Our Ultimate Backpacker’s Guide to Palawan

White-sand beaches, turquoise waters, green lagoons and emerald forests – this is what comes to my mind whenever I hear “Palawan.” Not to be biased to my island province but what’s not to love? Home to bio-diverse landscapes and often referred to as the “last frontier,” tourists from all over the world flock to witness and experience this island paradise all year round.

Palawan is a narrow island about 450 kilometers long. Anywhere you go, you are never far off the coast but it’s more than just a beach haven; from reef to ridges, Palawan has a lot to offer.

El Nido, Palawan | Photo by Mica Veloso

Towering limestone formations, pristine coral reefs, marvelous mountains, underground rivers, mystic lagoons, and enchanted waterfalls, there is a long list of adventure that awaits when you visit Palawan. If you’re thinking about planning a trip to see for yourself, I hope this gets you started.

How to Get There

If you’re flying in from a different country, it is best to fly through Metro Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport and then take a domestic flight to Palawan. Although the airport of Puerto Princesa is now considered an international airport, only few flights fly in from abroad, mostly from Incheon and Busan, and Taipei-Taoyuan.

Depending on where you want to start your trip, you can also fly in from Manila to El Nido Airport (Lio Airport). Most prices are affordable although fares do hike up on peak season (Christmas, Holy Week, and over the summer). Keep an eye out for promo fares in airline websites (Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines, Air Asia) even months in advance to get the best deals. 

We’re especially excited though about San Vicente Airport which just opened for operations at the end of 2018. This enables flying in super close to our resort at Binga Beach only a 45 minute drive north from the airport on a newly constructed road up the coast. For more info see our article ‘How to fly to San Vicente Airport‘ since flights to here do not appear in the regular online booking engine websites yet.

What to Pack

For the beach bums, pack light and cool clothes. A pair of long sleeves for possible cool nights and a good old fashioned sarong that always come in handy. Sunscreen, after-sun spray or lotion and insect repellents are also a must. 

An extra pair of hiking shoes might also come in handy should you decide on hiking Palawan’s majestic mountains. Bring your own reusable water bottles so you don’t have to buy plastic water bottles again and again, it doesn’t only cut your cost, it also cuts down your waste. This is an advocacy that we’ve been trying to spread along the island.

ATMs are not always available especially when you venture out of Puerto Princesa so before you go to some remote place and think you can just go to the nearest ATM, make a mental note that the nearest ATM might be a three-hour drive or a boat ride. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted either so best to always keep enough cash on hand.

For the digital nomads, bring a universal adapter for your charging utilities and a powerbank might just be a lifesaver. Some rural towns outside Puerto Princesa don’t have access to electricity all day so if you want to make sure your gadgets are all charged up, take a portable charger with you.

For the ladies, it is vital to know that tampons are hard to come by in the Philippines. I would suggest check out menstrual cups if you haven’t made the change yet. It minimizes your monthly cost and contribution to waste pollution. 

Where to Go, What to Do

“It’s the not the Destination, It’s the journey.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance.

We know the best times happen when we least expect them, the moments in between and on the way. But on an island as big as Palawan… well, let’s just say those moments in between can easily stretch into extra hours and delays. Amusing quirks can turn into quandaries without careful planning.

For those lucky and few travelers on open-ended vacations without any worries it may not be an issue, but for the rest of us – we’d kind of like to get from A to B without error and make the most of our days.

You’re right to want to explore Palawan: the people are amazing, the places are gorgeous, it’s huge, very sparsely populated, not over-developed, and (generally) not too-crowded.

We highly recommend, if you’re crunched for time especially, to try and fly into one airport and out another. At first glance it’ll be more expensive, but if you save yourself a whole day backtracking down roads you’ve already traveled, and the cost for that transport, and the energy of that extra trip: saving that day + long transport + energy might be worth the extra $100 bucks. Not to mention it might be better for the environment, cutting out an extra trip driving up and down the island.

Our recommendations are:

  • 3-4 Days: El Nido + Binga Beach, maybe extend to Port Barton. Fly into El Nido and out of San Vicente airport or vice versa. See How to fly into San Vicente Airport
  • < 7 Days: Puerto Princesa area + Port Barton + Binga Beach + El Nido. Fly into Puerto and out of El Nido or vice versa. (this is if you like an underground cave, if not skip Puerto and focus up North)
  • > 7 Days: Puerto Princesa area + Maybe someplace down South (Napsan, Quezon, Rizal, or Balabac) + Port Barton + El Nido + Duli Beach. Going down south adds a lot of travel time, so for a less busy schedule aim for fewer places up and stay up North of Puerto Princesa
  • 7-14 Days: Same as above, can add some ‘South-of-Puerto‘ destinations and could also add Coron. With this much time flying in to and out of the same airport can make sense (Puerto, San Vicente or EL Nido) or can still do one-way entry and exits. With this much time you get to do so much more, adventure plus some relaxing beach time!

