Most people think of only Thailand or Bali for beaches and islands, but if you ask me, Palawan is on another level!
With its lush rainforests, white sand beaches, hidden caves and lagoons, and numerous incredible snorkel- and dive sites, Palawan is one of the true highlights of The Philippines.
I’ll share the most common travel route through Palawan with tips for all key stops along the way, including El Nido and Coron.
El Nido or Palawan?
Your first decision is whether to stay only in El Nido or to explore several destinations in Palawan.
El Nido is easily the most scenically located town on the island, nestled between steep limestone peaks and hugging a gorgeous bay. Boat tours here can take you to hidden beaches, coves, and gorgeous lagoons. It is usually the main place people want to go.
That said, El Nido is also the epicenter of tourism in Palawan and so it can be quite packed at times. It’s a bustling backpacker town with numerous lodges and hostels (and small-scale resorts outside the town as well). The bay is often brimming with bangkas, the local catemaran-style boats.
If you have just a few days, El Nido is a great choice. It can be reached directly by plane from Manila and you can use El Nido as a base for day trips to nearby beaches and waterfalls.
If you have 10 to 14 days, you can follow my itinerary to get all the best of Palawan, including El Nido. Places like Port Barton and Coron are blissful and my personal faves.
It’s easy to independently plan your Palawan trip. All transport can be booked online, and local tours can be booked online or in person.
My suggested 10-day itinerary:
|Day 1||Firefly watching||At Home, Puerto Princesa|
|Day 2||Underground River||Casa Leonora, Sabang|
|Day 3 – 4||Beach & relaxing||Sunset Colors, Port Barton|
|Day 5 – 7||Island hopping tour
Via Ferrata Canopy Walk
Ziplining at Nacpan Beach
|El Gordo, El Nido|
|Day 8 – 10||Skeleton Wreck
Hike Mt. Tapyas
|Viewpoint Lodge, Coron|
To shorten the trip, you could decide to cut the first few days and focus on El Nido and Coron by flying in straight to El Nido. But I think 10 days is the perfect minimum time to get the most out of Palawan.
How to get to Palawan
There are no scheduled ferries to Palawan (and they would take too long anyway), so you’ll have to fly. You have three options.
Fly into El Nido
This airport is tiny so you’ll arrive by propellor plane. You can fly with just one carrier, AirSWIFT. This is a very local service, but you can book your Manila to El Nido flight easily using 12Go Asia. Due to a lack of competition, these flights are more expensive.
Fly into Puerto Princesa
The capital has many more flight connections and with larger planes. You can check your flight options at 12Go. This platform is specialized in Asia so they truly list all the options.
Fly into Coron
This is another possibility, though I suggest starting in Puerto Princesa and flying out of Coron.
All flights from Manila to Palawan take roughly 90 minutes.
By the way, there are no direct flights nor any boats connecting Palawan to Indonesia or Malaysia. You must always travel via Manila or Cebu City.
Let’s take a look at the key destinations in Palawan, from south to north:
The gateway to Palawan, worth just a stopover
There isn’t a whole lot to see or do in Palawan’s capital and only city (population: around 200,000). Most people say it’s their least favorite destination along this route. However, it’s still worth spending a night just to enjoy two fun activities.
Firstly, many restaurants serve an iconic dish known as tamilok (or woodworm), a slimy mollusc found on mangrove trees. It may not sound exactly appealing but there’s a great chance you’ll be bullied into tasting it! 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.
At night, consider taking 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. I don’t often call travel experiences “magical” but this one truly deserves the label.
However, ignore the island-hopping tours to Honda Bay. While I still had a fun time, the other islands in Palawan will blow these out of the water (so to speak). I feel these tours are more for Puerto Princesa residents who want a fun day out.
Sabang & Underground River
Laid-back beach town next to a World Heritage Site
Millions of years ago, the Puerto Princesa Underground River snaked its way underneath the St. Paul Mountain Range and became one of the few of its kind that flows directly to the sea. It is now a protected area that has been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Site.
The cave boasts 8km of underground channels, about half of which can be explored. You can take a day trip from Puerto Princesa to the river cave, but it’s also a nice option to stay in the town of Sabang. 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.
In Sabang you can also go hiking, bird watching, paddling across the mangrove forest, and seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. I loved taking an early morning paddle boat tour of the mangroves and seeing numerous birds, yellow-banded snakes, and reptilians.
As you walk along the beach, crabs of different sizes and colors scatter into their holes in the sand. Near the cave entrance were several wild monkeys and giant monitor lizards. The area definitely felt quite wild and alive!
