Nothing defines Palawan more than the water around it. With seascapes the equal of any in Southeast Asia, the Philippines’ most sparsely populated region is also the most beguiling. The 403-mile main island stretches all the way to Borneo.
Despite becoming something of a travel media darling in recent years, Thailand–style tourists hordes have yet to arrive and the main island's Amazonian interior remains relatively pristine. That said, the northern towns of El Nido and Coron – base camps for adventures in the Bacuit Archipelago and Calamian Islands, respectively – are starting to attract big crowds in the high season.
Not to fear: plucky travelers who venture outside those two hubs have countless places to choose from in their quest for that perfect paradise.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Palawan.
This island, only a 20-minute bangka ride from Coron town, has an imposing, mysterious skyline that wouldn’t be out of place in a King Kong film. Flying over Coron, you see that the fortresslike, jungle-clad interior is largely inaccessible terrain pockmarked with lakes, two of which, Kayangan Lake and Barracuda Lake, can be visited. The entire island is the ancestral domain of the Tagbanua indigenous group, who are primarily fishers and gatherers of the very lucrative balinsasayaw (birds' nests).
For an easy day trip out of El Nido, head north by tricycle or motorbike to this incredible, golden-hued, 3km-long beach. Development has arrived in Nacpan and new guesthouses, boutique hotels and upscale tented camps are popping up everywhere. Still, the atmosphere remains mellow – for now. To get here, drive 16km north of El Nido on the National Hwy (paved), then another 4km down a once-rough access road that is now mostly sealed. There's a shuttle van from El Nido (round-trip P600, eight trips daily).
Miniloc Island is perhaps the most interesting of the archipelago's islands. The main attractions are Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon and Secret Lagoon, three of the more photographed sights in all of Palawan. Big Lagoon is entered by an extremely shallow channel (you may have to swim into the lagoon and leave the boat outside). Inside, surrounded by jungle-clad karst walls, is an enormous natural swimming hole.
This incredibly beautiful, jungle-backed, stretch of golden sand toward the northern tip of mainland Palawan is the centre of El Nido's surfing community. The season is November to March and board rental is available (P500 per hour) at a couple of places, including idyllic Duli Beach Resort. To get here turn off the off the National Hwy around the Km 294 marker and continue 3.5km on a rough but improving road that ends in a slippery single track to the beach proper.
Cadlao Island is like a mini–Tahiti miraculously relocated to the Bacuit Archipelago. In addition to being a wonderful piece of eye candy for those staying on the beach in El Nido, it’s also home to lovely Cadlao Lagoon (also known as Ubugun Cove). This lagoon offers some good snorkelling in the shallow coral gardens that lie off the beach at the head of the bay. More and more people are kayaking out here on their own from El Nido.
CavePuerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
At 8km in length, Sabang's famous underground river is one of the longest navigable river-traversed caves in the world and draws scores of tourists. Trips aboard unmotorised paddle boats proceed about 1.5km upstream into the cave (45 minutes return) and now include audioguide headsets. Book a bangka through the Sabang Information Office (P1120 for up to six people, 15 minutes) to get you from the wharf to the cave entrance, or walk 5km via the Jungle Trail.
Archaeological SiteTabon Caves
The most anthropologically significant site in the Philippines, this cave complex is where the remains of some of the earliest Philippine humans have been discovered. Fronted by turquoise waters and surrounded by primary-growth jungle, the caves on Lipuun Point are in a strikingly beautiful setting and can be accessed only by boat from Quezon. Drop by the Tabon Caves Museum to arrange a boat (P800, 35 minutes) and pick up a free permit.
San Vicente's signature attraction is a real beauty. It actually consists of three beaches – Long Beach 1, 2 and 3 – which combined yield about 14km of almost empty golden-hued, sunset-facing beach. Long Beach 2 is the most glorious; it's 50m wide, faces the sunset and stretches uninterrupted for 7km, navigable by foot or motorbike.
Accessible by a steep 10-minute climb, the crystal-clear waters of Lake Kayangan are nestled into the mountain walls; underwater is like a moonscape. There’s a little wooden walkway and platform to stash your things if you go for a swim. Don’t expect privacy or quiet, though, as the lake, an Instagram favorite, is overwhelmed by the cellphone-wielding masses during peak hours. To avoid the crowds you'll need to visit on a private tour early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Palawan.