Rebranding our paradise: Puerto Princesa

In Photo: The Prinsesa ng Baybay, a fiber-glass sculpture by Ronel F. Roces, welcomes seafarers to Puerto Princesa, named after the mythical princess.

PINK. Red and white make up its characteristics: passion and energy, peace and purity. The mixture gives a color commonly associated with romance. Albeit also associated with femininity, it has a deeper meaning: love, caring and understanding humanity.

Pink also makes one an intuitive person. Pink also connotes conforming to social norms is less of a concern to someone.

Pink is also Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

The pink color of the exuberantly beautiful Palawan balayong tree flower, commonly referred to as the Palawan Cherry Blossom, is now the symbol of Puerto Princesa. The balayong tree will bloom all year round, accentuating another city symbol that has graced its seal for many years, the regal Pheasant Peacock, locally known as tandikan.

In the design, the plumage of the rare bird is symmetrically spread out in quintet fashion, providing a royal background to its silhouette. The bird’s crowning glory, the head feathers, is proudly captured, as if trumpeting its princess-like presence.

Front beach near the entrance to the Underground River.

The new emblem speaks the heart and vision of the city. Underneath the design, the new tagline says it all: “Where nature begins and never ends.”

Puerto Princesa, by definition, is nature at its best. Though tourism and commercialization are encroaching at an unprecedented pace, the city maintains a close grip to preserve what it is largely known for: an iron bastion for environmental conservation, uncompromisingly enforcing it and tightening the lid on any form of degradation of its natural resources.

Species trade

FROM the ’60s to the ’70s, when the city was still a sleepy town and practically everyone knew everyone, it was customary to see bamboo cages packed with mynahs (k’yaw), blue-naped parrots (pikoy), cockatoos (katala), bear cats (binturong), pangolins and the Palawan Scrubfowl (tabon) in the market. The latter’s egg, triple the size of a chicken egg, can be had for a few centavos.

St. Paul’s Underground River Cave is more than 24 km long.

I remember a line of stalls in the market dealing in covert endangered species trade, which went on unabated for years. I should know, because I lived and slept there, right behind our modest wood-and-sawali house.

That time people had the mistaken notion that because the creatures were plenty and one could hardly feel any restrictive law enforced, it was okay to sell and buy them.

Though sometimes discreet, the sale of endangered species would turn raucous during Sundays, when viajeros from Manila come down from the pantalan, strut their urban bearings and engage in wholesale buying.

It was a lucrative business for some locals who had contacts from far-flung, heavily forested barrios. It was also a grand time for natives who could easily be swayed by the promise of easy money, sacks of rice or used clothes.

Old frontier

THE brisk trade in endangered species made the palengke look like an old frontier town, reminiscent of the time of Sir James Brooke. The Rajah of Sarawak also went as far as establishing a tribe in what’s now known as Brooke’s Point, southern Palawan.

Sabang Wharf.

When the trade was at its peak, the palengke was usually punctuated by the sound captured wild boars (baboy damo) made, accentuated by the scent of wild honey and the Almaciga tree resin and made picturesque by the colors of wild sanggumay and dapo orchids—all put on the block by ambulant traders.

For years, the market on Calero Street was “The Wild Animals Hub” and frequented by Manila businessmen who must have enriched themselves by engaging in the trafficking of rare Palawan flora and fauna. If it was easy to sneak in a pair of mynah birds in a carton box on a plane then, how much more loading crates of them onboard commercial shipping lines?

Of course, those were the days. The city has matured and awakened. The citizens now self-police their ranks and, slowly, everyone has become guardians of the environment. An environment reboot turned the tide and a conscious effort to protect nature became a religion and way of life in Palawan.

Through the years, Puerto Princesa has put the province on the map by its landmark forest preservation, reforestation and economic sustainability programs, a model followed by other countries in the world.

Future perfect

MIGRATION to Palawan’s capital has spread far and wide. People came from the towns of San Miguel, San Pedro, Tiniguiban, Santa Monica, Irawan, San Jose and as far as Santa Lourdes.

