First let me say that 10 days on Palawan Island in the Philippines was just enough time to give us an insatiable thirst for more. I could try to convince you of this by telling you that its emerald jungle covered mountains, clear turquoise waters, white sand beaches, quaint fishing villages and abundance of wildlife will leave you breathless.
The truth is though that Palawan Island is so indescribably beautiful and magical that you really will have to go and see it for yourself. Take our word for it and squeeze as much time out of your itinerary as possible in this paradise of stunning land and seascapes.
Having said that, if like us 10 days is all you have then here is a good way to see as much as possible. The following itinerary is based on flying in and out of Palawan Island via PPS (Puerto Princesa). This is how we did it since it offers the best combination of both cost and time effectiveness.
Day 1 & 2: Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island
Puerto Princesa (nicknamed “the city in a forest”) is often overlooked as a destination since most people just use it as a stop off point on the way to El Nido or other more popular areas of Palawan Island. However we feel it is worth setting aside at least a day or two to see some pretty awesome sights.
If you arrive early morning in Puerto (as the locals call it) you should be able to fit in Honda Bay island hopping that same day. Follow that up with a delicious seafood meal in one of the many great restaurants and possibly some nightlife if you can handle the early start in the morning.
The Underground River is almost a full day excursion so if you want to do it you will need to book it for the following morning. This can be done online ahead of time or on arrival at the airport or hotel.
Getting To Palawan Island
Flying from Manila to Puerto Princesa and back is the most cost effective and best way to follow this itinerary. Both Cebu Pacific Air and Air Asia fly this route on a regular basis. We always start with Skyscanner to source out the best prices which can vary quite a bit. We paid about $90 USD pp for a round trip.
Note: There are other ways to get to Palawan such as flying or taking a boat into El Nido but the boat can be a bit erratic depending on weather and flights to El Nido tend to be more expensive. For an idea of other options check out Rome2Rio.
Where to Stay
There are lots of options for accommodations in and around Puerto Princesa. You can stay right in town at a hostel or basic hotel for $20 USD or less per night or in a luxury resort at a $150+ USD. If you are following this itinerary you’ll probably want to opt for something more central to make it easier for doing the tours listed below.
Unfortunately the guesthouse we stayed in our first two nights was undergoing changes so we can’t really recommend it based on our experience. Agoda has the best selection of rooms for anywhere in Asia and plenty of reviews to help decide.
What To Do
Honda Bay Island Hopping
The shallow lagoon-like clear waters of Honda Bay are dotted with small islands and boast a backdrop of jungle covered mountains making for a great relaxing day of island hopping. There’s not much to do outside of lounging, snorkeling and oggling the spectacular scenery but if that’s not your idea of a great day then you are in the wrong place.
Unlike the Underground River we would suggest a DIY approach to Honda Bay island hopping as it’s pretty easy to do. Unless you are traveling solo it can be close to the same price as a tour, plus you have the luxury of not having to squeeze into a boat full of people and you can go at your own pace. The average tour price is about 1,200 pesos including lunch and all island entrance fees. A DIY for two people would be about the same without lunch. If you have, or can find, two more people to split the cost with you’re laughing!
To do it yourself simply take a trike or Jeepney (the local transportation on Palawan Island) to the pier at Honda Bay, which takes 20 minutes. Here you will choose your boat and purchase your tickets and then you’re off for a day in paradise.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River (aka Underground River)
Arguably the number one tourist site near Puerto Princesa, this 8 km long Underground River is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature. Here you will be greeted by spectacular limestone karst landscapes, clear green waters and old growth forests before gliding silently into the caves by canoe for a 45 minute tour.
Sidenote: We love cave exploring and this brought us back to our adventures in the caves of Semuc Champey, Guatemala. Hmmm maybe it’s time to do a post on our favorite caves!
In order to minimize any negative effects on this natural wonder admittance into the caves is strictly regulated and limited to 600 visitors per day. Therefore a visit requires some advanced planning. They have also recently started requiring audio guides within the cave to keep sound to a minimum and lessen any disturbance to wildlife. Great news for the bats!
