I have lived in Palawan for over a year now. I am still here because I love the wide open spaces, the many beaches, the peace and quiet, the low crime rate, the low population density and the abundance of fresh seafood and its low cost.
Puerto Princesa is the major Palawan destination for Filipinos tourists. With some ten flights a day from Manila, mostly by discount airlines, Palawan and Puerto Princesa have become low cost tourist destinations. Foreign tourists still make up the bulk of El Nido’s tourists, mainly because of the high cost of flying there and the long travel time by road. Recent years have seen an increase in tourism in Coron, due to the low cost airfares and the spin-off effect of more island resort accommodation.
With increasing tourist numbers, new resorts, luxury hotels and low cost guest houses are springing up faster that one can count, especially in Puerto Princesa City. Much of the charm of Palawan has not been affected by this.
There is new domestic airport under construction in San Vicente, northern Palawan, and there are ambitions of making the 14 km beach of San Vicente into the new Boracay, but far bigger – this is a bold plan in its early infancy. Another sign of things to come is the construction of the Banyan Tree Resort, a huge luxury resort with 600 rooms on the 55 hectare Isla Diwaran near Coron. It was expected to open in 2012 but I have heard that the project is on hold at the moment.
Infrastructure for tourism in Palawan has recently become a priority, especially in road and bridge works, but reliable and continuous electricity supplies are sorely lacking everywhere. Poor internet speeds and coverage may also hamper further tourist developments.
The weather in Palawan is at its best from late February to about mid May. This is when the oceans are calmest and visibility for snorkeling and diving is best. Tubbataha dive trips only run during this period. Very few typhoons cross Palawan due to it lower latitude. The monsoons bring most of the rain to Palawan and they can develop very quickly, unleashing torrential downpours. The south west monsoon, "habagat", is from late May to October. The north east monsoon, "amihan", is from November to late February. The weather is always hot and humid. Wear the lightest possible cotton clothes to beat the heat. I recommend shorts, sleeveless shirt and sandals – no shoes and socks. Remember to always bring your hat, umbrella, insect repellant, sun-block and sunglasses.
Puerto Princesa City - Puerto Princesa City has a population of about 200,000 and is the Capital of Palawan. Puerto Princesa City and the Underground River are the most popular Palawan destinations for Filipinos. This is partly because of the large number of discount flights coming into the city every day, plus the relatively cheap accommodation available for large family groups with tight budgets. The typical Puerto Princesa two-night-three-day dash includes a one day snorkeling tour of Honda Bay, usually with pickup straight from the airport (need an early flight for this), a day trip to the Underground River on day 2 and a Puerto Princesa city tour on day 3, ending just before the late afternoon departure back to Manila.
There are 9+ daily flights into and out of Puerto Princesa. The route is served by all of the major airlines with Cebu Pacific having the most flights. Although the majority of flights are to Manila, there are some to Cebu, Coron (Busuanga) and Boracay (Caticlan).
The Underground River at Sabang - The road from Puerto Princesa City to the Underground River in Sabang is almost completely concreted now and it takes less than two hours to travel the 80 km. The bus or jeepney will take up to three hours because it will continually stop to pick up passengers and cargo. Sabang is the village from where the boats ferry the tourists to the underground river, about 15 minutes away. If you can fit it into your itinerary, consider spending at least a night in Sabang. There is plenty of accommodation there to choose from. The beach is nice for swimming but there is a strong undertow sometimes. Also try to fit in the 1 hour mangrove tour.
Port Barton (in the Municipality of San Vicente) - Not as popular as El Nido or the Underground River, but one of my favorite places in the Philippines. The main activity there is island hopping, beach lazing and snorkeling. The islands in the vicinity of Port Barton are being newly developed into high end tourist resorts, but the impact of them has yet to affect the town of Port Barton. The road to Port Barton is now passable all year round with the very worst it having been cemented. During the typhoon season it is still recommended that your van or car be a 4 wheel drive. Port Barton is only a few hours from Sabang by boat and this is the preferred method of traveling between the two towns during the peak tourist season between December and May. Getting from Sabang to Port Barton is more complicated by road as there is no direct road linking them.
