A Mini Guide To Visiting Palawan And El Nido

Travel tips and impressions of one of Asia's best places to go island hopping

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.

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Overlooking one of the bays on an El Nido island hopping tour

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.

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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.

Puerto Princesa

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.

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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.

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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.

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The entrance to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River in Sabang

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Don’t worry. They don’t bite.

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.

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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).

El Nido

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.

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Market street in El Nido

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Be sure to try the delicious and freshly caught seafood at the El Nido markets!

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.)

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El Nido’s main beach, and pick-up point for island hopping tours.

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.

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The entrance to the ‘secret’ beach

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Your boat operators will make you lunch on the beach

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Local fisherman looking for catch

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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.

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Hiking to the top of Busuanga Island

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Stunning view of Coron town and all the nearby islands

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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43 comments

  1. Malak Reply October 5, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Hi Marek, I know you wrote this a while ago – but it was helpful for me! I do have one odd Q perhaps… but personally, did you think this was truly one of the best places / beaches? Is it worth us taking 14 hour trips to visit?

    Appreciate your feedback on this one.

    Thanks
    Malak

    • Marek Reply October 8, 2017 at 11:46 am

      Hey Malak. It’s difficult to say what is or isn’t worth it – I just don’t know where you’ve travelled before or how much time you have! All I can say that I genuinely think these were some of the best lagoons, bays, and islands I’ve seen in SEA, and the beaches were amazing too 🙂

  2. Prabhu Reply April 14, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Marek do you know if Mid July will be a right time to visit? Thanks in advance.

    • Marek Reply April 14, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      It’s in the rainy season, so expect daily heavy showers. But it’s still possible to see and do everything if you can be a bit flexible (rains can be heavy but short).

    • Vicky Reply May 15, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      My husband and i would be visiting Palawan for 5 nights. Really would like to just chill with a cold beer on a beach….which location would you suggest when flying in from Cebu….

  3. Shanoi Reply February 14, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Hi Marek!

    Just have a question about the Tour trip in El Nido, Do I have to book it in advance or I can just go there and book it the day before or on the same day booking?

    Thanks

    • Marek Reply February 15, 2017 at 6:43 am

      You should be fine booking the day before in El Nido 🙂

  4. Jaz Reply January 31, 2017 at 5:10 am

    Hi Marek!

    My boyfriend and I are planning to go to Palawan this coming May. I’m noting everything in advance and I’m still unsure where to go first among the two: El Nido or Coron. Which one is nearer to Palawan? We are staying for 5 days, is that enough to tour around these places? Thank you.

    Jaz

    • Marek Reply January 31, 2017 at 11:09 pm

      Both are in the province of Palawan – but El Nido is on the main island, whereas Coron is on its own island. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong order to see them – both are amazing!

      5 days can be sufficient, especially if that’s not counting your travel days in & out of palawan.

  5. Zoe Reply January 22, 2017 at 5:48 am

    Hi marek, where would you recommend staying in sabang? Thanks heaps 🙂

    • Marek Reply January 22, 2017 at 5:33 pm

      I don’t remember the name of the beach huts I stayed in and it’s been a while since I visited Sabang. I guess I’d say: anywhere along the beach 🙂

  6. Jana Reply January 18, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Hi Marek!
    We are flying to Puerto Princesa on Monday 30th January at 10 a.m. and flying out the next Monday during lunch time. Do you think it is possible for us to go to El Nido and also Corón or is it too much of a hassle? I found a new fast ferry that goes every day and takes only three and a half hours… How many days would you recommend for El Nido and how many for Corón? Thank you!! 🙂

    • Marek Reply January 18, 2017 at 12:38 pm

      If you have a week, sure, that should be enough – especially with the fast ferry option. I would personally suggest maybe 3-4 days in El Nido and 2 days on Coron.

  7. Tish Reply January 6, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Hi Marek

    This blog is great its been so helpful!! When is the best time of the year to go to Palawan? Looking at going for about 2 weeks. We live in South Africa so thinking of flying to Manila, manila to Puerto p, travel up to el nido, then coron and fly back to manila.

    • Marek Reply January 6, 2017 at 12:18 pm

      Hi Tish. The dry season runs from Nov to about April so these months are ideal. The other months can be good too (it doesn’t rain all the time in the wet season), though the Philippines does sometimes get intense typhoons during the wet season which you’ll probably want to avoid. 🙂

  8. Carolina Reply December 14, 2016 at 9:06 am

    hi Marek!

    I am going to Puerto princesa in 2 weeks and I was wondering if it is possible to see any whale shars or other sea animals at this time of the year there? Also what kind of activities would u recommend?thx for your help 🙂

  9. Johan Reply December 7, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    Hey Marek!
    Great blog and beautiful pictures!
    Me and 3 friends are gonna go backpacking around asia and the philippines and go Iland hoping. How do we start? and should we prebook hostels and stuff on the ilands or just take it as it comes? thank you 🙂

    • Marek Reply December 7, 2016 at 6:02 pm

      Hey Johan. It depends how long your trip is. If you’ve got a good amount of time (e.g. not just 1 week), then I recommend booking things one step at a time as you travel. So book place B while you’re staying at place A, place C when you get to place B, etc. That way you keep some flexibility but can still pick the best hostels.

  10. Camille Reply November 15, 2016 at 7:22 am

    Hi Marek, thanks so much for the great blog. If you only had four days, how would you go about exploring this area? Our first time. On our agenda is snorkeling, SCUBA, eating, and general adventure. And you would recommend booking everything in advance, including where to stay? Any tips to that end? Thanks so much.

