The Palawan Rundown
Boracay is out, Palawan is in. Such is the impression one gets upon further study of the two premier destinations in the Philippines. Recent trends certainly point to a nascent rise for the big, remote-ish island province in the archipelago nation’s surging MIMAROPA region. Well-heeled, adventurous travellers are flocking here in ever-increasing numbers and, as a result, bypassing some of Southeast Asia’s usual island suspects in the process.
To be clear, however, Boracay and Palawan, while often spoken of in the same breath, represent two truly divergent types of holidays. One is a straightforward package-style beach destination with a predictable brand of drunken fun under the sun. Palawan, on the other hand, is a singular treasure and a place where, despite the ominous presence of timber, mineral extraction and offshore oil - not to mention mainstream tourism - nature has not yet been broken under the yoke of crass overdevelopment.
For the sake of everyone - locals, Filipinos at large and tourists alike - one can only hope it remains so. Because as it stands now, Palawan is without peer in the Philippines and, on the whole, much more akin to Borneo than Bohol. Feral, blessed with diverse wildlife and topographically breathtaking, Palawan is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and home to the only two natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the entire country: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park. For these reasons, Palawan, the “last ecological frontier” in the Philippines, should be a standout on any globetrotter’s bucket list.
Palawan’s Top 10
10. Palawan Museum in the capital Puerto Princesa is a fine cultural and ethnological introduction to the island, before you jet off and see the rest in person.
5. Busuanga Island, where recreational divers swim in and out of Imperial Japanese Navy vessels sunk during the Second World War.
9. Banol Beach is the sort of tropical island escape you want to bottle and stash with you on the plane ride back home. The small, curvy cove on Coron Island, in northern Palawan province, is pristine.
4. Bacuit Bay is an islet-studded paradise in the municipality of El Nido, where a ridiculous amount of rare, endemic marine life flourishes, from dolphins to dugongs.
8. Coron, for amazing rock formations and some of the best dive sites in Asia.
3. Matinloc Island, with all due apologies to Thailand, was the apparent inspiration for Alex Garland’s popular novel The Beach, the bulk of which was written while the author was in El Nido.
7. Tabon Caves complex in Quezon, Palawan, is a remarkable ensemble of well over 200 caves, a small percentage of which have actually been fully mapped and explored. Archaeological evidence unearthed here points to human habitation as far back as 50,000 years.
2. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a pre-eminent exemplar of a tropical atoll reef system chock full of rare marine life, from whales and turtles to sharks and migratory birds.
6. Port Barton’s under-the-radar status is intact, for now, but, surely over time, the clandestine beach village will generate more visitors than the current trickle of backpackers.
1. Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park features a brilliant limestone karst profile with an underground river that snakes directly into the sea. The luminary UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Philippines is a vital sanctuary for biodiversity conservation and envelops some of the most valuable forests in Asia.
- Plaza Cuartel – This plaza features unique sculptures telling the history of war in Palawan.
- Melville Lighthouse – This hundred-year-old working lighthouse can be seen from all over Palawan.
- Spanish Fort – Built to protect Palawan from invaders, this fort shows the heavy Spanish influence on the area.
- Taytay Fort – This famous Palawan fort was built in the 17th century and the ancient canon and chapel still remain.
- Cuyo Fort – This ancient and unique Palawan fort was completed in the 17th century and was once the second capital of Palawan.
Palawan Art & Culture
- Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm – This unique prison allows prisoners to make handicrafts and work the rice fields.
- Culion Cathedral – This beautiful cathedral in Palawan is still managed by Jesuits.
- Port Miller – Found in Brooke’s Point, Palawan, this water tank was made for use by the locals and colonists.
- Lighthouse Tower – Much of this Palawan lighthouse can still be seen from nearly anywhere in the area.
- Cagayancillo Fort – Built to keep pirates away, this Palawan fort was built atop a small mountain on the coast.
- Tsangge/Palengke – The best place in Palawan to find everything from fresh seafood to souvenirs and gifts.
- Public Market – The small stalls are a great place to buy pearls and other jewellery.
- The Wet Market – Lovers of seafood flock to this Palawan seafood market.