Also consider a night or two at Coconut Garden Island Resort on Cacnipa Island, just a short boat ride from Port Barton town.
Taytay - You will pass through Taytay on your way to El Nido when traveling by road. Taytay was once the capital of Palawan and is most famous for its 17th century Spanish garrison, Fort Isabel. Taytay is rarely on anyone's itinerary because the place is not well promoted. I like Taytay and go there often.. Tourism infrastructure is not as well oiled as in other major Palawan destinations. Don't let that put you off. There is plenty here to beguile the intrepid backpacker - and me also. Island hopping and snorkeling are the main activities around Taytay. I especially like the hidden lagoon on Elephant Island. My next favorite activity is Kayaking and bird watching at Lake Manguao (also called Lake Danao), the largest lake on Palawan. There is also dolphin watching at Malampaya Sound and swimming in the refreshing Canique Water Fall. The best thing about Taytay is that there are very few tourists here, especially since the nearby Club Noah ceased operations recently. I usually recommend to tourists, if they can fit it in, to break their trip back to Puerto Princesa with at least an overnight stay in Taytay.
El Nido - El Nido is located near the northern tip of Palawan and is a very popular island hopping destination and famous for its breathtaking seascapes. The high cost of flying into El Nido or the long trip from Puerto Princesa keeps many Filipinos away. ITI, a private charter airline, has 3 flights a day into the privately owned airstrip at El Nido but the first preferences for seats go to patrons of the high cost island resorts of Lagen and Miniloc. During the peak season, SEAIR also has several flights a week into El Nido, but I am told that they have been known to cancel flights at the last moment if there are not enough passengers. Daily buses and vans go from Puerto Princesa City to El Nido and the trip can take between 7 and 9 hours, depending on weather conditions. By far the best way to get to El Nido is by boat from Sabang or Port Barton. There are daily schedules from December to May. Regular boats to El Nido also leave from Coron.
There is a common misconception, especially amongst Filipinos, that El Nido is a very expensive destination. What is not realized is that the island resorts can be very expensive, but accommodation in El Nido town is no more expensive than that of Puerto Princesa City, although it may be difficult to get cheap accommodation for a large family group.
This group of islands is part of the Province of Palawan and is located above the main Island of Palawan. The larger islands are Busuanga, Culion, and Coron islands. There are also some 95 lesser coral isles and islets.
Coron - The town of Coron (not to be confused with the island of Coron) is on the island of Busuanga and is the principal city - population about 40,000. It is about 300km SW of Manila. There are no sandy beaches in Coron town so you would need to stay on one of the islands to get the “beach” experience. Until recently, Coron was mainly a destination for sea wreck scuba divers who dive on the many sunken World War 2 Japanese wrecks. If you are a wreck scuba diver, I am told you will definitely not be disappointed. Because there are now four low cost fights into Coron each day, it has also become a popular destination for Filipinos, expats and Asian tourists who want to do some island hopping, snorkeling or kayaking but have only a few days to spare.
Apart from possibly a day trip to Estrella Falls, I would not recommend Southern Palawan unless you have lots of time on your hands and are prepared to travel a long way over some bad roads. I have toured Southern Palawan twice in my 4 wheel drive Suzuki. The first time was to Quezon and Brooke’s Point via the east coast road. That was in June 2009. On the second trip, which was on the Easter weekend in April 2010,I traveled via the west coast road, passing through Rizal and returning via the east coast road via Bataraza. Infrastructure for tourism in South Palawan is poor and I found it difficult to get information about places to go, road conditions, etc. It would probably be much more difficult without you own transport. South Palawan is probably for the more adventurous tourists, but the west coast circuit is also popular with 4x4 drivers and trail bike riders. The traveling distances for both of my trips was about 550km.
Buses, jeeps and vans leave regularly from the San Jose terminal in Puerto Princesa going to Quezon and Brooke’s point. There are connecting jeepney services that can take you anywhere in Palawan.
