Romancing Sabang

Jul 17, 2013 in Philippines | 2 Comments

I think one of the many culprits of my wanderlust is the classic 80’s flick, Romancing the Stone. Romance, adventure, and intrigue, all set in the dense jungles, rolling countryside, and ancient cities of Colombia. (Do not get me started on wanting to visit Cartagena). In addition to featuring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, there were also creaky busses, muddy jungle trails, hair-raising jeep chases, jewels, caves, snakes, and crocodiles, which, face it—all totally more interesting than any silly love story.

So when I tell you the more uncomfortable and idiotic portions of my trip to Sabang, know that I had a grin the whole time… except when I fell down the mountain, that was more gritted teeth and furrowed brow.

The roads in the Philippines seem to all be half paved, and I mean that literally. Road construction is ubiquitous across every region I traveled, and by some quirk of planning—I’m sure it makes sense to someone—the paving is done in what appears to be half-kilometer sections, for only half of the road. But are you allowed to drive on that pristine cement stretch of new highway? No. Rocks and detour signs, and many times a foot difference in road height make it so traffic goes on the unpaved side of the road, which, due to the nature of road construction in rainy season, is remarkably worse that any simple packed dirt road. No, it more resembles a pig wallow, vast mud puddles concealing unknown depths, a selection of broken rocks strewn through the less soupy bits, and oncoming traffic playing chicken with who gets to cross the mire first. The road from El Nido, Palawan to the junction to Sabang is one such road.

I was leaving El Nido after four days despite a sincere enjoyment of the place, a sleepy beach town, with electricity for only half the day (and that entirely dependent on blackouts caused by frequent storms), no cash machines, and very few places that accept credit cards. While it is a little more touristy than the remote location would suggest—every tour company in town offers the same tours, A, B, or C—it’s still a great way to take in the stunning local scenery. I opted for tour A while I was there, which highlights the karst lagoons on the islands around El Nido, and I was not disappointed; kayaking into stunning lagoons, fresh fish cooked on a white sand beach under karst cliffs, snorkeling and hand feeding a swarm of tropical fish. As luck would have it, my tour was made up of just myself and another woman with her son, and our guide Ervin did a great job getting into the set locations mostly before the other tour boats arrived, which was great since our first stop at the not-so “Secret” Lagoon, involved a concerted effort to not kayak over flotillas of life-vested tourists all holding hands so they clumped together like florescent orange, squealing islands. My days in El Nido started with a swim in the bay, a stop at the wonderful Midtown Bakery for some pastries, and down again to the beach to have some fresh brewed coffee with my toes in the sand. Fresh, cheap seafood is on every menu, and the general feeling of the place is contentment. However, I was running out of cash. I’d already made an emergency trip to the Petron gas station, the only place in town that offers cash back on your card, and then only while supplies last, and on a first come, first served basis: I’d cleaned them out for 5000 pesos, minutes before other desperate travelers arrived. And so, it was time to leave.

El Nido bay

Local kids doing flips off the boats as I have my morning coffee.

I opted to take a shared van for the trip—faster, but a little more expensive and a lot more packed than a local bus. The tiny van bounced and slid jovially along the red mud road between stunning views over the ocean and jungle as I sat in the very back, crushed in with my belongings, for a very long hour before hitting more solid, but more winding highway. At one point, after an ominous thud, the driver pulled over gently, and went to investigate under the hood. After a moment, he walked across the road, picked up a small stick about a foot long, did something with it inside the engine area, closed the hood with satisfaction, jumped back in and took off. MacGyver that.

