Palawan Island has raised more than a few eyebrows in recent years, boasting the impressive accolade of 2017’s ‘Best Island’ according to readers of Travel + Leisure. And the really juicy bit is, this is business as usual: For the third time in five years, globetrotters have named Palawan their top travel experience. We’d have to agree. Here are ten reasons why we fell in love with Palawan.
- Nacpan beach
Our favourite beach in Southeast Asia and, so far, ever. Nacpan is a broad stretch of white sands overlooking another stunning beach on a distant island. A stroll down its entirety will take close to an hour; the western side giving way to limestone and woodland, with front-row tickets to a glorious sunset and the distant mountains.
Nacpan takes about 45-minutes to reach in a shuttle from El Nido, for about 500 pesos (we wouldn’t recommend a tricycle, though plenty of people use them). More adventurous travellers will opt to ride a motorbike down. It’s easily doable, just don’t get lost. Our favourite thing about Nacpan is not just the stunning beauty—swooping palms sheltering multi-coloured houses and boats—but it’s relative secrecy. We’re unsure why Nacpan was so empty, but there were probably fewer than 100 people across the whole stretch, and no one bothered you trying to sell drinks or beads or waterproof cases.
With Nacpan you can have your cake and eat it—literally. After spending the day feeling lost from civilisation you’ll find two restaurants located near the shuttle point. Our favourite for quality and service was Sunmai, but expect very expensive prices for Asia. A cocktail will cost upwards of 500 pesos; prices that’ll make you feel you’ve come home early. But in our book, you can’t really put a price on the euphoria of sipping a refreshing drink, on one of Sunmai’s swings, while taking in some of the most serene views in the whole of Asia. As for the icing on the cake, there are waterfalls nearby just waiting for you to explore.
- El Nido
El Nido is the jewel in the crown of Palawan, nestled between cliffs of limestone and overlooking the visually gorgeous Bacuit Bay. A boat trip into the heart of the Bay will reveal hidden beaches, secret lagoons, cave networks, holy shrines; blue, green and yellow corals, and Filipino history. At lunch time, prepare to relax under the shade of a palm as fresh fish are barbequed right in front of you.
Where else in the world can you kayak into a small opening of rock, only to find a shallow arena of green water on the other side? Where else can you swim under what looks, at first, an insurmountable cliff, only to find a beach that can be accessed in no other way? They are the islands that inspired Alex Garland to write his infamous novel ‘The Beach’. They are the islands of dreams.
The town itself boasts hipster vegan bars, four-star hotels, a pedestrian-only road at night, pizzerias, late-night drinking establishments, ice cream parlours, and a myriad of restaurants from many cultures, yet still retains—in our opinion—an intimate charm. Half a dozen steps away from Rizal Street will take you worlds apart, back in rural Asia: where you can dine on street food for under £1 and watch the children play football at the local playing pitches.
For many Coron is the new El Nido. We often overheard why Coron proved so alluring for travellers and that’s because fewer people go there. (Although that is undoubtedly changing.) There are abundant places in El Nido town where you can purchase a fast ferry ticket to Coron, which will cost around 1, 800 pesos and take more than four hours. Diving enthusiasts will be able to submerge themselves into waters populated by ruinous Japanese warships dating from the Second World War.
- The Subterranean River
One of the great wonders of nature and rightfully represented on the 500-peso note, Puerto Princesa’s underground river has basically hollowed out one of Palawan’s epic limestone mountains over the millennia, leaving behind a vast cave network. In addition to being located in a place of outstanding natural beauty, many tourists have had spiritual experiences in one of the larger sanctums—appropriately nicknamed “St. Pauls” (after the cathedral in London), where the stalagmites and stalactites seem to have eerily assembled into biblical figures. All this, of course, will be pointed out by your guide—just don’t look up, in case a bat poos in your mouth.
It was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip. Don’t believe us? Just check TripAdvisor. Here’s a tip: If you want to make the most of a day travelling from Puerto Princesa to El Nido then do the underground river tour on the way. Its location is only a slight detour, north on the island. You can arrange for your transportation to drop you off at a bus terminal in Sabang, where another shuttle will come and collect you for El Nido.
- Marimegmeg beach
El Nido beach ceased to exist years ago. Now it’s basically just a sand promontory for hungry tourists window-shopping the many restaurant menus at dinner hour, or a hop on/off point for the island-hopping tours. Fortunately, Marimegmeg beach (or Maremegmeg or even more confusingly, ‘Las Cabanas’ depending on who you speak to) is only a short 15-minute tricycle ride away, at the cost of between 50-100 pesos.
