3 Weeks in Palawan
My never-ending pursuit of the most beautiful beaches in the world had to eventually lead me to the Philippines, famed for being home to many top contenders. With 7107 islands, it wasn’t easy to pick a destination, but after hours of dedicated research – err, actually, after a friend texted me a photo of the spot below (Kayangan Lake, in Coron) my decision was made. Palawan it was.
I figured I would start in Palawan and then make my way to some other islands, but Palawan’s beauty ended up keeping me captive for the whole 21 days.
First, a note of explanation as to what exactly is Palawan. Is it a province? Is it an island? Yes and yes. Palawan Island is the largest of the approximately 1780 islands in Palawan Province. Coron, one of Palawan’s top visitor destinations, is both a town and an island, but the town of Coron is not located on the island of Coron – you’ll find it on Busuanga Island, next to Coron Island. If arriving to Coron by plane, you’ll be flying to Busuanga airport, and staying in Coron town.
Now that that’s cleared up, on to the tale of adventure.
It started out a little bumpy - literally - upon arrival in Coron. (The town.) I booked my first few nights at a highly rated Airbnb home, which turned out to be located in a well-hidden spot a 15 minute drive from town down one of the world’s bumpiest roads. Finding this house was like a scavenger hunt. The airport van driver drove around for a while but could find no sign of it and the hosts were unreachable (because, as it turns out, their home is an absolute dead zone devoid of wifi signal and, 90% of the time, cell reception as well.) After the driver gave up on his search and deposited me back in town, I found a tricycle driver who luckily knew how to get to the secluded house. (Tricycle = Filipino version of a tuk-tuk.)
The house was spacious but quite rustic in its decor. There was no hot water – common in Palawan. (They’ll tell you the weather's so hot you won’t miss the hot showers, but I personally have to disagree.) The hostess was charming and sociable. She cooked me pancakes, convinced me to drink huge bottles of Red Horse beer with her and taught me how to make coconut milk straight from a coconut. (I’ll write a separate post about that later.) It’s a lot of work – but totally worth it, because coconut milk is amazing. In case you’re curious, it does very closely resemble the coconut milk you find in a can. (For some reason I thought it would be different.)
While I was here, most hotels were full, so this is one place it’s worth booking your lodging in advance. Overall, lodging and restaurants in Coron aren't beautiful or luxurious (one exception being the newly built Soleil Garden hotel). The best food I had in Coron, hands down, was the grilled fish and veggie feast prepared on the boat during a tour of Coron’s aquatic beauties. All the boat tours are legendary for their delicious bbq lunches, and their fame is well-deserved. Buzz had the best restaurant food, followed by Wild Fern. Balinsasayaw was one of the prettiest restaurants, with a great view and decent wifi (that's like a precious diamond in these parts) and they make delicious cocktails of fresh pineapple juice and rum for $2. Although I was told Winnie's has the best food in town, I tried the pumpkin curry and wasn't impressed.
Coron Bancuang Mansion has a beautiful open air restaurant on the 2nd floor. The food is good but they seemed to be understaffed when I was there: when they get busy service and food take forever.
La Sirenetta has a lovely sunset view and pretty good food and wine but slow service and is a little pricey.
My second day in Coron, I booked a boat tour to five of the area’s must-see destinations. I was lucky and ended up on an uncrowded boat with just two other nice people – a British girl and a Chinese guy. The boat took us to places that were breathtaking – spectacular – unlike anything I’ve ever seen on this planet - through stunning turquoise-hued clear waters, bordered by towering tree-carpeted rock walls.
It was amazing to experience. The only downside was: all the people around. We found 100 or so boats at each destination, and the masses of humanity around slightly killed the magic. Of course you can't blame anyone for being there - these places deserve to be seen.
On land, Coron is home to two destinations that shouldn’t be missed. One is Mount Tapyas, which should be climbed in the evening for a ravishingly beautiful sunset view. I wrote a separate post about this experience – it was something I’ll never forget.
