Palawan, A Hidden Paradise









Just one of the fun things you can do in Palawan…

To most tourists, including many Singaporeans, when they hear about a beach holiday in the Philippines, they’d only think of Boracay. While I must admit that having been to Boracay, it is pretty nice and the embodiment of what a tropical beach paradise should look like, there are plenty of other islands in the Philippines that offer the same thing but without the crowds of tourists.

One of these islands is Palawan Island which is located in southwest Philippines. It’s the fifth largest island in the Philippines archipelago and has been voted “The Most Beautiful Island in the World” by both Conde Nast and Travel & Leisure magazines. Recently, National Geographic Traveler rated Palawan as the best island destination in Southeast Asia. So it’s a wonder that with such accolades, Palawan still remains off the radar for most travelers.

The main attraction on Palawan is of course the Puerto Princesa Underground River which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and recently designated one of the new Natural 7 Wonders of the World. I’ve covered visiting the underground river in a previous blog post. So this post is all about getting to Palawan and what to do here.

Getting There

Getting to Palawan island for most travelers involves transiting at Manila Airport to a domestic flight. For myself, I took a Cebu Pacific flight from Singapore to Manila and then another Cebu Pacific domestic flight to Puerto Princesa. This seems to be one of the better connection options as both flights land and take off from the same terminal. Otherwise, transferring between different terminals would be a real hassle. Even then, I was still looking at a total travel time of around 7 hours from Singapore to Puerto Princesa, including a layover of 2 hours. I guess this alone would deter a lot of people from thinking about coming here for a long weekend. The only direct international flights to Puerto Princesa are Eastar Jet which flies direct to Seoul, and Tigerair which flies direct to Taipei. And this probably explains the large numbers of Korean and Taiwanese tourists here.

It’s best to arrange with your hotel for an airport pickup service. There are also private vans and tricycles available for hire. but you would have to negotiate the rate with the driver. After 7 hours of travel, the last thing I wanted to do was to haggle fares to get to my hotel.
The tricycle is the local taxi here. It’s basically a motorbike with a sidecar cum cabin attached to it. It can easily sit 3 adults, or 4 if everyone squeezes a bit. You’ll find these all over Puerto Princesa and the other towns and villages in Palawan.

While Puerto Princesa is the capital of Palawan Island, I did not stay long here as I was here for a working trip, and I had to move over to Sabang which is around 80km away from Puerto Princesa. Sabang is also where the Underground River is located and a better place to stay if you want to be away from the city crowds. However, Puerto Princesa being the capital of Palawan has many tourist class hotels, restaurants, a shopping mall and other amenities located in it. Which makes it the de facto base to stay for most visitors.

Sabang

This is more of a village that supports tourism from the Puerto Princesa Underground River. The boats that ferry visitors to the Underground River start from the wharf here. There are a couple of international standard hotels here that cater to the more affluent visitors, and several guesthouses that cater to the backpacker crowd. To get to Sabang from Puerto Princesa, you can take the public buses, shuttle vans or jeepneys from San Jose Terminal. They leave every hour or so. Here is a website that gives you detailed information on how to take the shuttle buses and vans. Or if you are staying at one of the 2 international class hotels in Sabang, they can arrange a pickup service for a fee.

Sabang sits on a beach and is a one road village. It forms the terminus of the highway that comes from Puerto Princesa.
Being more of a backwater village, apart from the main road that enters the village, the rest of the village is served by dirt and gravel roads which are riddled with potholes whenever it rains. Until recently, they didn’t even have access to electricity and the residents were running on diesel generators to provide power for only for a few hours a day.
Sabang Wharf is the main hive of activity in the village. Every morning visitors come here to start their Underground River tours. Later in the day, the returning visitors will get off here again and patronize the various shops that line the wharf area. It also serves as a meeting point for the villagers and impromptu basketball games.
Life here is simple and revolves around tourism and fishing. In the morning, boats leave the wharf filled with visitors. Fishermen also go out to sea to search for their catch of the day.
In the evenings, activity around the wharf winds down. Ffishermen are busy keeping their nets and preparing for the next day’s catch.
Even the kids help out their parents in preparing the nets for the next day’s fishing.
The view of Sabang Beach from the Sabang wharf. It’s a short beach front of around 1.5 km and was quite empty when I was there. Although not as white as the beach in Boracay, I practically had the whole beach to myself most of the time.
Children playing on the beach after school while a thunderstorm brews in the sea. June to September is the wet season in Palawan and it gets more rain in a week. This also coincides with the low tourist season, and you don’t have insane crowds queuing up for the Underground River tours.

Sabang itself is really small and most visitors who stay here just visit the Underground River for convenience sake, and hang out on the beach doing nothing.

