Palawan: Paradise Found

Besides Boracay, another place where you’ll find a lot of backpackers in the Philippines is in the Island of Palawan. Most of them start from Puerto Princesa because flights to Palawan are cheaper there. They then work they way up north to El Nido, some stopping at San Vicente or Port Barton along the way. Some venture further up north to Coron via ferry. Some travelers do the opposite and start from Coron and end up in Puerto Princesa, but this seems to be the less popular route among backpackers. Some fly straight to El Nido since there’s already a flight from Boracay, thus connecting two of the top destinations for backpackers in the country. These direct flights to El Nido aren’t cheap though, since only one airline flies there and they have a monopoly. A one way flight from Boracay or Manila costs about 140 USD on the average. This is a good option for travelers who don’t have much time to spend in the country. But for backpackers, taking a flight to Puerto Princesa or Coron before heading to El Nido would be a way better option. From Manila, flights to Coron costs about 80 USD each way, while flights to Puerto Princesa could be as cheap as 30 USD! Alternatively, travelers could opt for a ferry but that takes a lot of time. Most backpackers use the 2GO ferry since you can easily book tickets online. A one way trip to Coron would cost around 25 USD, while a one way trip to Puerto Princesa costs around 35 USD. Since it’s cheaper to travel by plane sometimes, I’d recommend to just fly to Puerto Princesa if you plan to start your trip from there.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Puerto Princesa so I decided to head directly to El Nido. The main attractions here are Honda Bay and the Subterranean River. I wasn’t really impressed with the pictures I’ve seen online, and other travelers I’ve met found both destinations overrated. It’s still worth a visit if you have time to spare. It’s also a good place to load on cash since ATMs are rare elsewhere on the island. if you plan on spending a lot of time here it would be advisable to take some Malaria prophylaxis since it’s endemic in this part of Palawan. You can easily purchase these meds in Manila or in Puerto Princesa. On the way to El Nido you can stop by San Vicente or Port Barton if you want peace and quiet since both destinations aren’t popular with most travelers. The scenery may not be as spectacular as those in El Nido and Coron, but everyone I’ve met who made a stop at those places loved the time they spent there. Just keep in mind that since these places are not yet that developed, hotels and resorts only offer basic amenities. There’s also not much to do at night so you’ll definitely get bored if you’re looking to party. In these parts of Palawan though, everything is still pristine.

From Puerto Princesa, there are two options if you want to head straight to El Nido. The more convenient option is to take one of those shuttle vans that are waiting outside the airport. They charge around 700 PHP (Philippine Pesos) each way. The journey takes 5-6 hours. Since you’ll be sharing space in a really cramped van with fellow travelers, this option may prove to be very uncomfortable for some people. A less cramped option would be to take a public bus. Taking an air conditioned bus would cost about 480 PHP (around 9 USD) each way. However the journey takes longer. I heard it can take anywhere from 6- 9 hours since these buses take a lot of stops along the way. Take note that you also have to take a tricycle to the bus station from the airport, and this could cost anywhere from 120-150 PHP.

Once you arrive in El Nido, you won’t feel out of place since you’d see a lot of fellow travelers. Unlike Boracay wherein most of the travelers you see are from neighboring Asian countries, El Nido seems to attract a lot of westerners. If you took a shuttle, you’d be dropped off  at your hostel/ hotel. If you took a bus you need to take a tricycle to the town center which would cost about 50-100 PHP. If you took a plane, the tricycle drivers charge a premium since they’d assume that you’re rich I guess. They would charge anywhere from 200-300 PHP to get you to El Nido town.

They say first impressions last, and this is true with El Nido. Head toward the beach in town and you’d be rewarded with an amazing view. I’d compare it to Phi Phi in Thailand only without the crowds. El Nido town is quaint, everything you need is right there so staying in one of the numerous lodging options in the area would be a good decision. Walking around town, you’d notice one bad thing about El Nido. Almost everything is ridiculously expensive. The prices for basic commodities aren’t too bad, but almost all restaurants serve food with outrageous prices. There may be cheap lodging options, but overall El Nido is probably the most expensive place to stay in the Philippines— even more expensive than Boracay. When you attract a lot of western travelers, you get western prices I guess. There are cheap places to eat, but you have to exert a bit of effort to find them. The most popular activity in El Nido would be the island hopping tours, labeled as A, B, C, and D. A and C seem to be the more popular options among travelers and with good reason. Those tours take you to the most beautiful islands and beaches. these tours have fixed prices, and they range from 1200 -1500 PHP. These tours include lunch that they cook on the boat and snorkeling gear as well so it’s a pretty good deal.

Regarding places to stay, for backpackers Our Melting Pot Hostel is a good choice as long as you’re not choosy. It’s very basic so don’t expect much in terms of amenities. It’s also way too cramped, too many people are packed into such small rooms. If that’s not a problem with you, it’s a great place to stay since it’s centrally located. There’s a good social atmosphere too. Spin Hostel is another good option. But with dorm beds starting at twice the price of most accommodations, clearly this isn’t for the backpacker on a tight budget. You do get what you pay for though. It feels more like a hotel than a hostel, and the free breakfast was a feast. Also, the barbecue that they served one night was really delicious.

