From critic to convert, Australian-Filipina writer MICHELLE BALTAZAR discovers why the current national campaign "It's more fun in the Philippines" is more than just a hollow boast. In this article, she shares her 10-day travel experience in the islands of Palawan.
You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve read the reviews and you’ve already saved up for your flight. But at the risk of information overload from the internet, you just want a basic roadmap on how to spend time in Palawan.
The answer is right here, my top ten list of what I did right while I was there and what I did wrong (also known as the “learn from my mistakes” list).
But as you can see from my holiday snaps, all inconveniences and discomforts along the way will be forgiven once you are there lying on the beach, soaking in the sunset and letting the clear waters wash your worries away.
I spent most of my time in El Nido and thoroughly enjoyed my stay. So much so that I am already planning my next visit. In the meantime, here are a few tips and tricks, and recommendations, to get you started on your own dream holiday in Palawan, Philippines.
Tip No. 1 Check out the season before booking your flight.
June to October is the wet season in Palawan. This means lots of heavy rain, monsoons and tropical storms. I went during the first two weeks of January. The weather was glorious for the most part although it was still windy and there was a tropical storm (Bagyo Auring) on my second day there. That said, even on a bad day, Palawan can still be heavenly. For example, most locals will recommend you go to Las Cabanas when the weather is not good for boating or island-hopping (see picture).
Las Cabanas is an island strip that still offers picture-perfect scenery, a beachside restaurant to have your lunch and even a drinks bar called ‘The Coco Bar’ if you feel like having fresh coconut juice or a bottle of San Mig.
Tip No. 2 Book your accommodation ahead of time.
If you are in Puerto Princesa, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation, from budget to high-end. In El Nido, however, particularly during the Christmas/New Year season, do not leave home without booking your accommodation first. I can also save you time by recommending Ipil Travelodge, where I stayed while I was in both Puerto and El Nido. For around 1,800-2,500 pesos (less than $80), you are guaranteed high standards of cleanliness and comfort. In El Nido, in particular, where the power supply is patchy (expect blackouts and brownouts), Ipil is one of the few places with a working generator and offers free wi-fi connection for guests.
The place is also a slice of Filipino-Australian hospitality in Palawan, being owned by Boy Tagle (from BM Express), and managed by his daughter Trish Tagle.
If you want to seek accommodation elsewhere, here are the questions you MUST ask:
1) Is your generator working?
2) Is buffet breakfast included?
3) Can I take hot showers?
4) Do you have free wi-fi?
5) What’s the discount for a long stay? (longer than five days)
Of course if you want to spend between $200-$500 per night to stay at one of the resorts, you can expect five-star treatment but if you are on a budget, make sure you arrange a place to stay before you go.
Tip No. 3 How to get there
There are plenty of resources online, from www.lonelyplanet.com to www.TripAdvisor.com and government websites, that will give you the latest info on how to travel from Manila to El Nido, Coron and other parts of Palawan.
I booked a flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa (this can cost anywhere from 500 pesos for a promo fare to around 2,000 pesos) and from Puerto, I caught a van that cost 1,400 pesos return fare for a six-hour ride with eight other people.
If you paid for a return fare, just tell the driver when you plan to return from El Nido to Puerto and they’ll pick you up from your hotel at a designated time.
There are other cheaper options like the Roro (bus that costs around 500 pesos one-way) or other van operators that might charge less (600 pesos one-way). The story on the higher fare I paid is best left for another day (and another article).
It’s good, and bad, in a way but expect to be besieged by tour operators at Puerto to offer you island-hopping tours, transport, et cetera. Tour prices are broadly the same with differences between tours of around 100 to 200 pesos.
Short-term tricycle five-minute rides in Puerto are around 12 to 30 pesos per person to around 70 pesos for two from the airport to Robinson’s Puerto Princesa. Ask your hotel concierge or reception on tricycle charges before venturing out if you don’t want to overpay on fares.
In El Nido, some tricycle drivers have the fare listing copy displayed right next to the seats. It cost 150 pesos to go to Las Cabanas from the town (a short 10-minute ride) while riding a tricycle around town could be between 20-50 pesos.
Tip No. 4 Enjoy some island hopping
Tour operators abound for island hopping tips. I wasn’t there long enough to do research on which companies do the best tours. I went with the tours offered by Ipil Travelodge and had a fantastic time. You really can’t go wrong with any of the main tours offered in El Nido, or, if you want to splash out, you can hire your own boat and pick the islands you want to go to. Tours in El Nido are around 700 pesos per person which includes the boat tour and buffet lunch while the Underground River tour and Honda Bay Island tour in Puerto Princesa set me back by 1,500 pesos each. I recommend the Honda Bay Island tour, particularly a visit to Cowrie Island and Pambato Reef. Start saving up for a waterproof camera now for all the wonderful underwater videos and images you will take in both these spots.
In El Nido, there are no particular island I would recommend. They are all fantastic and worth visiting. I do have a soft spot for Seven Commando (the last stop of Tour A) and the Snake islands (sandbars that allow you to walk from one end of the island to another. You will find clown fishes there, too. Try and find Nemo while you’re there!)
If you don’t want to do the tours, you can rent a kayak or boat for the day. It costs around 500-700 pesos for a kayak and around 1,500 pesos for a boat per day.
I also recommend that you check out the articles on Palawan on this website: www.lakas.com.ph. I discovered the site after I left but I found some great budget tips there for more savings.
