Palawan has been on my radar for a few years, since it was recommended to me by several travelers in the past few years. What I knew going there was that it was an island in the Philippines that was just beginning to get the big wave of backpackers, and it was best known for its crystal clear waters and gorgeous beaches. Both of these were pretty accurate.
Palawan, located between the South China Sea and Sulu Sea, is a narrow and long island, south west amidst the set of archipelagoes that make up the Philippines. Due it’s location it can be a challenge to get to. You have to fly in to the capital city of Manila, then take a domestic flight (which are often delayed) to Puerto Princessa. There isn’t much to do or see in Puerto (as known by the locals), but it is the jumping point to exploring Palawan. Most travelers head to the Underground River tour from here, but I opted out of this excursion due to the overcrowding of tourists and the long waiting times to get into the actual river (this is when reading reviews is helpful before doing an activity).
After an uneventful day in Puerto, I hopped a van towards Port Barton, a sleepy beach town on the west coast. Although the island is small, the lack of a highway or paved roads makes getting from one town to another a lot longer. But this is also the charm on an island like this – living the slow and simple life! After a bumpy 4 hour drive through unpaved roads and what looked like a jungle, I quickly found a beachfront guesthouse where I’d spend the next 2 days.
Port Barton is a quaint local town, with basic beach bungalows on a clean beach, perfect for couples. In fact, I might have been the only single person on this beach! Good food is a challenge to find but the Filipino breakfast is pretty delicious, featuring fresh fish and rice. Island hopping is the cheapest here in all of Palawan – 600 Pesos for a whole day tour where it was just me, my friend (who I was traveling with), and the boatman.
First stop was German Island, a gorgeous white sand beach where I saw a SEA TURTLE! You can also camp on this island, and probably any small island you come across actually. If you are a tourist with some Pesos, anything is possible in Palawan! We were taken to Paradise Island for lunch, where our boatman cooked our lunch (freshly caught fish) while we sipped our Red Horse beers. It did get a bit awkward with our boatman when he tried to ask us for more money while we were in the middle of the ocean. Although initially he told us the price of 600 Pesos included everything, while on the tour he told us we have to pay 100 Pesos extra for EACH island we visited. This would mark up the price by a lot, and we had a feeling he was doing the usual gimmick of trying to extort tourists. We had to lie and say we didn’t have any cash on us. Surprisingly we were still allowed on to these islands and no one asked us to pay. You live and you learn, that most ‘tour guides’ are just locals trying to make an extra Peso any chance they get. Perhaps guilt ridden he took us on a hike next, which wasn’t part of the itinerary. After a 20 minute hike from the beach inwards, we reached a beautiful waterfall and jumped into the cold, refreshing water. After the hike we were taken to a sandbar, where our boatmen dove for starfish and then threw them back into the ocean! I was squirming as he did this but it is important to remember that different cultures value nature differently. As much I wanted to tell him that starfish were living things and this was a violent act, I held my tongue and smiled politely as our boatman gleamed with pride over how much starfish he found on the ocean floor.
El Nido is the apple of Palawan’s eye! It is THE reason everyone heads over to Palawan, so naturally it is the most expensive and crowded location on this island. Perhaps because I was expecting the worse, I was pleasantly surprised with how much this emerging town had to offer. After another 4 hour bumpy ride I arrived in El Nido, to gorgeous views of limestone rocks amidst a turquoise ocean.
This is the epitome of a backpacker town – a dirty beach, an overcrowded pier with loads of diving boats, a bit sleepy during the day, filled with music and gorgeous sunsets at night. The best beaches in El Nido are on the islands surrounding this beach town. There are 4 day tours offered by ALL the travel agencies here, and these are simply known as Tour A, B, C and D. They are also overpriced; bargaining is essential! Each tour takes you to different beaches on different islands as well as a few lagoons. On top of the tour fee, each person also has to pay a 200 Pesos mandatory conservation fee. If you have nothing to do at all, you can do all 4 tours, but luckily I met a great group of women on my first night in El Nido, and we were able to rent our own private boat and island hop only the BEST beaches on my second day here. If you can afford it, this is the best way to spend the day.. and this was how I spent Christmas day.
My favourite beach in El Nido is 7th Commando Beach, which features soft, white sand and a bar. Really, what else do you need on a gorgeous beach?! El Nido also has plenty of food options, which makes you spoiled for choices. The bars are located on the beachfront, and the Reggae bar is where the fun happens. At some point everyone congregates at this bar, where the live music is great and you can dance in the waves (but don’t lose your flip flops!).
Renting a motorbike is great to help visit nearby beaches, and again, I got lucky and met people who knew how to ride a motorbike. You definitely need experience on a motorbike to ride these unpaved road! A 30 minute ride gets you to nearby Necpan Beach, where the water is warm and clear, and the sunsets are stunning. You can also rent a beach hut here extremely cheap for the night. On the way to Necpan Beach we took a detour for a waterfall hike – these are quite popular here. Don’t overlook these detours, the untouched scenery is worth the humid hike. It’s always followed by a dip in cold, fresh water!
My last stop in Palawan was Coron, a small island north of Palawan Island. I took the 6 hour slow boat, since flights are limited and expensive, for 1200 Pesos. The agent who sold us the ticket also gave us seasick pills. The 6 hour ride took almost 8 hours and it was an extremely rocky ride. The boat was a small wooden boat, where we were given rice and chicken adobe for lunch. It was the most basic mode of transportation I’ve come across. I was grateful to make it to Coron alive and without a pout of sea sickness.
Coron is less touristy and more loud due to the traffic. The town is small enough to explore on foot in a day. There is also no beach on this island. Again, you have to take tours to get to smaller islands to explore beaches and sea life. Coron is most known for diving and wreck diving. However diving courses and island hopping tours are significantly cheaper here, when compared to El Nido. I spent a day of island hopping where I got to visit Twin Lagoon and Barracuda Lake – the clearest water I’ve ever seen! Next we were taken to Skeleton Wreck, a ship wrecked boat that you can actually see from above, because of the clarity of the water, and Coral Garden, where the coral is still alive!
It is extremely easy to travel around Palawan with no plans; it is a backpacker’s dream destination due to the laid back lifestyle of the locals, and the inexpensive flexibility of travel options. I arrived here with only my accommodation booked in Puerto Princessa and I figured out where I would go and stay as I went which was very refreshing. Usually I try to plan most details so that I don’t lose out on money or time, but it really is MORE fun in the Philippines, because life is simply chill!