The other must-see spot is Maquinit hot springs, which are a dusty 20 minute ride out of town. They open at 8am and if you get there around that time, you’re likely to have them nearly to yourself. We got there at 8:30, stayed about an hour and shared them with only 4 other people. The clearest water you'll ever see flows from mountain springs into Maquinit's enormous pools and out into the serene ocean just beyond them. The heat of the water is a balm for sore muscles – i.e., perfect for the morning after climbing Mt. Tapyas. Early mornings here are still cool enough that you’ll appreciate the hot water.
Another nice experience I had in Coron was paddleboarding to brunch with SUP Central Tours. Just me, a handsome French Canadian, our guide, some local fisherman and miles of beautiful water.
Above: the hot springs, crystal clear water, and the bridge that leads you to a serene sea view.
The night firefly tour is also pretty magical. A boat brings you first to a floating restaurant where you enjoy a yummy buffet dinner, then takes you further out to see bioluminescent waters and mangroves filled with fireflies and a thick veil of stars above you. With all those twinkling lights, it’s like being surrounded 360 degrees by stars. My camera couldn't capture that magic.
After the boat brought us back to land, our tour ended with the hilarious experience of the tour van driving off with all other passengers, leaving my friend and me stranded on the dark port. There were no taxis or tuk-tuks anywhere in sight, but one of the boat crew had a motorbike and offered us a lift. We both jumped on the back of his bike and he delivered us back to our hotel safe and sound. We could have definitely fit at least one more small person on there if we had to.
Lodging: Coron Bancuang Mansion, Soleil Garden Express (nice, new and modern, gorgeous color-changing pool, best wifi in town), Coron Village Lodge
Dining: Buzz, Wild Fern, Balinsayaw, La Sirenetta (go with patience)
I found the answer to my wish to explore Palawan’s isolated beaches in the form of a recommendation from a fellow traveler for the 5 day/4 night Ultimate Adventure Tour with El Nido Paradise. We spent 4 nights camping on beaches and 5 days sailing over breathtaking turquoise water, snorkeling through mesmerizing coral gardens, stopping to play on white sand beaches framed by exotic jagged rock formations, nourished by 3 daily feasts prepared for us by the boat’s talented chef and being entertained by the singing and dancing of the jovial, fun-loving crew, while drinking limitless cups of rum & coke. (Rum is ridiculously inexpensive in Palawan: a full-size bottle costs $1.20.) If I were to do this over I would bring a large supply of coconut water with me to mix with that rum instead of the Coke. One day one of the crew climbed a coconut tree to get coconuts for us. We spiked them with rum and a squeeze of lime and they were perfect.
The first day, the ocean blew my mind – miles and miles of perfectly still crystal clear water, all different shades of turquoise, and a backdrop of green-coated mountains, uniquely shaped as though they were kneaded by the hands of a giant. I’ll never think of planet Earth the same way again.
That evening, the crew set up tents for us on a deserted island surrounded by more turquoise water. It's absolutely magical to sit around a bonfire on the beach after the sun sets, drinking rum and cokes with your fellow travelers, and when you want a little solitary stillness, to meander a little distance away and lie down on a soft cushion of sand under a fairy dusting of stars so thick, so bright, so seemingly close you feel you could stretch out your arms to pick a couple for yourself. There is something about the stars. Something about the splendor of their sparkling light blanketing the immense sky lets your heart feel the awe of this life.
And when morning comes, it's equally magical to be awakened by the first rays of the sun, to roll out of bed, unzip the tent, grab the paddleboard, and paddle across the still water in the quiet of the early morning, admiring its shades of turquoise near the shore and the fantastic coral beneath. Then you return to shore for a delicious breakfast of fruit and pancakes and eggs and coffee - as well as offers of rum and coke from Rodel, the crew's official Purveyor of Unlimited Rum & Cokes, which you turn down until it's at least 9:30am.
Many of those delicious feasts the kitchen crew cooked for us were precariously transported from boat to land by kayak. The sight of this gave me intense anxiety every time, as my head filled with visions of the little kayak capsizing and plunging all that carefully prepared food into the unforgiving ocean. Luckily for us, that never happened.
