Tourism is rising in Palawan – for good reason. Surrounded by the 1,780-odd islets, the main island is the fifth largest in the Philippines, with a lush jungle-swathed interior surrounded by floury white beaches lapped by gin-clear waters and overlooked by towering limestone outcrops. Located southwest of Luzon, Palawan is as close to Borneo as it is to Manila. Influenced by many external cultures and religions, it instantly feels different to the rest of the Philippines. While the centres of Coron, El Nido, Sabang and Puerto Princesa are popular hubs, the southern part of this sword-shaped island remains largely unexplored.
The best travel tips for visiting Palawan
Whichever part of Palawan you visit, you’ll be treated to a Jurassic landscape of coves, beaches, lagoons and forests.
Capital 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.
Some 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 Mantalingajan.
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.
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Best things to do in Palawan
From diving World War II wrecks to exploring untouched islands, the best Palawan experiences focus on the amazing beaches but there's good grub to be had too. Here are the best things to do in Palawan.
#1 Head to El Nido
El Nido is a breathtakingly beautiful destination that offers you a taste of paradise. Located in the northern part of Palawan in the, El Nido is renowned for its crystal-clear waters, pristine beaches, towering limestone cliffs, and abundant marine life.
The town is the gateway to the Bacuit Archipelago, which boasts over 45 islands and islets, each with its unique beauty and charm.
You can spend your days island hopping, swimming, snorkeling, diving, or just lounging on the beach, enjoying the warm tropical weather and stunning views. El Nido also offers various other activities such as hiking, kayaking, and exploring hidden lagoons and caves. A must visit!
#2 Take a boat trip around El Nido (Bacuit Archipelago)
If you're going to El Nido, make sure to take a boat trip with a bangka around El Nido. The traditional Filipino boat is perfect for island hopping, offering an authentic and enjoyable way to explore the Bacuit Archipelago.
The boats are not the most comfortable, but well equipped with necessary safety features, making them safe for travelers of all ages. You can choose from a range of tours, each taking in different islands and lagoons. The tours often include stops at hidden beaches and snorkeling spots, giving you the chance to see the incredible marine life that El Nido is known for.
The boatmen are friendly and knowledgeable, often sharing interesting information about the islands and the local culture.
#3 Dine out in Puerto Princesa
With its top-notch seafood restaurants, this is the best place in Palawan to indulge in the local cuisine. The lively Bay Walk promenade is a popular spot for an evening stroll, with a string of alfresco seafood shacks along the water’s edge.
Among the best places to eat are Badjao Seafront Restaurant, which serves fresh, tasty grilled seafood such as sizzling squid, and there are also a couple of veggie dishes, and family-run Haim Chicken Inatô, which sells quality Filipino dishes like grilled tuna belly and ginataang ubod ng rattan (young rattan vine with coconut milk and small fish).
#4 Take a boat trip along the Underground River
Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and voted as one of the “new Seven Wonders of Nature” in 2012, Puerto Princesa Underground River, officially Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, is a unique underwater river system that cuts through the limestone hills for 8.2km before emptying out into the sea.
The caves are completely natural and unlit, ranging from low-lying passages to vast, cathedral-like caverns. Because of the site’s popularity and fragile ecosystem, visitor numbers are restricted to a daily quota of nine hundred visitors, which is reached every day during peak season (Nov–May); make sure you book your visit ahead of time.
#5 Explore untouched islands from Port Barton
On the northwest coast of Palawan, roughly halfway between Puerto Princesa and El Nido, Port Barton is far less developed than its busier neighbours, and more of Filipino life continues alongside the groups of backpackers lounging around in the increasing number of budget beach hotels.
The hotels face crescent-shaped Pagdanan Bay, with its magical sunset views – Port Barton Beach itself, a gorgeous strip of sugary sand, is great for swimming.
Minutes away are fourteen pristine white-sand islands, and a number of top-notch dive and snorkelling sites in Port Barton Marine Park.
#6 Lay back on the bone-white sand of Long Beach
About 15km north of Port Barton is the sleepy San Vicente, accessible by bangka or a bone-shaking jeepney ride from Princesa.