Estrella Falls, Narra - The Estrella Falls is a popular destination for locals and Filipino family groups visiting Puerto Princesa and can be an ideal picnic outing day trip. There are huts for shelter and BBQ facilities for cooking your own food. The falls are great to swim in and both adults and children should have a fun day in and around the water. Without local knowledge, it may be difficult to go the falls by public transport because it is about 8km from the main road. Best way to do this trip would be to hire a van and driver and do it as a day trip. The van can accommodate up to 12 people and the price is P3,900 (fixed price) which includes all costs. Take all of the food and drinks you need. Perhaps purchase it from one of the Puerto Princesa markets on the way. Grill your food at the falls and don't forget to buy charcoal. Traveling time to the falls from Puerto Princesa City is about 2.5 hours for a distance of 95kms. Stop at the Aborlan market on the way for a snack or second breakfast.
There are no flights around Palawan except from Puerto Princesa to Coron. The main methods of transport are jeepney, bus, van, hire van (with driver), rental motorbike or boat.
Jeepneys, Buses and Vans - Jeepneys are the cheapest way to travel, and for the adventurous types, you can sit on the roof if you don't want to be squashed in like a sardine.. The buses and vans are also usually packed to capacity but the vans have the advantage of being air-conditioned and are faster as they do not stop to pickup/drop-off people and cargo. Vans are slightly more expensive than buses or jeeps. None of the buses are air-conditioned so you can get quite dusty during the dry months.
Hire Car - The only company I know of in Palawan that rents cars without a driver is Pitstop Bike and Car Rental. They are based in El Nido but you can also pick up from Puerto Princesa. All their vehicles are 4-wheel-drive. Click here to see their contact details or here to see their rates.
Hire car or van with driver - Probably the best ways to see Palawan is to rent a van or 4-wheel-drive with driver. You can rent a vehicle just to pick you up from the airport and take you to your destination, or you can rent it for your whole Palawan tour, including all overnights. Hiring a vehicle for your whole tour opens up a range of options which would be difficult to do with public transport. It is not expensive - you will pay about P20 per km plus P1500 a day. Therefore, a 6 day tour of Palawan may cost P20,000. Divide that by 4 to 10 people and it could be a very affordable way to travel. If you want to go off the beaten track a little, it is better that your van is a 4-wheel-drive. Note that if you want to hire a vehicle for a one way trip only, you will still need to pay for the return journey as there is very little chance of the driver getting passengers for it. I personally recommend Manny from Manny's Guest House to arrange your vehicle hire - he takes real pride in looking after the needs of his customers. He can choose a suitable vehicle for your needs and also the most appropriate driver, and it doesn't cost you any extra. Click here for Manny's contact details.
Motorbike Hire - There are lots of motorbike rental places in Puerto Princesa City, El Nido and Coron. Prices vary from about P600 to P1000 a day, depending on engine size and quality. Discounts are usually available for long term rental. Be sure to get a mechanically sound motorbike if you intend to go on a long journey, especially if you have a pillion passenger.
You can play around with the schedule but this is the Palawan tour that I recommend. It can also be done in reverse, of course. If you are going by private hire car or rental motorbike, the itinerary is the same but the travel from Sabang to Port Barton and to El Nido would be done by road and not by boat.
1 – Puerto Princesa – 1 night – Fly Manila to Puerto Princesa (1 hour) – consider two nights if you are not returning via Puerto Princesa.
2 – Sabang (Underground River) – 2 nights – go by jeepney from Puerto Princesa early in the morning (3 hours)
3 – Port Barton – 3 to 5 nights and consider a night or two at nearby Cacnipa Island – go by boat from Sabang to Port Barton (3 hours)
4 – El Nido – 3 to 5 nights – go by boat from Port Barton to El Nido (4 hours)
5 option A – Taytay – 1 to 3 nights. By Bus from El Nido (2 hours max). By bus to Puerto Princesa (5 hours), stay 1 to 2 nights - End of Palawan tour – fly to Manila or go onward
5 option B – Coron – 2 to 3 nights - El Nido to Coron by boat (7 hours) – End of Palawan tour - Fly to Manila or go onward
ATMs - The only ATM machines in Palawan that take international cards are in Puerto Princesa. There are a couple of ATMs in Coron but they only accept Philippine cards. A wide range of ATM's can be found around the main entrance to NCCC, the largest supermarket and department store in Puerto Princesa. For international ATM cards, I always use the ATM from BPI (Bank of the Philippine Islands), the largest bank in the Philippines and I have never had a problem with them. The NCCC ATMs are best to use because there are often power outages in Puerto Princesa and NCCC has a backup generator while most banks do not.
