ sole source of livelihood before was fishing and the project capitalized on their knowledge and skill of the local area and seas to be the best local guides for tourists. It also encouraged many fishermen who were using illegal fishing methods to give it up in favor of tourism.


Island hopping in Honda Bay offers you a choice of seven islands and islets but due to time constraints, we only touched down on three and just went around the four others.

Dive sites abound here, as the entire area is studded with patches of coral and sand. Our guides told us dugongs (sea cows) and dolphins still abound around the area though were not fortunate enough to see any.


Each island in Honda Bay has its own personality so you can choose those which tickle your fancy. Snake Island has a sandbar that slithers on the surface of the sea, much like the critter that bears its name. It is best for snorkeling, swimming or simply basking in the sand. It can be reached in an hour by pumpboat.  Bat Island, only 20 minutes away from Sta. Lourdes wharf, is literally teeming with bats which make their way out at sundown to look for food on the mainland. Lu-li Islet, a short term for “lulubog-lilitaw”, a tiny islet that is visible at ebb tide and disappears under water during high tide. Arreceffi Island, with the Dos Palmas resort offers a varied menu for adventure tourists like ocean and mangrove kayaking, fishing, boat rides, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Starfish Sandbar Resort has fine white sand and clear water teeming with (what else?) starfish while Pandan Island has a fine white sandy beach ideal for sunbathing and dips in the sea or snorkeling at a nearby coral reef.

Our lunch was simply scrumptious, well worth the wait as they grilled the fresh kitong and lapu-lapu and rice boiled in pandan leaves. Besides, we were entertained by the pearl hawkers who all swear their stuff is the real thing.


In the evening we transferred to then newly renovated Asturias Hotel at Tiniguiban Heights, a mere 10 minutes from the airport and commercial center. It is located in a

serene environment distant from the noisy streets. Accommodations were spartan but very affordable and amenities including cable TV and internet were available.


The next day, April 30, Monday, our hosts picked us up early so we could have a head start on the two-hour drive to the St. Paul Underground River now known as the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

Sabang beach, the jump-off point to the Underground River, is a 2-hour ride from the city proper. Once at Sabang, you get your permit from park office and book your boat for the trip to the river entrance. Since the city tourism office hosted our trip, they took care of the boat and documentation.


We had quite an experience when we took our lunch at one of the private cottages which lined Sabang Beach. Turned out the wife was Bisaya from Misamis Oriental and was very happy to host us for the chance to speak her native tongue again.


The longest navigable underground river and reputedly the most beautiful subterranean river in the world, the St. Paul River’s main attraction is an 8.2 kilometer Underground River that winds through a spectacular cave before emptying into the South China Sea.

At the mouth of the cave, a clear lagoon is framed by ancient trees growing right to the water’s edge. Monkeys, large monitor lizards, and squirrels find their niche on the beach near the cave.


The park was declared a premier ecotourism destination and has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage lists for its outstanding universal value and ecological significance as a natural site of intense beauty.


Again most of the tourist traffic from Sabang to the river entrance was handled by a cooperative, though I wasn’t sure if it was also HOBBAI since I forgot to ask. After putting on our sun screen, we enjoyed a leisurely ride to the cave entrance courtesy of the city government’s boat.


As were registering on the beach before the cave entrance, we noticed how iguanas and monitor lizards were walking leisurely around, unmindful of the gawking tourists. Well, with the volume of tourists coming through St. Peter’s every day, I thought pretty soon these critters would be billing HOBBAI for appearance fees, judging from how many tourists were clicking away at them with their digicams.


With helmet and lifejacket on, we slid effortlessly through the water in our banca and into a world neither of us had previously seen. Coupled with the quiet we were requested to maintain, it was a little eerie as we went deeper into the cave with various species of bats hanging from all over the ceiling.


Besides the bats, swifts, locally known as Balinsasayaw, were also flying through though mostly in fringes around the cave entrance. The birds reportedly nest in the cliffs which line the seacoast going to the river mouth.


The formations inside the cave are awe-inspiring. One cannot help feeling the goose bumps from the eerie-haunting- mysteriousness of the place. All you need is a little imagination and you’ll see different interesting pieces. There was a Cathedral, Holy Family, Giant Ear Mushroom, and more. The cave ceiling is actually the karst mountain outside. The boat trip lasted for only 45minutes since tourists are only allowed to navigate 1.5 kilometers of the 8.2 kilometer river.


Later that same afternoon, we dropped by Viet Ville on our way back to Hotel Asturias.