If you don’t mind staying on the outskirts of the town center, I highly recommend staying at Outpost Beach Hostel. It’s a brand new hostel and the amenities are top notch. It’s located on the beachfront and as long as the weather permits, you’ll see an amazing sunset daily. It also has an amazing social scene, and it seems to attract the bulk of young backpackers in El Nido these days. They do their own island tours and  they make it a point to avoid the crowded areas. It’s up to you to decide if that’s worth the 500 PHP difference. I’d compare the facilities to Spin Hostel but at half the price. Food is really expensive in the hostel restaurant though so it’s best to eat elsewhere. Thankfully it’s only a 5 minute tricycle ride to the town center and it only costs 20 PHP per person (50 PHP or about 1 USD if you’re by yourself).

Aside from the island hopping tours, another popular spot for backpackers is Nacpan Beach. This is about an hour away from the center of town. You can take trike for 1000 PHP which you can split into 2 or 3. If you’re traveling alone, a cheaper option would be to rent a motorbike for 600 PHP a day. This beach is pretty isolated though there are a few hostels and resorts in the area. This is a good place to relax if you’re looking for peace and quiet. it’s pretty dead at night, so a lot of travelers just do a day trip here.

Nights in El Nido don’t get as rowdy as nights in Boracay, but it can get wild. This is a complete contrast to a couple of years ago when El Nido was once a sleepy fishing village. The arrival of backpackers obviously changed the landscape. i was told that a few years ago, El Nido was viewed as a luxury destination and most of the people who went there were couples and honeymooners and they stayed at the luxury resorts. This was because it was difficult to get to El Nido back then if you’re not taking a plane. But once roads from Puerto Princesa were paved backpackers came in droves. And since a lot of backpackers want to party, lots of bars showed up. There’s even a modern club right now. Even with the presence of such bars, El Nido still retains its charm. I hope they don’t develop it too much, else it’s gonna turn into another Boracay— a place to party and not much else.

Most backpackers make El Nido their last stop. a lot of them head back to Puerto Princesa where they fly out and head elsewhere in the country. Some though venture farther to Coron. It’s easy to get there from El Nido via ferry, and it’s easy to purchase tickets in the town center. The slower ferry costs about 1400 PHP, while the faster one costs about 1800 PHP. It takes about 7-9 hours if you take the slow ferry and about 4-5 hours for the fast one. Take note that they cancel these trips if the weather isn’t good for safety reasons. There’s a tour company called TAO that does a tour from El Nido to Coron (or Coron to El Nido), stopping by several islands in a span of 5 days. I’ve met a couple of people who haved joined this tour and they all described it as amazing. But at 26,000 PHP (more than 500 USD!), clearly this is way too expensive for the average backpacker.

 

Coron is a small town like El Nido. You get the same vibe, only everything is way cheaper! Accommodations, food, alcohol— you name it. It’ cheaper in Coron. And personally, I think the scenery surrounding Coron is more beautiful. I definitely think a lot of backpackers are missing out. Looking around I saw some western travelers, but most travelers I saw were Asians from neighboring countries and locals based elsewhere in the Philippines. Among western travelers, only a few of them can be considered as backpackers. I honestly don’t understand why El Nido gets the bulk of backpackers. Sure there’s no beach in Coron Town.  And yeah there are only a few typical hostels with dorm rooms– and those that are available don’t look too good. And yeah, my opinion that the areas surrounding Coron are more beautiful is highly subjective. But let’s looks at the pros. Everything is cheaper. There’s a lot more to do like scuba diving around shipwrecks, or you can go on a Safari on a nearby island (though it is underwhelming if you’ve been to Africa). There’s a hot spring close to town if you’re into that sort of thing. And it’s easier to get to Coron Town since the airport is nearby and you can get really cheap flights. Also, If you take a ferry from Manila the trip would be way shorter than going to Puerto Princesa. If you take all these into consideration, you have to wonder why Coron doesn’t attract the same amount of backpackers. I guess the lack of typical facilities catering to backpackers is a factor. You won’t find typical western type of hostels here. Also, El Nido already has this reputation as the backpacking hub in Palawan. If you want to meet fellow backpackers, that’s the place to be on the island. I believe that once the town creates facilities that backpackers are looking for, then backpackers would come. One common reason i heard from travelers in El Nido was that there’s no good place to stay in Coron and that the place looks boring. El Nido could be described as the same a couple of years ago, now look at where it is now. For those already in El Nido, I highly recommend venturing further north. El Nido and Coron are probably the most beautiful places in the country, and it’s a shame to miss one or the other since they’re very close to each other.

I haven’t been to the other islands in the Philippines, but I’m willing to bet Palawan is among the best ones. You really can’t go wrong anywhere on the island. Since a huge part of the island is still undeveloped, there are so many places that are off the beaten path if you choose not to follow the backpacking route. Whether you are looking to socialize and party, or you prefer to venture on your own there’s enough variety on the island to suit anyone’s style of travelling. If you ever find yourself in the Philippines, Palawan is the island that you shouldn’t miss.

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