Sicsican, is literally siksikan (crowded). Even the once bucolic Iwahig is feeling the pinch. The national highway in San Miguel and San Pedro is the most choked during rush hours, highly unthinkable 12 years ago.

Meron din kaming mga pangarap [We also have dreams], says Puerto Princesa Mayor Lucilo Bayron. To note, Bayron was Puerto Princesa’s Vice Mayor from 2004 until May 2013.

Bayron wants to solve the problem, and is seeking help from the Public Works and Highways Department to finance his dream project: the P3-billion, 4-kilometer-long, first-of-a-series Puerto Princesa Skyway.

This will connect the city proper, from Baywalk to Santa Monica National Highway, to the southern part of the city.

The mayor claims the project would have minimal or no impact on marine environment when the construction goes full throttle.

Spectacular plans

THE city’s rich biodiversity inspired architects and planners to design a futuristic international airport for Puerto Princesa. The main attraction at the departure area is the Biodome, a spectacular architectural centerpiece that symbolizes the city’s flora and fauna.

Designed in a radial manner, the Biodome reflects the movements of plants and trees that are abundant in the city. The Tower is a living structure, with plants crawling up to the top. The columns follow the shape of caterpillars. The outer perimeter has giant Acacia trees highlighting a well-manicured landscape.

The airport is now one of the country’s main aviation arteries, with directs flights from Taiwan, Korea, Brunei, and with many others to follow.

“We want new generations of people from this city to be proud of their God-given Paradise and appreciate its remarkable beauty,” Bayron said.

To emphasize his point, Bayron showed the masterplan of the helix-shaped, glass-encased “DNA Tower”. The building is envisioned to be the tallest building outside Metro Manila.

Located in the earthquake-proof province, the building will have 38 floors with a total area of 7,218 square meters. The building will feature twisting solar panels, lower and upper viewing decks, state-of-the-art escalator and elevator systems and a statue on top.

The building will rise in Balayong Park at Santa Monica on 1,292 square meters, including 12 rentable spaces and a main reception area.

Integrated fish port

LATEST statistics by the Philippine Fisheries and Development Authority reveal 38 percent of fish that land in Navotas, 30 percent in Lucena, 32 percent in Iloilo, and 25 percent in General Santos all come from Palawan waters.

Under Bayron’s governance, the city will expand and fully integrate the current fish port of Puerto Princesa to help increase its fish output by 30 percent. A new and modern processing facility, patterned after Japan’s famous Tsukiji market, is expected to rise from the area.

Designed to showcase Puerto Princesa’s lead role in the province, as well as in the country’s economic growth and economically sustainable development, the project aims to benefit low-income sectors and spur investments in fish processing and tourism industries, provide employment and livelihood, and serve as a focal point for marine research and development.

Balayong Park

THOUGH over 30 cherry blossom trees were planted in Atok, Benguet, last year, Puerto Princesa will dwarf that number and have the world’s largest park planted to balayong (cherry blossom) trees.

“It’s going to be a park within a park within a park,” said Bayron.

He said the city will launch an “Adopt A Tree” program, encouraging city folk to own a tree and make it part of their family.

Last year, thousands of Puerto Princesans planted 3,200 balayong trees within a 5-kilometer radius of the Palawan State University and City Hall. When they bloom in five years, it is hoped to rival Japan’s famous Sakura Garden.

The balayong (Afzelia rhomboids Caesalpiniaceae) is a species native to Southeast Asia and reaches up to 25 meters in height and 50 centimeters in diameter. Because of logging and slash-and-burn farming, its number has dwindled. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not a relative of the Japanese cherry blossom tree but closer to acacia, narra and tindalo families.

The park will have a restaurant with a view deck, ecumenical chapel, meditation garden, amphitheater, food complex, museum, library, artists’ pavilion for art exhibits, including fitness and recreational and children parks.

“We planted balayong instead of other trees because we want the next generation look back to this historical day when we united to establish this park,” Bayron said.

The three-year project is in line with the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which recognizes the vital role of parks and open spaces in making the city more sustainable and attractive.

Cruise-ship capital

BECAUSE it is closer to most Asian cities, Puerto Princesa deservingly earned the “Cruise ship capital of the Philippines”.