    • Marek Reply November 15, 2016 at 3:16 pm

      Hi Camille. For a 4 day trip I’d definitely book ahead – some tips on this here. There’s snorkeling around Honda Bay and some SCUBA diving as well but it’s said to be better around El Nido. Personally, I’d probably make a beeline straight to El Nido (4 hour drive) and stay there for the whole trip.

  11. Carina Reply October 31, 2016 at 12:48 am

    Hi Marek! What’s the minimum number of days wouls you recommend to allot for a Palawan trip like you had described above? Or at least just to hit the bare minimums of this trip..

    • Marek Reply October 31, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      Oof, good question! Absolute bare minimum, I’d say maybe 5 days. You could arrive at Puerto Princesa, go to Sabang the same day, spend a couple of days in El Nido, and then use your final day to go back to Puerto Princesa and fly out from there. (Not enough time for Coron.)

  12. Salman Reply October 1, 2016 at 5:44 am

    Hi Marek, transportation and expenses -wise would you prefer Boracay or Palawan?

    • Marek Reply October 1, 2016 at 11:22 am

      In my opinion: Palawan involves more transportation time, but is cheaper and more authentic (no large scale resorts etc.) 🙂

  13. Grant Reply September 30, 2016 at 4:39 am

    I’m flying into Puerto Princesa on a Monday at 1 ish and we’re leaving on a Friday mid day. We were thinking about going to EL Nido. But we were thinking it might be to long of a trip. What are your thoughts? to short to go to travel out Nido? We thought we might just stay in puerto princesa.

  14. ruel amoranto Reply September 7, 2016 at 11:48 am

    where is secret beach?

  15. Pete Reply July 30, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    Hi Marek,

    Great blog! For El Nido, when you mention the “northern beach” – does this beach have a name? Or is this part of Corong beach?

    Thanks

    Pete

    • Marek Reply August 13, 2016 at 12:01 pm

      Corong is the southern one. To give some nuance to what I wrote in the post, some people might prefer Corong beach because it’s more secluded. The northern beach is the one that has the ferry terminal (if you look on google maps). There’s more development here but I liked the atmosphere.

      • Pete Reply December 13, 2016 at 10:30 am

        Hi Marek

        Thanks for the tips!

        I’ll soon be making my trip to El Nido and had a question about Tour A and C. Do you know if it is possible to combine both Tours, e.g. do both Tour A and C in the same day?

        I only have about 3 days in El Nido and thought this might be a good idea so I can spend the other days exploring / diving.

        Thanks

        Pete

        • Marek Reply December 13, 2016 at 12:26 pm

          Hey Pete. Yes there are some companies doing A & C combo tours. I believe this isn’t the most common though so you might want to book ahead to ensure a spot.

  16. Saba Reply July 21, 2016 at 5:06 am

    Hi ,
    i plan to visit palawan and buracay. Is there any way to go from palawan diractely to buracay ? If not , how can I make it ?

    • Marek Reply July 21, 2016 at 9:54 am

      Your best bet is to try and find a flight from Puerto Princesa to Caticlan or Iloilo, then take a bus and boat to Boracay…

  17. Avril Reply July 1, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    I’m planning my trip to the Philippines but not going until next year. I’m traveling alone …. A bit scary! I’m planning to visit Cebu, then fly to Palawan. Are the buses to el nido pretty way to come by? Also would you recommend booking accommodation before I leave or just finding places to stay when I’m there?

    • Marek Reply July 26, 2016 at 12:52 pm

      Finding a bus to El Nido wasn’t difficult, but I forgot the specifics, sorry! If you’re on a longer trip, I think it can be good to just find places when you get there. In well-travelled places like Puerto Princesa or El Nido, and provided there isn’t a special national holiday or something, this is typically easy. On shorter trips, I usually book ahead more often though just to save time.

  18. Gaby Reply May 31, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Hi Marek,

    I was thinking of doing the same route you mentioned but backwards. Flying to Coron, island hopping to El Nido and bus back to Sabang and then to Puerto Princesa. Would this be relatively easy to do? Thank you!

    Gaby

    • Marek Reply June 1, 2016 at 9:44 am

      Hey Gaby. Yes that route would work just as well, as all the transportation goes both ways. 🙂

  19. Soo Mei Reply May 16, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Hi Marek,

    Wow, those pictures were so beautiful. I’m looking at El Nido, but not sure if the Palawan is safe for a solo traveler (female)?

    • Marek Reply May 17, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      There are many solo female travellers who go to Palawan, and families too. It’s generally quite a safe area. Be cautious and use common sense as anywhere, of course 🙂

  20. gabby Reply March 11, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    Hi Marek

    We are a family of 5 with three kids age 4 – 8, we are flying into Cebu and island hopping from there, do you think it is worth us also flying to El Nido, we would have about 8 days or is the journey too arduous? Thank you so much

  21. Louise Payne Reply January 11, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Looks beautiful, how long would you recommend travelling Palawan?

    • Marek Reply January 12, 2016 at 10:26 am

      I would probably recommend a week at minimum, but you could easily spend much longer.

  22. Anca | Globaloud Reply September 28, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    Your beautiful photos just reminded me of how much I enjoyed Palawan when I visited it last spring. Secret beach is truly the best tropical beach I’ve ever been to, too bad the boat tour guy let us stay there only for a couple of minutes, cause if you ask me, I could stay there for the whole day just laying on the beach and admiring the nature.

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