Palawan: The Philippine’s Last Frontier
I am admittedly a tropical girl and the idea of snow bewildered me almost the same way as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory did and as a child, I have only dreamt of playing in the snow. Powdery white, cold and fluffy, I used to have my Daddy shave ice for me and I played with it until my fingers froze and all the ice melted into water.
It was not long before I had my first experience of snow and changed my mind—I’m going for what I was built for: sand castle over snowman. Don’t get me wrong, winter can be astoundingly pretty but I still prefer climate in the tropics any day.
So how about I tell you that the top rated and consistently voted best island in the world can be found in my homeland?
Palawan is a group of islands at the southwestern tip of the Philippine archipelago—the most famous being El Nido, Coron and Puerto Princesa. I have visited all three and still cannot come up with a favorite. Each town has its own charm to it, its own character and its own variety of sights to boast of.
With a population of 430,000 and only dry or wet season all year round, Palawan is one of the islands in the country that is least visited by typhoons. The waters’ pristine and various hues of blues and greens make for a picture perfect that lure travelers from all corners of the world. Limestone cliffs, mountains and islands of all sizes abound the island and there literally are hundreds of activities to try in Palawan, not to mention hundreds of food varieties too for every discerning palate!
To keep you at your toes, I will only be discussing about El Nido and Puerto Princesa right now—because, trust me, Coron is yet another world down there, especially if you are a diver (After all, it isn’t named as the wreck diving capital for nothing!).
Puerto Princesa is proudly Palawan’s capital—a bustling city where you will find malls, restaurants, hotels and resorts conveniently located a few kilometers from the international airport. About an hour drive away from downtown Puerto Princesa is Sabang, your gateway to the world famous Underground River. It is entered through a big cave, amidst the mangrove forests, filled with bats in sheer darkness and devoid of any form of human technology. This gives the full experience of unspoiled nature that draws millions of visitors each year. For about 45 minutes, visitors will enjoy exploring the river via a motorless canoe paddled by a local guide who will show the rock formations in synchrony with the audio guide that is provided for every guest. Complete silence is enforced, as sound can cause vibrations that may disturb the ecosystem inside the cave. The boat ride will make you feel relaxed, tranquil and amused by what you will see and discover, from how the rocks were formed to how deep the water can get.
Not too far from the cave are Honda Bay (where you can go island hopping during the day and firefly watching at night), Ugong Rock (where you can go caving, spelunking and ziplining) and Dahilayan Park, just to name a few other places to visit around Puerto Princesa. Moving forward to the main attraction, El Nido is about 5-6 hours drive away but let me tell you this—it is worth it.
In case you choose to fly directly to El Nido, there are small charter planes that service the route daily at relatively higher prices, but will get you there in an hour or so.
For me, one of the biggest decisions was to choose where to stay in El Nido. The central town is a small but busy locale, where you will find the port that will take you to the famed islands. However, the farther you get from the central town, the more exclusive the experience gets. Nearby island resorts such as Matinloc, Lagen and Miniloc feature a vast array of accommodations to suit your budget and travel style. If cottages in stilts tickle your fancy, most suites would let you enjoy a seamless view while immersed in a hot tub, and give you direct access to the sea from your own front porch—all for less than the price of a standard hotel room in Manhattan!
So personally, I don’t do much planning when I travel. I just book my tickets and hotel, then I pretty much figure out everything else when I get there. This is why visiting El Nido was such a pleasant surprise! A typical first day was like this: we rented a scooter to explore the town and nearby beaches all day for about 250 pesos, had a relaxing massage for 350 pesos per person and enjoyed a sumptuous seafood dinner by the beach for 400 pesos per person. To top it off, we did stargazing by the beach front lounge of our hotel…for free! The next day, we woke up early to go on an island hopping tour where you pick the tour as if you’re in a restaurant. You see photos, choose a tour, hop on a boat and enjoy! The local government has standardized the tour rates across all of El Nido, to save you the trouble of haggling and what-not. The tours are named A to D featuring different islands that will take you to nowhere but paradise, with a bonus seafood lunch cooked on board by the boatmen while you explore the islands! From lagoons reachable only by swimming or kayaking, to underwater wonders and rich marine life, to backbending entrances into hidden lakes—the islands fall nothing short of spellbinding beauty. What else there is to find and experience in El Nido is already yours to discover. Enjoy and mabuhay!