Art/Style/Travel Diaries

My Puerto Princesa ‘in the dark’: Face to face with 20-million-year-old fossil

From the famed underground river to a little-known, stunning cave system, these sustainable tourism sites are worth the trip

The 20 million-year-old ‘Sirenia’ fossil on a wall of the Underground River (Photo by Alya Honasan)

The entrance to the Hundred Caves in Tagbenit (Photo by Christine Enrile Chua)

Twenty million years. Think about that for a minute, and just let that number sink in. That’s how old the fossil embedded in a wall of Puerto Princesa’s Underground River in Palawan is.

In 2011, in preparation for the river being declared a New 7 Wonders of Nature, the people behind the campaign, which was begun in 2007, sent over scientists from LaVenta Esplorazioni Geografiche, an Italian organization which goes on geographical and environmental exploration projects in remote areas all over the world. In the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR), they discovered the remains of a now extinct species of sea cow or dugong, Sirenia, estimated to be about 20 million years old, from the Miocene Era.

In a news release on posted at the time, head scientist Leonardo Piccini of the University of Florence declared, “It’s the first remains of this kind of animal in the area.” The discovery, the website declares, “opens a window on the past and shows us what was happening in the evolutionary process millions of years ago.” Incidentally, the PPUR, crown jewel of the 22,202-ha Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Natural Park (PPSRNP), was indeed declared one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature that year, 12 years after it was named a Unesco World Heritage Site—one of only two natural sites in the Philippines.

That idea about opening a window to the past could very well apply to the entire river, in fact. Last June, I joined a group of diver friends, some of whom, like me, were visiting for the first time on a side trip, to finally see what the river looked like. People have raved about how incredible it is, and we just had to see for ourselves, as every Filipino should.

Fortunately for us, our friends, fellow Tubbataha titas, and Palawan-based city hostesses, Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. (PSFI) executive director Marvi Trudeau and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park protected area superintendent (PASu) Angelique Songco, came along and looped us in for the VIP treatment. PPUR’s own PASu Beth Maclang welcomed us, and we received the added treat of venturing beyond the usual route, into the area where the fossil was located, open only to select groups.

People have raved about how incredible the river is, and we just had to see for ourselves, as every Filipino should

The luminous blue water at the entrance to the river (Photo by Alya Honasan)

Entering the Underground River in Puerto Princesa (Photo by Yvette Lee)

Was the river everything they said it was?

Yes, and more. We got into our boats fitted with life jackets and helmets. Imagine light blue water—the river goes straight to the sea—made even more luminous by the mineral content of the cave, but estimated to go only as deep as nine meters. As you glide through the entrance, the light disappears, and shadows take on remarkable forms against the walls. Around you, Mother Nature’s own hand couldn’t be more obvious, with the spectacular formations named after objects or icons they resemble. Thus, there’s a T-Rex, a garlic bulb, Mother Mary, a humungous “candle,” a curvaceous woman, even a Last Supper.

A grand, massive “hall” is named the Cathedral. These karst limestone wonders were formed slowly, painstakingly, from the action of water dripping along the walls and on the ground, and from the minerals hardening into solid forms—drop by tiny drop.

The spectacular ceiling formations in Hundred Caves

Our guides who also paddled the boat shone powerful lights on the formations, as well as the beautifully textured walls and ceilings. Time was when noisy, rowdy visitors made the trip a bit unpleasant, they said, as several boats of about five people each still pass each other frequently inside; after all, at its pre-pandemic height, the PPUR welcomed as many as 1,200 people a day. The welcome change is that a well-made audio guide is now available in several languages, and helps add to the reverent silence, the better to hear the sounds inside. There are also bats and balinsasayaw (swiftlets, small birds whose nests go into bird’s nest or Nido soup) flying around overhead, and we were warned not to gape lest water dripping from stalactites in the making lands in our mouths.

It was good news that scientists had opted then to leave the resting animal in peace

As we paddled shortly past the tourist area, however, finally they pointed it out on the wall: a small grouping of bones that once belonged to a small sea cow that died in the cave. Just contemplating the value of the find boggles the mind. It was good news to learn that scientists had opted then to leave the resting animal in peace, until newer technology comes along to enable them to remove the bones from the wall without damaging them.

I almost didn’t want to leave by the time the boat floated out into the sunlight, but we couldn’t help shouting in delight after the experience. Truly, the river deserves every accolade it has received. PSFI helped sustain local communities in the PPSRNP during the pandemic lockdowns by distributing seeds and farming tools and buying produce, but the river is now welcoming guests again. Now is a great time for all Fiipinos to go and visit.

In front of the rock that houses the Hundred Caves: From left, PSFI’s Edong Magpayo, Procyon Loy, Hundred Caves people’s organization president Mario Claud, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park protected area superintendent Angelique Songco, Christine Enrile-Chua, and the author

While you’re there, and you have a taste for adventure and enough energy for climbing and some crawling, drop by this delightful revelation in Tagabenit. Hundred Caves is another community-based sustainable tourism site supported by PSFI, who invested in safety and rescue training for the people’s organization now running the spectacular system. We arrived after a short walk, as the road was being cemented. From the distance, the rock that housed the cave was visible amid the greenery, although we didn’t know it yet. We were handed helmets with lights, thick cotton gloves, and plastic shoes; I got to wear my own close-toed rubber clogs, and I suggest you bring your own climbing shoes and thick gloves, which you will certainly need.

Time flies as you marvel at solidified calcium-filled droplets that make the wall glitter like Swarovski wallpaper

The caves—more or less a hundred, says cave guide Art Hermoso with a laugh, as he says they also count the little openings where swiftlets and bats nest—were discovered when a local gatherer of birds’ nests followed one swiftlet into the mountain. Today, there are stairs, steps, and platforms throughout the 350-m-plus hour-long trip, but time flies as you marvel at more natural formations and solidified calcium-filled droplets that make the wall glitter like Swarovski wallpaper.

Hermoso does an excellent job of explaining natural processes, like how a stalactite (which forms from the ceiling) and a stalagmite (which grows on the floor from the water dripping from a stalactite), like fated lovers, eventually meet and form a column of limestone that is thousands of years old. You can have your fill of climbing, crawling, leaping over puddles and the slippery floor, and the cave is dark and humid, but it certainly has the kind of pure, good energy that only a natural wonder can bestow.

An added treat: peering into small holes to see baby bats, and discovering nests built into the wall with chicks or even eggs—a perfect damp, quiet “nursery” for these babies to grow. You’ll emerge filthy and sweaty, but proud of yourself, and certainly blessed by the experience.

You can book an underground river tour ahead of time via tour operators, visit the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park & World Heritage Site Facebook page or just head to the Sabang Wharf in Cabayugan, where you can hire a banca and head to the river. Please note that the regular  route does not include the fossil, as this is also being protected from tourist pressure. To visit Hundred Caves, leave a message on their Facebook page, Hundred Caves.

About author


She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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