(Correction: I incorrectly said 'Shuzumi Island' when the name is 'Shimizu'. Oops.)
Tip No. 5 Where to eat
Main meals on any of the beachside restaurants in El Nido cost between 90 pesos to 200 pesos. Drinks, hot or cold, can be between 30 to 80 pesos. By local standards, the restaurants are a bit on the exxy side but if you are carrying Aussie dollars, $7 per person will get you a meal and a drink.
I recommend the buffet breakfast at Ipil Travelodge, the vegetable dishes (tortang talong and adobong kangkong) at Sea Slug Restaurant and for coffee or light meals, check out Marber’s Beach Restaurant. These places are along the shores of El Nido beach itself.
Tip No. 6 What to bring
I have christened it the “Palawan pack”. This pack includes sunscreen, baseball cap, waterproof bag for your wallet and other personal belongings, sunglasses, snorkelling gear, aqua shoes or water boots, waterproof camera, toilet tissues, hand sanitiser, mosquito repellant, headache tablets and, optional, would be a coffee mug and your own personal supply of coffee, tea or three-in-one hot drinks.
It’s worth having all of these items handy as you will be out for the entire day. Most hotel pick-ups for island hopping tours are between 7 to 8am for the 9am or 9.30am boat ride so best to pack the night before.
The good news is that you can buy most of these stuff on the cheap at Puerto or even in El Nido. You can also rent your snorkeling gear through your tour guide and items cost anywhere between 150 pesos to 300 pesos ($4 to $6).
Tip No. 7 Bring your own kettle
This tip is dedicated to all the coffee and tea addicts out there. If I could turn back time, I would have brought a travel kettle and a travel mug. For a start, the Philippines is the land of three-in-one coffee sachets, which isn't good if you are watching your sugar intake or want your coffee extra strong. As for tea, there is often only one choice: black and it’s Lipton (if you’re lucky).
So if you are watching your sugar intake, like strong coffee or herbal tea, bring your own.
Tip No. 8 A visit to the Puerto Princesa Underground River
If you have been to the Jenolan Caves, this underground river tour might not have the same ‘wow’ factor as you’d expect. I must admit that other tourists were very impressed and there is something mysterious and enchanting about the river. A huge part of it still remains unexplored and closed to the public.
Besides, the tour itself is not just about the underground river. It also includes the Ugong Rock Spelunking and Zipline adventure stop.
It was my first ziplining experience and while I was fearful at first, I would recommend it. It is safe (just make sure your harnesses are correctly fastened) and it only lasts 21 seconds (it’ll be over before you know it!)
Someone at the end of the zipline will be taking professional shots so if you can muster it, try and smile for the camera (yes, this is hard to do but think of the souvenir shot!)
Note: You need a permit to visit the underground river. Your tour guide can arrange this for you or go to http://www.puerto-undergroundriver.com/ for more info.
Tip No. 9 Be realistic and just have fun
You will not like everything you see. Stray dogs are everywhere in El Nido, open sewers and their smell might shock you and there is a long waiting time for almost everything. The public toilets are a hit-and-miss so you have to bring your own tissues and sanitiser.
At the risk of stating the obvious, try not to attract unwarranted attention by putting all your expensive stuff on display (cameras, jewelry, etc.) or leaving them unattended. Remember that you are a foreigner and common sense applies at all times.
With those disclaimers out of the way, Palawan is worth the odd discomfort or two. The six-hour ride from Puerto to El Nido is a perfect excuse to get to know your fellow travelers, catch up on your sleep or enjoy the coastal scenery.
When you feel like something is about to stress you out or annoy you, take a deep breath and remember you're on holiday. Chiiiilllll.
Tip No. 10 Save up
My trip set me back around AU$1,200. This included roughly $500 for accommodation over 10 days, $300 on tours and transport, $200 on food and bottled water and $200 on tips, drinks, snacks and souvenirs.
I saved a lot on food because of the buffet breakfast included in my accommodation and the buffet lunch included in the tours. I would have spent more had I spent the night partying, eating out or buying more souvenirs.
By Australian standards, $1,200 is not too bad for 10 days (including accommodation) but in Filipino currency, that’s more than 40,000 pesos – a princely sum to spend on just one person. Check out www.lakas.com.ph for their articles on travelling on a budget.
No matter how much you want to spend, my advice is that you save a lot. During my island-hopping tours, the boats passed by the high-end resorts (upwards of $300 per night) and they are definitely worth every cent if you can afford it.
So there you have it, a top ten guide to your Palawan holiday. Have fun, relax and don’t forget your camera!
MY ITINERARY: How I spent 10 Days in Palawan
Day 1 – Arrival in Manila. If you have time, visit Mall of Asia for some window shopping or go to Greenbelt to enjoy some Filipino cuisine.
Day 2 – Leave for Puerto Princesa. City tour of Puerto which included a visit to the Baywalk, Palawan Museum and Robinson’s (to get supplies).
Day 3 – Arrive in El Nido. Kayaking for the day from El Nido beach to Curong-Curong. Stops include Ipil beach (private) and Seven Commando.
Day 4 – Las Cabanas beach resort and a visit to a Mangrove park
Day 5 – Island hopping – Tour B
Day 6 – Island hopping – Tour A
Day 7 – Writing Workshop, El Nido Central School
Day 8 – Puerto Princesa Underground River Tour; Ugong Adventures (ziplining)
Day 9 – Honda Bay Island Tour (visiting Cowrie Island and Pambato Reef), Souvenir Shopping
Day 10 – Flight back to Manila