How to visit Puerto Princesa Underground River in Palawan, Philippines
The Puerto Princesa Underground River (also known as the Subterranean River) is located 71km north of the town centre of Puerto Princesa, next to the town of Sabang
It's one of the top attraction on Palawan, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world
There are two ways to visit the Underground River:
Go with a tour: this is by far the most popular way, and all things considered is probably the best way to visit the Underground River
DIY (visiting on your own): possible to do but takes some preparation; it's cheaper than going with a tour but only by about $10USD
In this brief I will give an overview of how to actually visit it, since it's located quite far from all the hotels. I will also document the exact steps for how to get to the Underground River
Option 1) How to visit the Underground River with a tour:
This is the most popular way for tourists to visit the Underground River. The advantage of this is convenience, the disadvantage is cost
Tours are usually for a full day departing between 6-8am in the morning and returning by 4-5pm; prices include hotel pick up and drop off from the town centre of Puerto Princesa (this is where the airport and most hotels are located on Palawan), plus admission to the Underground River itself and an assortment of fees, as well as lunch. The only out of pocket expense on a tour will be the tip you're expected to give at the end
Most organized tours cost around $40-$50 USD per person, again this price includes pickup/drop off from from the town centre of Puerto Princesa as well as food and all admission/fees. Organized tours can have up to 100 people, so it can get very "touristy".
If you don't want to be part of a large group, you can also book a private tour for $80-$350 USD per person. The more people you have in your group the cheaper it is per person. If you just have 1 person, for example, it'll cost you $350. These private tours can usually have up to 11 people
The prices listed above are if you book online (because people that book online are usually tourists who are willing to pay more for a peace of mind). If you book locally after you land in Puerto Princesa, expect the prices to be cheaper by at least 25%. Organized tours will cost around $30USD per person (1600 pesos) if you book through a local travel agency or your hotel
How to book:
Websites - there are a lot of sites you can book these a tour ahead of time, but again, keep in mind that booking through websites means you're paying at least 25% more than if you book locally:
Book locally: once you get to Puerto Princesa, you can walk around the central area (along Rizal Avenue) and you will come across many tour agencies, and almost all of them will have tours to the Underground River. You can also just ask your hotel to book a tour for you as well; most hotels have relationship with at least one tour operator that will do the Underground River Tour. The main advantage of booking locally is that it will be much cheaper than booking online; the disadvantage is that you don't know the quality of the tour you're getting since you can't read any reviews
When to book: prices are the same regardless of how long in advance you book so there's no advantage in booking earlier vs. laster. But I'd say book at least 2 days in advance to ensure availability
How much to tip: tip 100-200 pesos ($2-$4USD) depending on how much you enjoyed the tour. If you're doing a private tour, tip 10% of the price of your tour.
Option 2) How to visit the Underground River on your own:
I hate group tours, and if you're anything like me you'd want to visit on your own as much as you can. The Underground River is usually visited as part of a tour, but luckily with a little bit of preparation you can visit on your own
The total cost of this option is 1000-1300 pesos ($20-$25USD)
Here's a step-by-step guide on how to DIY visit (including how to get to the Puerto Princesa Underground River):
Purchase your permit to visit the Underground River. A permit is required to visit the Underground River, and you cannot do this online. You must purchase it in person with cash pesos in Puerto Princesa at the City Coliseum, located here. At the Coliseum building, ask for Puerto Princesa Underground River Booking Office. Office hours: 8am-5pm everyday. Price for permit: 500 pesos (~$10USD). Bring your passport. Getting to the City Coliseum from anywhere in the town of Puerto Princesa is easy with a tricycle (the popular local three-wheeled motor taxi) for a few USD. City Coliseum looks like this:
Make your way to the town of Sabang. After you've purchased your permit, you need to actually get to the Underground River, which is located 71km north of central Puerto Princesa next to the town of Sabang. Bring your passport with you. You have 2 ways to get to Sabang from Puerto Princesa:
Take a public transportation (a coach bus, a van, or a Jeepney): make your way to the San Jose Terminal, which is the main bus terminal in Puerto Princesa and is located here. It's takes about 30 minutes and 150 pesos (~$3USD) by tricycle north of central Puerto Princesa. This is what the terminal looks like:At San Jose Terminal, you will find lots of minivans (operated by Lexxus Shuttle), a coach bus, and a couple of Jeepneys going Sabang every day. Fares: 200 pesos (~$4USD) per person for the minivans and 125 pesos (~$2.5USD) for the coach bus and Jeepneys (this is a Jeepney). Travel time: 2-2.5 hours, plus 15-60 minutes of waiting time for the vehicle to get full. Departure frequency: 7:30am-5:30pm, once every 30-60 minutes in the morning and every 1.5-2 hours in the afternoon. Drop off point in Sabang: Google Maps link. How to book: just pay the fare when you board, no need to book ahead of time; but if you really want, you can use 12Go to book the minivan (on 12Go search for Puerto Princesa to Sabang and you will see the van option) but at an inflated price of $8USD. You cannot book the bus or Jeepney online, only by cash on board.
Rent a scooter: not as common as taking the public transportation, but you can certainly rent a scooter in Puerto Princesa and ride to Sabang. I won't go into much details here about how to rent a scooter in Palawan, but basically it's gonna cost you around 400-500 pesos (~$8-$10 USD) per day to rent and you will need either a motorcycle license or a regular driver's license from your own country, plus an International Driving Permit, in order to rent. Travel time: 2-3 hours. Road condition: fairly good concrete road all the way to Sabang. Use Google Maps for navigation
Get to Sabang Boat Terminal. Once you're in the town of Sabang, you need to go to the boat terminal where boats take visitors to the Underground River itself. From where you get dropped off by the van from Puerto Princesa (this spot), it's just a 100-meter walk to the boat terminal located here. There, you need to go to the Dispatch Area (located at the edge of the dock area at this spot) first to buy your round trip ticket for the boat to the Underground River for 185 pesos (~$3.75USD) plus an environmental fee of 150 pesos (~$3USD). The office will ask to see your permit as well as a piece of ID (e.g. your passport). The Dispatch Area has a visible sign, and this is what it looks like:
Take a boat to the Underground River. After you've purchased your round trip boat ticket and paid your environmental fees at the Dispatch Area, wait in line and board the boat, like this:Then you're all set. Everything from this point onwards you will be part of a group so there's no logistical details you have to worry about; someone will be shepherding you through everything. But just so you know what the process looks like: this boat is motorized and will take 20 minutes to get to a beach that's located here. Here, you will get off the motorized boat and follow your group to walk for about 2-3 minutes to board a smaller, non-motorized row boat, which will take you to the actual Underground River itself.