Palawan island in the Philippines is a hidden gem. But, when people think of this island automatically think in El Nido and Coron. The fact is you just can't miss these places but, there are much more to go to Palawan. This stunning island offers good food, humble people, astounding waterfalls, crazy island hopping, amazing wreck diving, wildlife to see, marine life to look for. So, don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path. Here are 10 must do things in Palawan, the Philippines you need to check out immediately:
1. Puerto Princesa Underground River
Puerto Princesa is the capital of Palawan. If you’re going to this island you will need to pass through the capital. From 80km north of the city, there is a remarkable place: Puerto Princesa Underground River.
This is an incredible area to visit, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and voted as a New7Wonders of Nature in 2012. It was until 2007 the longest underground river. It is one of the very few that outflows directly to the sea. Sometimes seems very confusing, an underground river... How can it be? The river flows directly underneath the St. Paul Mountain Range. The rain dissolved the thick layer of limestone and intense karst processes created a dramatic landscape that you see today, with countless sharp limestones pinnacles, domes, shafts, sinkholes and the cave system.
Puerto Princesa Underground River has a total length of 24km. But, only 4.2km of it is navigable by a small boat. If you feel adventurous enough you can actually apply for a special permit to reach 8.2km of it. The passage is so narrow you can only pass by swimming between the rocky walls.
Once inside, the caves are home to a complex eco-system. In 2010 a second floor was discovered by a group of environmentalists. Apart from this, other discoveries include one of the largest cave rooms in the world, more river channels, and rock formations.
There is a great living world out there. Home to giant spiders, crabs, fish, snakes, bats, and swallows. If you plan to visit you must be aware of some facts. Expect lots of tourists, the best time to go is between January and May, they only allow nine hundred visitors per day so you need to secure your Visitor Entry Permit as soon as you can.
Unfortunately, we didn’t go this time. Because we catch a tropical storm when we were in Puerto Princesa. So, they do not allow visitors at the Underground River due to the rise of water level.
2. Island hopping in Honda Bay
As far as 45 minutes from the capital, Honda Bay is one of the must-do things in Palawan. There are lots of local agencies that do this but, keep in mind most of them don’t include snorkel gear on the price. So, bring your own or just rent there. However, they provide lunch and snacks for your trip.
Honda Bay has many islands. Some of them are Starfish Island, Snake Island, Cowrie Island, Luli Island, Pandan Island, Arreciffe Island where the famous Dos Palmas resort is located and you can also see Pambato Reef.
On Starfish Island as the name say it all. You will see lots of starfishes. You don’t even need to do snorkelling to see them. The water is so crystal clear but, this actually applies to almost all the waters in Honda Bay.
Snake Island was named because of the really long sandbar that has a snake shape. In Luli Island, you can have many activities like a diving board, cliff-jumping, snorkelling…Cowrie Island has set volleyball nets and many water activities to do around. Normally a lunch buffet is also set here for the tourists.
Pandan Island is the biggest island and most developed in Honda Bay. The island name came from the numerous Pandan trees there. If you actually want to visit this island you have to pay an additional fee of 1200PHP (22USD/20€) because it’s a private island. Arreciffe Island is also private and owned by Dos Palmas resort so, you have to pay an entrance fee separated from the tours.
It would take about 15 minutes of boat ride from the wharf to Pambato Reef. There are floating rafts above the middle of the reef which marks the location where tourists get off. The reef has a great variety of coral and fishes, ideal to snorkelling around or for the more adventurous, to dive.
3. Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center
Also known as Crocodile Farm. It’s a 20 minutes journey from Puerto Princesa town. This is not a common-place. It is a refuge for endangered, hurt or abandoned animals, created in 1987.
The institute was created also to assist in new farming technologies to raise the socio-economic status and well-being of Filipino citizens. The facilities included an educational museum for the most curious minds and a small wildlife park.
You can actually see monkeys and lots of birds’ species including eagles, hawks, hornbills and some endangered endemic species. But, the main goal of the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center is to preserve two species of crocodiles.
For this they have a Crocodile Farm, raising dozens of young crocodiles to adulthood. It’s sad how the species struggle to survive. So; they have constructed a structure that works as a hospital for disabled crocodiles. In the museum you can learn a lot about this animal, they have skeletons and skins from a crocodile on displayed and the guide will tell you all about the species.
So far, this facility did a pretty good job in education, conservation, progression and thriving of this animal species. If you are on heading to Puerto Princesa and like this reptiles don’t forget to visit Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center.
4. El Nido Marine Reserve Park
With an area of 96,000 hectares, El Nido Marine Reserve Park is a famous nature spot who drive tourists around the world to this little place in the north of the capital of Palawan. The Reserve Park itself has rich ecosystems such as rainforest, mangroves, coral reefs, incredibly white sand beaches and limestone cliffs.
El Nido is an absolutely stunning place. With breathtaking natural scenery and possess different forms of marine and wildlife. The El Nido Marine Reserve Park has 16 endemic and 10 endangered species of birds such as Palawan Peacock Pheasant and Palawan Hornbill, Palawan Tree Shrew, Palawan Stink Badger and several endangered marine turtles. If you are lucky you can also see native dugong or sea cow.
