When you're named the world's “best island” three years in a row, travelers tend to take notice. Travel & Leisure magazine so honored the Philippines island of Palawan – and who can blame them?
This thin, long island on the Philippines' western flank feels like paradise from end to end, thanks to its gorgeous karst limestone geography. Gorgeous beaches, caves, mountains and jungles, with the occasional settlement offering rustic Filipino food, almost bottomless Filipino beer and good company: this is the perfect recipe for an island getaway you'll never forget!
Sail to El Nido's Secret Beaches
Across the sea from El Nido, Bacuit Bay's limestone islands loom in the horizon, just waiting to be discovered. There's honestly no point to visiting El Nido if you don't go island-hopping around the archipelago's many beaches.
You can go kayaking at Miniloc's Big and Small Lagoons, or enjoy finer white sand and clearer water at 7 Commandos Beach, or rediscover Matinloc's Secret Beach.
Motorized outrigger boats may easily be hired from multiple providers around town. Just check with your El Nido hostel, hotel, or resort; many resorts and pension houses have their own craft for hire or will recommend a trusted outside provider.
Island tour packages and rates have been largely standardized by the El Nido Pumpboat Owners and Operators Association, although some price variations may occur based on the added services each provider offers. Basic island-hopping tours range from PHP 1,200-1,400 (US$ 23-27, and discover what $100 can get you in Southeast Asia).
Explore the World's Longest Navigable Underground River
The Cabayugan River flows down from the Saint Paul mountain range within the 22,000-hectare Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, before descending into a cave. The subterranean part of the Cabayugan River is the park's title attraction.
The underground section of the Cabayugan River is five miles long — about half of this is navigable by boat. Visitors can ride a paddle-powered outrigger boat from the cave's mouth and sail about a mile into the cave, marveling at the exquisitely-shaped limestone formations within the cave and the bats and swiftlets that call the inner chambers home.
Millennia of water flow have created picturesque stalactites and stalagmites that local guides have named: "Carabao" (a stalagmite that looks like a water buffalo), "Sharon Stone" (a formation that kind of looks like a shapely woman), and a stalagmite formation named after the "Holy Family".
Despite the "Puerto Princesa" in the name, the underground river park requires a separate bus-and-boat jaunt away from the capital. As limited slots are available on a daily basis for tour groups, tourists are advised to seek the services of local travel agencies to book a tour.
Commune With Fireflies on the Iwahig River
No electronics, no cameras, just your small group canoeing on a still river in pitch-black darkness waiting for the firefly show to begin. Put your cameras away; only the most powerful professional cameras can pick out the ethereally bluish swarms of fireflies that flit from the mangroves along the Iwahig River. (Take it from this writer – he tried and failed.)
Travelers are herded three at a time into a small outrigger canoe, manned by a guide who paddles his charges about a kilometer upstream and back (see image). The boat glides past the mangroves that the fireflies call home — the flies put on a lightshow as you sail past.
Tours begin past 8 p.m., and cast off from a small dock in Iwahig town, some 45 minutes' drive from the capital Puerto Princesa. Tours are easily arranged through most area hotels.
Discover the Philippines' Rarest Birds
Wherever you end up along Palawan's length, you'll only be a few minutes' drive away from some of the best birding sites in the Philippines. Birdwatchers swear by the hidden corners and far-flung places where they've seen and heard the island's avian residents in action.
Palawan is an important stop for birds flying this hemisphere's migratory routes. The East-Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF) runs between the northern Arctic Circle and New Zealand, with Palawan in the middle offering a breather to over 170 species of migratory birds escaping the cold weather from either pole.
Even without counting the part-timers, Palawan offers 15 endemic bird species found nowhere else. Birders gladly go out of their way to check these birds off their list, including the Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), the Palawan scops-owl (Otus fuliginosus) and the cave-dwelling Palawan swiftlet (Aerodramus palawanensis).
Go Wreck Diving in Coron
A surprise 1944 raid on fleeing Japanese ships gave Palawan's Coron Bay its most precious asset yet. On September of that year, 24 Helldiver bombers found a Japanese supply fleet and took 15 minutes to blow them all up.