I was dropped at the fly infested junction shop, to wait for another van to Sabang (there are no direct vans from El Nido to Sabang, only El Nido to Puerto Princesa and Puerto Princesa to Sabang, and you can catch one of those at the junction). You could try to catch a jeepney, but they also act as the only transit of goods in and out of Sabang, and tend to be so overloaded with stuff inside and out, it would take an acrobat to find a seat. To a lesser degree the same goes with the local bus, and I clutched my large backpack in envy as I watched a skinny Filipino hippie, his wild curly hair held up with some sort of purple do-rag, and all his belongings in a slim wicker basket on his back, scamper up the ladder onto the roof of the bus with ease.
So when the van finally came I clambered meekly aboard with two dreadie and barefoot French travelers who had also arrived at the junction, and we set off for Sabang. It’s a lovely winding drive through lush jungle that leans out onto the thin strip of road, finally dead ending at the town pier. We arrived at the same time as the bus.
As I negotiated a departure ticket for the next evening, I noticed the local hippie chatting up the French hippies, but worried about how I was going to obtain a permit for the famous Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, I rushed off to my hostel. Blue Bamboo Cottages is a walk through town by the waterfront, and a quaint collection of nipa style buildings connected by rock paths. Rustic, however, the usual bucket shower in attendance, and in addition to a mosquito net, the luxury of a mosquito coil was provided. The manager, Bert, a hunched and wrinkled older man, was quite excited to have me, and really wanted to have a conversation with me over a fifth of Tanduay rhum. I professed that yes, that sounded nice, and I do enjoy Tanduay rhum—yes, I like, yes—but I needed to see about permits, and dinner in town.
After conversations with several hotels in the area, I discovered that my flighty planning screwed me. You can arrange a pricey all-inclusive day tour to the Subterranean River National Park from Puerto Princesa, permit included, or you can arrange for a permit through your accommodation in Sabang, but it requires a two night stay; apply the first night, explore Sabang the next day, and receive permission the third. With a flight to catch, I did not have all these extra days. Occasionally, they said, if you show up first thing in the morning to the tourist office, you can get an unbooked permit, but that was unlikely, since the day I arrived the river had been closed due to too much rain, so many of that day’s visitors had grabbed the next day’s passes. A whole lot of bureaucracy for a wet cave, really.

I wandered into town, and grabbed a seat at what appeared to be the only open restobar, right next to where I’d been dropped earlier that evening. While I was a little disappointed to have come all this way to miss what was proclaimed as a natural wonder of the world, I’d also heard that the tour was a bit like Disneyland, all bumper-to-bumper boats and silly lights, which sounded off-putting. Also, I was low on cash; Sabang is also a cash only town, and unlike El Nido, there didn’t seem to be any credit card options at all. So, not having to pay for a permit and tour the next day meant I could enjoy a beer that night. Red Horse, please!
As I was enjoying my fresh fish sinigang and Red Horse, the three hippies from earlier arrived and sat at the next table. Overhearing their conversation, it appeared that local hippie was taking French hippies on some sort of trek the next day. See, I thought, there are other things to do, I’ll ask at the tourist office tomorrow and take a hike or something, it’ll be great.
The next thing I know, local hippie—Jorge, he introduced himself, Jorge of the Jungle, hard ‘J’—was sitting at my table and insisting that I join the excursion tomorrow. He was leading the French couple to where the underground river starts its underground journey; beautiful hike, very special, only the locals know. We all started talking, tables merged, and a pitcher of the local concoction arrived—some sort of local gin, with kalamansi juice and some sort energy drink from a powder mix. Surprisingly tasty. The Philippine custom is to have a pitcher of drink and one shot glass, which is passed around the group, with everyone taking a drink until the pitcher is gone, and then order another one!
The French couple, Alix and Estelle, is a chef and waitress who’d been traveling for several years. They would find a place they liked—they’d just spent several months in Australia—find a restaurant to work at, and stay until they felt like traveling again. This seems like a really clever travel lifestyle, actually, and I found myself liking them a lot despite my knee-jerk judgment of hippie-type people (I’m sorry, it goes back to my university years, surrounded by a distasteful amount of trustafarians).
Jorge is an open book and an enigma of a man. He shared all about himself and his life—how he was raised fairly well-off, the son of teachers, got some university in biology, but left to come to Sabang and live out in the jungle like the tribes folk do. He talked about building his own house and a homemade rifle for hunting, about poaching and scavenging and trapping for food during the year he spent out there. The basket of belongings I’d noticed earlier in the day, he’d made himself. He talked about religious beliefs, about aliens, and ghosts. They passed around an acoustic guitar and played reggae songs, and as anyone who knows me well will tell you, this conversation with this group of people was probably a more foreign land than the tiny jungle town I was in, so many miles from home. But I was fascinated, or maybe it was just the gin, and I agreed to meet them the next morning. It was quite late as I navigated the rocky path back to my hut, but still the old man appeared, proffering the rhum again, but I declined in the name of sleep.

