Constantly rated as the most beautiful island in the world by major travel publications, Palawan has been high on my list of must-visit tropical paradises. So it wasn’t difficult to say yes! when my Filipino friend Nicole invited me to visit her family in Manila and recommended we take a trip out to the island.
Palawan is not just one island; rather it’s a group of many islands with the most popular being El Nido. With over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, you can only imagine all the shapes and sizes they come in.
For our 2-week island extravaganza, we flew into Puerto Princesa from Manila, visited the world’s longest underground river, then took a private coach to El Nido, where we got our scuba diving certification and island hopped around some of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen. After a few days of pure paradise, we took a fast ferry to Coron, did more scuba diving around Japanese shipwrecks, swam in a lake that reminded me of the moon, visited a former leper colony, and flew out of Coron to our next destination! Full details below.
DAY 1 TO 2
Our journey began with a travel day flying into Puerto Princesa and resting up for our trip to the world’s longest underwater river the next day.
Puerto Princesa Underground River
This UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature is an 8.2km underground river that flows underneath a large mountain range in Palawan directly into the sea. Winding its way through this vast cave system formed millions of years ago, the tour itself explores 4km of it.
After an hour drive from Puerto Princesa to the village of Sabang, we arrived at the harbor where we boarded our boat to the underground river entrance. Due to limited capacity per day and high demand, a permit is needed, so it’s best to go with a guide or get your own a few days in advance. The scenic boat ride takes about 20 minutes to arrive in the jungle, where you may need to wait a bit before finally getting on the river boat.
To fully appreciate the stillness of the cave, the entire ride is done in silence. However, everyone receives an audio guide that points out where to look as you pass by dozens of interestingly-shaped formations. They also provide helmets for safety and to keep your head dry from the cave water and bat droppings, since the cave ceiling is home to thousands of bats. The ride lasts about 45 minutes.
There were moments where I took off my audio guide to appreciate the cave in silence while our boat driver shined his light on the cave wall, pointing out certain formations. It’s wild to think all of it was formed over millions of years, and here we were! The immensity and beauty of it was quite astonishing and worth experiencing at least once.
TRAVEL TO EL NIDO
After our day underground, we were ready to soak in the sunshine and start exploring the seas. The three options for getting to El Nido were via van, bus or private car. We heard that some companies overbooked their vehicles and didn’t always have the safest drivers so we decided to go with Daytripper. A friend recommended them based on their comfortable seating, safe drivers and convenient booking system. The trip took about 6 hours through the countryside with a stop for lunch.
DAY 4 TO 8
When I travel I appreciate experiencing local culture and always try to find the unique charm about each location I visit. In El Nido, I had a hard time finding the Filipino charm amongst western restaurants, expensive accommodations and tons of Europeans, Australians and Americans. It didn’t feel like I was in Asia anymore, but then I suppose you don’t go to El Nido for the town (exception: I had some amazing falafel at Happiness Beach Bar, while sitting on a swing at their bar, along the street!) Instead, you go for the ocean, island life, water activities, natural wonders and beautiful beaches.
Get your scuba diving certification (3 days)
One of our main goals for this trip was to get certified, and the Philippines is the perfect place to learn how to dive. With her calm, warm and clear waters, sandy beaches and endless marine life, it’s no surprise Palawan is one of the best dive sites in the world. After shopping around and speaking to multiple shop owners, we decided to spend three days doing our PADI Open Water Diver course with Daniel from Turtle Divers.
Island hop around El Nido
When you arrive in El Nido, you’ll be inundated with tour operators trying to sell Island Hopping Tours A through D, with A and C being the most popular. I generally avoid big crowds and touristy areas so instead of these traditional boats, we opted to get a private speedboat with Skipper Charters.
With this faster boat, we were able to see twice the amount of places, customize our schedule from all 4 tours and have less people on our boat. Some of my favorite sites included the Small and Big Lagoons, Helicopter Island and Commando Beach for sunset. Plus the food was incredible. Yes, this is a more premium option, but worth it for the additional locations, comfort and amenities.
Take a private speedboat to the Linopacan Islands
After having such a great day with Skipper Charters, we decided to go on another tour with them to the Linopacan Islands, which are a group of islands between El Nido and Coron. About a 3-hour journey, I would only do this by speedboat or another large sailboat.
Different than the limestone cliffs around El Nido, these islands reminded me of the Whitsundays–crystal clear waters with white sandy beaches and turquoise horizons on end. Plus, most islands we stopped at were deserted so we were able to enjoy our own private islands during the day! If you don’t want to splurge for two days, I HIGHLY recommend at least taking this trip with Skipper Charters.
TRAVEL TO CORON
The next morning, we took a 6am fast ferry to Coron with Montenegro Lines, which lasted about 3.5 hours. The alternative was a slow ferry that takes 7 to 8 hours and costs less but takes twice the amount of time.
DAY 10 TO 13
Dive or Snorkel the Shipwrecks
Part of the reason for getting certified in El Nido was so we could dive the wrecks in Coron Bay. These Japanese ships were sunk during World War II and have accumulated a wealth of coral and marine life on and around them. To be honest, it was a bit eerie swimming around these sites, and it felt somber yet intriguing. Remember that opening scene from Titanic? Yes, kinda like that.
Camp on the beach after island hopping
Between Coron and Culion are many smaller remote islands that few tourist boats venture out to. With the right crew, it’s possible to enjoy freshly caught grilled fish and camp on the beach. Some islands have oceanfront bungalows with facilities including a shower and toilet; others are more rugged. We took a 2-day trip with Kawil Tours and stayed on Decalatan Island for the night, which included basic facilities.
Visit a former leper colony
After waking up on the beach to a glowing sunrise, our second day with Kawil Tours consisted of visiting Culion, a former leper colony near Coron. With two of the company founders being from the island, they were very familiar with the island’s history.
We got to chat with Lola Ester, the oldest former leprosy patient on the island. Now 86, she arrived when she was 6 years old and was taken in by an orphanage run by the local church. She spent her life helping and caring for others as a nurse aid and caretaker.
After a week of island hopping, it was refreshing to meet Ester and go beyond the Philippines’ white sandy beaches.
Do more island hopping around Coron
Closer to Coron are many natural wonders perfect for a day trip on a bangka (outrigger boat), available for private rentals or through a tour. The popular Kayangan Lake is a salt and freshwater lake entirely enclosed by Palawan’s massive limestone cliffs. I could have spent an entire day here swimming in her crystal clear waters. Other swimming holes nearby included Barracuda Lake (less crowded but just as beautiful) and Twin Lagoon (clear, calm waters–perfect for swimming)
What a lovely two-week island adventure in beautiful Palawan! To cut down on this itinerary, I’d recommend skipping Puerto Princesa and the diving certification. Also, if I had to pick between El Nido or Coron, I would pick Coron but find a private boat to take you to Linopacan.