St. Paul's Subterranean River National Park

St. Paul’s National Park is named for a subterranean river called one of the world’s wonders, at least five navigable miles (8 km), its source still not found, starting with a clear blue coastal lagoon and flowing through caverns of heartstopping beauty. Strange, glittering rock formations of many sizes, shapes, and colors, grow from the cave’s ceiling and floor in cathedral-like rooms so profoundly quiet the only audible sounds are boat paddles and twittering of hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of bats. In the silence one hears the echoes that make bats’ sonar echolocation systems work. At dusk bats leave and the cave is inhabited in equal numbers by day-flying swifts and swiftlets (white-bellied and pygmy), an unforgettable twilight spectacle when the two groups depart and arrive en masse.

Above ground this small (some say too small) park, set aside with aid arranged by World Wide Fund for Nature through a debt-for-nature swap, is equally remarkable—15 square miles (39 km2) bordered by coral reefs, white sand beaches, mangrove forests, on through mossy and tropical forest to marble mountains. Forests are homes of monkeys, bear-cats, armored pangolins, porcupines, otters, palm civets, lizards (including five-foot [1.5-m] monitors), snakes, and over 80 bird species—rare Palawan peacock-pheasants, Philippine cockatoos, tabon birds, whitebellied sea eagles, stork-billed kingfishers, collared scops owls, and Pacific reef egrets. Over 100 tree species are marked on trails around the ranger station, part of the Palawan Moist Forest noted as one of the WWF Global 2000 Ecoregions with the richest tree flora in Asia. Ranger headquarters is reachable by boat or short walk from Sabang, which has simple, comfortable accommodations and where guided trips can be arranged, 50 miles (81 km) by (bumpy) jeepney ride north of Puerto Princesa. Camping is sometimes permitted on the beach. Best times to visit are dry December–May.