You know that jittery feeling you get when you’re really excited about something and are basically jumping up and down about it? This Palawan trip had me grinning literally from ear to ear. The reality of the Philippines and Palawan totally met my expectations!
I chose to visit Palawan with G Adventures on their Southern Philippines Palawan Adventure tour. This was my second tour with G Adventures and I honestly can’t recommend this tour company enough!! G Adventures do small group tours of up to 15 people, that get into the not only touristy things, but the cultural side of the destination.
For me, this tour was an excellent decision. I had no fuss whatsoever, and could go about my holiday as I wanted with pure ease and convenience of having someone take care of everything for me.
MANILA > PUERTO PRINCESA > SABANG > EL NIDO > PUERTO PRINCESA > MANILA
Day 1: Manila
Day 2: Manila to Puerto Princesa
Day 3-4: Sabang
Day 5: Sabang to El Nido
Day 6-7: El Nido
Day 8: El Nido to Manila
Day 9: Manila
We started in Manila for one night and the following morning we were scheduled to fly in the early morning to Puerto Princesa. To our unfortunate luck after leaving the hotel at 5:30AM, Cebu Pacific Airlines decided to bump my entire group of 15 to the next flight 4 hours later, and suddenly we had 5 hours to kill in Manila Terminal 3 Domestic, which to our luck was the nicest of all 4 Terminals (yes, international is included in that judgement).
You learn a lot about the way an airport works when you spend so much time there, and a re-occurring theme was delays. Throughout my trip, I learnt that all Filipino airports are notoriously delayed “due to heavy air traffic in Manila”. Understand, things don’t run to time here, and in particular, Cebu Pacific Airlines is probably the worst of the 3 domestic carriers – Philippine Airlines, Air Asia Zest and Cebu Pacific. So we waited, and surprise surprise, our new flight was also delayed by a further half an hour. Finally, we landed in Puerto Princesa at 2pm, and set off for lunch and then the journey to Sabang.
This sleepy little village is 2hrs drive from Puerto Princesa and is set amongst stunning mountains and coastline. A peaceful beachfront massage, beautiful walks and ziplines are all possible here.
Sabang is a small village, so power only runs to buildings at nighttime hours between 6pm and 5am. Leave your straightener at home, you won’t be able to use it ladies! No power means no hot water. Yes, cold showers or no shower, the choice is yours. Blackouts are frequent. There are no ATM’s, no currency exchange, the WiFi was limited and didn’t work. There was limited phone reception, however my international roaming did not have agreements with that particular carrier, so no phone reception for me either! Safe to say, expect to disconnect completely. And most importantly, kitchens close in restaurants by 8pm, so don’t delay dinner or you will go to bed hungry.
There is a small strip of shops selling souvenirs and basic groceries. Most shops will close at 6pm, with a small handful staying open til 9pm. After that, the town is as quiet as could be. In terms of entertainment in the evening, you need to embrace the simple life. We opted for a pack of cards and sat in a restaurant hut by the beach. We ordered some beers and enjoyed eachothers company. If you do this, make sure the leave a small tip for the owners of the hut. They won’t expect much, and were in awe when we tipped 30 Pesos ($1 AUD) per person. The smallest amounts mean the world to these people.
ACCOMMODATION IN SABANG
We stayed at the Dayunan Tourist Inn, with a room on the second floor. Despite all things going against this place given the lack of power, the stay here was comfortable. The beds were comfy, had a side table and mirror and wardrobe, plus a balcony which looked out onto the carpark and ocean. The balcony chair was particularly useful when drying our swimsuits etc 🙂
There was an air conditioner as well, which worked well when there was power. The bathroom was basic, and don’t expect much shower pressure. And again, no hot water.
Breakfast is prepared in advance for you in the morning, and waits for you on the dining table covered in cling wrap. Pancakes one day, eggs the next. Whilst this might be considered annoying that it’s not freshly made right in-front of you, appreciate that you don’t have to wait for breakfast. Filipino time really adds up, especially at breakfast when you want to hit the ground running, so having breakfast ready to go was actually a huge benefit.
THINGS TO DO IN SABANG
Sabang is Palawan’s rise to fame, home to one of the new 7 wonders of nature, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River. The river is 8.2km long and is protected under the UNESCO world heritage program and is one of the longest underground rivers in the world. The river starts at the mouth of a mountain and only has access via a 2hr hike or by boat (take an outrigger boat for 20 minutes). We opted for the boat which went past beautiful coastlines. Taking an outrigger boat in the Philippines is iconic, and should be done more than once!