It has a small market, a petrol station and a couple of snack 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 its unspoilt feel while you can, as the opening of an airport here in 2017 has already prompted the development of large resorts, and it is only a matter of time before the beach is “discovered” by package tours.
#7 Discover the majestic limestone islands of the Bacuit archipelago
The main reason that 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.
The dramatic tower of rock just off El Nido is Cadlao Island. The star here is Ubugon Cove at the back of the island, hemmed in by jagged rock, where you can snorkel, but this is also one of the few islands that you can explore on land, too: one-hour trekking tours take in the unusual saltwater Makaamo Lagoon.
Miniloc Island, 45 minutes by boat from El Nido, boasts one of the area’s greatest treasures, the Big Lagoon, with glass-clear aquamarine water surrounded by towering limestone cliffs that look like a cathedral rising up from below.
#8 Find Lake Kayangan, a hidden blue lagoon
In between Coron Island and Coron Town is the volcanic Lake Kayangan. Boats dock at a gorgeous lagoon rimmed with coral and turquoise waters – here the Tagbanua have a small hut with basic information about the island and the Indigenous people, with staff on hand to answer any questions.
The lake itself is reached by climbing up a steep flight of steps – at the top, turn left along a narrow path to tiny Kayangan Cave for awe-inspiring views of the lagoon below.
The main path continues down to the lake, where you can snorkel in the warm waters and spy schools of odd-looking needlefish and plunging cathedral-like rock formations.
#9 Explore Coron
Coron is a stunning destination located in the northern part of Palawan in the Philippines. It is renowned for its crystal-clear waters, white sandy beaches, and towering limestone cliffs.
Coron Island is a must-visit destination, with its lagoons, lakes, and coral gardens. You can also explore the sunken World War II shipwrecks, which are some of the best-preserved wrecks in the world and have become popular diving sites. The town itself has a relaxed and laid-back vibe, with plenty of restaurants and bars to enjoy after a day of exploring.
The nearby Twin Lagoon and Kayangan Lake are not to be missed, offering breathtaking views and incredible swimming opportunities. Coron is also home to many hidden beaches and coves, making it a perfect destination for those looking to get off the beaten path.
Where to stay in Palawan
Puerto Princesa and the Calamian Islands have the best accommodation options in Palawan with resorts, boutique hotels, business spots and more. Here’s where to stay in Palawan.
The city’s many places to stay are concentrated on and around Rizal Ave; the most pleasant are towards the eastern end of the strip. Those in the leafy northern suburbs are a tricycle ride from the centre.
Despite it being the most popular side of the island, Northern Palawan accommodation can be hit and miss. Most places to stay on Sabang are aimed at backpackers, with cold showers and electricity from 6pm to 11pm only.
Buses and boats arriving in Port Barton are met by staff from any number of hotels; take a look before making a choice. High season runs from mid-November to May – you’ll get much cheaper deals outside this period.
There are some clean and comfortable hotels near the Tabon Caves. Brooke’s Point has some functional and OK accommodation but nothing worth visiting for.
Book ahead (especially at Christmas and Chinese New Year) for El Nido town’s budget accommodation; rates are a bit higher at quieter and prettier Corong-Corong or Caalan beaches.
The Calamian Islands
As a major resort-in-the-making, Coron Town has a good number of accommodation options with more development and ambitious land-reclamation projects in the pipeline.
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.
Best restaurants and bars
As tourism grows in Palawan, more chefs are starting to offer a variety of cuisine from Filipino meals and seafood to Western options like pizza, burgers and tacos. Here are the best places to eat in Palawan.
With its top-notch seafood restaurants, Puerto Princesa is the best place in Palawan to indulge in the local cuisine.
Most of the restaurants in Port Barton are at the resorts; head for Parrots or Greenviews. Nightlife is not part of Port Barton’s appeal – there are a couple of local karaoke bars, but everything tends to shut down by 10pm.
