Wednesday, November 8, 2017


By Roger Pe
Business Mirror
November 9, 2017 issue

Pink. Red and white make up its characteristics: Passion and energy. Peace and purity. The mixture gives you a color that is commonly associated with romance. Though also associated with femininity, it has a deeper meaning: Love, caring and understanding humanity.

Pink also makes one an intuitive person. To wear something pink these days, means you have a streak of courage, a complete paradox to its usual meaning. Pink also connotes someone who doesn’t pay much attention to the opinions of others, one who doesn’t care too much about conforming to social norms.  

The pink color of the exuberantly beautiful Palawan “Balayong” tree flower, commonly referred to as “Palawan Cherry Blossom”, is now the symbol of Puerto Princesa, a long overdue recognition. That, too, 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 are proudly captured, as if trumpeting its princess presence. 

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

Puerto Princesa, by definition, is nature, and by reality, 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 – iron bastion for environmental conservation, uncompromisingly enforcing it and tightening the lid on any form of degradation of its natural resources.

Back in the 60s and towards 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”), Palawan Blue-Naped Parrots (“Pikoy”), Cockatoos (“Katala”), Bear Cats (“Binturong”), Pangolins and Palawan Scrubfowl (“Tabon”) in the market. The latter’s egg, triple the size of a chicken egg, can be had for a few centavos. 

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. 

During those years, people had the mistaken notion that because they were plenty and one could hardly feel any restrictive law enforced, it was okay to sell and buy them. 

Though sometimes discreet, they would turn into raucous heights 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’, and natives who could easily be swayed by the promise of easy money, sacks of rice or plain used clothes.

The brisk trade made the ‘palengke’ looked like an old frontier-town, reminiscent of the time of James Brooke, father of Sarawak who also went as far as establishing a tribe in Brooke’s Point, southern Palawan.

When the trade was at its peak, the ‘palengke’ usually was textured by the sound of captured Wild Boars (“Baboy Damo”), scent of wild honey and ‘Almaciga’ (tree resin), and made picturesque by the colors of wild “Sanggumays” and “Dapo” orchids - all put on the block by ambulant traders. 

For years, the ‘palengke’ on Calero Street was “The Wild Animals Hub”, frequented by Manila businessmen, who must have enriched themselves by engaging in rare Palawan flora and fauna trafficking. They became regulars, in cahoots with local middlemen. If it was easy to sneak in a pair of Mynah birds in a carton box (you puncture holes on both sides to make them breathe) 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 through constant awareness. I should say an environment reboot turned the tide, and a conscious effort to protect nature became a religion and way of life. 

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. So what’s next?

Future shape of the city

Migration to the city has spread far and wide, notably 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 a humble Lucilo Bayron, mayor of the city, silent think-tank and chief strategist of the city, even from way back. Bayron was Puerto Princesa’s Vice Mayor from 2004 until May 2013. He was elected Mayor after that.

Bayron wants to solve the problem, and is seeking help from the Public Works and Highways Department to finance his dream project: The 3 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 assures: No impact on marine environment when the construction goes full throttle.

Spectacular airport

The city’s rich biodiversity inspired architects and planners to design a futuristic international airport for Puerto Princesa. If you have been to the departure area, the main attraction is the Biodome, a spectacular architectural centerpiece that replicates symbols of the city’s forest of 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, making it the first living airport in the Philippines. 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 direct flights from Taiwan, Korea, Brunei, and with many others to follow.

Future shape of the city

“We want new generations of people from this city to be proud of their God-given Paradise and appreciate its remarkable beauty,” says Bayron. Corollary to that, he proudly showed us the shape of things to come to the city that is now becoming the melting pot of the Philippines.

One of them is a masterplan of the helix-shaped, glass-encased “DNA Tower”, symbolic of man’s infinite love for humanity and environment, thoroughly futuristic in design and envisioned to be the tallest building outside of Metro-Manila.

