Palawan: A Solo Guide
Palawan is the new darling of lush Philippine holidays. Ultraluxe resorts dot the private islands between Coron and El Nido, it has a geologically astounding underground river, and it topped wildly popular island vacation mainstays like the Maldives and Mykonos in last year’s Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards for Best Islands in the World.
What is it about Palawan that makes travelers and holidaymakers swoon? The empty beaches, the laid-back attitude of the locals, the unreal sunsets? Most vacationers are short on time and jet straight to El Nido or Coron for some world-class diving and resort relaxation. I was able to spend the better part of two weeks exploring Palawan. Here’s my guide.
Exploring Palawan: A Solo Guide
There are three airports in Palawan:
- Puerto Princesa is by far the most popular and economical option, as it’s also the largest city. You can connect to PP from Manila on any of the major airlines that do inter-island travel in the Philippines: Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, and Philippines AirAsia. Cebu Pacific also flies directly from Cebu to Puerto Princesa.
- El Nido has a small airport for those who are time-poor and don’t want to spend a day traveling from PP to the beaches north (it takes about 6 hours). The airline for this used to be called ITI, it is now named AirSwift and they have added a direct Cebu-to-El Nido roundtrip.
- Coron also has a regional airport with three airlines (Philippine, Cebu Pacific, and Skyjet) servicing the route to/from Manila.
There is also a ferry option from Manila for the adventurous who have time on their hands. It usually takes at least 24 hours to get from Manila to El Nido by large boat, and with some horror stories I wouldn’t recommend it during typhoon season. Much of the Philippines is connected by RoRos, ‘roll-on, roll-off’ ferries that aren’t easy to research online. They’re a slower, inexpensive way to travel if you plan to spend months in the Philippines. If you have a ‘show up and figure it out’ philosophy, this could be a good way to go.
Palawan: The Hotspots
If you really want to get off the beaten path (e.g., the no-guesthouse, questionable electricity availability path), then this is the place for you. There are mountains to trek and tribal villages to explore, but a strong dose of caution is necessary for the larger towns in the south, where modern-day pirates and other rough-and-tumble characters are known to frequent.
Most travelers stay in centrally-located Puerto Princesa and northward.
There’s a very good chance you will be landing here if you travel to Palawan. My advice? Hurry along to other spots. While PP will be a breath of fresh air after the manic cities of Manila or Cebu, it doesn’t hold a candle to the more remote spots on the island. So spend your time there instead!
One thing you must do before you leave Puerto: GET CASH. As mentioned in a few other posts, ATMs are very few and far between outside of the biggest cities, so this may be your last chance. Even then, I still had to go to three different ATMs in Puerto Princesa before I could withdraw cash.
Many places in Sabang and Port Barton are cash-only, so plan accordingly.
Another thing you can do is get your pass to the Underground River. You can do this by visiting the Puerto Princesa Underground River Office at the City Coliseum (address and info found here). You MUST do this if you want to take the extended 4km tour into the river (if available).
Sabang & the Underground River
While you can do the Underground River as a day trip from Puerto Princesa, you should definitely stay at least a day or two in Sabang. Why? A few reasons:
- It’s remote jungle location and slow pace put it head and shoulders above developed PP, in my opinion
- It will cost you less to stay in a budget hotel in Sabang than the pricy tours from Puerto
- You get a taste of village life after the hordes have left. And isn’t that why you traveled to the Philippines in the first place?
- Sabang Beach is a stunning, mostly-private gem nestled in a setting of dramatic mountains. It deserves at least one lazy afternoon sunbathing and swimming in the clear water
Get There: There are several vans that do the run from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Where to Stay: There are several options at different price points in Sabang, most of them beachfront. I went ultra-budget and stayed in the budget rooms of Bambua, a hostel/resort set about a kilometer into the jungle for ~$6USD/night. The grounds are beautiful, the German-born owner is friendly and full of interesting stories about ‘old Palawan,’ and there is a menagerie of animals to keep you company. The rooms are solid, though the shared bathrooms & showers are bug-choked and very basic. But at that price point, it’s hard to complain!
If you want to splash out, the Sheridan Beach Resort is right on Sabang Beach. I didn’t see the rooms, but the grounds were well maintained and I can attest to the quality of their restaurant. I treated myself to a sunset gourmet burger and fries on their front deck on my first night in Sabang.
What to Do: Easily the most famous attraction in Sabang is the UNESCO Site Subterranean River, which I recommend visiting. It’s a heavily-trafficked tourist attraction, but it’s something that you can’t miss.
You can save yourself a lot of hassle by simply booking through your hotel or a tourist agency for around P1500. Or you could visit the PPUR Office in Puerto Princesa and get your permit directly. There is a frustrating lack of online resources direct from the government, so in-person is best.
Lonely Planet still reports that the 4.3km tour is available by securing a permit from the PPUR Office at least two days in advance — I strongly recommend this over the standard 1.5km tour. It’s my one regret from my visit to Sabang and the Underground River. If you’re going to go — Go Big!
Port Barton and San Vicente
Often skipped in the mad rush to El Nido, Port Barton is a budget beachfront paradise. If you prefer to spend your time lounging on a beach sipping cocktails, this is the place for you.
Get There: Most of the journey is on the well-paved highway from Puerto Princesa, where flashes of white beaches and turquoise seas beckon. You’ll make a stop in Roxas (and may change buses) before heading to the coast. From the moment you bounce down a couple of kilometers of unpaved road in a full-sized bus, you know you’re going someplace remote. Several hotels and guesthouses line the white sand of the tiny town at a range of budgets, and a few resorts are nestled further afield.