- Palawan Treasures – Those who forgot to buy souvenirs can do so at this shop.
- Iwahig Penal Colony Souvenir Shop – The handmade crafts from this shop are not only unique Palawan gifts but also support the lives of prisoners.
Gay & Lesbian Palawan
- Mircotel Puerta Princesa – This gay-friendly Palawan resort offers beautiful views.
- The Legend Hotel – A trendy hotel that caters to the gay and lesbian community.
- Miss Gay Palawan – This annual pageant features gay and transgender contestants.
- Crystal Paradise Resort – This gay-friendly resort in Palawan is a favourite among the gay and lesbian community.
- Dos Palmas – A gay-friendly resort, which offers a quiet hideaway for those looking for romance.
- City Baywalk – This area provides one of the best places in Palawan to take a walk outside.
- Mitra Farm – A great place for a day hanging outdoors with animals.
- Puerta Princesa Underground River – This system of caves is a natural wonder that is well worth the time.
- Coron Bay – One of the best places in Palawan to watch a sunset.
- Twin Lagoon – For those looking for a relaxing place to hang out or take a swim
- Fish and sail around Palawan with Royjen Charters.
- Take a hike and a dive at Kayangan Lake in Palawan.
- Snorkel in the beautiful waters of Honda Bay.
- Take a swim in Barracuda Lake in Palawan.
- Check out the sea life while snorkelling at Skeleton Reef.
The province of Palawan is made up of 367 barangays and 23 municipalities spread out over many islands, the most dominant of which is the main, eponymous island. From gorgeous natural seascapes to the city of Puerto Princesa, granite landscapes to wee Pagasa Island, the biggest province in the Philippines unfurls a host of extraordinary enclaves to discover.
Puerto Princesa is where one inevitably starts in Palawan. The first class city and provincial capital is the only urban area of note in all of Palawan and, for the vast majority of tourists, represents little more than a stoppover and gateway to more remote corners. It would be a mistake to bypass the city of over 200,000 people completely, however, as it serves up some decent restaurants, hotels and attractions of note.
Brooke’s Point is a municipality in southern Palawan Island with a population of about 60,000. Home to waterfalls, hot springs and scenic Mount Maruyog, the ecotourism hot spot is also where the famed “Pearl of Lao Tzu”, the largest pearl in the world, was discovered.
The Calamian Islands are where world class divers escape to in Palawan. A short ferry ride northeast of Palawan Island, the small chain consists of three main islands - Busuanga, Coron and Culion - and a collection of minor islands and islets. Busuanga, Coron and Culion islands teem with mangroves, coral and kaleidoscopic marine life.
Quezon, as the home of the Tabon Caves and other scenic gems, is an important municipality target for tourism on Palawan Island.
Mount Mantalingajan, the roof of Palawan, forms the linchpin of the superb Mantalingahan Mountain Range and Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. The national park in southern Palawan draws ardent interest from locals and visitors alike.
Calauit Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary spans the small island of Calauit. The preserve is a rare, successful translocation case study of wildlife from Kenya to Asia that unites impala, waterbuck, zebra, eland, bushbuck, giraffe and topi with endemic wildlife like the Calamian deer, Palawan bear cat, wild boar, marine turtles and crocodiles.
The municipality of El Nido is a lush resource protected area 240 km north of Puerto Princesa. Countless places of interest abound in the 465 km<sup>2</sup> area, from Bacuit Bay to Cadlao Island, Pangalusian Island to Cudugnon Point. El Nido has arguably the most idyllic and primal beaches in Southeast Asia and numerous archaeological sites of note.
Palawan Eat & Drink
Ecotourism, not foodie-ism, drives the tourism sector in Palawan. Still, from the markets of Puerto Princesa to rickety snack shacks on deliciously far-flung beaches in the north, you won’t go hungry in Palawan.
Ima’s Vegetarian (Fernandez St, Puerto Princesa) is run by a friendly, hospitable couple dedicated to tasty, organic fare.
Habibi Restaurant & Shisha Cafe (Hama Street, Zone 3, El Nido) has an elegant terrace for a coffee and hookah or, indeed, a more substantive meal.
