A Guide to the World’s Best Island: Palawan, Philippines

“The water is unbelievable! I’ve never seen anything like this before,” we heard an American woman comment on the El Nido waters. Of course, as Filipinos those were overwhelming to hear not only because we heard them from a foreign person but more so from someone who’s been talking about how she’s been to several places in the world already. It’s the world’s best island for two consecutive years according to Travel and Leisure magazine, and obviously for good measure.

 

In this post, I’ll be sharing our do-it-yourself itinerary and the costs journeying the most beautiful island there is – Palawan.

 

Before coming over, I and my friends were quite hesitant about a DIY itinerary in Palawan. It’s going to be costly and risky. The beautiful places are far from each other and the transportation is still limited. Yet at the very last minute, we ditched the travel agency we’ve contacted for a tour and decided to venture all by ourselves. I’m telling you right now, that was the best decision we made in this trip (and we saved ourselves a couple of bucks).

 

It’s worth noting that when budgeting for a Palawan trip, you need to know whether you’re traveling during the low or peak seasons as prices are double (or triple!) on the peak season compared to the low season. According to a local we conversed, peak season in Palawan runs from November to May while the low season is from June to October. Ours was on an August and honestly, we preferred the low season since there are less tourists (and again, we saved ourselves a couple of bucks).

 

Port Barton: The Next Thing in Palawan

 

The place might not be as famous as El Nido or Coron, but it’s worth spending a few days or so for. I’m talking about Port Barton, an out-of-place town in the middle of Palawan. The place is like time traveling to a certain period in the early 2000s when the internet was limited (or in my case, none at all), electricity is time-scheduled (6PM – 12MN) and the  locality is plain simple. When we were dropped by the van we rode from San Jose terminal in Puerto Princesa to our homestay in the town, I and my friends could not contain our reactions. The town was creepily quiet (not like how we were so used to living in the city) yet serene and relaxing at best. The town is the perfect spot if you’re looking for what they call me-time. My friend even said that if she’d be broken hearted, she’ll impulsively book a flight to this place (which is not entirely an absurd idea).

 

If you need to use a little bit of adrenaline, Port Barton has also many activities you can enjoy, the most common of which is island hopping. For just Php700, you can scout for tour agencies within the area and  book a day tour of the many islands that pepper the place.

 

Then there’s also kayaking. Even at what’s supposed to be a rainy season, the sea was calm enough for kayaking. Venture a little farther from the shore and you’ll have a spectacular view: waters in jade green below, the blue sky dotted with white clouds above and the vast expanse of the green mangrove trees in between. The view pulls strings of the heart (something I’ve never felt before). An ikebana of nature.

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Kayaking is splendid in Port Barton.

And snorkeling! I’ve had my fair share of snorkeling experiences in many places before but that what I took in Port Barton will forever hold a special place in my heart. Why? Because I saw a manatee, my first time! I’m going to say that again. I saw a MANATEE; a sea cow; in the wild; swimming and swirling gracefully and freely in the ocean alongside swarm of colorful fishes. She was a meter away from me, and I couldn’t get closer. She’s quick and she felt unreal. As a testament to the rarity of this event, our guide who’s lived in Port Barton his entire life of more than 20 years has never seen a dugong before. I’ve only been in Palawan for 2 days and God has afforded me the sight of His beautiful  creature. It was a humbling experience.

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We swam along a tortoise!
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God has blessed this place several ocean life forms.
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This place is love.

We stayed in Port Barton for three days and here are our costs (per person):

Port Barton

Note that these are the costs during a low season. If you want the costs for a high season, then double everything. Also, you might have noticed that meals are expensive. You noticed right, because food in the place is insanely pricey (and that’s not even luxury eating yet). If you’re planning to save, better bring some ready-to-eat goods with you,

 

El Nido: A Haven Can’t Be Explained Enough

 

When people say Palawan people think of the skyrocketing island rock formations floating in unbelievably clean and clear turquoise waters. The thing is you’re not thinking of Palawan, but a facet of it – that is, El Nido. Translated as The Nest, El Nido made Palawan famous around the globe. The town is surrounded by walls of rocks as tall as city buildings, giving El Nido the feeling of being enclosed, secluded, separated from anywhere else. Few meters walk and you’ll see yourself captivating at the beach view.

 

To make the most of your time in El Nido, island hopping is a must. Island hopping in El Nido is divided into four tours: Tours A, B, C and D. Many from the locals we talked recommended tours A and C and since we’re only staying for three days we chose those tours. Perhaps if given more time, we would’ve availed everything. Anyway, the tours can be in groups or in private (then you’ll have to pay more). We chose the group tours since we’re on a budget and we thought them as perfect chances to meet people.

 

However, if you want a beach for free then there’s the Las Cabanas Beach or Nacpan Beach down farther. A word of warning: those beaches may be free but they are inexplicably gorgeous. You might not want to leave.

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Trying to do some shots along Las Cabanas beach.
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They say sunset in Las Cabanas is breathtaking. Sadly, it was cloudy when we’re there. Nevertheless, everything is still exceptional.

We first had Tour C while Tour A on the next day. Truly, these were the best tours because of two phrases: rock formations and lagoons. All of the beaches (and those that composed it: sand, waters, sea creatures) in El Nido are superb but they can be easily compared to other famous beaches like in those in Phuket, Thailand (read about my Thailand travel here). But El Nido’s rock formations and the small and big lagoons – they are unique, they can never be found anywhere else (or so I guess). We were traversing the waters of the small lagoon when we heard one comment from an American woman, “The water is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I hope those words were enough to picture the beauty God has blessed El Nido with.