Where to Stay: I was short on time in Port Barton (only two nights), but I could have gladly stayed a week. I really wanted to stay at Thelma and Toby’s Beach Camping — it came recommended from a friend with Filipino heritage and looked like a blast, but it was a little out of my budget and I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to appreciate it!
What to Do: You’ll be hard-pressed to leave the beach, but there are snorkeling and island-hopping trips available from town if you need some action.
San Vicente is the name given to the stretch of coastal land north of Port Barton — don’t confuse it with the city by the highway! There are several mid-range resorts in the area and a famous, beautiful 14km long beach (aptly named Long Beach) worth seeing.
Palawan’s most famous of beach towns, El Nido populates many an Instagram feed with it’s aqua lagoons and unreal sunsets. It’s a marvel of natural beauty, to be sure, but it can be tricky to navigate.
Get There: Buses run from most points south regularly, so it’s not difficult to get to El Nido even with a detour to Port Barton or San Vicente.
Where to Stay: The range of options in El Nido is almost paralyzing. El Nido town can be busy, so if that’s not your vibe check out Corong Corong Beach or Marimegmeg, just short trike or motorbike rides to town. Personally the beach at Corong Corong didn’t impress me at all.
I stayed at a budget guesthouse in town (though it was not as budget as other places in Palawan!), a decent hotel on Marimegmeg Beach (the Orange Pearl), and El Nido Cove, a mid-range resort outside of El Nido proper. You can see my post on El Nido to get more details about my stay.
What to Do: The tours, of course! Nearly every tour company in town has four tours, which are named Tour A, Tour B, Tour C and Tour D. This is the easiest and most economical option for seeing the famous lagoons and island off the coast of El Nido. Alternatively, you can try to get a group together or pay a hefty fee for a private boat. If you leave very early (think: 6 a.m.), you can skip the hordes on the Letter Tours and get the Lagoons all to yourself at the most peaceful time of day.
Some argue that Coron isn’t Palawan. The government says otherwise, so I’m including it in this guide. Quieter but with the same comforts of El Nido, Coron is a dive mecca and the home of several stunning natural lagoons and lakes to explore. Personally, I don’t think it should be missed.
Get There: There is an airport for flying, but many people take the day-long journey by banca boat from El Nido to Coron. Sit outside, dangle your feet off the edge, and let the wind whip your hair into knots. It’s not a bad way to travel, if the weather is working in your favor. Of course, if there are storm warnings or rough seas, seriously consider alternate options
Where to Stay: My recommendation for Coron is to get out of town! There are eco-resorts popping up all over the island, from treehouses to naturally-powered private huts. There are also a host of AirBnBs run by expats who have settled permanently in Coron. If you want to splash out, Corto del Mar has beautifully appointed rooms and a nice pool area (just be wary, my fiance and I both got food poisoning while staying here!).
What to Do: There is a pretty cool Coron Island boat tour that is worth checking out. If you’re solo (as I was on that day), it’s a good way to meet other travelers. I happened to be on a boat with all Americans! We visited the Kayangan Lake, the Twin Lagoon (you need to swim under the rocks to get to the second lagoon!), and free dove to shipwrecks below among many other stops throughout the day.
Solo Palawan: Suggested Itinerary
When I travel, I like to balance budget and convenience. I’d rather not spend 48 hours traveling if I can spend 2 hours, but I’ll sacrifice some time if it means saving a few hundred dollars. Here’s my recommended tour through Palawan.
Fly to Puerto Princesa from Manila/Cebu
Try to get a morning flight, and take a trike to town to stock up on cash and visit the Underground River office (if you want to take the 4km tour). Then take a trike straight to the bus station and get booked onto the first van to Sabang.
Sabang: ~2 Nights
You don’t need an indeterminate amount of time in this sleepy town, but you may need to wait for your river permit to go into effect (it takes 2 days for the 4k permit) and you will want to spend some time on Sabang Beach.
Port Barton and/or San Vicente: ~4 Nights
You can get here straight from Sabang, but you need to change buses in Puerto Princesa. Hop on a morning van from Sabang to PP and get your ticket to PB when you arrive. Three nights is the minimum amount of time I recommend for this area, especially if you opt for the Beach Camping. If camping isn’t your gig, you could stay a couple of nights in Port Barton town and a couple in a more remote spot further north. Take an island hopping tour or just relax and walk as much of the 14kms of Long Beach that you can.
El Nido: ~5 Nights
Choose your location based on your trip style. Backpackers will want to stay at the hostel/guesthouses in El Nido town, couples may choose a mid-range resort with a little more privacy farther afield, and honeymooners and high-rollers might leave El Nido proper to luxuriate at one of the many insane El Nido Resorts locations.
A motorbike is a must! You can visit the famous beaches north on your own schedule, and if you’re lucky you can get them entirely to yourself. There’s nothing like miles of sand and clear water with no one’s company but the palm trees and birds.
Coron: ~3 Nights
Getting to Coron is half the adventure! The banca boat from El Nido to the northern island is a full day’s journey, but it’s a stunning tour of the tiny islands that are sprinkled in the sea.
If you’re a dive enthusiast, you may want to spend more time in Coron than points south. If one day of diving is enough, three or so nights should be good for you. Be sure to get a motorbike and explore the small towns and villages outside of town!
Fly Coron to Manila
Note: This itinerary can be reversed.
Two weeks is still not enough time to truly see all the sights Palawan has to offer, but it can get you close. Use this guide and your own travel priorities to decide what to see and where to go, and you’ll be well on your way.