Voted as The #1 Best Island in the World by Travel & Leisure Magazine, Palawan is the most beautiful place I’ve been to, anywhere in the world. Of all 8 countries in Southeast Asia I’ve been to thus far, I saw the most pristine beaches, lagoons, and brilliant sunsets in Palawan. It makes sense now why the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio was actually inspired in Palawan and not in Thailand. The author Alex Garland got inspiration for the story after living in El Nido for six months, but chose to set the story in Thailand instead because it was more well known to the masses.
Crystal Clear Turquoise Water
The boat trips out of El Nido truly left me speechless. Imagine Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, but with no trash and clearer water. The beaches and water near Palawan and the nearby islands have the clearest water that I’ve seen in the entire region. I’m not sure if it’s due to the country being less traveled than the rest of Southeast Asia or if the Filipinos are better at keeping things clean, or both. It probably helps that they do a good job recycling in Philippines also.
Where in Palawan Should I Visit?
There are three main locations to choose from in Palawan where the epic boat trips leave from: El Nido, Coron, and Port Barton. All three locations are highly acclaimed with plenty of nice boat trips and beautiful scenery.
As a solo traveler I chose El Nido because it has the most travelers which makes it easier to meet others. Many people have said Coron is nicer and I do believe them, however, I also hear it’s much quieter, and the scenery is comparable. I hear Port Barton is also comparable to El Nido, but with a more laid back vibe.
I don’t think you can go wrong with either choice though, it really just depends on what you’re looking for. If you have the time, consider going to a couple places. Maybe choose Port Barton & Coron, or El Nido & Coron. If I could go back and do it again I would make time for both El Nido & Coron.
El Nido Boat Trips
Schedule a boat trip out of El Nido to take in the spectacular postcard views of Palawan. The trips are named by letters, tour A, B, C, & D with each letter representing a different area of Palawan.
The majority of people will tell you tour A (lagoons & snorkeling) and tour C (beaches & shrines) are the most worthwhile tours to take. I chose tour A and the El Nido Party Boat tour instead of tour C because the only thing more fun than a boat trip in paradise is a boat trip in paradise while boozing with friends. Both tours had delicious fruit, veggies, rice, and fresh seafood.
Don’t skip this exciting day trip out of El Nido. Rent a motor bike and drive up there with some friends. It’s fun to explore this secluded beach that includes an easy hill trek, and if you’re feeling brave, a nearby island to kayak to. My friends and I found an unused kayak sitting there unused so we borrowed it and kayaked to the small island and back. My friend Pedo decided to swim back for some good exercise and bragging rights 😂
TIP: If you’re a scooter newbie, take a tricycle to the beach instead of driving yourself. The roads are gravel and muddy with lots of potholes, so it’s a pain to drive around. Be careful out there! If you damage a rental, it’ll cost you some dough.
Chances are you’ll be traveling through Puerto Princesa to use the airport to get in or out of Palawan. Stay at least one night in Puerto to make time for a trip to the subterranean river. This 8 kilometer long underground river is surrounded by limestone caverns and contains a large bat population. It was chosen as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature and is the 2nd longest underground river in the world (1st is in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula). I was impressed with how clean and preserved the area was.
The tour itself was nice overall, but perhaps a bit too much like a theme park ride. Everyone is provided an audio set and headphones that’s loaded with pre-recorded audio. As you float along the river you can listen to the commentary and tranquil music on the headphones. The music and calm voice almost put me to sleep at one point! Despite the theme-park-style tour, the river was fascinating and the audio was helpful to learn about it.
TIP: When you look up, keep your mouth closed. You don’t want to accidentally swallow a bat dropping 😜
Superman Zipline At Ugong Rock
Depending on where you book the tour to the subterranean river, you will probably stop by the cave at Ugong Rock on the way there. Take the opportunity to explore the cave and climb to the top. Then you will have the option to zip-line back to the starting point. Make sure to choose the superman position for a superman-like flying simulation.
I thought the ziplining was fun but I wish it lasted longer. There is a zip-line station in Corong Corong Beach near El Nido that looked longer and goes over the water. I want to try that one next time.
El Nido Nightlife
El Nido isn’t specifically known for nightlife, but the beach bars were always busy. There aren’t near as many bars as places like Gili Trawangan, Koh Phangan, or Boracay, but there are two or three spots that everyone goes to and they’re full of good music and party goers.
