Northern Palawan is where most visitors focus their time, a wild mountainous land that crumbles into the mesmerizing islands of the Calamian chain. A short boat ride north of Princesa, the Underground River is the sight most visitors want to see. It meanders past a bewildering array of stalactites, stalagmites, caverns, chambers and pools, the formations made eerier on your ride through by the shadows cast by the boatman’s torch. From here, Port Barton makes for a soothing stopover on the journey north to El Nido, with plenty of cheap accommodation and enticing snorkelling spots in the bay. El Nido itself is a wonderfully scenic resort town that remains relatively low-key, a gateway to the clear waters and jungle-smothered limestone islands of the Bacuit archipelago. If you have time, extend your trip to the islands around Coron Town, laced with crystal-clear lagoons, isolated beaches and dive sites enhanced with World War II shipwrecks.
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- The Underground River
On the northwest coast of Palawan, roughly halfway between Puerto Princesa and El Nido, PORT BARTON is far less developed than either of its busier rivals. The streets are all dirt tracks, there are no day-trippers and the rhythms of Filipino life go on largely undisturbed by the small groups of travellers lounging in the handful of budget beach hotels. These face crescent-shaped Pagdanan Bay, with magical sunset views – Port Barton beach itself is a gorgeous strip of sugary sand and fine for a quick swim, but the water is often cloudy (especially after rain). Minutes away are fourteen pristine white sand islands, a number of top-notch dive and snorkelling sites and even a couple of waterfalls. Note that electricity is usually available between 6pm and midnight only in Port Barton and there are no banks.
About 15km north of Port Barton is the sleepy fishing village of San Vicente, accessible by bangka or bone-shaking jeepney ride from Princesa. It has a small market, a petrol station and a couple of snacks stalls but little else; it does offer an alternative to taking longer bangka rides between Port Barton and El Nido however, as it has road links to the north coast and Taytay.
The only reason to linger around here is Long Beach, a so-far undeveloped 14km stretch of sand south of town that ranks as one of the most extraordinary beaches in the country – you can see both ends only on a brilliantly clear day. Enjoy it while you can, as the new airport has already prompted the construction of large resorts and it is only a matter of time before the beach is “discovered” by package tours. For now the best place to stay in San Vicente is the simple but friendly Picardal Lodge (t0920/476-4854; P500–999), which has wi-fi, a short walk from the pier. To get to Long Beach you’ll need to catch a lift on a motorcycle from San Vicente’s market, near the pier, for around P50.
On the northeast coast of Palawan, about 140km north of Port Barton by road and 50km south of El Nido, the quaint and friendly town of TAYTAY (“tie-tie”) was capital of Palawan from the earliest days of Spanish conquest in the seventeenth century until Princesa assumed the role in 1903. Today little remains to show off this history save the half-ruined Puerto de Santa Isabel (free), the smallish, squat stone fortress built by the Spanish between 1667 and 1738. As with many places in Palawan, the main attractions lie offshore – you can tour the wonderfully untouched islands in the bay by chartering a bangka for the day from the harbour (P1000–1500). Elephant Island is best known for its hidden lagoon, with a natural skylight in the roof that makes it a wonderful place to swim.
The small but booming resort town of EL NIDO in the far northwest of Palawan is the departure point for trips to the mesmerizing Bacuit archipelago. With its scruffy beach, narrow, tricycle-choked streets and unplanned rows of concrete hotels, El Nido makes a poor first impression, but the surroundings are truly inspirational – the town is hemmed in between spectacular cliffs of jagged karst and an iridescent bay littered with jungle smothered outcrops of limestone.
The archipelago itself is the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines, though the area’s striking beauty has not gone unnoticed by developers, who have established a number of exclusive resorts on some of the islands. If over US$200 a night (per person) for a taste of paradise is too much for you, stay in El Nido itself – where electricity runs 2pm to 6am only – and island-hop by day. Note that mandatory “Eco Development Fee” tickets (P200/person) are sold at the tourist office and most hotels, and are valid for ten days – this won’t be included in any tours or hotel rates.
For now, EL NIDO remains refreshingly low-key, provincial and relatively cheap, with plenty of sari-sari stores selling San Miguel and snacks along the two main streets, Calle Hama and Calle Real. Don’t miss the climb to the top of the marble cliffs of Mount Taraw (the ridge that backs El Nido); it’s a strenuous haul, but the views are magnificent. Guided hikes take around three hours and cost P500 per person (ask at the Art Café).
The bayfront has ravishing views, but the beach itself is only average and not especially attractive for swimming because of the number of bangkas coming and going. Sunset Lovers Beach is much better and only a short walk along the coastal path heading north. An even better option is Napsan Beach, a vast swathe of usually empty white sand 35–40 minutes tricycle ride north of El Nido; take insect repellent because the sandflies can be voracious. Mountain bikes are P500 per day from Art Café if you want to explore the area at leisure.
The Bacuit archipelago
The Bacuit archipelago
The main reason most people visit El Nido is to go island-hopping around the enchanting Bacuit archipelago, 45 limestone outcrops riddled with karst cliffs, sinkholes and idyllic lagoons. Tours (generally 9am–4pm) of the islands have been standardized into packages, and prices only differ very slightly between agents and operators (prices are per person; including a packed lunch): tour A (P500–600) takes in the attractions of Miniloc and Shimizu islands; B (P650–700) goes to Snake Island, Cathedral Cave and points south; C and D (P600–700) usually take in Mantinloc and Tapiutan islands. The highlights are, naturally enough, scattered throughout each itinerary, designed to encourage several days of touring. If time is short you can charter your own boat taking in all the best locations listed below; reckon on P4000–5000 per bangka. Another option is kayak tours: Cadlao Island tours are around P1100; tours to other islands around P1350. If you simply want to stay put on a beach for a few hours and do some snorkelling, you can charter a boat for P1200 to 7 Commando Beach (which has a small bar behind a lovely strip of sand), P1300 to Helicopter Island or P1600 to Shimizu Island.