From thick burgers and tiger prawns in coconut milk to authentically Spanish tapas and grilled seafood, there are a range of decent places to eat in Coron Town. At some places, you'll pay for the views.
There is tonnes of choice in El Nido. Stonebaked pizza, massaman curries, Korean cuisine, and even a Ukrainian restaurant. There are even really good vegan spots too. Don't miss.
The best places to eat in Palawan include:
- Viet Ville, Puerto Princesa. Located on the way up to Honda Bay, this traditional Vietnamese restaurant is one of the few that remain in the city, situated in the former refugee village that was created when many fled to the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The menu includes classic beef pho, chao long (Vietnamese porridge) and shrimp in tamarind sauce. A few veggie dishes are also available.
- Kusinero del Barrio, Port Barton. One of the few restaurants in town not located at a resort, Kusinero del Barrio offers good Filipino standards, as well as a somewhat unexpected but not unwelcome sideline in French-style crepes. There are a couple of decent vegetarian choices on the menu too.
- Midtown Bakery, El Nido. The best bakery in town, with the usual buttery buns, white bread and pandesal (bread rolls), plus a tempting array of cakes such as the delicious egg-custard tart, all for a few pesos – plenty of budget travellers load up here.
- Hermanos Tapas, Coron Town. Popular central spot offering a good range of authentically Spanish tapas – the tiger prawns are excellent, as are the Spanish omelette, the patatas bravas and the meatballs. Make sure to leave room for the churros for dessert.
- Gusto Gelato, El Nido. Probably the best place to get a decent espresso coffee in El Nido, this small spot is also extremely popular for its excellent ice cream, which comes in a huge range of flavours.
How to get here
The best ways to get to Palawan are either flying or by ferry. It all depends on how much time you have. Here’s how to reach Palawan.
There are currently two main airports in Palawan: at Puerto Princesa on the main island and Busuanga Island in the Calamian chain. Despite the name, Puerto Princesa International Airport does not fly to any international destinations, limiting itself primarily to routes to Manila.
2GO operates a ferry between Puerto Princesa, Coron and Manila, departing Puerto Princesa on Saturdays at midnight (14hr to Coron; 30hr to Manila). There’s also a RoRo ferry with Montenegro to Puerto Princesa from Iloilo via Cuyo (4 weekly; 36hr) to Iloilo, including a stopover in Cuyo.
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How many days do you need in Palawan?
Visitors will need 7-10 days to fully experience the beauty of Palawan. However, as the province is full of stunning beaches, clear waters, and rich marine life many travellers will factor in beach or snorkelling time.
For a week, visitors should explore more popular destinations such as El Nido, Coron, and Puerto Princesa, though travel can be trickier in the wet season (June to August). If you have limited time, you can still visit one or two of the big destinations and spend 3-5 days exploring the area.
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Tips for getting around
Between buses, bikes and boats you can reach nearly anywhere in Palawan. These are the best ways to get around.
Bus services run throughout the main Palawan island. From Puerto Princesa you can travel south to Brooke’s Point and Quezon or north to Sabang, Roxas, San Vincente, Taytay and El Nido.
While jeepneys are the cheapest way to travel, they’re slow and you have to change often.
Vans run between all the main tourist hubs and are the most convenient transport for travellers.
Tricycles are an easy way of taking short hops within a city or up the coast.
There are numerous motorbike rental shops across the main island offering scooters and bigger motorbikes.
Outrigger bangkas will take tourists to some of the smaller islands. Boats are rented by the day.
Best time to visit Palawan
The best time to visit Palawan is during the dry season, which is from November to April. During this time, the weather is generally sunny with little to no rain, making it ideal for island hopping, beach activities, and other outdoor activities.
The peak season in Palawan is from December to February, where the weather is the most favorable but also the most crowded. If you prefer to avoid the crowds, it's best to plan your trip during the shoulder season, which is from March to May or from September to November.
The rainy season in Palawan is from June to August, and while it may not be the ideal time to visit, you can still enjoy the island's beauty during this time, as the rain usually comes in short bursts and the island is lush and green. However, be prepared for occasional typhoons that may disrupt travel plans.
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