Overall, it’s important to always keep in mind that Palawan is larger than most Philippine islands and so the travel times between destinations is more. Puerto Princesa to Port Barton is several hours drive, for example, and then a couple hours to San Vicente/Binga, and then a couple more hours to El Nido.

Try to avoid backtracking as much as possible, and head in one linear direction either up or down the island.

While we’re here here’s some good news: driving around Palawan is better than ever. Incredible road construction projects are actually happening. Don’t worry, this isn’t misguided urban sprawl, we’re talking basic roads and highways between towns are being made decent. It makes all the difference in the world, though. It used to take us hours on super bumpy roads to get to our location in Binga, now it only takes 45 minutes from the San Vicente airport.

Puerto Princesa

If you’re flying in from Puerto Princesa, two to three days is enough to enjoy this vibrant city. From history, culture, local cuisine and traditional arts, Puerto Princesa is a good introduction to the island. You can also do your last-minute shopping here before taking off to the more quaint areas in the province.

Sabang Beach, Palawan
Sabang Beach, Puerto Princesa City | Photo by Mica Veloso

Check out the Puerto Princesa Underground River in Sabang, declared one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2012, about an hour drive from the city proper. There are other activities like mangrove paddleboat tour and spelunking adventures. You may also opt to do the jungle trek going to the cave instead of going with the boat. Just inform the agency you booked with.

My personal favorite is the Sabang Waterfalls, it cascades straight to the open sea and the locals made a little pool for you to enjoy a dip. It’s only a 30 minute walk along the coastline of Sabang, left of the wharf.

Back in town, explore local cuisine and traditional arts. Try the barefoot restaurant of Ka Lui which is a feast not only for your taste buds but also for the eyes as every nook and cranny of the place is decorated by traditional arts. Ka Lui serves only seafood but one may opt to go to Haim Chicken Inato in Manalo Street for their best-selling char-grilled chicken. Local arts are also displayed in the restaurant and they also play a video-montage of everything, anything Palawan to get you more excited and informed about the island.

For dinner, check out the crowd favorite Kinabuchs. You may find yourself trying one of Palawan’s exotic food, tamilok (wood worm). Just chug it down with a good old bottle of beer. And speaking of beer, one may not go to Palawan for craft beer but alas, we still have it. Visit Palaweño Brewery hidden along Manalo Street and try internationally-inspired beer crafted with locally sourced ingredients.

Also not to be missed is the old Vietville in Sta. Lourdes. It served as a refugee camp during the war. Although the village is no longer there, they still serve pho and banh mi in the restaurant.

For those looking for a mindful retreat, check out Bahay Kalipay Raw Food & Yoga for wellness retreats and nature trips. http://bahaykalipay.com/

Puerto Princesa’s Beaches:

Nagtabon

If you’d ask around the city for a recommended beach for backpackers, the answer would probably be the Nagtabon. Nagtabon is pure mix of laid back and lively coast full of foreign and local beach goers. Tents, surf board rentals, cottages and stores selling local beers and liquors dot the shore. Located 31 kilometers away from the city, this once sleepy local getaway is now a perfect place to just enjoy the sand, listen to the crashing waves, take a dip in the West Philippine Sea, relax and meet local fishers and other backpackers.

Talaudyong

Talaudyong Beach is a public, open access beach located 41 KM north west of Puerto Princesa City, less than 10 km from Nagtabon. This is a favorite weekend getaway for the locals during holidays but gets pretty empty and exclusive for backpackers during regular days. Network signal is unavailable in the area but there is electricity and plenty of cottages and tents for rent. Small stores are also available to buy basic necessities but you’ve got to get everything you need in the city or in Bacungan Intersection. Probably the next summer hotspot in the city, unusually calm cove has more relaxed and local vibe than the nearby beaches. Spend a night there – begin with watching a sunset and cap your night with music, bonfires and galaxy views.

Tagkawayan

Tagkawayan is another secluded gem not even locals can easily have access into. Neatly tucked beyond the rough road called saddle several kilometers away from Nagtabon, this 700 meter long beach is a recommended spot for camping and beach hopping. Compared to other nearby beaches such as Nagtabon and Talaudyong, this one has lesser locals and amenities. Abandoned cottages are around but I guess it’s best of you bring everything you need from the city if you want to spend a day or a night here.

If you have more time, enough food and water and is bold enough to explore more hidden beaches in the west coast, you may continue traversing the Simpocan road towards the Simpocan proper (where Baybay Beach is located) and Napsan (Napsan Beach) – the road loops back to Puerto Princesa City Proper. You may stop by public and private beaches, equally heart stopping as famous ones nearby – just ask permission from locals near the area. These beaches, as far as our experience is concerned, are free and open for campers and backpackers.