The financial and geographical center of Palawan welcomed almost a million or more foreign tourists from world-renowned luxury ships over a three-year period.

The ships include the Superstar Aquarius, Costa Victoria, Caledonian Sky, Azamara Quest, Albatross, Seabourn Sojourn, Legend of the Seas, Pacific Venus, Europa, Bremen, L’Austral, Le Soleal, Hamburg, Artania, Queen Elizabeth and Silver Shadow.

“Puerto Princesa Bay has one of the best ports in Asia because it is inside a bay surrounded by mountains,” City Tourism Officer Aileen Amurao said. “Obviously, it is perfect for this mode of travel. It is also unlike other towns in the northern part of the province. It has a natural harbor and is sheltered from typhoons all year round.”

On August 22, November 6 and November 24 of 2015, the world-renowned Royal Caribbean cruise ship Legend of the Seas docked on the city port and brought a total of 16,800 passengers and over 6,600 crew ship members.

“We are making the most out of this positive sign,” Amurao added. “Our long-term plan is to further improve our terminal to make it on the level of, if not better than, other Asian ports.”

The butanding

I almost missed this trip from lack of sleep. I was ready not to show up in Baywalk, our jump-off point to the open sea, where six hours of sailing would take us to the whale-shark enclave.

When we arrived, Dutch tourists Willhelm Niewland and Krysia Wielogroch were already putting their life vests on, so excited for the adventure of their lifetime. The two traveled by land to Puerto Princesa from El Nido. They were not supposed to join the trip but changed their plans when they saw a flyer at their hotel and got curious.

After master diver Andy Leonor, our guide and butanding expert, briefed us on the do’s and don’ts, we sailed around Puerto Princesa Bay and out into the Sulu Sea. A few miles more, we would have reached Tubbataha Reef.

Then, we saw a commotion on the water surface, 20 meters ahead of our boat. A swarm of sea gulls then hovered around the “turbulence”. Moving closer, we saw that they were actually schools of tuna and anchovies being chased by the one we were also chasing, the butanding.

The Dutch couple excitedly jumped into the water, unmindful that it was 100 to 180 feet deep. The two ferociously swam and wanted to get closer, but the first one we saw sped away. That was 9 a.m., and nearly two hours later no sign of another butanding came.

Crystal clear

WE were beginning to get disappointed, but by 11am, we saw “turbulences” left and right of our boat—telltale signs that the butanding were frolicking in the area.

For one full hour, we were treated to an adventure of our lives, the glory of seeing whale sharks gliding around and under our boat, their fins out of the water. We shouted with glee when one even pranced vertically astride.

The infectious excitement everyone was having made me reach for my diving fins and snorkel gear, forcing me to jump into the water. A bit scared, I stayed close to the bamboo outrigger, clinging to it as tightly as I could. I dived for a moment and stayed underwater for about 20 seconds. And then there it was: the sea behemoth, which I estimate to be 40 feet long.

Unlike in some parts of the Philippines where the butanding are almost “caged”, it is different in Puerto Princesa: they are in the wild, open sea. When a “spotter” also announces a whale-shark presence, not more than one boat swarm or “attacked” it.

Visibility is also wonderfully crystal clear.

Firefly watching

IN Puerto Princesa’s Iwahig and Irawan rivers, the mangrove trees sparkle like Christmas trees: fireflies. They are there to mesmerize you and make your stay in the city truly unforgettable.

Fireflies are not found all over the world, only in areas where oxygen is clean. They glow primarily to attract mates in the dark. These displays are quite beautiful.

Edison Dalanon, our gregarious tour guide, explains: “A flying male will find a usually nonflying female by looking for her flashing lights.”

“Some fireflies actually synchronize their flashes, so an entire tree or area will flash on and off,” Dalanon added.

Whether it is the Iwahig or Irawan firefly watching that you booked, you certainly won’t regret every single second of this trip.

War museum

PRIVATELY managed and repository of never-before-seen photos, artifacts and memorabilia from pre-war to World War II.

The museum also has a collection of photos of American Thomasites when they came to Cuyo islands and those of Japanese officers who terrorized American soldiers and their subsequent court-martial proceedings.

