To be fair, the promise of boating up and down a subterranean river is pretty irresistible, especially when it’s listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the Natural World.
The problem is that everyone knows it. And with 1200 people allowed to visit every day, other tourists warned us that there’s no point going — it’s a long drive, a long wait, and a sausage factory of boats going in and out.
But hey, we were curious! So we decided to test it out for ourselves and finally answer the question: is going to the Underground River in Palawan really worth it?
Here is our completely honest, unfiltered opinion.
Cost of going to the Underground River
Here’s a con: the Underground River tour is not cheap, especially compared to other tours in the Philippines. While you can get an island hopping tour for as little as 1000 pesos, the Underground River tour can cost as much as 2500 in 2023 for a non-private tour.
You can also consider a private tour for around 10,000 to 15,000 pesos, but in our opinion this probably isn’t worth it. While you will have a car to yourself to make the drive to Sabang, you will still have to share a boat to enter the Underground River because they try to limit their environmental impact.
Your tour typically includes:
- Hotel transfers
- Cave entrance
Itinerary for the Underground River Tour
The Underground River is in Sabang, about one-and-a-half to two hours drive from Puerto Princesa. Your transfer will likely pick you up sometime between 7 and 8 AM. If you’re picked up early, you get to choose the best seats in the van – but you also have to drive around the city picking up everyone else.
The road up to Sabang is long and winding, so we recommend taking motion sickness tablets before you leave. Vomiting is apparently surprisingly common on these trips, to the point where the guides carry a bag.
Typically, you need to wait between one and two hours once you have arrived at the Underground River departure point before boarding a boat. Each group gets a number, and you have to wait until the number is called. This results in incredibly long wait times. Luckily, your tour guide often goes ahead to register your group so you can do other things in the meantime.
Depending on how busy your tour is, your guide might rearrange your schedule. There was a cruise ship visiting the day that we went, so we were taken to a zip line and caving spot about 15 minutes away. While we didn’t do the activities, some members of our group did so we took a chance to rest.
Then, we were taken to lunch. Our tour took us to a Filipino Korean buffet restaurant right near the departure point which was pretty decent. Before long, we got the call that our number was getting close so headed to the waiting zone.
However, apparently it wasn’t as close as they thought because we ended up waiting another 70 minutes here. At this point, we had left our hotel over six hours earlier, hadn’t seen anything of note, and our patience was starting to wear thin. We really began to question if we had made the right decision going to the Underground River.
Finally, five of us we were rushed onto a typical banca boat and roared away over the crashing waves. We travelled for maybe 20 minutes until we arrived at a small, lush, green bay.
Stepping off the boat, we already spotted monkeys climbing trees and annyoing tourists (seriously, we were warned about this in advance).
It was a really different landscape to what we had experienced elsewhere in the Philippines which made it interesting. A short walk, and we arrived at the mouth of the cave that plays home to the Underground River. Small canoes floated up to the bank, and we were instructed to sit down, two abreast and given an audio guide headset each.
TIP: Try and snag the two front seats in the boat. While they’re a little more narrow, they’ll offer an unobstructed view to the beauty of the cave.
Finally, it was time for the verdict: would the Underground River truly be worth it?
We floated into the cave, the only sound the soft paddling of the guide, soft drips from the cave’s roof into the river below, and the gentle voice coming through our headphones (the audio guide explained that quiet is needed in the cave so the bats can use their sonar abilities).
As darkness settled around us, the paddler’s headlight illuminated various parts of the cave as the audio guide explained what was happening.
We found the audio guide to be brilliantly produced and incredibly informative. It might direct us to look at the right hand side where we could see a rock formation shaped like a T-Rex, somehow worked in some Batman theme music, or gave incredible information about the formation and preservation of the cave.
While we had heard that the Underground River was packed full of boats, we didn’t find that to be true. There’s a limited number of canoes allowed in the river at a time, so every now and then we would float by another silent canoe — and that was it.
We explored the river for around 30 minutes and were honestly amazed and enthralled by it. Perhaps we just wanted to enjoy it because of the time investment, but truly, we loved it.
Eventually, we emerged blinking into the bright sunlight and were deposited on the banks of the river. We were given a brief chance to use the bathroom and look at the photos that the photo team had taken prior to entering the cave (these are typical tourist photos, so we passed it up), and then we boarded the banca to return us to our departure point where we could take our van home.
I think in a usual itinerary this is where you would have the chance to go to the zipline or the Mangrove Forest, but because we had checked that off while waiting for our turn to visit the Underground River, we hit the road and headed straight back to Puerto Princesa.
Pros and cons of the Underground River tour: is it worth it?
Alright, that’s the itinerary — but let’s crack on to the real, burning question you came here for. I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of the Underground River tour below.
✅ Pros of the Underground River tour
- The cave is truly a spectacular, one-of-a-kind sight
- The chance to see one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature from UNESCO
- Beautiful nature on the island
- The chance to see wild monkeys in their (kind of) natural habitat
- While the departure point is touristy with lots of shops, the bay area and entrance to the Underground River is well preserved and has resisted tourist impact
- The audio guide is incredibly well-produced and entertaining
- Different from other tourist options on Palawan (like island hopping or waterfalls)
❌ Cons of the Underground River tour
- Long travel times and winding roads (expect about two hours each way from Puerto Princesa)
- Long waiting times when arriving at the site
- Lots of tourists, including potentially cruise ship passengers
- Other activities while waiting are provided, but these come at an extra cost (like ziplining or a mangrove river tour)
- Lunch is decent but nothing to write home about
- It feels a bit like a tourism sausage factory until you get to the river. This we found to be a delightful, relaxing experience with not many other tourists around
Is the Underground River in Puerto Princesa worth it? Final verdict
We did not regret doing the Underground River tour in Puerto Princesa — in fact, we loved the cave experience and thought that it was worth the cost of the travel.
If you like nature and natural phenomena and are willing to pay the price to see it, you’ll truly enjoy it. Of course, this is entirely dependent on a lot of variables: how car sick you might feel, how busy it is on the day, and if you can ignore the mass tourism and focus on the nature instead.
But of course, we are just two people, so to bring you a better answer we asked the other people on our tour how they felt about it. Specifically, we asked “Was it worth it with the waiting and long travel times?” Of the seven people we asked, 100% said yes.
Look, if you miss it you probably don’t need to be in tears. It’s a hugely long day with not many activities. But hell, if you have the time to go, just do it. You’re already in the area, you might never come back, and it’s only likely to get more touristy in the future (or perhaps even close for good).
Are you a yay on the Underground River, or a nay? Share your thoughts in the comments!