Visiting Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm
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Farms, Handicrafts, and Fireflies: Puerto Princesa Heritage Tour Day One
When people say Palawan, most would refer to the typical tourist spots in the beautiful island—endless wonderful shorelines, island hopping, grilling by the beach, the magical Puerto Princesa Underground River, and other wonders of nature. Honestly, I would also have the same thoughts about Palawan. Until a few days ago, I just had one of the most unique tours in my life.
That tour changed my worldview as a travel writer, and a lover of our beautiful world. I was one of the travel writers invited to join the Puerto Princesa Heritage Tour, a tour package organized by the Palawan Tourism Council, USAID, and Philippines AirAsia. The tour package was conceptualized by the members of the Palawan Liberation Task Force, and, unlike the typical tours that one would imagine having in Palawan, me and my fellow travel writers were to go on tour to the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan!
We reached Puerto Princesa City via AirAsia. It was past lunch time when we arrived, so we settled our luggage immediately after the flight at Canvas Boutique Hotel. The hotel served as our official accommodation for the 3-day Puerto Princesa Heritage Tour. We had a very welcoming snacks served to us after settling our bags.
After our snacks at the hotel, me and my fellow travel writers headed to Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm. We entered the compound through the farm gate. At a short distance, I was able to see a few uniformed inmates walking around the area. Our tour guide told us that the inmates usually rest by roaming around, after accomplishing their assigned daily farming-related tasks. After a while, me and my tour buddies entered the main building for our casual welcoming program, and the uniformed inmates outside, too, slowly went back to their home in a separate building.
We went to the office of Supt. Antonio C. Cruz, where we were welcomed by a short video presentation that showcased the history and the development of Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm. The compound, which is commonly referred to as the Iwahig Penal Colony, was established in Puerto Princesa during the American Occupation in the 1900s. The Penal Colony served as a correctional facility for prisoners who could not be accommodated at the Bilibid Prison in Manila.
Today, the Iwahig Penal Colony still stands as a settlement that offers vocational and recreational activities for inmates who wish to change. The penal institution’s merit system included farming, fishery, forestry, carpentry, and even medical work.
After being educated in the superintendent’s office, me and the rest of the team went to the old recreational building that now serves as a souvenir shop of sorts. There, we saw products and handicrafts that the inmates themselves produced.
Our tour guide told us that the inmates in Iwahig Penal Colony took part in communal activities not only for rehabilitation but also for income. The government only allots a small amount of budget for the inmates in the penal colony, so to make ends meet, the inmates also had the choice to make products or farm their own food. Through the communal activities, the inmates not only get rehabilitated, they also earn—it was hitting two birds with one stone.
After a while, we also got to watch a dance number of the inmates. We shuffled along the compound and visited some interesting sites and monuments that showcased the historical importance of the Penal Colony. We ended our tour for the day at the mini vegetable farm beside Iwahig River where we also had snacks. From afar, we were able to see quiet floating cottages that, we were told, would soon be opened for tourists.
Iwahig Firefly Watching
We were supposed to leave after our short merienda at the Iwahig River, but our tour organizer suddenly decided that we stay for a little longer, since it was already dark anyway. And shortly after, we found ourselves in the firefly watching area! After registering our names and getting our own life vests, me and my travel buddies grouped into three people per boat. After the boatman oared us to the middle of the dark river, fireflies began to appear in the dark, first one by one, and then briefly after, tens, twenties, until their number grew into a hundred!
It was not my first time to do firefly watching. I previously experienced the same activity in Bohol and Sorsogon. Nevertheless, my experience in Puerto Princesa was equally stunning, almost as if I have never seen a firefly in my life! We were told that most of the boatmen were previous inmates of the Iwahig Penal Colony, who decided to change for the better and spend their life working near the compound that changed them.
After floating around the quiet river and attempting to catch some fireflies like kids, we got back to the riverside and headed back to our hotel.
Visiting Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm was definitely a unique experience for me. The tour was simple and slow-paced unlike most of my tours I have tried, but it was uncannily beautiful in its own way. I felt that I didn’t just tour a place, I felt that I experienced the lives of people who made mistakes and decided to change. I wished we had more time. I would love to go back and be able to talk to some of the inmates and hear their stories. Maybe I would buy more of their produce too.
Visiting Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm is currently free, but the authorities are planning to charge a small entrance fee soon to raise additional funds for the inmates. In fact, this April 21-23, 2016, the Palawan Liberation Task Force will be offering another Heritage Tour with Iwahig Penal Colony listed in the itinerary.
Many thanks to Palawan Tourism Council, USAID, Rajah Travel, Provincial and Puerto Princesa City tourism offices, Canvas Boutique Hotel and Philippines AirAsia for making this trip possible.
For inquiries about Puerto Princesa City Heritage Tour Package, you may contact them via email: [email protected] or call them at (632) 894-0886 local 1504. Visit their website at www.palawanliberation.com or follow them on facebook www.facebook.com/palawanliberation.
To encourage tourists to visit Puerto Princesa City, Philippines AirAsia flies 5x daily from Manila with promotional fares now available via www.airasia.com. Fly-thru service from Kalibo to Puerto Princesa is also available with seamless connection via Manila.