Guns, ammunition and weapons of war are on display, including bombs and mortars, rifles and bayonets. An authentic Japanese flag, with a photo of a soldier’s family wishing him goodbye, is poignant.

The museum was founded by Higinio “Buddy” Mendoza Jr. to honor his father, Higinio Mendoza Sr., Palawan’s greatest hero, as well as all Palaweño guerrillas who fought defending Puerto Princesa and the entire province during the war. Mendoza Sr., was a doctor, Palawan governor from 1931 to 1938 and organized the first Guerrilla Unit (A Company) in 1942. He was executed by the Japanese army in a grisly manner.

Beautiful hotels

WHERE before one can count on fingers the number of places to stay in Puerto Princesa, there are now plenty of places to stay.

The city is a virtual tourist haven catering to visitors belonging to different demographics: backpackers, bed-and-breakfast travelers, those who are traveling on a shoestring budget and the most finicky tourist.

The multinational chains are also making their presence felt, providing world-standard hospitality. The trailblazers are still providing legendary service, like the Microtel Wyndham, the only beachfront hotel offering a spectacular view of Palawan sunrise and wide expanse of historic Canigaran Beach.

The Imperial Palace Palawan Resort Hotel is fast shaping up, with no less than the award-winning architecture shop WTA Architecture and Design Studio at the helm.

Bankrolled by a Korean business group, the P1.9-billion water-park project located in Barangay Santa Lourdes is proof of the city’s viability as an investment haven for tourism growth and real-estate development. When finished, the 15-story Imperial Palace will have 367 rooms, private pool villas, restaurants, water parks, hot spa and a hot spring.

Then there’s Aventura Resort, built like a ranch with a “kubotel” (bahay kubo with amenities of a luxurious hotel) and home to the White Cockatoo (katala). If you want a respite from the madness of city living, this is the place to stay, a paradise where you are lulled to sleep by the sound of countless birds.

If you’re a no-nonsense tourist and traveling to different parts of rugged Palawan, Casitas is the place to be. Peaceful, with unobtrusive service and ever-smiling staff, they will arrange any kind of tour for you within the city.

Looking for value for money? Worth mentioning are Jillian Inn, Cecille’s Inn, Mercedes Bed and Breakfast, Aniceto Pension House, Dang Marias, RAQ Pensionne, Nevas, Café Loreto and Casa Gloria.

Hundred Caves

ON your way to Underground River (World Heritage Site and one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature), you will never miss a limestone karst mountain in Barangay Tagabinet, a solitary rock formation near the roadside.

What makes it intriguing is its outer color. It looks like it’s been painted with white enamel, but it actually has the color of first-grade marble. It got its name from countless caverns that seem infinite as you explore in and out.

My biggest achievement happened here. I conquered my claustrophobia after trekking an almost vertical 80-meter rock to reach the cave’s main entrance. We stayed in the cave’s inner sanctum for almost one-and-a-half hours and rappelled back to the ground when rain started to fall.

The landmark is an awesome sight way past Buenavista’s rain forest and before you reach Cabayugan, a barangay with similar towering, grotesque limestone structures.

Tunnel, river

REPUTEDLY the world’s longest acacia tree canopy, stretching from a portion of Barangay Irawan to Iwahig and on to Inagawan and near the boundary of Aborlan town.

The spectacular wonder of nature could be a candidate for a Unesco World Heritage site. The lung of Puerto Princesa is also home to thousands of species of flora and fauna. Properly developed, it could be another attraction of a city that is already gifted with a thousand and one wonders by nature.

Meanwhile, the construction of the P100-million Sabang Integrated Wharf Development project will commence early part of 2018. Expected to be completed in five years, the new modern wharf will guarantee utmost convenience for tourists visiting the famous Underground River.

The Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza) has initially funded the P15-million project design. When finished, the terminal can accommodate over 300 visitors and will have a museum showcasing the park’s amazing biodiversity.

The upgraded wharf will include a modern boat docking area, breakwater, tourist esplanade, drop-off area, parking and an efficient, systemized tourist service.

Image Credits: Hanhanpeggy | dreamstime.com, Nonie Reyes