In the present day, the six shipwrecks offer a tempting target for divers of all levels of experience. Beginners can glide past the ships' exteriors, admiring the coral-encrusted cranes, portholes and armaments. Expert wreck divers can enter the ships and discover a dark, lost world of abandoned engine rooms, scattered personal effects and bomb holes opening to the deep.
Coron's wrecks range in depth from 10 feet to as deep as 140 feet, with an average depth of 60-80 feet. Motorized outrigger boats called banca take divers from Busuanga Island to the wrecks, which are clustered surprisingly close together: you can spend several days just picking your way through the shipwrecks and dodging the considerable marine life in the area, including yellowfin tuna, groupers, scorpionfish and sea turtles.
Eat, Drink &; Be Merry in Puerto Princesa
Travelers tend to treat the capital Puerto Princesa as a very short stopover, if they stop at all! After arriving through the Puerto Princesa International Airport, most take a van immediately north to Port Barton or El Nido.
They don't know what they're missing: a vibrant city with plenty of dining and drinking to do!
The capital's two top restaurants both serve Filipino food, but with very different vibes. Kinabuch feels like an open-air dive bar for tipple-heavy friends, with plenty of fried Filipino favorites served with the best local beer. Kalui feels like a Filipino artists' fever dream, with natural finishes and Filipino art aplenty.
Finish your night with the stupendous selection of craft beers available at Palaweño Brewery, ranging up and down the IBU from a light Palaw'an honey kolsch to the hoppy Ayahay IPA. The barkeep will happily serve you a flight of their current beers on tap!
Guard Against Invaders at Taytay Fort
Called Fuerza de Santa Isabel by its Spanish builders and Taytay Fort by present-day locals, this coral-limestone-walled fort was built in the early 1700s to defend Taytay against pirates and slave raiders.
The roughly square-shaped fort occupies an outcropping over Taytay Bay; from this vantage point, defenders could rake the bay with cannonfire, sinking any foolhardy pirate ships within range. Climb up the stairs into the fort’s upper levels and you arrive at what looks like a small park, with benches overlooking Taytay Bay and presently dormant cannons still looking out to the sea, as if still on guard against pirates.
A recent PHP4.5 million ($90,000) renovation effort is currently restoring the chapel in the middle of the fort and introducing shops and an interactive museum to the experience.
The town of Taytay is located some 136 miles north of the capital Puerto Princesa, and can be visited as a detour on the way to (or from) El Nido. Location on Google Maps.
Go on Safari at Calauit Island
The departed dictator Ferdinand Marcos had some crazy ideas, but few of his brainstorms beat his vision of an African Safari in the north of Palawan. In 1976, Marcos talked the Kenyan government into donating African mega-fauna to the Philippines and proceeded to stock Calauit Island with giraffes, zebra, and antelope.
You'll ride or walk around several established trails and feeding stations to see the few dozen giraffe and zebra that were descended from the original arrivals. (Several species of antelope can also be seen, but mainly from afar.)
The African imports mix easily with some local large animals as well, among them Calamian deer and wild boar.
A safari to Calauit can be easily arranged from the town of Coron — any hotel or resort around Busuanga Bay will be glad to direct you to their partner tour agencies.
Explore a Prison Without Walls at Iwahig
Established during American rule in 1902, Iwahig was first conceived as an overflow facility for prisoners from Bilibid Prison in Manila. Later administrators took advantage of the terrain to convert Iwahig’s purpose from punishment to rehabilitation.
Iwahig has some 4,000 prisoners on site. They can choose to farm on their own plots of land, or create products that they can then sell to the tourist trade. A merit system allows prisoners to earn points and profits that go towards their release—trades include fisheries, carpentry, and farming.
The tourist experience includes a dance routine performed by select inmates, and a visit to a graceful old building—formerly a recreational center for prisoners—that now showcases the prisoners’ handiwork for sale.
Located at Barangay Iwahig some 12 miles west of Puerto Princesa, the penal farm takes some 30 minutes to drive to. Arrange for a trip with a local tourism provider or hire a car to take you there.