The outrigger boats in Sabang were the prettiest boats I saw; all painted the same way with little red and yellow flags that flutter in the wind. Just don’t expect a quiet ride, they sound like a lawn mower right beside you. Now because boat is the main form of transport between Sabang and the river, it does get quite busy at the jetty. However! For those who have experienced Thailand and alike, this “busy” is small in comparison, as each boat can only take approx 8 passengers. You won’t find hundreds of tourists waiting here, so the wait isn’t very long.
PUERTO PRINCESA SUBTERRANEAN RIVER TRIP
When you reach the beach, you have an introduction to the history of the river, and then proceed down a boardwalk to an inland lake. You are given a headset, a life jacket and a hardhat. They are serious about the conservation here, so really pay attention to what you are doing. You then hop into a guided paddle boat tour with 9 others, and are taken into the river. Your guide will paddle the boat for you, taking you as far as 1.5km into the river. The cave river system is elaborate and the further in you go, the more difficult is it to breathe, therefore the turning point is at 1.5km for this reason.
The river is home to thousands of bats, has magnificent karsts and vast cathedral like chambers – reaching 120m wide and 60m high in several sections! As in any cave, you’ll be surrounded by natural limestone rock formations in every direction. Many of these have dissolved and have formed into statues that look things: the holy family, eggplant, titanic. And this should come as no surprise, it’s pitch black inside so if you are claustrophobic and struggle with the darkness, perhaps this isn’t the best idea for you. There is also a fossil of a ‘serenia‘ (sea cow to everyone else), however it is 4km deep into the river, simply too far to show everyone. Overall, the tour of the river takes 2hrs, so plenty of the day left afterwards and a valid experience!
Once we returned to Sabang, we then went on a small hike north up to a small waterfall via a very rocky/pebbly beach. It took about 45 minutes to walk there, with the larger time portion navigating footwork on the rocks. These aren’t small pebbles, they were the size of bowling balls and/or larger. Wear proper shoes, it’s really hard to walk through in flip flops and huge risk of slipping and breaking an ankle! The waterfall itself is nice, with two small rock pools on separate levels. No more than 4 people would fit in the pools, but keep in mind that they are only 30cm deep each. The water is cool, perfect for a hot day.
ATV QUAD BIKE IN THE JUNGLE
We then went and did a ATV quad bike tour in Sabang. This jungle quad bike adventure from the Sheridan Hotel lasts 45 minutes, and takes you down a track in the foothills of the mountains, in the jungle. It costs 1,300 Pesos ($45 AUD). Expect to stop a lot as the bikes aren’t in the best condition, however it’s a fun way to spend the day and get a little muddy.
Totally deserves to have its own section, the massages here were incredible! Set along the beachfront, it was the perfect way to relax!
ZIPLINE + MANGROVE SWAMP TOUR
Whilst I unfortunately didn’t have enough time to go ziplining (too many massages, whoops!) the reports back from my other group members were really positive. There is also a mangrove swamp tour that can be done, again, I had no time!
THE ROAD FROM SABANG TO EL NIDO
This is the journey that people dread, and you’ll read elsewhere that the road to El Nido is awful; bumpy, long and uncomfortable. Well, I have good news for you! The road has been recently redone and is almost entirely concrete now! So now it’s still uncomfortable and long, but hey, still an improvement! I only experienced one 20 minute section of dirt road quite close to El Nido (very bumpy indeed), but it looked to have the concrete road coming fairly soon. I would estimate by April 2016, the road would be complete!
The road from Puerto Princesa is windy, and yes, the vans might not be the most comfortable, but, overall it’s worth it when you get to El Nido. If you are prone to motion sickness on windy roads, this road will be no exception, so take travel sickness tablets accordingly. From Sabang, the journey took 5hrs with a stop for lunch at Tay Tay (best town name ever btw). There is also the option of taking the ferry from Sabang to El Nido, however this is unreliable and even more uncomfortable than the van. The ferry goes far enough out at sea that you can’t see the coastline, and can have quite rough conditions, with the 8hr journey growing to 11hrs frequently. Recommendation: take a van!
When you google El Nido, you will get stunning pictures with beautiful white sand and clear blue water. Do not be mistaken, this is what the islands around El Nido look like, not what El Nido town looks like!!
I was disappointed to see it in this condition, and clearly had been exposed to way too many photoshopped images of El Nido before my visit. Whilst the above image is taken at low tide, the beach wasn’t much better at high tide. The sand isn’t that great, the water is a green murky colour and there are rocks everywhere in the water. To top it off, the bay has many parked boats, so it really isn’t a place you can swim. HOWEVER, what El Nido itself disappoints in, the islands surrounding make up for immensely!!! I was absolutely blown away by the beauty that are these islands.