The two bars with music and dancing that I usually see bigger crowds at are Coco Bar and Pukka Bar. They’re right near each other and hard to miss while walking on the beach. You might want to get some drinks somewhere else first, and then head over to Pukka or Coco. The crowd can be overwhelming if you’re sober.
Coron, El Nido, and Puerto Princessa all have airports. The Puerto Princesa airport is by far the biggest with the most inexpensive flight options, so I found it easiest to fly in and out of Puerto and take a van to and from El Nido. Vans and buses are easy to coordinate. I took a van instead of the bus because it is faster, however, the buses actually have more leg room. If you’re tall (say > 182 CM or 6 feet) you might want to consider taking the bus if you want more leg room.
If Flying into Puerto Princesa
Stay a night in Puerto and for the following day have a travel agent book your trip to Port Barton or El Nido directly after the underground river tour. The underground river is on the way to these locations, so there is no point in backtracking to the hotel just to sleep. They might hesitate to do this as there is a bit of custom arrangement needed with switching your luggage to another van, but if you push them a little they’ll make it happen 🙂
El Nido Restaurants
Art Cafe – My favorite place to eat in El Nido. It’s a little expensive (for SE Asia), but the food is amazing and the portions are big. I got the Art Cafe pizza twice because it was so damn good and filling. You can also book your boat trips from inside the restaurant.
Cafe Athena – Excellent Mediterranean food with big portions. It can be hard to find good Mediterranean food in Southeast Asia, but this place has it covered.
Republica Sunset Bar – Don’t miss this tucked away gem, near Corong Corong beach. Go for the sunset watching, beer, and delicious appetizers. I’ve never seen such vivid colors in a sunset in Southeast Asia.
Puerto Princesa Restaurants
KaLui – The most popular restaurant in Puerto. I really liked the ambiance at this seafood restaurant. I enjoyed walking around barefoot on the polished native wooden floors and scoping out the artwork.
Kinabuchs Bar & Grill – Excellent Philippines BBQ, conveniently located on the main road, Rizal Ave.
Tiki Resto Bar – This bar is a good time and it got busy the night we went. They have pool tables, live music, and surprisingly good food for a bar.
Motor Bike Rental
Biking around the El Nido area is a blast and it’s easier than other areas of Southeast Asia. The roads are paved and marked well, and of course there are breathtaking views everywhere. The only downfall is the cost. A daily bike rental will cost you anywhere from P400 – P600 per day or around P300 for a half day. This is more expensive than other places I’ve rented in Southeast Asia, except Boracay which is insanely expensive (I remember hearing ~2,000 Pesos / day in Boracay). Granted, this is still much cheaper than rental prices in the USA.
Renewing Philippines Visa
If you’re having a blast in Philippines like I was, consider renewing your visa and staying 29 more days. Afterall, one can’t properly travel all the hotspots of Philippines with the standard 30 days visa. I mean, there are over 7,000 islands and it’s the 3rd largest English-speaking country in the world.
As I approached the 30 day limit, I knew I would need to renew. After asking around, I learned I would need to go to the immigration office to extend the visa to another 29 days. Even 59 days wasn’t enough to see everything, but it’ll have to do until my next visit!
You can’t simply pay a travel agent in El Nido, Boracay, or anywhere else and have them renew your visa for you. In the Philippines you must go directly to the immigration office in one of the major cities.
Steps To Renew
I chose to visit the immigration office in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. You’ll need a little more than 3,000 Pesos (it was around 3,100 Pesos for me, it varies per city), a copy of the main passport demographics page, a copy of the passport visa page, and your passport. The Puerto Princesa office is small and laid back. It won’t take them very long to process it if the line is short.
Poor Internet Connectivity
My only real complaint about Palawan is the terrible internet connectivity. Smart and Globe are the two main service providers. I was using Smart and it was working great at first, and suddenly it stopped working… for me and other travelers as well. Hotels and restaurants seemed to be having similar problems.
Many times I would connect to wifi and could surf the web for a bit and then I would lose data even though the connection was strong. Oftentimes I couldn’t surf at all.
While I don’t think anyone wants to be glued to their devices while chillin’ in paradise, it makes booking transportation, hotels, and meeting with friends much easier.