The waters around El Nido are so rich. Having more than 800 species of fish and a hundred species of corals. Divers around the world came here to dive into the 30 dive sites of Bacuit Bay. Every day, there are tour companies going island hopping around El Nido Marine Reserve Park, exploring the many islands of this paradise. Mantiloc island is one of the most visited because of the secret beach. There you have to swim through a small opening underwater between two rocks to go there in the high tide.
One of our favourite places in Bacuit Bay is Small and Big Lagoon, surrounded by an immense landscape of limestone cliffs, turquoise water, and lush vegetation. This place will blow your mind. We did go first to the Small Lagoon. Our boat was big and didn’t actually enter the lagoon. We had two options, swim until get there or grab a kayak. We did it by swimming into and it was the best option. Our advice is to save the kayak for the Big Lagoon, most people grab it in the first one (Small lagoon) so, you will find it not so crowded. It was one of the highlights of our visit, to grab a kayak and exploring every corner of the Big Lagoon. We stop right in the middle and it was such a feeling. Listen to the sound of nature, surrounded by the most incredible landscaping, we just couldn’t believe our eyes saw.
You got so much to see in El Nido. From the Cadlao island to Entalula island with the imposing rock formation, passing by one of the most snorkelling spots in Shimizu island, the Tapuitan Straight or the Pinabuyutan island with the amazing views. Even the high-end resorts are eco-friendly. They try to take less from nature e integrated with surroundings.
5. Watch amazing sunsets in El Nido (on the beach or hike Taraw peak)
It is practically impossible to think in Philippines and sunsets don’t pass through your mind. Of course, the islands offer the most unbelievable sunsets. In El Nido you are no short in options, so you better take some of your time to watch fascinating sunsets.
The most common is of course, on the beach. We saw it on the Las Cabanas beach and it was breathtaking. The orange colour on the horizon made a contrast with the blue turquoise water and the wind blowing our faces made the moment so special. Have some fresh fruits to eat and the sunset will be perfect. Normally, the beaches get crowded at this moment of the day but, we had luck and it wasn’t many people there.
Another great option for the sunset is the Taraw peak. Normally, people go to El Nido for touring the island and explore the fantastic beaches, not to hike. But, Taraw peak is a good spot to watch the sunset and we actually think the hunt for hiking is rising. When we stayed in El Nido there were many people asking to hike Taraw peak.
Most professional companies will not take you there because is dangerous. But, you will always find local guides. This mountain has everything from hiking, trekking, and rock climbing enthusiasts will enjoy. Once you are on the top you will be rewarded with a scenic view of the municipality of El Nido and the sea. The sunset there is unique, as you can imagine.
If you are adventurous enough to go for this option but, don’t forget to bring the right gear and wear appropriate clothing/footwear.
6. Island hopping in Coron
One of the must do things in Palawan is going to Coron and enjoy island life at its fullness. Coron is this little paradise where no trip is complete without an island hopping. What really captivated people from all over the world is the idyllic pristine islands and the astonishing granite rock formation.
Finding an island hopping tour operator isn’t a problem in Coron. When you put a foot on the ground there are lots of people from agencies asking if you want to do a tour. With so much to offer, from numerous islands, lakes, lagoons, limestones cliffs and dive spots, Coron is so authentic in experiences we love it from the very beginning.
We did the Super Ultimate Tour (it is only 1-day tour), we recommended if you don’t have much time in Coron but, we actually prefer to do it in 2 days and visit more places. Choose well what’s fit better for you.
There are some points in the island hopping you shouldn’t leave out. The lakes are impressive. Kayangan lake is always referred to as the cleanest lake in Asia. No wonder why, the turquoise water, stunning limestones formations and rich underwater marine life are visible even if you are outside the water. Barracuda lake gains this name because of the large barracuda skeleton finding in its waters. Another great point to visit is the lagoons, you will have Quin lagoon (we didn’t visit) and Twin lagoon, amazing place, separated by karst walls. On the first part, our boat passes by the rock formations until reaching the biggest lagoon. To reach the smaller lagoon we had to swim to an opening passable during low tide or going through a ladder for those not so adventurous.
Siete Pecados or ‘seven sins’ are seven islets attached to a legend and like no other place in the country. Local people say that 7 sisters went swimming instead of taking care of their sick mother. The sisters drowned and afterwards, seven small islets appeared, representing the 7 sisters. Great area for snorkelling, we had a lot of fun here with gorgeous underwater spectacle.
We had the chance to explore Coron Bay Wrecks, listed by Forbes Magazine one of the world’s best dive spot. We saw the extraordinary Japanese shipwreck which sunk during World War II. To complement the trip to Coron you have to explore the most amazing reefs, they are very intact so it will be a delight.
