Palawan is the Philippines’ last frontier, a largely unexplored and unexploited province of wonderful scenery and idyllic tropical beauty. Beyond the centres of Coron, El Nido and Puerto Princesa, tourism has yet to penetrate much of this long, sword-shaped island to the southwest of Luzon, and travellers who make it here will find a marvellous Jurassic landscape of coves, beaches, lagoons and razor-sharp limestone cliffs that rise from crystal-clear water. Offshore, despite some damage from dynamite fishing and coral bleaching, there always seems an untouched reef to discover.
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The capital of Palawan, Puerto Princesa, is the main entry point and is close to the mangrove islands of Honda Bay and the immense flooded cave systems that make up the mind-boggling Underground River. Further north you’ll find the pretty beach resort town of Port Barton, the old fortress town of Taytay and the incredibly beautiful islands and lagoons of El Nido and the Bacuit archipelago. Many areas are still relatively unaffected by tourism, such as the friendly little fishing village of San Vicente and nearby Long Beach, one of the finest stretches of sand anywhere. Undeveloped Southern Palawan contains some of the least visited areas in the whole country, from the remains of a Neolithic community in the Tabon Caves and the turtle and cockatoo sanctuaries at Narra, to Brooke’s Point, the access point for Mount Matalingajan.
The Calamian group of islands, scattered off the northern tip of the main island of Palawan, has a deserved reputation for some of the best scuba diving in Asia, mostly on sunken World War II wrecks. Even if you’re not a diver, there’s plenty to do here. The little town of Coron on Busuanga is the jumping-off point for trips to mesmerizing Coron Island, with its hidden lagoons and volcanic lake and, to the south, the former leper colony of Culion.
It’s best to bring cash to cover your stay in Palawan: outside Puerto Princesa credit cards are only accepted by some of the more established resorts (and will cost you between 6 and 10 percent commission), banks are few and ATMs almost nonexistent.
The Calamian Islands
The island-hopping, kayaking, diving and trekking in the Calamian Islands, to the north of mainland Palawan, in many ways trumps the parent island, especially when it comes to its world-famous wreck diving. From the main settlement of Coron Town on the largest island, Busuanga, you can explore the awe-inspiring islands and reefs of Coron Bay, beginning with the lagoons and coves hidden among the staggering limestone cliffs of Coron Island. Here you can climb up to volcanic Kayangan Lake, not only a bewitching place to swim but also one of the Philippines’ most unusual dive sites. Further south is Culion Island, the intriguing former home of a leper colony, while off the northern tip of Busuanga, Calauit is the home of a bizarre African wildlife sanctuary. The waters around the Calamians are also feeding grounds for the endangered dugong – the best tours are arranged by Club Paradise.
Busuanga Island and Coron Town
Busuanga is the largest island in the group, but is mostly wild and undeveloped, with little to see beyond the lively fishing community of CORON TOWN on the south coast, the main base for exploring the shipwrecks in adjacent Coron Bay.
Non-divers will find the pristine snorkelling, swimming and hiking trails nearby just as enticing, and the phenomenal views across the bay from the town to Coron Island never get old; these are best appreciated from the top of Mount Tapyas, a steep 30 to 45-minute hike along the trail at the end of San Agustin Street.
With narrow streets shaded by trees, a thriving waterside market and a ramshackle wharf, Coron Town itself retains an old-fashioned provincial charm – for now. The town is a major resort-in-the-making, with frequent flights from Manila helping to ramp up development, ambitious reclamation projects, ever growing numbers of tricycles in the streets and even posh condos in the works.
Coron Bay islands
The primary reason to stay in Coron Town is to explore the spell-binding islands and coves scattered around Coron Bay. Bangka trips are easy to arrange, but it’s worth comparing the various packages on offer. Coron Island is the most popular destination, but try to spend time on the smaller, less visited islands.
Few travellers make it to the curious island of Culion, around two hours south of Coron Town by boat, once the world’s largest leper colony and a place that inspired fear and often, revulsion. Today the leper colony has all but been erased, but some haunting monuments of the island’s past remain, as well as some totally untouched beaches you’ll have to yourself. Like Busuanga, the island is actually quite large and undeveloped, but the main attractions lie in the pretty little capital, Culion Town.