We’d discussed footwear for the trek the night before, especially in light of the fact that Alix and Estelle do not wear shoes. There was to be muddy jungle, multiple river crossings, and a scramble up sharp rocks. Jorge said flip flops would be fine, if that’s all I had, and just in case, I shoved my boots into my backpack, and off we set.

The first leg of the journey was by tricycle, the three of us shoved in the little sidecar and Jorge riding behind the driver who was rather tall for a Filipino, having to hunch over to avoid hitting his head on the metal roof. Given the handmade nature of these tricycles, each town even having their own body style and decorative fashion trends—Bontoc’s brightly colored and boxy versions had black and silver embroidered leather flaps featuring the drivers’ zodiac sign, while Tagbileran’s are more rounded, and feature hand painted quotes favored by the driver, usually Jesus-y in nature—it seemed like he might put some effort into raising the roof, but perhaps there is more structural integrity at stake than appearances let on.

After a 20-minute journey, we clambered out onto the side of the road, and followed Jorge down a small trail that opened up into muddy wheel tracks between rice fields across a stunning little valley. It was difficult to continuously appreciate the pastoral view, however, because I had to keep hopping from one dry, or dry-ish piece of road to the next, and several times failing, until I finally lost a flip flop into a deep muddy rut. Fishing it out, I continued, but now that the top soles were slippery with mud, it became even harder work to keep my feet in the stupid sandals, slipping off one side or another, and occasionally the front, yanking the thong out of its little hole in the sole, requiring quick repairs to pop it back in, that left me farther and farther behind my companions, the French blithely stepping along with their bare, unencumbered feet, and Jorge extolling the virtues of his water shoes, that he’d fished out of the trash, only a little broken. I felt like an idiot. I also recalled the scene in Romancing the Stone where, trekking through the muddy jungle, Michael Douglas has to rip the heels off of Kathleen Turner’s pumps so that she can walk without falling. I meekly removed my flip flops and hurried after the group, trying not to think about all the parasites currently burrowing through my soles. Is that cow shit? Oh, well… shit.

The track abruptly ended in a brace of trees as the jungle rose up before us, and we tucked under a fallen tree and into the dense green mess. A welcoming committee of mosquitos attacked. I believe poor Estelle bore the brunt of the onslaught, as I quickly brushed away the clusters of five to ten little bastards that were alighting on my ankles and slathered on my Deet, which mixed in with the mud caking my shins into a slippery mess (the stains from which did not completely wash away for over a week). And on we trekked, the path alternatively padded with fallen leaves and branches, or muddy pools which could be skirted around the edges where the plant life grew. I deliberately didn’t think about snakes.

The jungle is dense and beautiful, dark and mysterious, and I’m unduly excited by it, probably growing up in a desert increased my fascination—my first trip to the Amazon resulted in 900 pictures, most of which were trees, much to the chagrin of anyone who had to look at my photos. “Oh, but look, this one has a really pretty fern on it!” Uh huh, Melia.
Jorge pointed out the spiny young bamboo, whose tiny hairs will make you itch like fiberglass, giant mangroves with roots spreading like concentric tripods as they grew towards the sun, and the mysterious ‘growing rocks,’ craggy karst teeth emerging from a swampy stream that he asserted grew taller by a few inches every year. We forded across three river crossings; I couldn’t even tell you if it was the same river winding on itself, or three separate ones. The first two crossings were accomplished with shaky assemblages of logs with bamboo poles thrust into the depth at uneven intervals to grasp onto, but the final one was a slow shuffle across the rocky bottom in thigh deep brown water. Somewhere along this point, I realized I’d just been thinking to myself, over and over again, “Melia, what the fuck are you doing?”