Do not leave it until the last moment to withdraw your funds because the ATMs are sometimes all offline and you may not be able to continue on with your journey for lack of cash. The limit of the withdrawal is usually P10,000 per transaction, with a maximum of two withdrawals per day from the same bank. If you require lots more than that, you may need to do it over several days of from different banks. On one of my trips north I decided to get my money at the last moment from a BPI bank on the main highway out of Puerto Princesa. On one occasion, the power failed at the very moment I was waiting for the ATM to return my card and dispense my money. The ATM kept my card and did not dispense any money. It was early in the morning, so I had to wait for the bank to open to get my card back. My overseas bank credited the money back into my account, so there was only the hassle of it all.
Some foreigners find themselves in a bind when their international ATM cards will not work in the Philippines. That is usually because their bank's security has blocked access to cards in developing countries. You may need to let your bank know in advance that you will be traveling in the Philippines. I have never had this problem myself.
Foreign Currency Exchange - the best place to exchange your foreign notes is in a bank in Manila. BDO gives good rates. Outside of Manila you may have trouble cashing anything other than US$ and then with bad rates and large fees. Try Western Union, their rates may be the best you will get.
If you need money sent to you in Palawan, there are several of Western Union branches. I know there is one in Puerto Princesa and another in El Nido.
Credit Cards - Unless you are staying in a hotel or high end resort, don't expect to be able to pay by credit card anywhere for anything. Also expect to pay all credit card charges which may be as high as 7%. There will be no problems or extra charges for paying for flights with credit cards, as long as you do it through the airline booking office and not through an agent.
Sandflies - Some of the beaches, especially Palawan, have sandflies. I have been bitten on the Palawan beaches of Sabang, Port Barton and El Nido. Their bites can lead to tropical ulcers, or worse, unless you treat them correctly. I am talking from personal experience. Read my section on Sandflies.
Malaria and Filariasis (Elephantiasis) - Malaria, and to a lesser degree, Filariasis, are problems in some parts of Palawan, especially during the rainy season. The worst areas are in Southern Palawan and generally in the jungles and the small villages. I have been assured many times by locals that there is no malaria in El Nido or Puerto Princesa City. I had heard of cases in Sabang and Port Barton some years ago but have been told that there have been no recent cases.
Malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito and it is considered endemic in Palawan. Recent efforts to control malaria have shown a progressive decrease in the number of cases diagnosed and treated. Unfortunately there is the emergence of resistant cases of malaria due to poor treatment practices of communities. The common practice within the communities is to self-medicate, resulting in an incomplete use of antimalarial drugs combinations or the use of inadequate doses.
I take my biological warfare kit rather than the malarial prophylactics. Apart from wearing personal insect repellent at all times, I give my room and mosquito net a good dose of insect spray in the early evening and burn mosquito coils near my room entrance. Because you can’t carry pressure cans of insect repellent in an airplane, it is one of the first things I buy when arriving in Palawan. A friend of mine contracted malaria when his bus got stuck in the mud and he had to sleep in it overnight. He had not brought personal insect repellant. My car recently got stuck on a remote jungle track and it was many hours and well into the night before I could free it. To me this area looked like malaria country and there were lots of pools of water around. It was only a day trip but I had my insect repellant with me. I applied it generously and repeatedly during those hours so there was no chance of a mosquito or any other insect coming anywhere near me.
Dengue Fever - This is another mosquito borne disease that is sometimes fatal, especially for young children. It is widespread throughout Palawan so take the same precautions as with Malaria. For tourists the risks are very low, but a little bit of care will greatly improve the statistics of you not catching dengue.
