Ultimate Guide to Palawan, Philippines (Route + Travel Tips)

July 12, 2018

— by Marek Bron & Ela Teodosio

With its lush jungles, white sand beaches, caves, dive sites, and unspoiled nature, Palawan is one of the true highlights of The Philippines.

In this mini-guide, I’ll share with you the most common travel route through Palawan and impressions of the major stops along the way, including El Nido, Coron, and the town of Sabang.

(Updates in 2018 by local contributor Ela Teodosio.)

How to get to Palawan

Palawan in the western Philippines is an archipelago of its own with some 1,780 islands and islets. It’s a long but narrow strip of some of the best beaches and marine life you will see in Southeast Asia.

From Manila, it’s approximately a one hour plane ride to the capital Puerto Princesa. This city is relatively urbanized compared to the rest of the province, but you’ll meet a lot of foreigners here who now call Palawan their home. For many though, Puerto Princesa is only a gateway to the province’s more majestic features.

palawan

There are no scheduled ferries between Manila and Puerto Princesa (nor from other islands in the archipelago), so flying is the best way to go. There are however good ferry services between El Nido and the island of Coron. Keep in mind there are also no sea connections between Palawan and Indonesia or Malaysia—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 to Manila first.

Thanks to many budget carriers in The Philippines, finding an affordable flight to Puerto Princesa should not be too difficult. Check with Cebu Pacific, Zest, or AirAsia, to name a few. Besides Puerto Princesa, El Nido also has a tiny airport serving a limited number of propellor flights, mostly operated by Air Swift.

A note on Palawan’s tourism – while you can always explore independently, it is very organized and many places can be seen on organized day tours. All tours and prices are regulated and all boatmen and tour guides can speak English.

Bus from Puerto Princesa to El Nido

 

Places to visit in Palawan

Many travelers consider the highlight of Palawan to be El Nido, with its spectacular karst scenery and popular island hopping tours. We suggest adding El Nido to your itinerary by default, and adding more places depending on how much time you have. Here are tips for some of the top destinations in Palawan.

Puerto Princesa

Sedate urban life and exotic food

  • Enjoy a meal of shipworm and crocodile
  • Spend an evening with fireflies

Despite being known as a stopover, Puerto Princesa is worth spending at least a night – a sort of warm-up for the trip of a lifetime.

Palawan’s capital and only city (population: around 200,000) is rich in history, though there is not much to see apart from a monumental tunnel in Plaza Cuartel. But what it lacks in sights it makes up for in food! Puerto is teeming with local restaurants, many of which are almost impossible to book without reservation. Their most iconic dish is tamilok (or woodworm), a slimy mollusk found on mangrove trees. It may not sound exactly appealing but there’s a great chance you’ll be bullied into tasting it!

Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste bad, just a bit weird – like creamy, slimy jelly. Think oyster, only richer and a bit saltier. Another unusual thing to try is croc sisig, which is minced crocodile meat served on a sizzling plate.

You’ll find various full-day tours on offer for island hopping and snorkeling around the nearby Honda Bay. This can make for a fun day, but there are honestly better beaches and islands on Palawan. If you don’t have that much time, you may wish to skip these tours in favor of El Nido, Sabang, or Port Barton.

At night, consider heading out from Puerto Princesa on a firefly watching tour to Iwahig River. You can rent a boat and enjoy the serenity of paddling through the darkness, until reaching the spot where the fireflies dance around the mangroves. To say it’s magical is an understatement.

 

Sabang

Quiet beach town near the Underground River

  • Lounge at a white sand beach
  • Trek through the jungle and meet wildlife

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It’s such a waste that tourists think of the quiet town of Sabang as a mere jump-off point to the Underground River.

The beach here is surprisingly beautiful. I didn’t expect something so beautiful early on in this trip. More than the creamy sand and the clear waters, I was amazed by the seclusion of the place. You can sip fresh coconut while watching the waves crash on the shore – watching tourists take and leave the boat to and from the subterranean river.

Very few of them linger, but I think that’s the charm of it. Sabang is all about being one with nature. I enjoyed hiking, bird watching, paddling across the mangrove forest, and seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. If you’re planning on visiting the famous Underground River, it’s better to stay here than come all the way from Puerto Princesa.

 

Underground River

  • Join an organized boat tour (or plan your own) into the iconic Puerto Princesa Underground River

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Millions of years ago, the Puerto Princesa Underground River snaked its way underneath the St. Paul Mountain Range and became one of the very few of its kind that flows directly to the sea. It has been the pride of the Philippines since it was named among the New7Wonders of Nature in 2012 (as well as gaining recognition from UNESCO). It boasts eight kilometers of underground channels, four of which can be explored.

There are two ways to get to the subterranean cave – taking a 6-kilometer trek through rich rainforest or taking a 20-minute scenic boat ride overlooking karst mountains. Both begin in Sabang. You can avail of a hassle-free packaged tour or you could do it on your own. Just note that you need a permit to be allowed entry to the Underground River. This you have to get at the City Coliseum in Puerto Princesa.

It’s a short but eerie and magical 45-minute boat ride through the alternating huge chambers and narrow channels of the cave. Stalagmite and stalactite formations are said to resemble figures ranging from Jesus Christ to Hollywood stars. An audio guide is available for those who want to understand the cave better, but maybe you’d much rather enjoy the sounds of water dripping, swallows chirping, and bats flying above.

