Just the name Puerto Princesa conjures up images of a tropical princess lounging on a beach sipping fresh coconut juice… and that is exactly what I was lucky enough to experience during my trip to Palawan.
Flying in to Puerto Princesa International Airport from Manila, I wasn’t sure if I had left the busy atmosphere of the city behind. We had arranged for pickup from the airport with our hotel and had barely passed the exit when we were already slowed by traffic. On the good side it did give us the opportunity to chat to our very friendly driver and since it was only us in the van with no other guests we stopped by a stretch of fruit vendors and loaded up on local fruit.
In Vancouver I’m not sure where we get our avocados from, but the Palawan avocados in comparison are three times the size! There’s also nothing like eating a perfectly ripe and golden Philippine mango on a balcony looking out past the coconut trees and then realizing you’ve dribbled mango juice all over yourself. All part of the experience.
Luckily the traffic only lasted for about 20 minutes before the road cleared up as we moved further away from the airport, the crowds and concrete buildings slowly disappearing from view. We had booked our stay at the Sheridan Beach Resort and after about another hour zooming along the narrow (but at least not bumpy!) road we arrived. Greeted with a glass of freshly squeezed juice I walk through the reception area to be welcomed by Sabang beach. Coconut trees lined up along the beachfront rustling in the warm ocean breeze, I immediately settle into laid back island time.
An island dog takes an afternoon nap
The rooms at the Sheridan are plush with air conditioning. It’s a very comfortable ‘western resort style’ stay. If you’re looking for something a little more traditional I did see other resorts and small huts catering to all sorts of budgets but along the same stretch of beach. For good eats beyond what was offered at our hotel, it wasn’t difficult to find as only a few steps away was an open style restaurant where we could eat freshly cooked seafood and still appreciate the view of the ocean and bangkas bobbing up and down with the waves.
The restaurant right beside our hotel where we ended up eating most of our dinners for cheaper. I enjoyed the slightly tacky but fun feel of the place with all the wood detail.
A bangka (outrigger canoe) comes ashore
The Puerto Princesa underground river, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the first stop on our visit list. We boarded a bangka after the hotel staff helped us register for our permits at the tourist office, and after a quick 10 minute ride we approached the park entrance that was surrounded by limestone karst mountains.
One of our co-drivers guiding our boat. Limestone karst formations tower over in the background.
Entering the park our guide takes us to see the monitor lizards (known as ‘bayawak’ in Tagalog) and they were more than a metre long! I suppose they’re used to having people gawk at them, as the one below lazily swayed right past me in search of something tasty to eat. Apparently they can also climb trees and swim, but the ones I saw were quite content at ground level. Another local park resident are the monkeys that are known to steal food from your bag or anything that looks like food in plastic bags; best to keep everything secured away in your backpack.
A Palawan monitor lizard
The underground river is known to be 8.2km long but the tour only takes you through the first 1.5km with the rest not accessible to tourists. The tour was about 45 minutes and while our guide/boatman was humourous I did wish they told more information about the history and nature of the site instead of mostly describing the formations as fruits or vegetables… Sitting in front I had the pleasure of holding a questionable spotlight setup hooked to what looked like an old faded car battery. Once we entered the cave the water dripping off the stalactites would sometimes drip on one of the connectors and it would smoke a little, but thankfully I made it through the tour without being electrocuted.
Being an eager beaver and wanting a front row seat, I ended up being designated as the spotlight holder. No pressure.
Approaching the cave entrance
I did see hundreds of bats inside and I’m beginning to feel like my vacation has been about visiting bat caves after my trip to the Mulu caves in Malaysia. The underground river was still amazing to see as we navigated through the cave by boat and I’m lucky to have been able to see a glimpse of a rare “mountain-to-sea ecosystem” as described by UNESCO.