7. Explore Coron Town (Maquinit hot springs & Mount Tapyas)
Coron, this picturesque island in the province of Palawan. Comprises the eastern half of Busuanga Island, all Coron island, and about 50 minor islets. Coron town is a small fishing village who had become more popular among tourists. No wonder why, it’s so beautiful, with all-natural features, pristine beaches, dive sites with sunken warships. Coron has it all and it is one of our favourite places in the Philippines.
Apart from diving and island hopping, Coron town has some things to do; two of our favourites are Maquinit hot springs and Mount Tapyas. Maquinit hot springs are one of the very few saltwater hot springs in the world, located 30 minutes ride from town it’s a bumpy and curvy ride. We are not going to lie, it wasn’t easy to get, the road is…well not very good, big holes, but, if you drive carefully you will get there.
Apart from this, it was totally worth the ride. The hot springs water gets heated by a volcano. There is a two-tiered circular pool, the rough walls are built from stacks of rocks and the floors with peebles giving you a natural feel. We actually love the surrounding mangrove, and there is a viewpoint you can just sit back and relax.
When you enter the water it takes a little time for your body to adjust to the temperature. A few minutes later you will feel much better, just don’t stay too long. We try to balance this, leaving for a couple of minutes and getting back again later. The hot springs get crowded later in the evening so, choose wisely what time to go. We get there by 04:00 pm and there weren’t many people so, we enjoy it.
Mount Tapyas offers one of the most spectacular views of Coron town. It is the second-highest mountain in town. With his iconic new cross; the old wooden cross was replaced when typhoon Haiyan destroyed away. To get to the top is easy, you just need to go to Malvar street; once there, a sign showing the way.
The view deck is easily accessible by foot because of the concrete staircase and halfway there is a mini-park and a non-operation snack bar. Once you get to the top you will be amazed by the epic views of the landscaping. You can go for the sunrise, not so crowded as the sunset. This gets a lot of attention but, no wonder why it’s absolutely breathtaking.
Coron is not an easy place to get, you have to get there by plane (book in advance, it’s not cheap). Or from El Nido, there are ferries (some of them early in the morning). After all, this place totally worth the effort. We find a little bit difficult to put in words Coron, it was an unbelievable feeling.
8. Dive in Tubbataha Reef
Tubbataha reef is not a place that tourists search when they think about must do things in Palawan - Philippines. Why? Is one of the most inaccessible places. You can only reach this place by liveaboard boats. It is located in a region called Coral Triangle, approximately 50km southeast of Puerto Princesa, in the middle of Sulu Sea.
Although this fact, is often considered to be one of the best dive spots in the Philippines, sometimes dive trips have to be booked years in advance.
People in the Philippines genuine care about nature so, they do their best to preserve places like Tubbataha Reef. And that's what they did here. A small group of divers and environmentalists had started a campaign to save this beautiful coral area. In 1988 Tubbataha has declared a National Marine Park and in 1992 the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage.
Why is so important the conservation of this place? Well, Tubbataha have approximately 50% of all coral species in the world (359 species of corals); more or less 600 species of tropical fish; many species of sharks (whale sharks have also been sighted here from time to time), whales and dolphins; a nesting population of endangered hawksbill and sea turtles and also various species of birds including rare migratory birds.
9. Relax in Port Barton
Port Barton is a fishing town on the North West coast of Palawan. It’s a less trendy place, not very crowded yet so, it’s the perfect place to relax
The remote access and the unfinished road keep Port Barton way from many tourists. The electricity only last 5 hours a day, as it runs on generators that are turned off at night. You can find budget accommodation here because; there aren’t many places to stay.
Beyond the town, you can explore the hills, waterfalls, rice paddies and other beaches. The main beach here is not always suitable for swimming. So, most of the people go on day trips to the islands nearby.
Port Barton, it is for sure one of the most underrated places in Palawan. You must go before this place gets too crowded. Laidback at some of the untamed beaches and lose track of time.
10. Be one of the first to discover Balabac
Balabac is a raw paradise. Situated in the rich water of the Sulu Sea and have one of the most diverse and dense biodiversity in the world. The turquoise water and virgin island beaches are everywhere in Balabac making this a dreamy place.
You can explore 31 islands and some islets on the last frontier set in the congruity of the Molbog tribe and the local people. Here you can find some endemic fauna and flora, some of them, the mouse deer is known locally as 'pilandok', migratory birds, rare plants, and insects.
The biodiversity is everywhere. The sea is also rich in sharks, whales, dolphins, rays, sea turtles, tuna and many more species.
One of the most popular points in Balabac is the pink sand beach of Comiran island. Go firefly watching at night in Sebaring or for the most adventurous see the crocodiles in the mangroves and rivers.
Balabac is for sure a place to go if you like to be off the beaten path. With so many things to do, so many islands to explore we are surprised there aren’t many tourists trying to get there. So, go before it gets too crowded.
Why Should You Check These Must Do Things in Palawan?
The Philippines is one of the most dazzling countries we know. Palawan is many times listed as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Full of natural beauty, impressive landscaping, amazing beaches with turquoise warm water, rich in fauna and flora, this country should definitely be on your bucket list soon. So, if you are heading to the Philippines don't forget these must do things in Palawan island.