Although this may make you cringe, the easiest way to visit the Puerto Princesa Underground River is by organized tour. This is because of the permits and logistics required. If you are short on time like we were then definitely a tour is your best option. You can book several days in advance online with a company like Go Palawan Travel. You can also book the day before and sometimes even the day of through a company at the airport, hotel or travel agency around town.
If you have more time than money and really want to go for the DIY option here’s the how to from a fellow blogger.
Note: As you may read in reviews of this tour whether you go for the package tour or DIY be prepared for lots of waiting around with hoards of other tourists. Don’t let this stop you from going! An increase in tourism and the much needed control over this protected site makes for a rather long and confusing system. Although I’m not usually a fan of massive group tours I do think it is well worth doing. I was impressed with their efforts to balance the demands of tourism with little environmental damage…as much as that is possible anyway.
Puerto Princesa Baywalk
We arrived late afternoon so we only had time to see a bit of the town and then go for dinner. As it was the weekend we opted to go to the new waterfront Puerto Princesa Baywalk.
This newly paved 1/2 mile long boardwalk comes alive at sunset and is a great way to spend an evening. The walk is popular with both tourists and locals who go to cool off and watch the sky turn colors and then darken over a fresh seafood BBQ and a cold San Miguel.
Sidenote: Did you know that San Miguel beer is from the Philippines?
The Baywalk is lined with local food stands, open air seafood restaurants and makeshift little bars so there is plenty of option to satisfy your hunger. After dark the boardwalk lights up to create a festive and romantic atmosphere perfect for a stroll and socializing. It reminded us of the many malecons we visited in Mexico like our favorite in Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Princesa’s Baywalk was smaller but had the same pleasant community feel to it.
Although there are plenty of spots serving alcoholic beverages this is a family friendly place so if you’re looking for a party scene then downtown is a better choice.
If eating seafood at the Baywalk stands doesn’t appeal to you there are plenty of good restaurants in Puerto Princesa. Try the popular KaLui restaurant for a unique atmosphere and delicious food or Badjao Seafood restaurant for fresh fish and beautiful views and ambience to name just two.
Days 2, 3, 4: Port Barton, the Undiscovered Paradise
When you do a Google search for the top destinations on Palawan Island, Port Barton will often not be listed. I suppose that’s why it feels like you’ve stumbled into a secret paradise that has yet to be changed by mass tourism.
This is the part of being a travel writer that leaves me torn. Do I keep this discovery to myself in the hopes of helping to hold back the inevitable tides of change? Or do my job and tell you how fabulous it is, thereby contributing to Port Barton ultimately losing it’s sleepy, hidden paradise feel? Well the fact that they are building a new road and the locals are busy turning their homes into rentable rooms and bungalows tells me that the tide has already turned. Soon Port Barton will be on everyone’s hit list.
So I’m telling you now “Get there as soon as possible!” so you can see Port Barton in it’s still somewhat pristine and unchanged state of laid back beauty.
Getting to Port Barton
The best way to get to Port Barton is by shuttle van. Be warned it is a 3-4 hour cramped, bumpy, twisty roller coaster ride so if you get motion sick go armed with whatever remedy works for you and request a front seat. Trust me when I say though that it is worth it!
There are two shuttle options, Recaro and SBE. We went with Recaro and highly recommend them. If you have a SIM card or international texting options on your mobile the best way to book is by texting a day or more ahead. This is how we did it and we were really impressed with their efficiency and professional service. Our texts were responded to quickly and all of our questions answered clearly. We were even able to request specific seats in the van which is rare on shuttle vans.
The departures from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton start about 7:30 am with several more though out the day about 2 hours apart. Times do change depending on the season so check in advance. The cost in 2016 was 350 pesos one way. Both companies leave from San Jose/New Public Market Terminal which is a short trike wide away from downtown.
Recaro: +639093513037 or +639054858597
Here are some other options for transit.