Everything in our tour was well organized and always on time. Two of the most beautiful beaches we visited were Nacpan (you can also get to that one by van or scooter) and Papaya Beach. We also visited a couple small island villages. The first one - Inapupuan - didn't have running water, but did have wifi. The cute kids at the school there are learning English and they sang English songs for us and gave us high fives. We had a blast taking photos with them after the performance.
On Night 3, our beach camp experience included karaoke – aka, Palawan Idol. Some of us discovered newfound talent – and others of us re-validated that we have none in this area. It was a blast.
The final two days of our expedition, there was a typhoon warning for the whole region which worked out really well for us. We saw no trace of weather that in any way resembled a typhoon (it drizzled once for 5 minutes) but the coast guard forbid any boats from leaving port in El Nido, so we got to stop and play at gorgeous beaches that normally would have been covered with hundreds of people and have them all to ourselves.
I will confess that while camping on deserted beaches was enchanting for a few nights, by Day 4 I was ready for a shower and a real bed with ventilation. We got bucket showers two nights which was nice, otherwise we went to bed sticky, salty and sandy.
But apparently I’m high maintenance (who knew?!) because while I was ready to get back to land by the end of Day 3, all the other passengers were wishing for the trip never to end. (El Nido Paradise offers a 2-night, 3-day tour also, that might be the way to go for us lovers of beaches and adventure AND comfort and hot showers.)
This unforgettable 5 day tour cost us $430 per person, which included everything: the boat, the camping, snorkeling gear, two kayaks (and bonus - the paddleboard brought along by a French couple), all food, water and unlimited rum and cokes.
There’s a bigger company called Tao Expeditions who offers the same tours but they are a little more expensive and drinks aren’t included. We had 9 people on our boat (plus 8 staff); at one island stop, we encountered a packed Tao boat with 25 passengers. However, the crew told me that sometimes El Nido does excursions with 25 people too. Personally to me that sounds like a nightmare, to be so tightly packed and with all those people sharing one little toilet. If you book with El Nido Paradise, and you don’t enjoy feeling like a human sardine, it might be worth checking how many other passengers will be accompanying you.
Other tips for this tour: good mosquito repellant and waterproof bags (which are sold everywhere in Coron and El Nido) are a must!! Sand shoes are also a great idea.
Above: chilling at an island stop, Rodel & the captain, Chef Jessie, delicious feasts and excited diners
After the end of our boat voyage, we spent two nights in El Nido, which is dusty and crowded but has some gorgeous beaches and stunning views, as well as some colorful pimped out tricycles.
The highlight of El Nido for me was sunset yoga & dinner at The Birdhouse, a boutique glamping resort. To get to this uniquely magical place you take a nice long walk up many flights of bamboo stairs from gorgeous Maremegmeg Beach, which lead you to a peaceful haven nestled among the trees, overlooking the bay. The entire place has been built in harmony with the jungle surroundings, carefully designed and constructed as sustainably as possible and entirely decorated with custom designed, locally made furnishings and décor. You know when the beauty of design and ambience cause your heart to dissolve into contented cozy bliss? That’s how it was for me. A little earthly heaven.
We also really loved our first dinner back on land: wine and pizza at Ristorante La Lupe – the owner is from Naples and everything we consumed was delicious!! Nice ambience too.
EL NIDO RECOMMENDATIONS
Lodging: The Birdhouse (must book months in advance!), Las Cabanas Beach Resort (didn't stay here but it's in a beautiful spot on the beach and looks nice from the outside)
Dining: Ristorante La Lupe, the Birdhouse, Art Café (good for coffee or chilling during the day)
After El Nido, we continued south by minivan to Port Barton, which they say is like El Nido 20 years ago. We loved this town and didn't want to leave. It's a chill, quiet place with plenty of great restaurants to choose from, beautiful beaches and wonderful yoga taught by Agnes at Deep Moon Resort. The open air yoga studio has a stunning sea view, where the shimmering water changes color from serene blue to aqua green as the sun rises. Mabuti and Moon Bar were the two restaurants we loved although there seem to be many other great places we didn’t get a chance to try. Mabuti’s second floor has a great ambience for cocktails as well. And by the way: there are no ATM’s anywhere in this town and everything is cash only, even many hotels - so come prepared!