Puerto Princesa Mountains

Mt. Magarwak

This 300+ MaSL Mountain, located at Kilometer 15 north of Puerto Princesa City, is your best option if you have a very short time allocated for hiking in the city. Usually packed with locales during weekend, it is best to be hiked on weekdays to chase for sunrise and enjoy the view of the Honda Bay and the nearby mountains surrounding the city. This is also advisable for 45 minutes sunset trekking and overnight camping – 2 tents and several hammocks can fit the peak. More details here: https://wanderingkarencom.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/travel-cheap-hike-at-magarwak-bacungan-puerto-princesa-city/

Mt. Airy

Mt. Airy is another mountain near the city that can be hiked for a day. Nestled between Mt. Magarwak, Nagtabon and Talaudyong beach, this mountain boasts the view of the Mt. Bueafort (put link) Geological Mountain Range to the south, Honda bay to the left and Nagtabon Beach and West Philippine Sea to the right. This is a 600+ MaSL mountain with a difficulty level 4/9.

Port Barton

If you want to avoid the bustling touristy areas of El Nido and Coron, Port Barton might just be the place for you. Port Barton is a small coastal village three hours north west of Puerto Princesa. Island-hop to remote islands, kayak to neighboring coves, swim above sea turtles, chase waterfalls and experience the laidback island life like a local.

White Beach, Port Barton, Palawan | Photo by Shane Frances

There are some great finds in Port Barton when it comes to food like Reef Café for their mouthwatering burgers, Mabuti Eat & Chill for vegetarian dishes, and Gorgonzola for pizza. Enjoy the sunset with your favorite drink at Tres Tequilas Restobar, have a go at El Dorado’s full moon parties, and join Tribal Xperience’s party boat that can host 40 people to complete your fun-filled Barton experience.

It’s not at all hard to find a place to stay in Port Barton but here are a few recommendations:

San Vicente

Often overlooked by travelers, the municipality of San Vicente boasts 14 kilometers of long beach, beautiful waterfalls, fertile coral reefs, rich marine biodiversity and an array of endemic wildlife species. With these premises, San Vicente is being dubbed as the next big thing in Palawan.

There are several islands in San Vicente you can visit, often same as the ones being offered in Port Barton as the latter just falls in one of San Vicente’s small villages.

Where to stay:

Barangay Binga

Home to our own amazing glamping resort of Binga Beach, the Barangay includes a handful of beaches that have yet to experience much tourism despite their amazing beauty. Only recently major new roads were completed making it much more accessible to visitors and finally putting this as-yet-hidden enclave on the map.

Binga’s is ideal for backpackers as it’s located halfway between Port Barton and El Nido. Most people make that 3-4 hour trek via bus straight through, but Binga makes a great stopover retreat along the way. Why spend so long in a van?!

Our beach is Lumambong Beach, a 1.4km unspoilt white sands beach without any other accommodations apart from our resort. Right at the foot of Mt. Capoas, the second tallest mountain in northern Palawan, the area offers not only unspoilt beach but a lot of hiking and adventure with mangrove forests and jungle in abundance.

Can find out more info about the area in our article What and Where is Binga Beach.

El Nido

Once a quaint fishing village, El Nido is now swarming with travelers from all over the world. It’s hard to miss the fact that El Nido is trying arduously to catch up with the influx of tourists but once you see the limestone formations, remote islands, secret lagoons, snorkeling sites, you’ll see what the fuss is all about.


Pinabuyutan Island, Tour B Island Hopping, El Nido | Photo by Mica Veloso

The busy town of El Nido caters to most any preference so it’s not at all hard to find out where you want to go. If you’re looking for food, try Tambok’s El Nido on the way going to Lio Beach for Filipino cuisine, Altrove offers Italian delicacy, Gandhi’s Revenge for Indian food, Fat Choy in Lio Beach for Asian Food, Sausage with Benefits for obviously, sausages. Also Taste El Nido – The Vegan Café PH for colorful smoothie bowls, and Gusto Gelato for deserts.

On the second floor of Gusto Gelato is The Pangolin Bar where you can drink with a cause as a percentage of their signature cocktails are for donation for pangolin preservation, believed to be the world’s most trafficked animal. It is actually easy to go on a pub crawl in El Nido. At the end of the night, high by the booze, music and alcohol, you might really find yourself crawling.

Aside from island hopping, destinations and activities in El Nido are now slowly expanding outside the town proper so go rent a motorbike and check out the other developments.