The vibe in El Nido is really relaxed. Everything runs on Filipino time, so don’t get frustrated, just order another cocktail 😉
I feel like this is really important: Electricity runs from 6pm to 2pm the next day. So from 2pm-6pm, you will not have power. Blackouts are frequent, however the town knows how to deal with this well. There are no ATM’s, but there was one money changer, so take all the cash you will need – ideally Pesos.
If you want to go to a nice beach a don’t want to take a boat out, head to Las Cabanas beach. It’s a 15min (150 Pesos one way) trike from El Nido town. There are 4-5 beach huts and a few small pensions there, lunch and sand sorted!
THINGS TO DO IN EL NIDO
The major drawcard to El Nido are the islands, and they are stunning. Imagine beautiful white sandy beaches with clear blue water, all to yourself!
We took Island hopping tour A, which was 1,200 Pesos ($40 AUD) per person. The other 3 itineraries range between 1,200 to 1,500 Pesos. You can bargain the price down. Lunch is included for the day. You can easily book this the day before you want to go. We ended up having 3 stops, Big Lagoon – beautiful snorkelling, Simizu Island – stunning white beach, and Seven Commandos – which had the clearest water and sand, ending the day out in perfect style.
Logic would assume that if there are awesome islands, there are epic reefs. Logic definitely wins. There are so many dive sites within easy reach of El Nido that are so beautiful. I did my first ever discovery dive here with Palawan Divers, a Padi certified diving company and was very happy with their service and expertise. They ran the whole day smooth as could be, providing ample fussing over us all for 4,600 Pesos ($130 AUD) for 3 dives. El Nido is one of the best places to dive in the world, and is also one of the cheapest. If you’ve never dived before, the first dive is purely an educational one to teach you how to use the equipment set on a beach where you’ll be able to stand up should you need to. The following two dives take you to about 10m deep at an appropriate coral reef site. For me, it was Twin Rocks and Pangulasian Island.
To my unfortunate luck, the zipline was closed on the 1st of January – in fact most of El Nido was, so I was not able to do it. That said, I did go to the Las Cabanas, the beach that the zipline is set over, and can say it would be a nice experience for an afternoon zipline. Due to the tide, the morning leaves for a very rocky view, whereas in the afternoon, it’s covered by the tide.
ACCOMMODATION IN EL NIDO
I stayed at Lally and Abet Beach Resort, and found it a very basic experience. There is nothing overly wrong with the resort, but nothing overly right either. The rooms here are not all equal, and I didn’t value my room at worth $95 AUD per night. We had two single beds in our room, night after night that the sheets always came off. Call me picky, but I’m not a fan of patterned sheets in a hotel – it hides the dirt. The bookshelf looked like it was about to collapse, and they didn’t have anywhere, at all, to hang towels or wet bathers. The rooms were also quite dark and rather depressing to be honest. Yes, they were fitted with air con (although it was seriously loud) and had hot water (when the power was working), but there weren’t many pros to this place. They had an ok WiFi connection in the breakfast area.
The location of Lally and Abet was on the edge of the town, which wasn’t ideal – something more in the centre would have been more convenient – around “Rico’s beach cottage” would be better positioned 🙂
WHERE TO EAT IN EL NIDO
Food in El Nido is cheap. Our favourite dinner was at Marbers, they had good Filipino food and western – pizzas were 280 Pesos for a really good size. Coconut & rhum 100 Pesos, Red horse and San Miguel beer for 70 Pesos! We also really liked the Mexican restaurant Lonesome Carabao, enjoying fabulous burritos and tacos. Keep in mind they only use fresh avocados here, so guacamole is not available all year round.
NEW YEARS EVE IN EL NIDO
El Nido is a pretty awesome place for a relaxed New Years Eve. There were fireworks, the waves of the ocean, sand inbetween my toes, and seemingly the entire town on the beach. The fireworks were going off for quite some time, which added to the atmosphere. Top tip, make sure you have a reservation for restaurant for dinner as everywhere will be crowded. Marbers had an all you can eat Filipino buffet with a suckling pig for 400 Pesos per person. The food was tasty, and positioned us fantastically for a lovely evening under the stars.
EL NIDO TO PUERTO PRINCESA AIRPORT
I’ll be honest, the only way in and out of Palawan is via Puerto Princesa Airport, which is a 6 hour journey by van. There is a small strip airport at El Nido, however it only operates to charter aircraft. When you leave El Nido to get to Puerto Princesa airport – you will most likely stop at Roxas, which offers a small selection of food and snacks. Ideally, bring your own snacks. The road is OK, but it’s still a long journey. I don’t recommend flying with Cebu Pacific – the flight WILL get mucked around with them. Philippine Airlines were much more reliable.
And there you have it! A 9 day round trip to Palawan with G Adventures on their Southern Philippines Palawan Adventure!