It gets quiet after the day trippers have left, and I enjoyed spending a bit of extra time here.
How to visit the underground river
There are two ways to the entrance – taking a 6-kilometer trek through rich rainforest or taking a 20-minute scenic boat ride overlooking karst mountains. Both begin in Sabang. Visitor numbers are restricted by a daily quota, so if you don’t get a tour with a permit included, you’ll need to get your permit in Puerto Princesa a day before. You can book this day trip from Puerto Princesa, but if you’re staying in Sabang, it’s better to book locally.
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.
A quiet and back-to-basics village where you can be in nature
Get away from it all and spend your days thinking about nothing.
Port Barton is a less-known spot that can be reached after a 3 to 4-hour land travel from Puerto Princesa. It’s a truly unspoiled and relaxing place.
It’s a bit more basic in its accommodation offerings and attracts mainly backpackers and down-to-Earth travellers not needing many luxuries, but if you can appreciate a remote place with lots of natural beauty, then this might just be your little slice of paradise.
Upon arrival, 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 pristine nearby islands easily accessible by boat. Like in El Nido, there are four island hopping tours you can take (A, B, C and D).
Port Barton used to be off-grid but now has 24-hour electricity. Internet access remains limited and there is no ATM, so bring sufficient cash. Go here for a remote stay surrounded by nature.
Epic karst landscapes and enchanting lagoons
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.
If you arrive in El Nido expecting it to be overrated, you will surely be blown away by the epic scenery. I can say it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Asia.
The town is changing quickly, however. It became ‘discovered’ circa 2012 and tourism has been on an exponential growth path ever since. The pandemic caused a big reset from which it’s recovering, but I do wonder what happens to El Nido in the future if development is not properly managed.
But such worries aside, El Nido is not a place to miss. The bustling town is a fun place to stay with wonderful bay views, though if you’d like more seclusion, simply book accommodation along the nearby Calaan Beach or the more distant Nacpan Beach (about a 25 minutes’ drive north).
You can hike up to Mount Taraw, the ridge that backs El Nido, for some stunning vistas. Up this way is also a via ferrata canopy walk that makes for a fun and active adventure.
But the main attractions are the nearby lagoons and islands. You can choose between 5 tours, labelled from A to E. The itineraries have all been standardized in order to regulate visitor numbers and to have a variety of places to go.
Based on my own experiences and comparing notes with other travellers, Tour A and Tour C seem to be the most widely favored. The tours include lunch – freshly caught seafood cooked on an island and served with tropical fruits. You can get a nice breakdown of these tours here.
One of the highlights for me was the Secret Beach. You will need to jump off the bangka and swim towards a craggy cliffside. Look closely and you will see a small hole you can swim through; emerge on the other side you will discover a hidden beach entirely surrounded by pointy rocks as tall as buildings.
Put on a snorkelling mask and you will see wonderful corals with countless fishes below… look back up and you are back in this rockface cathedral. While this sight can get busy, it is one of the most memorable as well.
After some days in El Nido, it’s finally time to go to the island of Busuanga.
How to get to Busuanga
From El Nido, it is very easy to go to Busuanga. You can take a ferry from the west side of El Nido’s main beach, which takes about 5 hours to get to Coron Town on Busuanga. Be sure to book your tickets in advance to make sure you get a seat on your desired day. There are usually just 1 or 2 ferries per day leaving around mid-day.
Another option is to go on a private trip that will give you a chance to stop on a number of remote islands along the way. One some of these trips, you can even bring a hammock and sleep under the stars! I sadly didn’t have the chance to do this, but when I return to Palawan I will 100% go on one of these cruises. Check out Tao Expeditions or El Nido Paradise.
Busuanga Island & Coron
Breathtaking views, coral gardens, and rich history
Coron offers some similar attractions to El Nido, but with tourism development a couple of steps behind it.
I ultimately liked Coron a bit more than El Nido. Although Coron Town itself is not as scenic, the lagoons are stunning and the island interior is great for hiking. I enjoyed hiking up to Mount Darala, the island’s highest point, where you will get 360-degree views of the bay.
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.
Like elsewhere, there are several standardized tour itineraries to choose from, labelled from A to C. If you do Island Hopping Tour B, you’ll stop at the Skeleton Wreck, the remains of a Japanese supply ship. At its shallowest, it’s submerged only 5 meters blow the surface, making it perfect for snorkelling.
Coron is also 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.
And that wraps it up for our highlights of Palawan, a region many consider a true paradise! A 90-minute flight from Busuanga Airport will take you straight back to the capital, from where you can go home or explore other regions of the Philippines.
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