Puerto Princesa Subterranean River

It seems that every other year or so, an organisation or publication tries to come up with a new version of the Seven Wonders of the World in an attempt to replicate the Seven Wonders of antiquity. One of the more notable efforts of recent years is the New7Wonders website, which solicited over 100 million online votes from around the world between 2001 and 2007 to create a list of modern Seven Wonders. Following that list, the foundation in charge moved onto a ‘Seven Natural Wonders’ poll, which concluded in 2011, and now is now conducting a ‘Seven Cities’ poll to conclude in 2014. Given the rather loose voting requirements, the final results of the list often came down to whichever landmark had the best marketing campaign behind it. Regardless, the list did serve to bring attention to some rather beautiful locales that don’t usually catch the attention of Western eyes (four of the seven successful candidate sites were located in eastern Asia). One of those seven sites was Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park on the western Philippine island of Palawan.

The Cabayugan, or Saint Paul, River arises near Mount Saint Paul in the mountains of Palawan and almost immediately descends into a 24 km (15 mi) long cavern under Mount Saint Paul, of which the river occupies 8.2 km (5.1 mi) before it empties into the East China Sea. Tours departing from the nearby village of Sabang take visitors up the first mile (1.5 km) of the flooded cavern, while those with separate permits can travel as far as halfway up the river during the summer. To access the subterranean river, adventurous folks can take a 5 km (3 mi) hike through the jungle, or otherwise hire a boat as part of a tour.

On our way to the undrgd. river hop off point

En route to the subterranean river. Source: Shankar S., http://www.flickr.com/photos/77742560@N06/9201995870/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.


Entering the cavern. Source: P. Chin, http://flickr.com/photos/97097981@N00/458702404. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

The seaward portion of the river is subject to tidal influences up to 6 km (4 mi) upstream which create rather unique speleothems (rock formations such as stalactites and stalagmites) and have helped carve out rather massive rock chambers dozens of metres in width and height. One chamber, the Italian’s Chamber, is approximately 2.5 million m3 (88.3 cu ft in volume). Another cavern, The Cathedral, is said to contain speleothems shaped like Jesus and Mary. The number of tourists allowed in the cavern is limited to 600 visitors per day.


A tour group travels along the river. Source: Storm Crypt, http://www.flickr.com/photos/21366409@N00/3187158595/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Diverging Canals

Diverging channels along the river. Source: Storm Crypt, http://www.flickr.com/photos/21366409@N00/3208704766/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park Palwan Philippines

Source: P. Trode, http://www.flickr.com/photos/34049961@N00/2817275779/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence.

A Boat Looms from the Bend

Source: Storm Crypt, http://www.flickr.com/photos/21366409@N00/3194477062/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Puerto Princessa Underground River National Park

Source: Austronesian Expeditions, http://www.flickr.com/photos/globalcitizen01/9766371395/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.


Source: M. Angelo, http://markangelo.deviantart.com/art/Palawan-Underground-River-4-85434803. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Licence.

Daylight makes its way into the cavern. Source: K. Polak, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sabang_daylighthole.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Although the underground river is the main attraction of the national park (created in 1971), it isn’t the only reason the region was designated a national park. Much of the park is covered by a 35 km2 (13.5 sq mi)  limestone karst ridge, the outcrops of which form the Saint Paul Mountains. The formation has been steadily eroding over the past 16-20 million years and is riddles with caverns, sinkholes, and waterfalls. All tributaries of the Cabaguyan River are within the park boundaries in order to protect the water catchment; many of these tributaries occupy other portions of the karst’s cavern complex. Above ground, the landscape is covered in the largest intact portion of rainforest remaining in Palawan. A popular tourist desitnation, the northern edge of the park facing the sea is lined with sandy beaches, and Sabang has numerous resorts as a result. The neaby Sabang River is host to an endemic mangrove forest, and the parky’s ecosystem is home to numerous flora and fauna endemic to Palawan. The park is considered important enought to have been inscribed into three separate UNESCO programmes: the World Heritage Site programme, the RAMSAR site programme, and the Biosphere Reserve programme as part of Palawan as a whole. Uniquely, it is managed not by the federal government but by the City of Puerto Princesa itself.

The unusual Saint Paul Mountains karst formation is show rising out of the Palawan rainforest at centre. Note the sharp ridges defining its southern and eastern perimeters. Sabang lies along the beach at top left. A very small inlet is seen in Saint Paul Bay at top right; this is the mouth of the Cabaguyan River and the entrance into the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River cavern.


Mount Saint Paul. Source: Storm Crypt, http://www.flickr.com/photos/21366409@N00/3067410882. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.


Dark limestone cliffs beside the beach near the subterranean river’s docking area. Source: Matikas 0805, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Docking_area_to_Underground_River.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.


The beach at Sabang. Source: Kaldari, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sabang_Beach_01.jpg. Available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Further Reading

City Government of Puerto Princesa (2012). PPUR now officially listed as Ramsar site. 7 November 2012. Available at http://www.ppur.puertoprincesa.ph/articles/2012/PPUR%20now%20officially%20listed%20as%20Ramsar%20site. Accessed 27 October 2013.

City Government of Puerto Princesa (2013). Puerto Princesa Underground River. Available at http://www.puerto-undergroundriver.com/. Accessed 27 October 2013.

Pāvils, G. (2012). Puerto Princesa Subterranean River. Wondermondo, 14 February 2012. Available at http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Philippines/Palawan/PuertoPrincesaSubterranean.htm. Accessed 27 October 2013.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2013). Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/652. Accessed 27 October 2013.

Nearby Articles