There’s a more extensive tour that covers all 8 kilometers of the Underground River, but that requires a different permit that takes longer to process. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Some areas are too narrow, so you can only enter them by swimming.

 

Port Barton

Quiet stop on the way to El Nido

  • Get lost in the raw beauty of nature
  • Spend days thinking about nothing

Port Barton is a less-known spot in San Vicente, Palawan. It is virtually unknown to local tourists but has been rising in popularity to foreigners in recent years. You can reach San Vicente after a 3 to 4-hour land travel from Puerto Princesa.

After a short boat ride from the city proper, you will be welcomed by a strip of white sand beach dotted by palm trees and nipa huts. Be sure to ask a guide to take you to Pamuayan Falls, a 1.5-hour trek through the jungle and into a cool natural basin.

There are also nearby islands easily accessible by boat; we recommend Inaladelan Island’s long beach strip. It’s privately owned though so an extra fee applies.

With electricity limited only from 5:30 PM to 12 midnight, Port Barton is a perfect place to get away from your gadgets and get closer to nature.

 

El Nido

Karst landscapes and enchanting lagoons

  • Join various packaged tours to other islands and inland beaches
  • Grab a tricycle ride on the mainland to quiet nearby beaches
  • Prepare to be amazed!

Nestled among tall karst cliffs and with two adjacent beaches, El Nido is easily one of the most scenic locations in the Philippines. Save for the number of tourists, which admittedly can sometimes be overwhelming, this town deserves all the glory.

El Nido is situated at the Baquit Archipelago, which means there are dozens of islands, islets, and lagoons for you to explore. You can choose between 5 standardized tours, labeled from A to E, or you could just stay for a week and try them all out. Tours include lunch – freshly caught seafood cooked on an island and served with tropical fruits.

Depending on your tour number, you can visit the white sand beaches of Helicopter Island, see the hidden beauty of Secret Beach, enter the Secret Lagoon through a tiny hole in its limestone walls, or soak in the majesty of the Big Lagoon.

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Entrance to ‘secret’ beach

Within the mainland, you can rent a tricycle to the nearby (and generally empty) Las Cabanas Beach or the farther twin beach called Nacpan-Calitang. Make sure to spend a few minutes at its viewpoint to appreciate how magnificent these back-to-back beaches are.

Baquit Bay boasts a number of dive areas, particularly the Dilumacad Underwater Tunnel found 12 meters beneath Helicopter Island. It goes on for some 40 meters and features black sweeper, cleaner shrimp and lionfish, among many others.

El Nido is teeming with tourists and there will be a lot of times when you would wish for some quiet — but the majesty of the archipelago far outshines this issue.

 

Busuanga Island & Coron

Breathtaking views, coral gardens, and rich history

  • Join day trips to islands and viewpoints
  • Go wreck diving
  • Hike up to Coron’s highest point

They say if you like beaches, go to El Nido. If you love diving, then Busuanga Island is the place to be.

Busuanga Island is divided into two sections – Busuanga and Coron – the latter being the major tourist stop. Busuanga and nearby islands are home to lush rainforests, natural springs, and a whole new world underwater. You won’t find a lot of beaches here, but you can spend days on end exploring the many lagoons, dive spots, and swimming with rich marine life.

Coron is famous for wreck diving, thanks to the number of Japanese ships that sunk in these waters during World War 2. Back in 1944, the US Navy launched a coordinated attack on the Imperial Japanese Navy docked in Manila Bay. The fleet tried to escape and hide in Coron but they were tracked and eventually gunned down in their supposed shelter. Now, these shipwrecks are covered with colorful corals teeming with many different kinds of fish.

From El Nido, it is very easy to go to Coron. You can take a ferry, fast craft or passenger ship from the west side of El Nido’s main beach. Schedules are different, depending on what mode you choose. Travel time ranges from 4 hours on a fast craft to 8 hours on a ferry or passenger ship. Best to check the schedules and book your tickets prior to make sure you get a seat on your desired day.

Another option is to rent a private boat that will give you a chance to stop on a number of islands along the way! If you want to take it slow, the boatmen can suggest cheap rural accommodations for an overnight stay. You can even bring a hammock and sleep under the stars! Food and drinks can be a part of the tour.

Coron Town may seem less unappealing (parts of it are a bit of a shanty), though coming to Busuanga can definitely be a worthy extension to your Palawan trip. There’s some nice hiking on the island too; a hike up to Mount Darala will give you 360-degree degree views of the bay.

P.S. Palawan is far from the only destination! Read our guide for more top places to visit in the Philippines.

 

Places to stay

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.

41 comments

  1. Angela Reply February 18, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    Hi marek – great info. I’m going to visit my dad in iba, Zambales. You wouldn’t happen to have any info on that area, would you? In addition, If you could choose a shorter trip from Manila for beaches/lagoons/etc, what would your choice be? Still Palawan?

    • Marek Reply February 18, 2018 at 3:21 pm

      Don’t know about Zambales sorry! Closer to Manila you could also go to Puerto Galera / Mindoro for beaches and bays though I only know of these places through the traveler grapevine.

  2. 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 🙂

  3. 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….

  4. 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 🙂

  5. 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.

  6. 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 🙂

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 🙂

  9. 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 🙂

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.)

  13. 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.) 🙂

  14. 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.

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

    where is secret beach?

  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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