The 2 international class hotels of Sheridan and Daluyon lie along Sabang beach. If you want air conditioned rooms and room service, then these are the only 2 choices for you.
Otherwise, it’s guesthouses with no aircon and limited electricity timings for a true island life experience. There are also several restaurants along the beach which offer a more economical alternative to eating at the hotel restaurants.
The slow island life starts to grow on you the longer you stay here. But even the island life cannot hold back technological changes like smartphones which have become a necessity for many people to keep in touch with the outside world, or pass time on mobile entertainment.
The other end of Sabang Beach. In the distance is Sabang village and the beach.
Taking a twilight walk along Sabang Beach just before another storm comes in.
With the low light pollution, it’s also possible to see the Milky Way along the beach.

Other Attractions

Sabang Zipline

So besides Sabang and the Underground River, there are other activities nearby which are more for the adventurous traveler. There is the Sabang Zipline which is just walking distance from the village or a short tricycle ride. This is also often offered together with the Underground River tours since it’s just nearby. Otherwise, you can just walk over to their office in Sabang and book yourself a zipline ride for 550 pesos. This includes the jeepney transfer from Sabang to the zipline location.

A short hike up the small hill to the launching point and you will soon be zipping over the turquoise blue sea with a backdrop of mountains and sandy beaches below. This is has got to be one of most beautiful ziplines I’ve taken.
The zipline is quite slow and the initial adrenaline rush is soon replaced with a calmness as you take in the sight of coral reefs below you, as you glide smoothly above the water.

Ugong Rock

This is a slightly more adventurous activity where you need to do some spelunking up the inside of a limestone mountain, followed by a zipline down to the ground below. I booked this tour through my hotel in Sabang, although tours also leave from Puerto Princesa. Ugong rock is located quite some distance from Sabang and the tours all include transportation to and from Ugong Rock.

Ugong Rock is a solitary limestone mountain that forms part of the karst landscape of Palawan. The word Ugong refers to a Filipino musical instrument, and the place gets this name because when you knock on some of the stalagmites and stalagmites, you can hear a hollow metallic noise like a musical instrument. And the mountain itself is hollow with a series of caves and crevices which you can climb to the top.

The difficulty level starts off at level 0 with a stroll through some rock passages.
Followed by some more narrower passages. it’s still level 0 though.
The difficulty ramps up with steep stairs and rocks where you have to climb and squeeze through. Still it’s nothing difficult and most people will be able to do it.
This will probably be the hardest part where you will have to pull yourself up a rope ladder to the top of the rock ledge. Don’t worry as there are guides to help pull you up and make sure you don’t fall. This was a 70+ year old woman who was in my group, and she made the climb!
The view of the surrounding countryside from the top of Ugong Rock. I found the climb itself not exhausting although it can be physically demanding,. Overall, it’s a great way to experience some spelunking, followed by a zipline back down.
There are 2 ziplines to get down from Ugong Rock. One is the normal sitting position, and the other is the “Superman” position where you are prone and flying like Superman. You will need to top up an additional 200 pesos to take the Superman position and you can use your own Gopro or smartphone to take videos on the way down. For the normal position, you are not allowed to take your own videos. It’s quite disappointing that they don’t mention these before you choose your ziplines.

Honda Bay

This is where most tourists in Puerto Princesa go to when they arrive. Only 45 minutes out of the city, this is where you can book boat tours for island hopping and snorkeling. With names like Starfish Island and Cowrie Island, you know you are going to see lots of corals and marine life here. Tours can be booked from Puerto Princesa hotels and tour agencies. Many of the islands are privately owned and you do have to pay entrance fees to land there. I have not gone to Honda Bay for lack of time, but it’s definitely on my to-do list for my next trip.

El Nido

The premier beach destination in Palawan is El Nido, and where all sun worshippers head to, It’s 5-6 hours by car or bus from Puerto Princesa though, The easiest way is a domestic flight from Manila to El Nido but costs more. I’ve heard that it’s pretty crowded and touristy nowadays, but it’s still worth a visit if you want beautiful beaches and islands.

5 thoughts on “Palawan, A Hidden Paradise

  1. I am planning to visit the Philippines next year and I didn’t come across Palawan Island before until reading this post. As a person who likes adventure and nature, I feel that it is just a perfect, wonderful place for me to spend my time there.

  2. You’re so lucky Edwin. Shame on me, I have not been to Palawan, even if I’m originally from the Philippines. Star gazing is really nice on the beach in the Philippines (I did that a few times during uni years), but I have not seen that many like in your picture. That’s so cool. I hope that we will have good weather when we go to the beach in December (we’re going to Albay, southern Luzon) so that my kids could do a bit of star gazing as well. 🙂

    1. Lucky for me it was a clear night when I took the photo. It was raining season actually in July when I visited. For stargazing you can download some good apps like Star Chart or Google Sky which helps you find the planets and identify names of stars and constellations.

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