TO DO & SEE IN PORT BARTON:
Chill at White Beach, and day trips island hopping. Yoga at Deep Moon Resort. Chill some more.
LODGING: Deep Moon Resort
Moon Bar at Deep Moon Resort – great breakfast, coffee and smoothie options although pretty slow service.
Mabuti (also upstairs for cocktails) – good vegetarian food. The veggie burger with homemade bun and potato wedges is delish and extremely filling. Think twice about ordering the affogato, though. They served me the worst one I’ve ever tasted, made with brewed coffee instead of espresso and sprinked with nuts on top. Hopefully this was just a one-time mistake, maybe made by a new employee but you might want to ask how they'll make it to be safe. (You can probably tell this disappointment emotionally scarred me as I'm writing about it here, and I don't want you to have to go through the same thing.)
From Port Barton, we continued farther south to Sabang. Here we splurged a little and stayed at the Sheridan Resort. (For some this won’t count as a splurge; it’s $120/night but we were on the Extended Travel Budget.) Although we had some strange issues here, including the power going off and on every 5 minutes throughout the entire stay and a 45 minute wait for our dinner order (issues which have hopefully been since resolved) it is otherwise a spectacular place and seems to be the best option for accommodation if you’re going to stay in Sabang – partly due to its setting, which is absolutely breathtaking. It sits on what is in my opinion the most beautiful stretch of beach in Palawan, with a stunning view of Hawaiian-style cloud topped mountains toward the back. There’s a beautiful swim up bar and lots of hammocks hanging between palm trees for lounging.
The other bonus to staying at the Sheridan is that you can take the earliest morning boat tour to the Subterranean River. Later in the day, many busloads of tourists from Puerto Princesa will arrive to crowd the river. The Underground River was absolutely incredible; a spectacular work of nature and one of my favorite things about Palawan. The tours are professional and informative. I wasn’t able to capture any photos of its massive caverns to do them justice, so you’ll just have to go see for yourself.
You can also go ziplining in Sabang and get massages for 330 pesos.
As far as dining: Lunch and dinner food at the Sheridan was just okay and they had a poor wine selection (3 reds by the glass and they were out of 2 of them) so I would recommend just having breakfast there and researching elsewhere for lunch and dinner. Or bring your own wine. There are lots of other restaurants within walking distance, though nothing fancy.
Our last stop in Palawan was Bahay Kalipay in Puerto Princesa for a 3 day raw vegan detox. Bahay Kalipay is a beautiful but imperfect place. A few details and experiences here caused us to raise our eyebrows (they are opposed to both toilet paper and bath towels, so you may want to bring your own) but it was overall a lovely and relaxing stay. The raw food was amazing, and you get to drink as many coconuts as you want to (and learn to chop your own open with a machete.) There was an awesome raw food cooking class and an Inner Dance session we really liked. We didn’t care for the yoga so we ended up doing our own instead, but maybe they’ve changed teachers since. The yoga space was awkward, with low ceilings and poles inconveniently throughout it. This is surprising since yoga is one of their main offerings. I understand the poles may be necessary but you would think they could have made the ceiling a couple feet higher so tall people could raise their arms over their heads without knocking into it. The little Dream nook tucked away in a corner of the property (shown below) is heavenly, though. (See below.)
PUERTO PRINCESA: Lodging options in town - Canvas Boutique Hotel looks awesome. I didn’t stay there, but would definitely try to next time. Nightly rates are around $50 and its location in the city center super close to the airport is ideal.
Keep in mind Puerto Princesa has very heavy traffic so if your hotel is even just a few kilometers from the airport, it may take you half an hour to get there. There are lots of bars and restaurants in the town center that look very enticing, but I didn't get the chance to try any.
AT PUERTO PRINCESA AIRPORT, you can get an awesome 15 minute chair massage for 130 pesos ($2.30)! The perfect ending to a Palawan visit.
Palawan’s logistics, wifi speed and levels of service might catch up eventually with the demand created by the influx of tourists. In the meantime, as long as you bring your patience and sense of adventure along with you, you'll be free to bliss out in island charm!
Above: high fives in Inapupuan; zen student; island girls