The island of Palawan in the Philippines first debuted in the international scene when it claimed the best island award in 2013 courtesy of Travel + Leisure magazine, the most prominent travel magazine in the US. Since then, the island garnered a steady stream of admirers from all over the world. It has graced the covers of numerous publications both here and abroad.
Dubbed as the Last Ecological Frontier of the Philippines, Palawan once again won the best island award in 2 consecutive years (2016-17) and it seems that this winning streak will continue on. So what makes Palawan better than other infamous islands in the Caribbean or the Maldives? Palawan offers more than just scenery. It is a confluence of cultural and natural diversity, local hospitality, colorful marine species, and limitless supply of things to do and spots to see.
One of the best things about Palawan is how easy it is to get around and do everything yourself, provided you do proper research first. Below is a comprehensive guide that’ll show you everything there is to do and see in this beautiful island. If you are short on time, and wish to combine a few of these places, inquiring about a palawan package through a tour agency might be a good idea. Many hotels, especially in El Nido, are notorious tourist traps, so this will also eliminate the risk of booking the wrong place.
1. El Nido
Situated in the northernmost tip of the island, El Nido is characterized by its white sandy shores, turquoise blue waters, green lagoons, secret beaches, towering limestone cliffs and Karst Mountains. The beaches found in El Nido are far more beautiful than some of the most famous ones in the world. El Nido is famous for offering some of the best island hopping tours in the country, as well as being home to some of the most luxurious and exclusive resorts. If you want to visit El Nido on a budget, that’s also very enjoyable – there’s no need to splurge on 5 star resorts. El Nido is also a fantastic destination for family travel, with plenty of things to do for both adults and children.
What to see:
1.1. Bacuit Bay Group of Islands:
El Nido consists of 1780 islands and some of them are located in the Bacuit bay. These islands are off the coast of the main town proper but they offer amazing views of the bay and the limestone cliffs that are scattered everywhere.
– Miniloc Island: This Island is a paradise in itself. It is the very image you see mostly in postcards. The small lagoon which is accessible via a small opening between two limestone rocks will absolutely blow you away. Here, the waters are so clear and the emerald reflection of the green vegetation all around will leave you speechless. On the other side, the bigger lagoon will take you back in time where dinosaurs were still in existence. It is straight from Jurassic park. The towering karst mountains are awe-inspiring and the emerald waters are so inviting.
– Matinloc Island: The secret beach that inspired Alex Garland to write his novel “The Beach” which was later on made into a film starring Leonardo Dicaprio is located on this island. The beach is enshrouded by thick karst columns protruding from the sea. It is only accessible through a narrow cavity under the limestone rocks where one needs to swim and leave the boat behind. Be very careful though, the rocks are pointy and sharp and currents can be quite strong. Nowadays, the secret beach is no longer a secret as it is constantly plagued with tourists.
– Pangulasian Island: This is home to one of the most exclusive resorts in El Nido. Pangulasian Island offers a 750-meter stretch of white sandy shores surrounded by tropical forest. Since it is exclusive, marine biodiversity is healthy here.
– Entalula Island: Rivaling the long stretch of white sands in Pangalusian, Entalula Island offers the same views and is perfect for snorkeling. Since it is privately owned, most guests from exclusive resorts come here and reserve the place for lunch and dinner.
– Shimizu Island: This Island is probably the best place for snorkeling in El Nido.
– Snake Island: Characterized by its snake-like shape sandbar connecting two island during low tide, Snake Island is a must-see spot during your island hopping adventures.
1.2. Twin Beaches of El Nido:
As most of the tourists flock towards the sea, some will find tranquility and beauty (which is quite rare nowadays in EL Nido) in going to the twin beach of Nacpan and Calitang. These beaches are in land and one has to struggle with the dirt road for hours to get a glimpse of them. Once there, the twin beach will surely fulfill that promise of blissful serenity which drove you there in the first place. The cream-colored sands stretch for about 4 kilometers with very few tourists and no big commercial establishments.