Located in the earthquake-proof province, the soon-to-be-most environmentally friendly building in the Philippines will have 38 floors, 127 meters in height, a total building area of 7,218 square meters, twisted solar panel design, lower and upper viewing decks, state-of-the-art escalator and elevator systems and a statue on top. 

The spectacular building will rise in “Balayong Park” Santa Monica on a 1,292 square meter ground floor space, and will have 12 rentable spaces and main reception area. 

Integrated Fish Port

Did you know that 38% of fish that land in Navotas, 30% in Lucena, 32% in Iloilo, and 25% in General Santos all come from Palawan waters? That is based on the latest statistics provided by the Philippine Fisheries and Development Authority.

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%. A new and modern processing facility, patterned after Japan’s famous Tsukiji market will arise.

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 is going to be a park within a park within a park,” said Bayron who also excitedly revealed that the city will launch an “Adopt A Tree” program, encouraging city folks to own a tree and make it part of their own family.

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

The “Balayong"  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 is dwindling. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not a relative of the Japanese Cherry Blossoms tree but closer to Acacia, Narra and Tindalo families. 

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

Here they are: Superstar Aquarius, Costa Victoria, Caledonian Sky, Azamara Quest, Albatross, Seabourn Sojourn, Legend of the Seas, Paciic 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. 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,” City Tourism Officer Aileen Amurao stressed.

Last August 22, 2015, November 6 and November 24 of the same year, 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. Our long term plan is further improve our terminal to make it on the level, if not better than other Asian ports,” Amurao added.

Behold, the “Butandings”

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 a 6-hour of sailing would take us to the Whale Shark enclave. 

When we arrived, Dutch tourists Willhelm Niewland and Krysia Wielogroch were already putting their lifevests on, so excited for the adventure of their lifetime. The two travelled 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 in their city hotel and got curious.  

After master diver Andy Leonor, our guide and “Butanding” expert briefed us on the “dos and donts” 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, twenty 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 9am, and by 10:30, no sign of another “Butanding” came. 

We were beginning to get disappointed but by 11am, we saw ‘turbulences’ left and right of out boat – tell tale signs that the “Butandings” 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 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, 40 feet long to my estimation.

Unlike in some parts of the Philippines where the “Butandings” 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 ‘attack’ it.
Visibility is also wonderfully crystal clear.

Firefly Watching

Don’t omit this from your bucket list if you want to experience Nature’s magical and spellbinding beauty.

In Puerto Princesa’s Iwahig and Irawan rivers, the mangrove trees sparkle like Christmas trees. They are here 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 non-flying female by looking for her flashing lights. Some fireflies actually synchronize their flashes, so an entire tree or area will flash on and off.”

Whether it is the Iwahig or Irawan Firefly Watching that you booked, you won’t certainly 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, ammunitions and weapons of war are on display, including bombs and mortars, rifles and bayonets. An authentic Japanese flag, with members 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 Palaweno guerillas who fought defending Puerto Princesa and the entire province during the war. Mendoza Sr., was a doctor, Palawan Governor from 1931-1938 and organized the first Guerilla Unit (A Company) in 1942. He was executed by the Japanese army in a grisly manner.

Beautiful hotels

Where before you can count by your 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 travellers, those who are travelling on a shoestring budget to the most finicky. 

The multinational chains are also making their presence felt, providing world-beating 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-storey 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 travelling 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, CafĂ© Loreto and Casa Gloria.

“100 Caves” and counting

On your way to Underground River (World Heritage Site and one of 7 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 is 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 claustropbia 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 half hours and rapelled 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 structure.

Acacia Tunnel

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 UNESCO World Heritage site. The lung of Puerto Princesa is also home to thousands 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.

Underground River port modernization

Meanwhile, construction of P100-million Sabang Integrated Wharf Development project will commence early part of 2018. Expected to be completed in 5 years, the new modern wharf that 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.