The approach to Culion Town is dominated by the striking coral-walled La Inmaculada Concepcion Church. The church was substantially rebuilt in 1933 on the site of an older fortified Spanish chapel, completed in 1740. Beside the church is the old lighthouse, with tremendous views north to Coron Town. The Culion Museum inside the hospital compound, housed in the former leprosy research lab built in 1930, details the history of the colony and contains medical relics and photographs from the turn of the last century. The museum is one of the most intriguing in the Philippines, with a vast archive of original photographs and patient records that you can browse. The rooms where doctors worked have been maintained as they were and contain equipment the doctors actually used, much of it looking like instruments of torture.
Diving in the Calamian group
It’s the World War II Japanese shipwrecks in the Coron area that most divers come for. There are 24 wrecks in all, boats sunk in one massive attack by US aircraft on September 24, 1944.
The best of the wrecks and still almost intact; it’s home to turtles and enormous groupers, who hang in mid-water and eyeball you as you float past. A swim through the engine room reveals a network of pipes and valves inhabited by moray eels and lionfish, which look like liquid flame and have spines that deliver a hefty dose of poison.
A big ship lying on her side with a crane once used for hoisting a seaplane. Between Culion and Busuanga islands, near Manglet Island, the wreck attracts huge schools of giant batfish and barracuda.
Japanese freighter lying on her starboard side in 34m of water. In the large cargo holds you can see loaded construction materials, a cement mixer and a small bulldozer, while there are anti-aircraft weapons on deck.
Japanese freighter sitting upright at 28m. Large shoals of banana fish, giant batfish and pufferfish the size of footballs can be seen, especially around the mast, bow and stern. It’s easy to get into the cargo holds, making this a good wreck dive for beginners.
Japanese tanker covered with beautiful corals and a large variety of marine life. The deck is relatively shallow at between 10m and 16m deep, and is well suited to wreck-dive beginners.
There are a dozen or so dive operators in Coron Town: Dive Right (w www.diveright-coron.com) is near L&M Pe Lodge; Discovery Divers (w www.ddivers.com) is a short walk out of town towards the airport; and Sea Dive Resort has a well-equipped dive operation and is popular with beginners and advanced divers.
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.
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.
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 provincial capital PUERTO PRINCESA is the only major urban sprawl in Palawan, with just over 250,000 residents, a third of the total population. There are a few sights around Puerto Princesa, but hardly any in the city itself (it was founded by the Spanish only in 1872), which is why most visitors treat it as a one-night stop on the way to or from Palawan’s beaches and islands.
There are several attractions around Puerto Princesa that you can easily visit in a day or less, including Honda Bay and the Underground River. All the hotels in the area sell essentially the same tours taking in the nearest sights for around P600 per person in a minivan, or P500–700 per tricycle (Honda Bay and the Underground River are more expensive). You can also try to negotiate with tricycle drivers in the street, but you are unlikely to get much of a discount.
Honda Bay and the Underground River
There are several attractions around Puerto Princesa that you can easily visit in a day or less, including Honda Bay and the Underground River. All the hotels in the area sell essentially the same tours taking in the nearest sights for around P600 per person in a minivan, or P500–700 per tricycle (Honda Bay and the Underground River are more expensive). Most tours take in Butterfly Garden, a small but blossom-filled tropical garden laced with hundreds of brightly hued butterflies, and Baker’s Hill, a manicured park and snack stop with a couple of aviaries thrown in. The Crocodile Farm & Nature Park breeds endangered crocodiles, while the Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm is an odd though intriguing “Prison Without Bars” established in 1904. Tourists are welcome to wander around the village and take snaps of the surrounding paddies and flocks of egrets, though the main focus is the shop selling handicrafts made by the inmates.
Picturesque Honda Bay, 10km north of Puerto Princesa, is a shallow, lagoon-like expanse of water, backed by the spectacular range of mountains on the main island. The bay contains seven low-lying islands, most little more than sand bars fringed by mangrove swamp and small beds of coral, but is perfect for a day of island-hopping, lounging, snorkelling or a longer stay at Dos Palmas resort – if you have the money.
Tours in Honda Bay
The most popular stop in Honda Bay is Snake Island (free), named after the curving sand bar that forms its main body. The central beach area here can be a bit of a carnival, with bangkas lined up offshore, large groups snorkelling, a row of trinket stalls, a bar and even some cooked food available. Walk a while and you’ll have the fine white sand to yourself, though the snorkelling opposite the stalls is best; there’s an incredibly steep drop-off just beyond the beach, with great schools of tropical fish (in part encouraged by the dubious practice of feeding them).
