Palawan is a long island located just off the western flank of the Philippines and a paradise from end-to-end. Best known for its bright blue waters that contrast against the karst stone cliffs of the island, this is one of the most popular resort destinations in the Philippines and is only an 80-minute flight from the capital of Manila. With plenty to explore from the gorgeous beaches, caves, jungles, and the occasional settlement offering rustic Filipino food, almost bottomless beer, and good company, Palawan offers adventures in the water, on land, and at the dinner table.
Swim in Kayangan Lake
The water in Kayangan Lake is believed to be some of the cleanest and clearest in the whole country, which is saying a lot given how famously clear the hundreds of lakes and lagoons the Philippines is home to. Located on Coron Island, which is off the northern end of Palawan, you can visit the lake on a group tour or book a private guide. After a steep climb up a wooden staircase through the jungle, you'll find the clear waters of the lake and also one of the most famous viewpoints in Palawan, which looks out on the bay between Coron and Busuanga Island.
Catch the Sunset on Nacpan Beach
There are a lot of beautiful places to watch the sunset in Palawan, but Nacpan Beach is believed by many to be one of the best. Not far from the main town in El Nido, the nearly two-mile stretch of palm-lined beach stands out for the curved strip of land that stretches out into the water and peaks into two picturesque hills. While many people decide to make a day-trip, it's also possible to spend the night at the glamping resort right on the beach, which offers luxury in the form of air-conditioned tents.
Sail to El Nido's Secret Beaches
Across the sea from El Nido, on the northern end of the island, Bacuit Bay's limestone islands loom on the horizon, just waiting to be discovered. This part of Palawan is made for island-hoppers and there are many tour guides with boats-for-hire who will be more than happy to show you the ins-and-outs of the bay's lagoons and beaches. 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. You can go kayaking in the Big and Small Lagoons on Miniloc Island or swim under the limestone opening to Matinloc's Secret Beach.
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, which is the title attraction. From Puerto Princesa, you'll need to take a bus and boat to get to the park and because limited slots are available for tour groups, it's best to book your tour with a local travel agency.
The subterranean section of the Cabayugan River is five miles long, but only about half of this is navigable by boat. You can ride a paddle-powered outrigger boat from the cave's mouth and sail about a mile into the cave and marvel at the exquisitely-shaped limestone formations and the bats and birds that call the inner chambers home.
Spot the Philippines' Rarest Birds
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 rest stop to over 170 species of migratory birds escaping the cold weather from either pole. Palawan is also home to 15 endemic bird species found nowhere else like Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), the Palawan scops-owl (Otus fuliginosus), and the cave-dwelling Palawan swiftlet (Aerodramus palawanensis). 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.
Go Wreck-Diving in Coron Bay
Six shipwrecks that date back to 1944 and World War II tempt divers of all levels of experience. Beginners can glide past the ships' exteriors, admiring the coral-encrusted cranes, portholes, and armaments, while 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 140 feet deep, with an average depth of 60 to 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.
Travelers tend to treat the capital Puerto Princesa as a very short stopover if they don't go immediately from the airport to El Nido or Port Barton. However, these travelers are missing out on a vibrant city with many wonderful things to eat and drink.
The two top restaurants both serve Filipino food, but with very different vibes. Kinabuch is like an open-air dive bar with plenty of fried Filipino favorites served with the best local beer. Kalui is more artistic with natural finishes and Filipino art aplenty. You can then top off your night with the stupendous selection of craft beers available at Palaweño Brewery. 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 and limestone 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 cannon-fire, 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.
Go on an African Safari at Calauit Island
The former dictator Ferdinand Marcos had some crazy ideas, but few were as wild as the 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 can 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. The African imports mix easily with some local large animals like the 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. It's located about 12 miles west of Puerto Princesa and tours and visits can be easily arranged. 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.
Iwahig is an active prison spread across over 20,000 acres with some 4,000 prisoners on site. Here, prisoners can choose to farm on their own plots of land or create products that they can then sell to the tourist trade. Family members are even allowed to come live with them. A merit system allows prisoners to earn points and profits that go towards their release—trades include fisheries, carpentry, and farming.