Palawan is increasingly coming on the radar as one of the must-visit places in The Philippines. With its beautiful white sand beaches, jungles, caves, dive sites, and unspoiled nature, it is definitely one of my personal highlights from travelling all over Southeast Asia. In this Palawan mini-guide, I’ll share with you my route through Palawan and my impressions of the major stops along the way, including El Nido, Coron, and the town of Sabang.
How to get there
When looking at a map, the obvious way to get to the island of Palawan might seem to take a boat from Manila, but this is either difficult or impossible to do in practice.
I have heard of some people who took a boat to Palawan, but this is a long and arduous trip (e.g. 20+ hours!) and there are no regularly scheduled boat services from the other islands of The Philippines. Keep in mind also that there are no sea connections between Palawan and Indonesia or Malaysia either—even though it might look like these places connect well on a larger trip, the only way to travel between these places is to fly.
I flew from the capital Manila to the main city on Palawan, Puerto Princesa. From there, I took buses north to El Nido, stopping in a town called Sabang for a few days along the way. And from there, I took a boat to the island of Coron, and from Coron I took a flight back to Manila. This is a common route, though some people do it the other way around.
With many budget carriers in The Philippines, finding an affordable flight to Puerto Princesa should not be too difficult. Check with Cebu Pacific, Zest, AirAsia or Tiger Air, to name a few. There are also a handful local flights going from Manila to El Nido directly, but these tend to be expensive and difficult to find (El Nido has the tiniest airport). It’s cheaper to fly into Puerto Princesa and then overland it to El Nido, and this will also let you stop at a few great places along the way.
This is the provincial capital of Palawan. This being quite a thinly populated part of the country, it has just over 200,000 inhabitants which makes it pretty easy to navigate. There are a number of attractions in and around Puerto Princesa, though if I’m honest the best parts of Palawan are elsewhere. Personally, I just found it to be a nice stop-over.
I went to a butterfly garden just outside of the city, which was a nice little diversion. There is also a resident scorpion here, and the owner may offer to let him walk over your hand, which is a fun creepy experience and a silly photo opportunity. There’s also a ‘Crocodile Farm’ nearby, which is basically a tiny zoo with crocodiles that isn’t too thrilling but can make for a nice visit.
In Puerto Princesa I also went island hopping around Honda Bay. This was a fun day of snorkeling and visiting tropical islands, and if you haven’t had your fill of white sand beaches yet you will definitely be happy visiting these. That said, the island hopping tours here felt a bit more standard and the locations nowhere near as exciting as those around El Nido, so if you are pressed for time you could easily skip this.
There’s also the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, but unlike what its name suggests, this is actually located in the small coastal town of Sabang…
Sabang and Palawan Underground River
Minivans can take you from Puerto Princesa to Sabang. I have to say this was really my kind of place, and I loved staying here. Sabang is a very small town along a beach with a chilled out atmosphere, and there’s mostly just some rustic cottage-style guesthouses here.
Nearby is the Underground River which is worth a visit. You’ll be taken by canoe through the river cave, which is said to be one of the longest in the world. Keep in mind though that the local authorities have tried everything to hype up this attraction, including submitting it to an odd list of “new wonders of the world”… whether it can deliver on this hype I’m not so sure, so keep your expectations in check. Mainly you’ll get to see some interesting stalagmite formations and a large number of bats. Still, it’s an interesting experience that you shouldn’t skip. You’ll also easily spot monkeys and big monitor lizards around the cave entrance.
It’s not so much the river cave that made me love Sabang however, it’s really just the chilled out environment. It’s worth really staying for a couple of days here. In the early mornings you can go on a mangrove river cruise in a small paddle boat, which is great for seeing all sorts of tropical birds, river crabs, and colourful snakes. There are various short trails through the nearby forests, and it’s also worth going on a walk along the beach (simply head south along the shore). Eventually the beach turns rocky, with a waterfall at the end of the path. When I was there, tons of little mudskippers were bouncing around the rocky shores. In Sabang you can really feel like you’re among the nature, moreso than in El Nido (which is a much busier town).