After a portion of dry riverbed, smooth pebbles easy to walk on with my now mud-free flip flops, thanks to the last river crossing, we reached the bottom of the rock fall, sharp and mossy boulders cascading down the mountainside, and at the top, Jorge said, a massive cave. As the others began scrambling up, emboldened by the last five minutes without flip flop mishap, and still soaking wet from the river, I opted not to don my socks and boots, and give it a go. I mean, the French were barefoot!
The climb up was strenuous but enjoyable and when we reached the top, we crossed into the mouth of a gigantic cave, swiftlets darting in and out. From our outcrop of rock the cave plunged before us into dark crevasses and weak sunlight streamed through a small vine laced hole in the soaring roof. That is, until a massive crack of thunder, echoing ominously through the cavern, summoned the rain, and within seconds a dark curtain of downpour began sheeting down into the jungle outside. We sat, and lit damp cigarettes—you know, to keep the bugs away.

As we sat, a young local popped up over the rocks, and after a conversation with Jorge, he came over to us. Jorge explained that he’d been poaching birds nests, illegal but valued by the Chinese for bird’s nest soup. The swiftlets use their saliva to build these little nests attached to the cave walls. All I could think was, who in their right mind looked at these whitish, floppy, mossy looking things and said, yes, I’ll eat that, that looks good. Jorge explained the difficult process of procuring them, free rock climbing into skinny crevasses, often alone so no one would rat you out, admitting that he’d done some poaching in the past, and shared a story of a friend who’d fallen, resulting in severe spinal injury. The young kid here, he said, was trying to get enough money to go see a rock concert in Puerto Princesa.

After a time, we judged that the rain had eased a bit, and enough light had returned, to attempt the descent back out of the cave (although, Jorge was willing to take us farther in, pointing out the steep path down, and I was thoroughly grateful when Alix stated that he was content not to go down. There is only so much foolishness I can dispense in one day). We began to gingerly clamber down the now very wet rocks, on hands and feet and butts, Jorge proclaiming he had never had anyone injured out here, and I recall thinking, hey, this is going pretty well, when my foot lost traction on my flip flop, slid through the front, ripping the stupid thong out again, and I bumped terribly down several sharp rocks, my left foot ending up wedged into a crack, with the flip flop up around my knee.

There was so much adrenaline coursing through me, my whole body was shaking, and I knew I was hurt, but not quite where or how bad. Jorge rushed down, first trying to examine my shaking hand, and then my shaking foot, which was just beginning to bleed. Estelle poured water over the area, and as my shakes subsided, the side of my foot began to swell and turn purple. Shit, I thought, recalling the time I broke my foot in Mexico, how the hell am I going to get out of here? These guys can’t possibly carry me down these rocks and out of this idiotic jungle. I am so screwed. I’m gonna die out here.

Thankfully, my first attempts at wiggling my toes and putting a little weight on the foot proved that no, I was not gonna die out there, but the walk back would be slow. Jorge kindly offered me his shoes, and with no pride at all I took them and slogged slowly back out of the jungle. We emerged, mud splattered, bitten, and drenched, myself limping, onto the roadside and began what I’m sure was a tragic looking, but triumphant feeling walk back to town as vans of day-trippers peered out at us as they zoomed back to civilization.
Jorge insisted on taking me to the local clinic for some iodine and band aids, and insisted on taking me to the local bar for several Red Horses and rambling but fascinating conversation, and insisted on walking with me back to Blue Bamboo to help carry my bags—and I insist, that if you ever find yourself in Sabang, ask around for Jorge of the Jungle, you will not regret it.

But do wear decent shoes.

Jorge and I, all smiles before the fall.


  1. Will
    July 17, 2013

    “…florescent orange, squealing islands” hahahahah. That’s one way to travel. Then there’s the muddy flipflops mode of travel. Oi! Water shoes might seem essential here. Love the story.

  2. Luanne
    July 19, 2013

    I don’t know about all these caves, Melia. I start bumping along with you and, then, along comes another cave and I get all claustrophobic again and can’t bear to read on. But luckily you seem to make it out alive on one or two feet and we manage to end up back in town with a smile and a beer. Such a relief ! Such a trip ! Oy vey. Life here in San Francisco is so much easier. Although it is a jungle in its own way. Stay safe.


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