Dive into a whole new different adventure in Sibaltan with Dive Sibaltan or surf with the locals in Duli Beach. Surfing season here usually begins October to February. Lounge in Nacpan Beach with, I can never say it enough, sunset and drinks in hand or go chase more waterfalls – you will see why El Nido is in every sense of the word breathtaking.


Ille Tower, Dewil Valley, El Nido, Palawan | Photo by Mica Veloso

I also want to share my personal favorite adventure north east of El Nido and it’s the Dewil Valley adventure tour. Dewil Valley is home to six karst caves, all of which have archaeological breakthrough – with findings of early human settlement dating back to 14,000 years ago, tiger bones, pottery, stone tools, and earliest form of cremation burial in Southeast Asia.

Nothing wrong with looping in a little bit of history and archaeology in your travels, right? Plus, the view from the top of Ille Karst Tower is spectacular.

One of El Nido’s hidden lagoons | Photo by Mica Veloso

For a good night sleep, El Nido has many backpacker hostels but here are some personally picked recommendations:

Coron

Home to Kayangan Lake, said to have the cleanest water in the country, Coron is home to numerous reefs and shipwrecks from WWII which make for astounding dives. You can get to Coron on the island of Busuanga by either flying into the island’s airport or by ferry from the ports of Manila, Puerto Princesa, or El Nido.


Kayangan Lake in Coron, Palawan | Photo by Mica Veloso

Or for a more different and may I say, exceptional island experience, sail from El Nido to Coron with Tao expeditions aboard their traditional sailboat. It will make your journey as meaningful as the destination – the trip offers a rare opportunity to spend time in nature and to connect and interact with both locals from the area and travelers from all around the world, without the hustle and bustle of mass tourism.

Southern Palawan

Napsan

For a different landscape and set of adventures, you might want to go off the beaten path and head down to the southern municipalities in Palawan. Visit the west coast in Napsan, wake up early in the morning and watch the local fishing scene in this coastal community in the west. Napsan is also home to many coves and beaches and you’d be amazed with the local surf breaks in the area.


Turquoise waters of Palawan | Photo by Mica Veloso

Stay with Kaibigan Soul Camp, far from Western civilization, away from mobile phone reception or internet signal for a total “unplug” experience. They have individual “bahay kubo” or native huts designed to cater different budgets and taste with uninterrupted view of the sea.

Quezon

For the archaeological traveler, make it a point to visit the Tabon Cave Complex in Quezon, Palawan, where one of the earliest proven human occupation took place. Although there are no displayed artifacts in the caves, you can visit it in the museum in town just before you leave with the boat.


On one of the caves in the Tabon Cave Complex, Quezon, Palawan | Photo by Shane Frances

It is approximately four hours of land travel and half an hour boat ride away from Puerto Princesa. You can also check out the nearby islands in the cave complex. Stay with Villa Esperanza in the town proper for a nice view of the sun setting behind the cave complex.

The tourism office of Quezon, Palawan is right by the bus terminal and they are very helpful when it comes to assisting you in their hometown.

Rizal

One may also find himself wondering about the Tau’t Bato, or the Dwellers of the Rock – a subgroup of a larger Palaw’an indigenous group. These people still reside on the caves in Singnapan Valley in Rizal, the next municipality after Quezon.

Although not estranged to civilization, the community still thrives on the traditional way of living. It has been featured in different documentaries and several organizations also focus on preserving their culture – one thing some often forget in the age of innovation and technology.

This area is also home to Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, the highest peak in Palawan and an occasional destination for hardcore mountaineers with 2,086 ASL, and shelter to varied species of flora and fauna.

Stay with Palawan Eco-lodge in Malakibay Cove. They have a whole surf house filled with different water sports equipment – from stand-up paddleboard, kayaks, surf boards to dive and sail equipment and it comes free for a very affordable accommodation. Mangrove forests and mesmerizing coral reefs are not to be missed when staying with them.

Palawan Eco-Lodge Habagat House – https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5237806

Palawan Eco-Lodge Amihan House – https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5226181

Balabac

Located at the southernmost tip of Palawan, with more Malaysian feeling than of local, Balabac is made up of some 30 islands and islets. Travelers might have difficulty in going around Balabac so it is best to settle prior arrangements with local guides as many of these islands are privately owned.

The area’s tourism industry is not all developed yet and it is quite the distance to be traveled from Puerto Princesa but its unspoiled beaches are often compared side by side to the waters of Maldives. Pristine sandbars, unlimited view of the sunset, fresh seafood, and its Malaysian charm are alluring to travelers looking for the road less traveled. Warning, prepare yourself for a long and tiring journey. Needless to say, the destination will very well make up for the journey.

Conclusion

I guess I can keep going on and on about Palawan, my island home, but I would have to leave the rest for you to see and experience for yourself. And while you’re at it, I hope you enjoy it. Cheers and safe travels!

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