Slideshow: An Underground River in the Philippines


Boats approaching the Underground River cave. (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

For today's Geo Quiz, we were looking for an island that is site of one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, a river that burrows for five miles through a cave under a mountain.

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The 300 mile long island is one if the islands of the Philippines and lies between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.

It has a bio-diverse environment with several hundred species of butterflies, but only one endemic species of Bearded pig.

Palawan Island is the answer to the Geo Quiz. It is where the Underground River is one of the top tourist sites.

The World's Mary Kay Magistad took a trip there recently and filed this report.

"Welcome to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. By the way, I'm Rene, your guide."

Rene is small, wiry, and a bit of a cut-up. We paddle a sunny lagoon, surrounded by karst limestone cliffs, into the mouth of the cave.

"Switch on the light!"

As we glide in the dark, Rene tells the tourist who's been tasked to carry our sole flashlight to point it at a high dome above us.

It's covered in a layer of tiny sleeping bats.

"Look up to the ceiling. So many bats there," Rene says. "But remember, when you look up to the ceiling — close your mouth!"

We glide past stalactites and stalagmites, and limestone formations that look like — well, whatever you want to think they look like, this being a Catholic country,

"Now, we go into the cathedral. See the big dome? On the right side, looks like the Virgin Mary. And there's the Holy Family — like the Nativity."

Whatever your religious persuasion, the cave does inspire wonder. So the Philippines felt it was only natural to enter the underground river, and the diverse ecosystem in and around it, in a competition to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

The contest was run by a Swiss Foundation, and based on a global vote. To boost their chances, the Philippines made a promotional video, with dramatic music and lines like this:

"The entire world cannot but regard the Puerto Princesa Underground River as God's gift to mankind, definitely a true wonder of nature."

A little heavy-handed, but at one time, Palawan's underground river was thought to be the longest in the world. That was before another was discovered in the Yucatan, in Mexico, that twists and turns for more than 90 miles.

As we paddled through the cave, I wondered how this place had beaten out the Grand Canyon, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef and Mount Kilamanjaro.

A clue came from Philippines President Benigno Aquino in the same promotional video:

"This river was carved out of stone by nature. Let us use it to carve out a future for our tourism, and the jobs that come with it," Aquino said.

Turns out, the New 7 Wonders of Nature was kind of a popularity contest. There was no limit on how many times you could vote. So, in the official video promoting the underground River, President Aquino urged Filipinos to vote early and often.

"Let's all join together in supporting the Puerto Princesa Underground River. This is our hope. This is our way of doing our part for our country. Vote and let's make the Puerto Princesa River one of the 7 Wonders of Nature," Aquino said.

It worked. Last November, this Underground River became one of the 7 Seven Wonders of Nature – along with the Amazon Rain Forest, Vietnam's Halong Bay, Argentina's Iguazu Falls, Jeju Island in South Korea, Komodo Island in Indonesia and Table Mountain in South Africa. UNESCO sniffed that this wasn't a fair or representative contest, and that it had no plans to allocate its resources based on this competition.

Still, the Philippines can rest easy. Palawan's Underground River has already been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a dozen years. The growing numbers of tourists who flock to see it have brought an island, once known for its malaria and prison camps, pride and a little prosperity — and incentive to protect an ancient ecosystem.