We instantly fell in love with Marimegmeg, which opens out into the lovely sandstone islands of Bacuit Bay—you can even walk to one of them using a sort of ‘pebble bar’. In addition to being a great place to watch the sunset and ride the epic zipline, it’s just a great place to chill with good food and drink. We loved the Beach Shack in particular and, if you’re there at the right time of month, there are full moon parties to enjoy, too.
Marimegmeg is one of the busier beaches in El Nido, but the majority of sunbathers tend to stick to the restaurants. A 15-minute walk down the beach will allow you to relax more or less on your own and, in our opinion, in a more scenic part.
Leave your bottles of water in the hotel and purchase a coconut for 100 pesos. It’ll keep you hydrated for the better part of the day and the coconut’s tough exterior will keep it cool. Once you’ve finished and, if you’re feeling peckish, ask the staff to crack it open—you’ll be able to eat the milk inside.
- Firefly watching
The perfect way to spend the afternoon in Puerto Princesa and we have a great tip: ditch the official tours and make your own way there, either in a tricycle or via a taxi, at around 5:30pm. Not only will the experience work out much cheaper— you’ll beat the crowds. The tours generally cost 1,500 pesos each and include a (poor) dinner. But the boat required to view the fireflies can be rented for only 600 pesos. Just be sure to slather yourself in mosquito-repellent because the little critters are everywhere as you get nearer the water.
- Nagtabon beach
Our last day in Puerto Princesa involved a final trip to what is supposedly one of the more stunning beaches within reach of the City (and importantly for us, the airport). The locals will usually provide you with a shortlist of beaches including the much nearer Kalayaan and Pristine beach but almost all of them recommended Nagtabon. It’s entirely possible Nagtabon was insisted upon us because it generally secures a day’s work for a tricycle driver. However, this same advice was repeated to us by our hotel staff who—we assume—had nothing to gain from twisting our arm. (Readers who have visited Kalayaan and Pristine beach are welcome to write to us about their experiences.)
The biggest surprise for us was that Nagtabon was easily the most under-developed beach we’d seen in Palawan. Its remoteness (45-minutes to an hour via tricycle) meant there was no electricity at the beach and, consequently, no restaurants or toilets. There’s no mobile phone reception, so be careful. There are basic shops on the beach run by locals. They’ll be able to give you a cool bottle of beer from a freezer-bag that’s kept in the shade. And in addition to crisps and chocolate bars they’ll be able to somehow provide hot water for a tub of noodles.
The surf is great in late afternoon, but people seem to prefer wading into the sea and attempting to jump over the waves instead.
- No typhoons
Being on the westernmost point of the archipelago, Palawan is the most sheltered part of the Philippines. That isn’t to say the island doesn’t suffer from bad weather; on the contrary, there can be severe storms during the rainy season—but typhoons coming in over the Pacific rapidly run out of steam as they expend energy on the unfortunate Filipino settlements to the east.
Surfers might even take advantage of tumultuous seas as typhoons rage hundreds of kilometres away.
- Port Barton
For some travellers El Nido is already getting too busy, and for them Port Barton is the easily accessible alternative. This place is ultra-chilled and even has its own island-hopping tours far from the madding crowd. It’s location between Puerto Princesa and El Nido is the perfect jumping-off excuse for those who want to break the six-hour shuttle ride into more manageable chunks. Just don’t expect permanent electricity and an even more insufferable WiFi.
- It’s not too crowded…for now
Palawan has been nicknamed the ‘last frontier’ by some due to its relatively remote location. The unpredictable WiFi, semi-permanent electricity grid, and embryonic tourism sector are growing pains of an island still in adjustment to a newfound popularity. That being said, it was a pleasant surprise to discover just how competent and professional the tour operators were. In terms of quality, Palawan ranked with the highest we’ve seen anywhere in Southeast Asia—second only to Singapore.
We unwisely referred to a two-year-old edition of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring before heading out and, as a result, expected a sort of Southeast Asian ‘wild west’. How wrong we were and how things have developed in three short years. Palawan’s phenomenal progress is detailed to some extent on the YouTube channel Lost LeBlanc. Christian LeBlanc, the channel’s daily travel vlogger—with a particular affinity for the Philippines—documented in 2015 and again in December 2017 just how much the area has changed, as it prepares to welcome an ever increasing number of tourists.
Like us, LeBlanc has a particular love letter for Nacpan beach. As of our visit (in January 2018), the beach is still mostly empty—albeit with one of two restaurants and half a dozen sun-loungers. But as the most recent Shoestring edition of Lonely Planet warns us, “Change is imminent”. So if you value a holiday destination with a mixture of civilisation and isolation all within a 40-minute drive, be sure to visit the island sooner rather than later.
Interested in visiting The Philippines? Read our top ten tips article for travelling there.