The provincial capital of Puerto Princesa City — and the rest of Palawan — may be known foremost for its natural beauty, but a handful of historic sights is worth visiting at the city center. The provincial capital is the gateway to the Palawan mainland by air and sea, and most travelers often make a beeline to the World Heritage-listed underground river or the island-hopping paradise of El Nido.
However, it’s worth staying in the city center for a night or two. One can explore the local food scene (check the newest restaurants here) and visit the handful of heritage sites for half a day or so, before continuing on elsewhere in the province. All the following sites can be visited in a few hours and are located near the international airport and the seaport, so I recommend you drop by if you have spare time after arriving or before departing Puerto Princesa.
To conveniently reach the heritage sites on foot, I recommend staying in the downtown area. I highly recommend staying at Liane’s Place (Tel. +63 9124879884), a homey guesthouse centrally located at Junction 1, the intersection where the Provincial Capitol stands. Despite its central location, the guesthouse has a quiet, almost spa-like atmosphere inside with open-air corridors filled with indoor plants. Room rates start at only ₱800 ($15) for a standard air-conditioned room for two persons.
Immaculate Conception Cathedral
Start your walking tour at Rizal Park, the western end of Rizal Avenue. Dominating this open space is an imposing Neo-Gothic landmark with twin spires piercing the city skyline. Established in 1867 but destroyed in WW-II, the present-day structure of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral was completed in 1961.
Next to the cathedral is an old arched entrance topped by two turrets. This is what remains of a military garrison built by Spanish colonizers in the 1880s. The outpost was later occupied by Japanese forces in World War II, and became the site of the Palawan Massacre on December 14, 1944. Over a period of two years under brutal conditions, American prisoners were forced to construct an airfield by hand. This airstrip would later become the city’s international airport.
To prevent the rescue of American prisoners of war by the advancing Allied forces, Japanese soldiers herded some 150 captives into shelter trenches and were set alight with barrels of gasoline. Those who attempted to escape were met with gunfire. Only eleven men managed to survive by swimming out to Iwahig village across Puerto Princesa Bay. This tragic event, which prompted the American campaign to rescue POWs from other camps, was depicted in the opening scene of the 2005 Hollywood film, The Great Raid. Find a detailed account of the massacre and historical photos here.
The Palawan WWII Massacre Memorial is a memorial marker erected in 2009 at the garrison grounds, which is now a leisure garden park. The dramatic sculpture of an emaciated male figure easing out of barbed wire and flames on top of the marker was a created by American artist and animator Don Thomas Schloat (1921-2010), who was one of the prisoners of Plaza Cuartel but was transferred to Manila before the massacre. (Schloat’s misspelled name is incorrectly included in the marker.)
From Plaza Cuartel, it’s a 10-minute walk along Rizal Avenue to Mendoza Park, where the remains of WW-II hero Dr. Higinio Acosta Mendoza, Sr. (1898-1944) are laid to rest. The medical doctor and former governor led a guerrilla movement in World War II, and was later captured and executed by Japanese forces in 1944.
Housed in the Old City Hall at Mendoza Park, Palawan Museum (entrance fee: ₱50) is a two-storey repository of significant artifacts from across the province. This includes replicas of the National Cultural Treasures unearthed in Palawan like the skull cap of the Tabon Man, Manunggul Jar, and Leta-Leta Yawning Jarlet (The originals are displayed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Manila).
On the second floor are collections of shells and taxidermized endemic animals like the Palawan pangolin, as well as ethnological artifacts from the different indigenous groups of Palawan like the Tagbanua, Palaw’an and Batak. A rather interesting – and creepy – display is a life-sized diorama of a black-veiled Tagbanua babaylan (shaman) performing a ritual. (The museum is poorly ventilated and non-airconditioned so it can get very uncomfortable during hot days.)
Palawan Heritage Center
Located within the provincial capital complex, the Palawan Heritage Center (entrance: ₱50) is a small museum, which opened in 2012, similar to the Palawan Museum. It’s a 15-minute walk farther down Rizal Avenue from Mendoza Park. It has fewer displays than the previous museum but more comfortable to explore because it is air-conditioned. It also showcases some ancient Chinese ceramic ware and a Tagbanua babaylan (shaman) behind a glass display. The museum also displays memorabilia and a costume from the 2008 Filipino award-winning independent film Ploning, which was based on a Cuyonon folk song of the same title.
Palawan Special Battalion WW-II Memorial Museum
This private war museum (entrance fee: ₱50) is located 2.5 km away from the Provincial Capitol at the easternmost end of Rizal Avenue. To get here, you can continue walking here for 30 minutes, or hop on a tricycle or motorcycle taxi for five minutes.
Inaugurated by the son of local war hero Dr. Higinio Mendoza, Sr. in 2011, the museum was erected to honor the memory of the 1,000 Filipino guerrilla fighters who defended the province against Japanese forces during World War II. Among the interesting pieces on display are vintage automobiles, weapons, paper money, and other WW-II artifacts collected by the owner over the years.
Puerto Princesa City Baywalk Park
Finally, a perfect way to end your downtown tour is to backtrack to the Puerto Princesa Baywalk Park, north of Rizal Park and the Cathedral. This seaside promenade, lined with open-air cafes and restaurants, is most scenic at sunset when the sun retires behind the forest-covered mountain range of the mainland across the bay.
If you’re staying in the downtown area, getting around the places listed in this guide can be reached on foot. However, if you wish to save time, you could also hail a passing tricycle or book a motorcycle taxi on Backride.
A cost-effective means of transport while staying here is to rent your own scooter. Located 200 m north of the airport junction (across Star Oil gas station), Bataga Vehicle Rental (contact no. +63 9530867992 or +63 9126062075) rents out scooters, motorbikes and cars to tourists. Scooter rental rates are ₱500 per day, exclusive of fuel.