You can reach El Nido from Sabang easily. It takes a 1 to 2 hour minibus or jeepney journey, and then transferring onto a larger bus heading north for about 6 hours (you can easily book both of these in Sabang, and people there can tell you about the timetables). The bus ride goes through some very pretty landscapes and is a really fun experience in itself.
Expect El Nido to be a lot more crowded with tourists than any other places on Palawan, though still nothing like the crowds you find in many places in Thailand or Vietnam.
Initially I ended up along its southern Corong beach which, while looking out onto some great karst cliffs, also had a lot of seaweed and driftwoord/plastics which made it a lot less appealing. The northern beach is the main one and also much more clean and pleasant, so be sure to stay in this area. This is where the main street is and also where you’ll find most of the budget guesthouses and backpacker hostels. From this beach, the traditional banka boats depart for island hopping tours every day.
(Update: I’ve been told the southern beach is in a much better state now. Outpost Beach Hostel opened its doors there and appears to be the new top place to stay for backpackers.)
The islands around El Nido are full of impressive karst cliffs. It reminds me a little of Krabi in Thailand (or some of the small islands around Koh Lanta), but I enjoyed the area here much more than overcrowded Thailand. All of the tours have been standardized in terms of price and itinerary, and you can choose from tour A, B, C, and D.
In my opinion, the best tours are A and C. Don’t miss the ‘secret beach’ (well, it’s hardly a secret, so maybe it should be called the hidden beach!) where you can swim through a little cave when the tide is right and find a beach that’s fully surrounded by rocky cliffs. Simply amazing.
Suggested hostels in Palawan
|Dallas Hostel||Puerto Princesa||Funky and conveniently located hostel with garden and hammocks.|
|Spin Designer Hostel||El Nido||Modern newly-built hostel with 4-bed dorms, BBQ nights, and kitchen facilities.|
|Our Melting Pot||El Nido||If you like a less flashpacky atmosphere, this might be your choice. The hot showers are a rare feature!|
|Outpost Beach Hostel||El Nido||Located on the more secluded southern beach with spectacular sunset views from its two decks.|
|Kaba Kaba||Coron||Rustic huts among the trees, a short distance outside of the busy main town.|
Suggested budget hotels
|Jungle Flower Guesthouse||Puerto Princesa||With beautiful garden and a library area, located downtown just 5 minutes from the rural airport.|
|El Gordo’s Adventures and Guesthouse||El Nido||Bunks and rooms with open wooden deck overlooking El Nido Bay. Private rooms starting at $30.|
|Garden Bay Beach Resort El Nido||El Nido||Bungalows with verandas in private area on the north edge of the beach.|
|Guesthouse Kaba-Kaba||Coron||Bungalows in the forest with swimming pool. It’s 1km out of town proper, but worth it for the quiet and canopy view.|
Coron / Busuanga Island
The ferry boat to Coron takes about 6 to 9 hours depending on conditions. Note that it’s best to travel by single hull ferry and not to travel by banka (small wooden boat) on this route as this takes longer and there have been some serious issues with safety standards.
Update: Montenegro Lines now operates a daily fast boat from El Nido to Coron. It takes about 3,5 hours.
Some parts of Coron Town are a bit of a shanty, but the true beauty of the place will reveal itself to you when you start exploring the nearby islands, go scuba diving, or go hiking on Busuanga itself.
The island hopping here is easily at the same level as El Nido, with lots of stunning lagoons and craggy karst cliffs to explore. The area is also renowned for wreck diving, as there are many WW2 era wrecks around. If you are a scuba diver this is definitely something to look into.
You can do some very nice hiking on Coron as well. I hiked up to the highest hill at the center of the island for a fantastic view. Ask around about where the start of the trail is and you should be able to hike this independently—it takes just a couple of hours to get to the top. Be sure to bring lots of water as it gets very hot once you leave the shaded forest and get to the exposed mountain top.
From Coron, I flew back to Manila, feeling like this leg of my Philippines trip was surely the highlight.
Be sure to check out my main Philippines page for more travel information about the Philippines.
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