Viet Ville is a former Vietnamese refugee camp in Bgy. Sta. Lourdes which used to be home to some 600 Vietnamese boat people. These days, only seven families remain and it’s operated as a tourist attraction by the Catholic Church.


Being some distance from the city, its’ pretty much out of the way at 30-40 minutes from downtown by tricycle, unless you drop by on the way to or back from the underground river like we did.


Mr. Le Van Cong, the manager of the facility at the time of our visit, showed us around. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) he has only been in Viet Ville for over a year and is studying to get his doctorate in sociology from the Palawan State University downtown.


Its most famous attraction is the Viet Ville Restaurant which was recently renovated to look like a typical Vietnamese-French colonial building with its shellacked bamboo walls and floor. The specialty of the house (and for the five other Vietnamese restos scattered throughout the city) is Beef Stew Rice Noodles (Pho Bo Kho, and not Chao Long, as most residents erroneously call it) with Banh Mi (crusty French Bread, we found the garlic version most delicious).


“We are completely self-sufficient and grow all our food requirements in Viet Ville,” Mr. Le told us over some spring rolls (not unlike our lumpia, but with its own distinctive taste) and Banh Mi. “Our ingredients are all natural and organic, just like traditional Vietnamese cooking.”


However, not visible in its rather mundane veneer is the cultural significance of the place as a symbol of the friendship between the peoples of the Philippines and Vietnam.


Following the collapse of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime in 1974, many Vietnamese, mostly from the South, fled the country, mostly in rickety boats and became known as the tragic “Boat People” many of whom were repatriated back to Vietnam by the countries where they landed.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates some 100,000 of the “boat people” died at sea with some 1,600 eventually making it to refugee camps set up by the UNHCR in Morong, Bataan and Sta. Lourdes, Palawan.


When the UNHCR ceased funding the camps in 1995, the Philippine government prepared to repatriate them back to Vietnam. But the Vietnamese government refused to take them back and some 700 refugees fled Palawan for fear of being sent back to Vietnam.


The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) intervened in behalf of the boat people and on July 17, 1996 signed an agreement with the Philippine government transferring responsibility for the welfare and care of the remaining 500 Vietnamese families to the church.

In January 1997, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) allowed the Church and the Catholic Assistance for Displaced Persons (CADP) to establish Viet Ville in Santa Lourdes, Puerto Princesa on a parcel of land donated by the city government under Mayor Edward Hagedorn.  The facility opened its doors to 600 refugees on April 15, 1997.


This was a significant date in the histories of both countries because with the establishment of Viet Ville, the UNHCR said the Philippines became the only country to open its doors to the boat people.


On a stone tablet near the restaurant is engraved “The Viet Village is a symbol of the eternal friendship between the Filipinos and Vietnamese and the beginning of a new era of coexistence and cooperation. It stands as a reminder of the humanity of the Filipino people, manifested in the policies of the national government, the able leadership of the city government and the kind acceptance of the local government.”


Now only handful of the 199 houses in the 13-hectare Viet Ville are occupied by the seven remaining Vietnamese families, and many of the facilities 35-person service staff are Filipinos. Although made of light materials, the houses are well maintained and reminded us of the present-day “Gawad Kalinga” (GK) communities, both in size, appearance and their air of self-reliance. All the street names are Vietnamese.


Mr. Le said Viet Ville was also made possibly by a collective US$1 million contribution from Vietnamese communities abroad. Besides the ubiquitous souvenir shop, Mr. Le toured showed us around the other attractions like the Thanh Duong Nu Vuong Vietnam (Our Lady of Vietnam Church), Chua Van Phap Van Phap (Buddhist Temple) and Hung Voung ancestral temple and Christian Evangelical chapel, all built by its former residents in the spirit of self-reliance.


The collection of four different places of worship in the relatively small community may not look unusual to Filipinos but it symbolizes the triumph of religious freedom for the resident Vietnamese who didn’t enjoy such a liberal atmosphere to express their faith, even in the relatively open Saigon society of today.


Only in this context perhaps could Pinoys best appreciate what they often take for granted that others don’t have, and elicit a new meaning from the often disparaging remark “Only in the Philippines!”


We left the next day for Manila where we visited my mother and siblings in Plaridel, Bulacan before our flight back home. Thanks to Ms. Mohammad and her staff for their hospitality, they could really give our “City of Golden Friendship” a run for its money. Like our singer-songwriter Paul Williams says it with the lead single of his latest album, “I’m Going Back There Someday.”






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