1.3. Nagkalit-kalit Waterfalls:
This 10 meters tall waterfall in El Nido is a refreshing break from all the islands and lagoons out at sea. It just offers a different perspective after staring at the beautiful seascape.
1.4. Dive Sites:
El Nido is a good diving spot where one can marvel at the 12 meter underwater tunnel and 50 meter tall underwater cliffs. It is a spot for green sea turtles, seahorses, shrimps, manta rays and cat sharks.
How to get there:
The most common way to go to El Nido is by plane from Manila to Puerto Princesa and then a 6 hour van transfer to El Nido. For those who have some money to spare, there is a direct flight from Manila, Cebu or Caticlan to El Nido but this is a very expensive option. Some can also go directly to Busuanga (Coron) and from there; a ferry will take you to El Nido.
2. Puerto Princesa
The capital city of Palawan is an hour away from Manila by plane. It is home to one of the 7 wonders of nature – the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River and Cave system. This awesome wonder is the 2nd longest navigable underground river in the world and the relatively unexplored cave system is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are numerous bars and restaurants in the city which is difficult to find in some other places in the province.
What to see:
2.1. The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River and Cave System:
This is the main tourist draw in the capital. It is important to note however; that the waiting line is incredibly long as the government is trying to limit the number of tourists going in and out of the cave. The area is protected and is busy with wildlife so it is not surprising to see monkeys and lizards all over the place. A boat will take you inside the cave where you will see numerous rock formations and deeper exploration will show you a 300 m cave dome, a deep water hole in the river, large bats, another deeper cave and more river channels. Only the first 4 kilometers are open for public navigation.
2.2. Honda Bay:
A tour of Honda Bay means a tour of the surrounding islands that offer the usual white sandy beaches and secluded islands but some of those islands are not for swimming due to the presence of stone fish and box jellyfish.
– Starfish Island: The name gives it away. This island is home to a large number of star fish of different species. You will find blue skinny starfish, orange ones with horns and some with tan and brown spots called Pebble sea star. – Luli Island: This is where water activities like snorkeling, cliff jumping, and board diving are all encouraged.
– Cowrie Island: This is where most tourists on island hopping tours go for lunch so it could be a bit crowded.
2.3. Ugong Rock:
Ugong rock got its name from that peculiar sound the rock makes when you tap on it. It is a perfect place for people who love adventures like spelunking and ziplining. After some moments of crawling and squeezing through rocks, the spectacular 360 degree views of the surrounding fields and mountains await those who reach the top. A faster option to go down is available via zipline.
2.4. Wildlife Rescue Center:
This is an animal sanctuary best known for its crocodile farm where juvenile crocodiles are raised to adulthood as they stand no chance of growing fully in the wild. The Wildlife Rescue center is 20 minutes away from the city center and it is also home to rescued eagles, snakes, monkeys, lizards and other predatory birds.
2.5. Firefly Watching in Iwahig River:
This can be frustrating for some because the waiting queue is quite long and the actual tour is actually only 30-45 minutes. However, the short tour is well worth the time and the dinner afterwards is good. If the season is perfect, there will be loads of fireflies and bioluminescent phytoplanktons in the mangroves. Kayaking along the river is recommended for better viewing experience.
2.6. Dolphin Watching:
The best time to go out to see for dolphin watching in Puerto Princesa is during the summer season from April to October. The best time of the day to spot them is from 6am to 10:30 am. It is not permitted to touch or swim with them. They can only be photographed underwater or when they jump out of the water.
How to get there:
Puerto Princesa is 1.5 hours away from Manila and there are a number of direct flights to Puerto Princesa from Manila, Cebu, Caticlan, Clark, Davao or Iloilo.