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Paddling on the surface of the El Nido waters.
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El Nido is a good snorkeling site too!
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It takes an actual eye to marvel at the astounding rock formations in El Nido.
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Of course, we’re more than willing to take the risk of taking a photo on a boat’s edge.
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Here’s another angle.
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And that familiar photo along the seashore, El Nido has the perfect backdrop.

We stayed in El Nido for three days and here are our costs (per person):
El Nido.jpg

Again, these are low season costs and just like in Port Barton meals are also expensive in El Nido.

Puerto Princesa Underground River (National Park)

Lately, Palawan is starting to be known for another acclaimed site: the Puerto Princesa Underground River. Dubbed as the longest underground river in the entire world, it is listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The only con we experienced in this part of our Palawan itinerary is that the entrance to the river is expensive (not costly, but expensive). When we asked the driver we commissioned why is that so, he explained that the high costs reduce the number of people coming to the underground river (thereby protecting it) and the maintenance cost of the site is demanding as well.

 

But ultimately we realized that what we paid was nothing compare to the thrill of experience the course has brought us. It was religious: communing with nature. Completely dark and peacefully silent but for the echoes of the bats, the experience is like going back to our natural, environmental roots.

 

Along the way, we saw astounding natural stalactite and stalagmite sculptures: huge vegetables, animals, even a teasing Sharon Stone. But what really made us gasp was what they call The Cathedral. We were carefully boating in a narrow cave when suddenly we’re welcomed by a humongous dome, much like a dome of a cathedral without the stained glass windows. To amaze us more is knowing that all of the recognizable rock formations were religious-related as well: a veiled Virgin Mary, a giant candle, the Holy Family,  an archangel, a reenactment of The Last Supper and Jesus’s face. Our audio guide said these stalactites and stalagmites took million of years to be created through heat, wind, sedimentation and erosion. That alone should amaze us. “Thankfully, nature is a patient artist,” affirmed our audio guide.

 

On our way out the cave we were told that despite the darkness and silence, the underground river is a home for thousands, even millions, of species. Indeed, “even at the deepest, darkest part of nature, life blossoms.”

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The Underground River took million of years to create. Thankfully for us, nature is a patient artist.
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In the deepest, darkest part of nature, life blossoms.

For information, tours do not cover the entire underground river. In fact, you may only cover a quarter (or one-eight) of the whole length of the subterranean river. But surely whatever you’ll get is enough to prick a bit of your humanity. Our underground river and Puerto Princesa City tour was packed in one day. Here are our costs (per person):
Underground

Again, these are low season costs, and since there are already fast food restaurants in the city of Puerto, food can be cheaper.
Places to Look Forward To

As you might have noticed, we spent a complete week with that itinerary. But the thing is there are still a lot of places in Palawan that everybody should go, particularly Coron. I and my friends all agreed that this island is one you can always come back and feel amazed over and over again. And we promised next time, we’ll explore more. For now, that would be it. So whatever your worries about Palawan being costly and difficult to traverse, don’t drop them off. But remember that everything is going to be worth it. Take that from someone who’s been there and wants to be back again.

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Exploring the Exotic Camiguin

Northwest of the Mindanano island, Philippines is the exotic island of Camiguin. Indeed, its geography of four active volcanoes in one island is unmatched anywhere else in Asia. Riding a ferry from the coast of Misamis Oriental, I can only stare at one of its steaming volcanoes, Mt. Hibok-hibok, as the swerving water transport approaches the Port of Benoni, Camiguin. The journey was long, but like any other journeys, it was worth it.

The island of Camiguin is the perfect stop to one looking for a getaway from civilization. There are areas where signal is low so you have no choice but to forget about Twitter and keep that mobile phone away; few people and simple human habitations and roadside cliffs peppered with lofty rainforest-like trees. In fact, I decided to go there along with my sister and her friends not just to travel and create this entry but more so to calm my mind amidst the busy and demanding work of an auditor.

Anyways, our first stop was the Sto. Nino cold spring, with cool and relaxing waters coming out straight from a mountain’s bottom. The moment I submerged my toe in its pure water, the relaxing chill reverberated to my entire body.

Later that day we went to the Sunken Cemetery. Needless to say, the cemetery is covered by meters of oceanic waters with only a huge crucifix emerging above the surface. The place dates back thousands of years ago during the Spanish era around 1500s. A combination of all of that creates the surreal, historic, somehow terrifying yet overall, invigorating feeling. There were foreign tourists snorkeling and watching underwater tombstones when we arrived.

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The setting-sun background of the Sunken Cemetery magnifies its surrealism.

The next day we went to one of Camiguin’s famous spots which in my opinion is the iconic symbol of the place, the Camiguin White Island. The treeless, all white sand landform is located in the middle of the sea kilometers away from mainland Camiguin. And to sum up my experience there is the word breathtaking: the fine sand comprised of white rocks and seashells powdered by the coming and going of the rhythmic waves is breathtaking; the sun kissing and slightly burning your skin and then cooled by the breeze as it passes by to blow the hairs of ladies captivated by the view of steaming green volcanoes far away. Breathtaking.

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A cheap but delicious local food. 

 

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My snorkeling experience has been fantastic, given the fantastic waters.

Truly, when I came back for work after that trip, I was more ready.

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Coming back home with a more positive mood

Make sure to come in Camiguin, too!