Where to Stay
There are a few accommodations on Agoda and if it is high season it is worth booking in advance. A good example is Ausan Beach Front Cottages which even have a tree house option. If you can’t or don’t want to book ahead you’ll usually have no problem finding something on arrival, it just may not be your first choice. There are no big resorts or chain hotels right in Port Barton so the options are fairly basic ranging from simple rooms in someone’s home to charming but rustic beachfront bungalows. It’s all part of the charm and experience of Port Barton.
We were not able to book ahead as there was nothing available on Agoda being Chinese New Year. When we arrived in town everyone piled off the van and scurried in different directions down the small dirt roads in search of a room. It seemed that some knew where they were going but we had no clue.
We were offered rooms away from the beach by some enterprising locals but we kept on moving. Turns out the travel angels were with us that day because we stumbled across the very last room in Elsa’s Beach Resort for just 800 pesos ($17 USD) per night. As we were signing the register 3 other groups came up looking for rooms and turned away sadly. The rooms at Elsa’s are very basic and we had a shared bathroom but the location on the beach was nothing short of breathtaking. You can also book Elsa’s on Agoda.
What to Do
For the most part Port Barton is all about checking out and chillaxing. The vibe is very laid back…island time to the extreme…and the lack of power during the day means you really don’t have much choice but to melt into a hammock and just take in the incredible exotic surroundings.
We spent our days exercising and walking on the beach, swimming in the clear warm water, beach combing and lazing on the soft white sand. Evening would find us sitting at a beachfront table eating fresh seafood and watching the sunset followed by a starlit stroll or listening to music at one of the chilled out beach bars.
If you want to get out on the water there are some great island hopping options which should not be missed. There are four tours to choose from: A, B, C and D and they each consist of specific island stops. This seems to be the way island hopping works on Palawan Island. They have set up specific routes that the boats must follow and we didn’t find any boat owners willing to offer customized options. Cost is about 1000 pesos for the full day including lunch but in slower times you can definitely negotiate.
Tips: (Don’t let these scare you, it’s all part of the charm and what makes it so wonderful)
- The island only has electricity between 17:30 and midnight (restaurants use generators or gas to cook and chill things). We always travel with a good flashlight but in this case it’s even more important.
- There are no ATM’s or banks in Port Barton
- Shopping is limited so best to bring essential toiletries etc
- You will mostly find only cold showers (not that you’d want a hot one)
- There are no hospitals but there is a medical clinic
- The road to and all roads within Port Barton are dirt so plan for dirty feet
- You will not find cold drinks outside of the restaurants and bars
- Book your transport out when you arrive (or at least the day before you want to leave) to secure your seat
- There are no 5 star resorts (again part of why Port Barton is so charming and special)
- Internet is limited (maybe a good thing?)
Days 5, 6, 7, 8: El Nido and the Breathtakingly Beautiful Bacuit Archipelago
I have to admit that my first glimpse of El Nido left me wanting and deflated. I had waited so long to set eyes on this famous beauty but it was not love at first sight for me. It’s a noisy town with a cluastraphobic feel due to the clutter of tourist catering buildings creeping right up to the edge of the beach. The harbour itself is jammed with boats waiting to take people island hopping and so it really doesn’t have much swim appeal at all. The beach is small and grainy with beach bars and restaurants taking up most of the space. But don’t let that fool you!
Once you get over your initial impression and you look around at the magnificent towering limestone karst cliffs and stare off into the horizon you get a sense of excitement for what awaits out on turquoise water. El Nido is not famous and beloved for the town itself but for being the gateway to the natural wonder of the Bacuit Archipelago, quite simply one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places we have ever seen. Plus at the end of the day the town does offer some fabulous dining, drinking and sleeping options.
Getting to El Nido
If you’re following our itinerary you will take Recaro Vans from Port Barton to El Nido. There are usually two per day and the cost is 700-800 pesos for the 4 hour journey.
Note: El Nido does have an airport so you could do this trip in the reverse and fly in and out of El Nido or even fly into PPS and out of El Nido. However this is generally much more costly. See this clip from Lonely Planet for more.
Where to Stay
There are far more accommodation options in and around El Nido than in Port Barton, everything from super deluxe ($300 USD +) 5 star resorts to backpacker hostels ($10 USD). You can generally just show up and find a room if it’s not a holiday. However El Nido is also much bigger and more spread out so finding a place on arrival requires either walking around in the heat or hiring a trike to drive you. For this reason we chose to book a place through Agoda for the first two nights and then look for other options once there.