Badjao Seafront Restaurant (Abueg Rd, Puerto Princesa) is the perfect spot in the provincial capital for a long, languid lunch of crustacean delights.
La Salangane Restaurant (33 Serena Street, Buena Suerte, El Nido) is one of the most sophisticated establishments in Palawan, with attentively-prepared fish and seafood and polished service.
Kailui (369 Rizal Ave, Puerto Princesa) serves inspired Balinese-ish cuisine in an appropriate Eat Pray Love setting.
Manneken Pis Resto/Bar & Divecenter (Coron) is the place to be in Coron for terrific breakfasts and burgers.
Taverna Luna (Rizal St, Puerto Princesa) is a solid Puerto Princesa bet, thanks in no small part to happy hour specials on ice-cold beer and chili crabs.
Bamboo House Restaurant (Rizal St, Port Barton) is a casual, beachfront eatery with picnic tables and well-made comfort food.
Gypsy’s Lair Art Cafe (Unit 20 Mercado de San Miguel, Puerto Princesa)is a funky joint with cool decor and freshly-made sandwiches and salads..
Judy’s (Rizal St, Port Barton) feeds hungry Port Barton tourists and locals with a truly eclectic menu, from fried chicken to tofu burgers.
In a place like Palawan, where extraordinary natural scenery spurs tourism, there is no shortage of interesting tours and things to do. While festivals are not necessarily profuse throughout the province, or publicised as such, Palawan’s indigenous heritage and wealth of Asian cultures do offer up some gems.
Pagdiwata Ritual Festival is observed by the Tagbuana people, one of the oldest tribes in the Philippines, who number about 1,800 in the Calamian Islands of Palawan. The Tagbuana have a rich mythology and deity system, which the festival celebrates with various earnest rituals and events.
Lambay Festival commemorates the start of spring and all the bounty the season remits in Palawan.
Tarek Festival is a vibrant, colourful event for the Tagbuana people of the Calamian Islands, with dance and musical performances galore.
Kalugta’n Arts Festival takes place in May in El Nido and is part of a larger effort in Palawan province to incite more cultural tourism to the area.
Baragatan Festival is a convergence of agricultural, trade and cultural interests that takes Puerto Princesa by storm in late May and early June.
When To Go
Palawan has two distinctive climates. The extreme north and south of the province, in addition to the west coast, experiences a typical wet and dry monsoon climate, with six months off and six months on. The east coast, on the other hand, has a brief dry season that lasts anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks and normal conditions with even rainfall the rest of the year. Coastal waters are on their best behaviour from March to early June and temperatures, on average, hover around the 86°F (30°C) mark.
Tourism comes to a practical halt after June because of torrential downpours, which fall in thick, incessant sheets throughout much of the province for several months in a row. While the dry season features more insistent tropical heat, the monsoon period is intolerable enough. On the whole, early March to mid-April is the most amenable time to tour the province.
What To Miss
The more commercial aspects of Puerto Princesa seem obnoxious in stark contrast to the jewels that make Palawan shine as a tourist destination. Get your fill of malls in Metro Manila, if that tickles your fancy, and indulge in what separates Palawan from the pack: singular seascapes and crisp island landscapes.
Pearl vendors are a dime a dozen in Palawan province. Avoid roadside operators and stick to reputable shops, preferably with non-commission help from your hotel concierge.
Expensive tours that promise the best of Palawan in a day cannot possibly deliver on the lofty promise and are specifically designed to dupe happy-go-lucky, carefree tourists. Choose safe, accredited operators in specific areas like Coron, El Nido et al. and circumvent flashier guides.
Puerto Princesa International Airport is the primary gateway to Palawan and provides connections with Manila and Cebu, as well as the small island of Busuanga in the Calamian Group in the northern part of the province. El Nido operates a small airstrip for charters.
Visitors to Manila can, alternatively, take advantage of the recently re-instated SuperFerry route to Puerto Princesa. Island-hoppers can ferry it as well, or splurge on more upscale sea-faring vessels, from luxury catamarans to outrigger fishing boats tricked out for tourists.
On Palawan Island and throughout, the ubiquitous jeepney is a preferred mode of local transport. Cars and other vehicles are easily available for rent.