If you have one day to spend in Puerto Princesa skip the Underground River and go to Honda Bay instead. It’s just a short trike ride from downtown and sports spectacular scenery. The beaches on the islands are top notch and even the boat ride itself is fun.
Yes, the Puerto Princesa Underground River is one of the “New7Wonders of Nature” and it is incredible (post coming soon). You should absolutely 100% see it if you are visiting Palawan and have a few days. But here’s the catch… it’s not actually in Puerto Princesa.
You can arrange a round trip tour to see the Underground River in one day from Puerto Princesa, but it’s a long day. The Underground River is actually in Sabang, which is 2-3 hours on winding, hilly roads in a cramped van (vomit machine) away from the city.
To do the tour as a day trip means about 6 hours in the vomit van for just a few hours in Sabang. The River tour itself is only about 45 minutes long with a short boat ride on either end.
For us, it made a lot more sense to spend a few days in Sabang and treat that as its own destination, separate from Puerto Princesa.
But back to Honda Bay…
Here’s why we loved Honda Bay island hopping.
Even if we only had one day on Palawan and we were going to be in Puerto Princesa, we’d still argue that the day is better spent island hopping in Honda Bay than trekking up to the Underground River. Save the Underground River for when you have enough time to actually enjoy it and not just check it off your list.
Honda Bay is awesome because…
Honda Bay is just north of Puerto Princesa City proper, and a trike can bring you there in about 20 minutes for 150-200 pesos ($3.50-4.50).
The trike drops you off at the end of the road by the pier and there are desks right there to buy your tickets. The boats leave from the same spot so you just hang out for a few minutes until your departure time.
When you return you can just jump back on a trike and head back to the city. There’s no need to have your driver wait all day for you. We didn’t have a problem finding a trike at the pier after our cruise, and there are also shared vans and jeepney options to get back to the city proper.
There are ready-made day tours from the city, but that’s not our style. We like the flexibility of putting the pieces together ourselves. It’s also cheaper to do it yourself and you get to decide how many people will be on your boat. Even if you rent the entire boat yourself, the cost will be less than a tour where you will share the boat with many others.
Getting there on a trike instead of a tour made it so we were the first ones on the pier. We arrived at the pier at 7:45 and most of the desks weren’t even open yet (they’re supposed to open at 7, but that’s “Filipino time”). Once they did open we quickly booked our trip and we were on the first or second boat to go out for the day. Our boat left at about 8:30 a.m. and returned about 3:30 p.m.
The scenery in and around Honda Bay really surprised us. It was our first introduction to Palawan besides Puerto Princesa City itself and we were duly impressed.
Tall mountains all around. Islands dotting the horizon. Mangrove forests sprawling out into the clear water. Little bamboo huts on stilts along the sandy beaches. Honda Bay honestly compares well even with El Nido, the island hopping capital of Palawan. There’s no giant karst limestone cliffs here, but it’s a fraction of the cost and far easier to get to.
Especially before the other boats started arriving there was this awesome edge of the world type feeling while we waded through the ankle deep water near the mangroves on Luli Island. Another plus of getting up early and arranging transport to Honda Bay yourself.
Personally I expected the fun snorkeling and swimming but I was totally floored by the natural beauty of the bay.
Speaking of the snorkeling, it’s decent. When we were there the visibility was terrible because of the rough seas, but we could tell it would be pretty nice if the water was clearer.
There’s some friendly fish that hang out at a floating bamboo shack just off the beach on Luli Island. Near the edge of the designated swimming area there is also some interesting coral topography and a few larger reef fish.
By the way, the GoPro is an awesome camera for this type of aquatic adventure. It’s waterproof so you can keep it with you on the beach and in the water, and it takes high quality photos and videos. We took most of the photos in this post with our GoPro Hero 4 Silver and most footage on the Trekking with Twins YouTube Channel is shot with one as well.
At the Pambato Reef the snorkeling was even better than Luli, with huge volcano shaped corals and giant clams. Again the visibility hampered things a little. The guy manning the docks tried to convince us to not even get off the boat, but at Kat’s urging I jumped in the water to make a scouting report. Turned out it wasn’t so bad and definitely worth our time.
We split our boat with one other person. The total cost for the boat for the day was 800 pesos ($18) and our share that we agreed on with our boatmate was 550 ($12.50). Our cost was a bit lower than typical because it was very windy the day we were there and some islands were not accessible. Only Luli and Pambato Reef were open, so that’s where we went.
Note: The weather seemed fine at our Puerto Princesa Hotel, so we were surprised when we arrived at the windy pier. If you have your heart set on a particular island it’s probably a good idea to try to confirm it’s accessible before venturing to the pier. To be honest we’re not exactly sure how you would do that, but perhaps a tourism office in the city or your hotel front desk would be a good place to start.
Typically the island hopping tours go to three destinations and the price is a bit higher than we paid (since we only went to 2). Prices for the regular tours are fixed and posted on boards at the pier.
On top of the tour cost there is an environmental fee (40 pesos, $1, per person), terminal fee (3 pesos per person), and there are entrance fees at each place you stop. Luli was 60 pesos ($1.35) per adult and Pambato Reef was 50 pesos per adult. We didn’t actually have to pay the terminal or environmental fees the day we were there.
There’s no food included and limited food available for purchase, at least where we stopped, so we brought some snacks with us that we bought ahead of time. Snack cost was about 100 pesos ($2.25). There are some little stores near the pier where you can stock up, but we’d recommend getting your supplies in town before you head out.
Some of the islands sell more substantial food too – we understand Cowrie has a buffet while Starfish and Pandan have lighter food options. So that could boost the food budget slightly depending on your appetite.
With the round trip trike fare coming in at 350 pesos ($8) our total cost was 1,110 pesos ($25) for the four of us for a full day of island hopping. Not bad!
The whole day is the adventure.
Right from when you leave your hotel in a trike the day is fun. Well, as long as you like trike rides! Our kids certainly do, and refer to them as “rides” as in amusement park rides.
Then you arrive at the pier and transfer to another “ride” on the boat. Even on our very windy and rough day this part of the journey was enjoyable (Jasper would beg to differ… we’ll just say he wasn’t completely thrilled with the waves on the way out to our first island). I’m sure on a calmer day it would be downright spectacular.
Sure the islands are fun with their snorkeling and swimming, but what really makes this day special is that from start to finish it’s a great time.
So what do you think? 6 hours in a van for 45 minutes of Underground River cruising or a full day of playing explorer in a postcard perfect bay? If you had one day in Puerto Princesa how would you spend it?
Ready to visit the Philippines? Start here with our recommended guide book: The Rough Guide to the Philippines.