Rabies - Rabies is endemic in Palawan and many other parts of the Philippines. If you are bitten by a dog or any other animal, make sure you go to the nearest clinic for advice and possibly a rabies shot. This is called a rabies post-exposure prophylaxis. It must be done within 10 days of the bite but immediately after would be better. The treatment is very successful, but left untreated, you would eventually die.
I am often asked by email "Is Palawan safe?" By Philippines' standards, YES - VERY! Men and women can walk alone around the streets at night without concern, especially in Puerto Princesa City. I have lived here over a year and I love the safety aspect of life here, and it is a key factor in why I have based myself here. I am often told by people who know nothing about the south that it is not safe to go beyond Brooke's point or Quezon. My fears were laid to rest on my trip to the far south as I found it to be no different than any other places in the Philippines.
Palawan suffered an almost total collapse in tourism when in 2001, two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham and 18 others, were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group. The yearlong chase by the military and death of some hostages brought negative world attention on Palawan with travel bans being placed on the province by most countries. This single event is all but forgotten now and the government has put in extra security resources to make such an event unlikely to happen again.
Dynamite and cyanide fishing have destroyed much of the Philippine reefs. A newspaper report a few years back quoted that 55% of El Nido's reefs were in poor condition and 45% were in fair condition. The testing authority for live fish found that 45% of Palawan's fish had traces of Cyanide. Although Cyanide fishing is highly illegal, it is still a common practice. Live fish are tested for cyanide and the fisherman will be arrested if traces are found. To get around this, the fishermen keep the fish in underwater cages for about 3 weeks, until all traces of cyanide have disappeared from their body. Time is running out for Palawan as the large trawlers over-fish the high seas and the squatters, driven by extraordinary poverty, catch whatever is left closer inshore by any means possible, so as to survive. The wonderful success in protecting the whale sharks of Donsol came about because the local community discovered that there is more money to be made out of showing the sharks to the tourists than there is out of selling its meat. I think that only tourism will save the Palawan environment. It is great to see the El Nido Town community’s efforts in protecting their environment. Although a lot of damage has already been done to their reefs, at least they have been able to halt it and hopefully the reefs will eventually recover.
Renewing your Philippines tourist visa or any other visa is easily done in the efficient and friendly Palawan field office of the Bureau of Immigration. You will normally be in and out within 15 minutes. It is possible to renew a week or so before the expiry date but they may consider doing it much earlier if you have a valid reason for it. Most tourists can repeatedly extend for up to a year after which you must leave the country. Tourists and businessmen get a 21 day visa on arrival and it is stamped in your passport when you first pass through immigration. No need to get a visa before going to the Philippines. You can get a first extension that will allow you to stay for up to 59 days; each extension after that is for 2 month periods.
The first extension costs P2,030 and after that it varies between about P3,000 and P4,000. It is not the same amount for each 2 month extension.
The visa requirements are simple. You need your passport, a single photo copy of your main passport page and one of the page with your entry stamp on it. If you have renewed before, also include a photocopy of the page with your last visa extension if it is not on the same page as the entry stamp. No photograph required. The single visa form you fill out is straight forward. The photocopies cannot be done at the immigration office so you must bring them with you. There is a place somewhere across the road from the office that does photocopies and there are many more on the main street in the city center.
If you have overstayed on your visa there is no problems renewing but there will be a penalty of (I think) P110 if you are over by a few days. Better to fix it up at the immigration office rather than at the airport. Don't panic if you find that you are over the visa limit; it often happens and there is no "heavy scene" as this is a common mistake. I have met tourists who obtained their Philippines visa in their home country and misinterpreted the length of stay. The visa might say that it is "valid for 3 months" but that only means that you must enter within the three months and not that you can stay for 3 months.
The immigration office is located on Rizal Avenue, just a little over 200 meters from the airport exit heading into town and on the other side of the road. The actual office entrance is at the back of a building on the second floor. The dress code is as casual as you like, i.e. shorts, slippers and T-shirt, unlike the requirements in Manila. Open 5 days a week but not on public holidays. Closed for lunch between 12 and 1.