Coron is the more introverted brother of El Nido. It is devoid of luxury and commercial establishments that are intended solely for tourism. It is more laid back and so fewer tourists flock to this area of Palawan…at least less than El Nido. There are very few restaurants in Coron. It is more accessible than El Nido but there aren’t much hostels or tourist accommodation on the island. If El Nido is known for the scenic spots above water, Coron will amaze you with its underwater wonders. While there are a few 5 stars private island resorts, Coron is most suited for people who are traveling on a budget.
What to see:
3.1. Kayangan Lake:
The cleanest lake in Asia is found in Coron. After a steep climb, Kayangan Lake greets its visitors with its beautiful and majestic views.
3.2. Barracuda Lake:
Sitting atop a volcano crater, this lake is often referred to as the “craziest dive site in the country”. It is so beautiful and interesting that it is always included in the list of the World’s natural and beautiful sanctuaries. There is no marine life here but the rock formation underneath is incredible.
3.3. Coron Bay:
This is the spot that is often regarded as one of the best diving spots in the world. Coron Bay offers several excellent spots for wreck diving. With more than a dozen shipwrecks dotting the bay floor, Coron is a premier dive destination. The waters around the bay are usually calm, warm and visibility can be as high as 80 feet in some areas. 3 of the more popular shipwreck dive sites are: Akitsushima, Skeleton wreck, and Irako wreck.
3.4. Calauit Island Wildlife Sanctuary:
If you can’t afford to go to Africa for wildlife, then Calauit Wildlife Sanctuary is the closer and cheaper alternative. Here you can find different wild and indigenous animals like giraffe, Calamian deer, impalas, mouse deer, Palawan pheasant, bushbucks, giant clams and turtles.
How to get there:
The closest airport to Coron is in Busuanga and it is an hour away from Manila. Another way is to take a ferry from El Nido – the fastcraft by Montenegro Lines takes roughly 3.5 hours.
4. Tubbataha Reef
This is already quite far from Palawan. Located in the middle of Sulu Sea about 90 kilometers away from the mainland, Tubbataha offers a diving experience so unlike any other. Tubbataha reef is a marine sanctuary protected by the government and listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. This ensures that life underneath the waters remain protected and healthy. 600 species of fish and 360 species of corals-which make up for about half of the entire known species in the world – are found in Tubbataha. Some of the large marine species that live here are tiger sharks, turtles, big schools of barracuda, trevallies and cetaceans.
How to get there:
The reef is strictly protected so only certified liveaboard diving boats can access it. The boats are docked in Puerto Princesa and takes about 10 hours to reach the reef. Liveabroad tours to Tubbataha Reef are 6 days long, 5 out of which are dedicated entirely to scuba diving at the marine sanctuary.
Located just below El Nido on the map, Taytay is often overlooked by tourists who flock to El Nido and Coron. Taytay is a good place for a quick stop before going to El Nido. Here, tourists can learn more about history and Spanish influence as well as a fair share of amazing natural wonders. Taytay is also the place where you reach Apulit island from, one of the best private island resorts in Palawan.
How to get there:
Taytay is an hour away from El Nido which means it is 4 hours from Puerto Princesa (El Nido is 5 hours from Puerto Princesa).
6. San Vicente Long Beach
This sleepy town strategically located between Puerto Princesa and El Nido is high on the recommended list. San Vicente is starting to become a popular stop over as it has its fair share of scenic spots. One of the best things about this town is the 14km long white beach and since it is not popular yet, you have a high chance of having it all to yourself.
How to get there:
From Puerto Princesa, it will tke you about 4 hours to reach San Vicente. From El Nido, you need to drop off at Roxas terminal and take a mini bus or shuttle to San Vicente for 2 hours.
7. Port Barton
Port Barton is a combination of El Nido’s quirky side and Coron’s laid back atmosphere. You will find cheaper version of things you find in El Nido in Port Barton but there will be no electricity (except for few generated electricity that is turned off at night).
How to get there:
From San Vicente long beach, take a ferry or a boat and travel time takes an hour.
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