— 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.
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.
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.
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.
Quiet beach town near the Underground River
- Lounge at a white sand beach
- Trek through the jungle and meet wildlife
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.
- Join an organized boat tour (or plan your own) into the iconic Puerto Princesa Underground River
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.
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.
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.
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.|