Firefly watching in Palawan

Before we travel to new destinations, explore new countries or islands, or visit new places, I enjoy doing research beforehand. Call it a German thing if you want, but I enjoy reading travel guides, studying maps, and getting as much information as possible of our newest travel destination. But as it turns out, most of the times, it’s exactly those places that were not mentioned in any travel guide and not shown on any map that amazes us the most; they’re the ones that brings us the nicest memories. (Like that time when we discovered Las Cabanas Beach in El Nido or got blown away by the surprising beauty of Tumalog Falls.) It’s those times that make travelling so much fun because of the unexpected— just like this time at our firefly river tour in Palawan.

We were on our Honday Bay Tour in Puerto Princesa (Palawan) when our tour guide, Chickiboy, mentioned about a firefly watching tour. He told us of a magical experience, a night river tour on a small 3-person banca where one can witness hundreds of thousands of fireflies light up along the mangrove trees of River Iwahig. He sure got our attention with that because that sounded exactly like the kind of experience Arthur and I go for. We booked a river tour for that same evening even though we were tired from swimming and snorkelling all day.

Tour package

The tour package we booked was at P1,200 per person (a bit on the expensive side) and included van transfer from our hotel to the river and back. It could have included a dinner at a restaurant in Puerto Princesa, but since we preferred to eat at Hibiscus Garden Restaurant, we opted out of that part of the tour package.

Later that evening, we prepared our cameras and anti-mosquito lotion and went right to the river tour. (Luckily that night there were only a very few mosquitoes).


By the way, you can avail of those tour packages at local tour offices in Puerto Princesa or even at your hotel too. They will be more than happy to help you with it.

It turns out, there is another firefly tour in Puerto Princesa. It’s along mangroves too but uses big boats where up to 12 people can go at the same time. Since we didn’t try that one out, we can’t tell you which one we’d recommend. For us, the reason we chose the Iwahig River tour was because of the thought of having a small boat, giving the tour a more exclusive experience.

Our expectations

We had no idea what to expect, nor did we have any knowledge about fireflies other than that they light up in the dark. It was more the idea of a night river tour on a small banca along mangrove forests that fascinated us. And also the fact that it would only be the two of us (+ our paddler guide). It sounded romantic. And as it turned out, it, indeed was.

The location

The van ride from downtown Puerto Princesa to Iwahig River took around 30-45 minutes. The river is wide and beautiful, with mangroves and nipa palms on both banks. At the starting point, we put on a life vest and stepped onto a small banca and off we went into the darkness, with only the sound of the ripple of the water as our guide paddled the small banca.

The river tour

It was the darkness, the silence, and the intimacy of slowly gliding along the river that fascinated us the most. All we heard were the sounds of nature. All we saw were the millions of stars dotting the black sky, reflecting on the glasslike river—it was like we were floating up in outer space.

But it didn’t take long before we reached the first tree colony and immediately saw it light up, as if somebody had decorated the trees with christmas lights and switched it on. It was beautiful and overwhelming. Never have I seen that many fireflies in one place. In the dark night, they were surprisingly bright—and what a truly beautiful sight it was. Almost every second tree along the river was full of blinking fireflies.

But as surprising as this might sound, it wasn’t the fireflies that “wowed” me the most: it was the river water. It reminded me of a scene in “Life of Pi”. It was filled with hundreds of millions of planktons that were sparkling near the surface of the water. It was surreal, never had I seen anything like that before. And I thought it was just Ang Lee’s brilliant idea to make the water sparkle in lights in the middle of the night. As it turns out, this thing really exists. When we touched the water surface with our fingers, the planktons glowed, making the water twinkle.

I call this night river tour a total success. The silence, the connection with nature, and most important of all, the lights in the water (plankton), on the trees (fireflies), and up in the sky (the stars) made this boat ride one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had here in the Philippines.

By the time we returned back to the boat pier we were quiet disappointed that it “ended” so soon. Too soon in that it felt like it was only 15 minutes at the most. But as we found out later on the GPS device that we brought along, we had actually spent 45 minutes out there on the river! That can only be a good indication that we were having such a fine time.

What we learned

Our “paddler guide” didn’t only steer the boat through the darkness, but also provided us with many infos about fireflies. We learned that:
– fireflies only light up when they breath in
– their light signal is used to attract mating partners
– areas with a big number of fireflies are a sign for clean air (without pollution)
– when our “guide” lit a red flashlight, the fireflies all lit up at the same time. The red light is a signal to all other fireflies that something is happening and they light up at the same time as a collective defence mechanism.

Unfortunately our video and photo materials turned out to be unusable. It was just way too dark out there on the river for our cameras. So instead, we reconstructed the river tour with the help of our GPS-device, so this way you guys can have some idea of our firefly watching in Palawan.

Can we recommend it?

Absolutely yes. Before we came to Palawan we hadn’t heard of this firefly tour at all, but now more than happy to have experienced it; to think that we “stumbled” across it by chance.