To snorkel at the lush Pambato Reef (P50), the best place in Honda Bay for coral and giant clams, boats moor at a floating pier. Starfish Island (P50) is a sand bar backed by mangroves named after the abundant horned sea star (starfish) that carpet much of the inner shallows around the island. The island also has some fine snorkelling towards the northern end, with delicate soft corals, butterfly fish and even moray eels further out. Pandan Island (P50) comes much closer to a stereotypical desert island, with palm trees and a white sand beach perfect for swimming – the snorkelling here is not so great. There are plenty of huts and shelters for picnics. The least visited islands are Luli Island (P50), only accessible at low tide, and tranquil Cowrie Island (P25). It’s also possible to visit Dos Palmas Resort for an extra P500; this will add an extra 20–30 minutes, but you can use the resort facilities (Princesa hotels charge P2500 for this trip).
A journey through southern Palawan represents one of the last great travel challenges in the Philippines. Much of the area is sparsely populated, with limited accommodation and nothing in the way of dependable transport, communications or electricity. The major attraction is Tabon Caves, a little south of the town of Quezon, one of the country’s most significant archeological sites. On the east coast, around Brooke’s Point, travelling becomes a little tricky as there are hardly any buses and few jeepneys, but if you do make it here you’ll find unspoilt countryside, quiet barrios and deserted, palm-fringed beaches backed by craggy mountains.
Brooke’s Point and Mount Mantalingajan
Deep in the southern half of Palawan, 192km from Puerto Princesa, the town of BROOKE’S POINT is flanked by the sea on one side and formidable mountains on the other. The town was named after the eccentric nineteenth-century British adventurer James Brooke, who became the Rajah of Sarawak (now Malaysia), after helping a local chieftain suppress a revolt. From Borneo he travelled north to Palawan, landing at what is now Brooke’s Point and building an imposing watchtower there, the remains of which stand next to a newer lighthouse. Accommodation in Brooke’s Point includes the functional Silayan Lodge (t0928/347-0075; P499 and under) in the plaza opposite the town hall. There’s not much to do in town, though if you’re looking for adventure you can hire a guide at the town hall to climb nearby Mount Mantalingajan, at 2086m the highest peak in Palawan. This is a tough climb that can take up to five days, so make sure you come well prepared; there’s no equipment for hire locally. The usual route actually starts on the west coast from the barangay of Ransang near Rizal (6hr from Princesa by Charing Bus Lines). In Rizal you can stay at the Castelar Lodge (t0921/504-4108; P499 and under).
The small town of NARRA, about two hours by bus and 92km south of Puerto Princesa, makes a good introduction to the south, with several empty beaches in the area and Rasa Island, 3km offshore, the only place in the wild you can see the endangered Philippine cockatoo (there are around 70 birds here). The island is a thirty-minute boat trip from the village of Panacan, a short tricycle ride from Narra. Further offshore, the Isla Arena Marine Turtle Sanctuary is a major nesting site for green turtles, where the tiny hatchlings are protected before being released into the wild.
Inland, the most rewarding excursion is to the Estrella Waterfalls, around 15km from Narra on the road back to Puerto Princesa. The water is wonderfully fresh and pure (you can swim here), and the falls are surrounded by lush jungle inhabited by monkeys.
It was inside the Tabon Caves in 1962 that archeologists discovered a fragment of the skull dubbed “Tabon Man”, dating to 22,000 years ago, making it the oldest known human relic from the archipelago at the time. Crude tools and evidence of cooking fires going back some 50,000 years have been unearthed in the caves, along with fossils and a large quantity of Chinese pottery dating back to the fifth century BC. Most of these items have been transferred to the National Museum in Manila for preservation, though some artefacts are on display in the caves. It’s still intriguing to wander through the damp caverns and tunnels, which may have been a kind of Neolithic workshop for making stone tools; researchers are still working here and are happy to show visitors the latest finds.
A number of hotels and travel agents in Puerto Princesa organize day-trips to the Tabon Caves for around P1200 per person, which is definitely the easiest option if you are short of time. Alternatively, you can catch a bus to Quezon, a fishing village consisting mainly of wooden houses on stilts, around 150km from Puerto Princesa. At Quezon’s wharf, bangkas can be chartered for P1000 for the thirty-minute ride to the caves and back. Stop first at the National Museum near the wharf in Quezon for orientation and information. There are actually more than 200 caves in the area, but only 29 have been fully explored and of those only three are open to the public (same hours as museum). The best place to stay close to the caves is the Tabon Village Resort (t0910/239-8381; P499 and under) in the village of Tabon, which has simple cottage-style accommodation with fans and private bathrooms right on the water, plus a good restaurant.