The island of Palawan is one of the most stunning places in South East Asia and one of the top highlights of the Philippines. Compared to the more famous splodges of paradise in Thailand and Indonesia, Palawan is relatively untrodden by the backpacker tide, so visit now before they all discover it!
Where is Palawan?
Palawan is located on the far south-western reaches of the Philippines – it’s not called the Last Frontier for nothing. Boasting some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes on the planet, this little island has been lauded as the most beautiful tropical island, anywhere. As if that’s not enough, it’s also home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites –Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubbataha Reef Marine Park.
On top of all that, there’s a cost of living that’s next to nothing and a virtually non-existent crime rate too. Seriously, get your backpack on and get there now. Just read this article first.
Things to see and places to go in Palawan
Backpackers arriving in Palawan will take a 90 minute flight from Manila. Your arrival point, Puerto Princesa City, is the island’s capital and a great base from which to start your exploration of Palawan.
Together, Puerto Princesa City on the east coast and El Nido in the far north make up Palawan’s two main tourist hubs, about 5-6 hours apart by bus. Most backpackers spend a few days in Puerto Princesa before heading out to El Nido, a vibrant young city of less than 200,000 people with some memorable sightseeing opportunities.
Few people leave Palawan without visiting Puerto’s underground river. This 5-mile long subterranean watercourse was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and is without a doubt one of the wonders of the natural world. A tour to the river is a full day out and prices vary wildly (most include return transport, lunch and a 45 minute boat trip) so shop around for the best value trip, but be prepared: at peak times there can be a lot of queuing and waiting around.
Most travellers wait to get to El Nido before enjoying Palawan’s outstanding waters but a trip to Honda Bay is a great opportunity for a warm-up dive. A short drive east of the city, Honda Bay is the epitome of a tropical paradise. A small fishing village at the centre of the bay is your jumping off point into the turquoise waters of the South China Sea. Several tiny islands pepper the bay and visitors hop between them on boats chartered from the shore. Many of the islands, some no more than a sandbar, charge a small fee for refreshments and others sell freshly cooked seafood. The snorkelling here is fun and the surroundings are truly idyllic.
El Nido is something of a backpackers’ Mecca; Alex Garland was inspired to write the best-selling novel The Beach after a trip here. While I can’t promise Leonardo DiCaprio, I can promise some of the most breathtaking natural scenery in the worldand great nightlife.
If you’re a watersports enthusiast, you’ll be totally spoilt for choice. Crystalline waters lap shimmering white beaches as looming limestone cliffs rear up from the deep to meet the jungle. Get your flippers on and get out there!
The waters around El Nido are home to over 850 species of marine life and there are 30 dive sites suitable for all abilities in Bacuit Bay alone. El Nido town has several dive-shops, most of them PADI certified, so if you’ve never tried it before you can give it a go in safety.
This is the place for scuba diving and snorkelling but also – and not a lot of people know this – El Nido is a great place for surfing too. The scene is still young but surfers should head to Mike’s Point on El Nido Beach to get kitted out or take lessons. The best breaks are to be found north of El Nido.
With over 100 beaches in the immediate vicinity, beach bums can throw down a towel and not see a soul. Twin Beach, 10 miles outside El Nido, is stunning. It takes about an hour and half to get there because the roads are awful, but it’s totally worth it. Called Twin Beach because the beaches of Nacpan and Calitang sit back to back, there are a handful of shops and restaurants but the emphasis is very much geared towards relaxation.
Hike up Taraw Peak, a jagged limestone rock towering above El Nido. The ascent is tough in places, with some brief climbs, but your efforts will be rewarded with the most amazing view of Bacuit Bay. Allow three hours for a round trip, and make sure you charge your phone – the view from the top is one you’ll never forget!
Eating in Palawan
Rizal Avenue and Manalo Street are where most of Puerto Princesa’s restaurants are located. You can get pretty much any style of food you desire here, but go local for the experience and the price.
Wherever you go, try the Kamayan speciality, boodle fight. It can be found on most menus and is a great introduction to Filipino cuisine. And don’t panic, it’s not as violent as it sounds. A buffet of freshly-cooked seafood and fish, plus several delicious local dishes, are served on banana leaves. No plates or cutlery needed, just tuck in! Depending on how hungry you are, three of you can eat for less than £2 each.
Kalui (Rizal Avenue) is one of the best Filipino restaurants in Puerto but it’s very popular so booking ahead is a must. Kalui specialises in Filipino seafood dishes but is equally well known and loved for great cocktails.
If you’re pining for something a little more stodgy try Marbers Beergarden (Manalo Street). This tiny restaurant is owned and run by German chef, Bernie, and serves hearty Germanic fare as well as Asian dishes. Best of all? It serves really good, cold beer!
For a meal with a view, take one of the many island-hopping boat tours of Bacuit Bay. Most include a delicious buffet lunch cooked on board by the crew. It’s a great way for new arrivals to get their bearings in Palawan while sampling the local cuisine.
Up in El Nido, the Habibi Restaurant and Shisha Café (Hama Street) is always a good laugh with good food. Don’t let first appearances fool you – from the outside it looks a bit worse for wear, but it’s actually a really cool little hangout. The owners, Ronnie and Charo, cook top-notch food, beautifully presented. Don’t miss the crȇpes, the milkshakes or the king prawn curry – and afterwards, you can relax with a shisha pipe on the beach.
Hidden away at the end of a dirt track, Happiness Beach Bar is a little gem and a real find. A few minutes walk from El Nido beach in Sitio Lugadia, it serves an eclectic selection of homemade Middle Eastern, European and local dishes. This was my favourite ‘sunset’ bar – the elevation gives visitors amazing views across Bacuit Bay when the sun goes down. Good tunes, great food, cheap drinks and that sunset – it’s pretty much what backpacking’s all about!
Sleeping in Palawan
Not the most memorable name ever, but Kambakambak Doss Haus(Dacanay Street Road 1) in Puerto Princesa is a quaint little hostel run by super-friendly staff. Located in a quiet street off the main drag, all rooms are en-suite, have Wifi and are air-conditioned. If you’re travelling with someone else, it’s definitely a good shout.
Otherwise try the Uyang B&B on Socrates Road for great value for money. Set in a residential area and surrounded by tropical gardens, the whole experience is charming and rustic. With brekkie thrown in, you get bed and board at a bargain tenner a night.
If you’re thinking even cheaper than that there are a lot of hostels about, book your first few nights and then ask around. You can often get a cheaper deal once you’re there on the spot, and if you’re a champ at the bartering, something you definitely need to learn in the Philippines.
One of the best things I did in Palawan was to get the Tao Experience boat to Coron. A 5-night rustic adventure on some of the Philippines’ unhabited islands, sleeping under the stars. It was brilliant.
Top five experiences in Palawan
1. Get a group together and island-hop on Honda Bay – how many can you visit in one day?
2. Buy a snorkel and mask and get up close and personal with a few of the marine inhabitants of Palawan.
3. Grab a towel and some sunscreen, rent ahabal-habal (a type of motorbike) and spend the day lounging on the twin beaches of Nacpan and Calitang.
4. Get up at dawn for a morning workout with a difference and climb Taraw Peak above El Nido poblacion (town centre).
5. Take a boat trip through Palawan’s underground cave system. Yes, it’s touristy but it’s also a once in a lifetime experience.