If you want to be right in the center of things then look for something in El Nido town proper. Here you will have restaurants, bars, travel agents, laundry etc at your doorstep. You’ll also have all of the noise and crowds that go with that. If you want something quieter and don’t mind a 15 minute walk or a 5 minute trike ride there are plenty of places just outside of downtown.
We stayed at the Jurias Pension, a mid priced accommodation about a 20 minute walk to downtown. It was new, very clean and comfortable with great service and breakfast served on our own balcony. For something a bit higher priced closer to town with amazing views try El Nido Viewdeck Cottages.
What to Do
El Nido is all about the island hopping! As the gateway to the one of Asia’s most loved natural beauties, the Bacuit Archipelago, it is no wonder that people have been flocking here since the 80’s. Anyone who loves nature, beauty, diving, snorkeling, beach combing, photography or simply relaxing in paradise will fall head over heels for this natural wonder.
As with Port Barton there are four island hopping tours available out of El Nido: A, B, C, D. If you have the time and money to do them all you won’t regret it but if not then tour A and C are the best. Each tour will take you to different parts of the archipelago where you will explore beautiful islands with white sand beaches and crystal clear lagoons as well as an underwater world that will blow your mind.
There are several companies to choose from but we went with El Nido Paradise on Tour A and can highly recommend them. They were friendly and professional and provided a great spread of fresh food for lunch. El Nido Paradise also offer private tours, adventure tours and even overnight camping tours. We so badly wanted to do the overnight camping but our time was too tight making for a great excuse to go back soon!
Days 9, 10: Relax near Puerto Princesa
If you’re leaving on day 10 like we were you will need to make your way back towards Puerto Princesa on day 9. You can choose to head back into Puerto proper for one last delicious seafood dinner or you can opt to stay away from town in one of the beach side resorts like we did.
Getting Back to Puerto Princesa
We booked our van out of El Nido and back to Puerto Princesa on arrival in El Nido as we knew our date of departure and wanted to confirm a good seat. All vans drop you just out of downtown at the main terminal and there you can ask to book your return.
Note: Unfortunately although we thought we were booking with Recaro somehow we ended up in a different van and it was not nearly as well run. This seems to be a bit of an issue in El Nido as all of the vans leave from the same spot and they all vie for customers. They also will not leave until the van is full so it is not always on schedule. Keep this in mind if you have a flight or tour booked.
Where to Stay & What to Do
Refer back to the top of the page if you have an early morning flight and need to stay in Puerto Princesa town. If your flight is later in the day or if you have a spare night or two consider a resort outside of town. By taking the early morning van out of El Nido you can be at your resort by lunchtime and have all afternoon and evening to relax on the beach or by the pool. The following morning it will be easy to get a taxi or flag down a shuttle van to the airport.
We chose to stay at the Astoria Palawan which is a brand new eco friendly resort on Honda Bay only about an hour from PPS airport. The resort is gorgeous with a quiet private beach offering free use of kayaks and paddle boards, a lovely pool, great food, a gym, a games room (complete with X-Box Connect) and even a karaoke room that you can book by the hour. The Philippine people love their Karaoke. Plus they have a massive water park opening in April 2016. They were just completing it when we were there and it looks like it will amazing…and we know water parks!!
The Philippines is truly one of the most beautiful countries we’ve visited to date, and Palawan Island stunningly showcases why. The main island and surrounding entourage of impressive isles and islets are exactly what you would envision when dreaming of an escape to a tropical paradise.
Yes paradise has indeed been found but it is still far from overrun. So don’t worry there are plenty of places in Palawan to sneak away and find a secluded utopia of your own for a few hours. So what are you waiting for?
We know there is so much more to see on and around Palawan Island than we were able to get to in just 10 days. Have you been? Tell us what we missed in the comments below.
We want to thank El Nido Paradise and Astoria Palawan for hosting us. As always our opinions are 100% our own.