Heading back out of the cave
Next on the itinerary to top off the day was the Sabang X Zipline. Transportation to and from the zipline was easy as we had asked our boatman if he could drop us off at the starting point and then pick us up where it ends. To get to the zipline we had to hike up a short way through some jungle and then the view opens up to reveal the sea below and mountains ahead, vast and inviting. The zipline wasn’t very speedy, and a quick 2 minutes after I find myself slowing down and wondering if I’m going to reach the end?
View from the start of the zipline
Feet up, as to not lose one’s slippers and pollute the seas!
Not too worry, the zipline folks have you covered as someone waits below for you and pulls you back towards the shore. I wish I had a little more time to explore the beach at this end and take photos but our boat was waiting to take us back to the wharf.
Saving me from being stranded, this kind gentleman pulls me back to shore. Our ride is waiting on the left.
We return to the wharf and make our way back to our hotel a few minutes away. Suddenly the weather changes from being calm and sunny to windy and grey. The waves turn choppy and not having very good sea legs I’m gratefully watching this unfold from the comfort of our hotel. Then it rains, a torrential downpour, and I learn that I visited during the wet season which is from June – October. The dry season is from November – May; November/January/February would be ideal months to visit as you avoid the holiday peak seasons and summer school break (from March – May to coincide with the drier months). Having gone in July it did rain heavily for the three nights I was there, but it would only be for an hour or so before clearing up.
Palawan is still very much worth visiting in the rainy season, though it would be good to know to not expect that clear blue ‘pristine’ water. The rainfall stirs the sediment in the water making it cloudy and murky looking.
The weather turns from sunny to stormy as the wind whips and the waves turn choppy
The following day we went on a tour of Honda Bay. It takes about an hour from Sabang to get to the Honda Bay wharf and after stopping by a shop to rent our snorkeling gear and scuba boots, we boarded a bangka and were on our way to our first stop Luli Island.
Turned out that of our group of about 12 we were the only two people going snorkeling so we had the guide to ourselves! I inspected my mask and snorkel (the shopkeeper assured us the gear was well sanitized), put it on and away we went. This being my first time snorkeling, I was hesitant to try as I thought it would be too up close and personal with the fishes. I couldn’t be more wrong and I’m very glad I was encouraged to just give it a go.
Starfish from the aptly named Starfish island
You know those HD TV commercials that always show coral reefs and fish swimming around and you think wow, look at all those colours and detail pop! This was the real deal, and despite the water being a little cloudy (in dry season it must look even more amazing with clear water) I witnessed a whole world I had never seen before in person below the surface of the Sulu Sea. Colourful schools of fish gracefully gliding through coral as you float above; it all felt very dreamlike.
I thought the snorkeling was best on Starfish island, our next stop on our island hopping tour. I must have spent more than 20 minutes just floating above a family of clown fish and I would gleefully ‘shout’ “Nemo!” through my snorkel. I wish I had my go pro on me so I could have taken some pictures but I had forgotten it back in Vancouver. So it just means I have to return and relive the moment!
One of the statues on Starfish Island that I found very strange and out of place to put in a natural setting
After some very delicious lunch, our last island hop was Cowrie Island which turned out to be the most crowded of the three and the one I liked the least. It felt commercialized and I learned that most of the tours stop at this island to have lunch so it was more crowded. There were also inflatable slides which while fun for the kids I thought took away from the beauty of the surroundings. Similar to the out of place statues I found on Starfish island (there was even one of Michael Jordan and though I idolized him in my childhood, statue MJ was still out of place).
As much as I really enjoyed my first snorkeling experience, I feel that Honda Bay might be a little too touristy and crowded for my taste – and I did it during the non-peak season so it must be very crowded in the drier months. If crowds don’t bother you, tours of Honda Bay which include all transportation and lunch are about $70 USD.
We booked our excursions through Sheridan and they arranged for all the required permits and transportation. You could probably save money booking things yourself, but if you want it easy without worrying about the planning on your part ask your hotel and they can arrange things for you.
My favourite photo from our trip, bangkas lined up ready to take groups to the underground river
I feel like I only scratched the surface of Palawan – there are so many other areas and islands to explore in both the North and South regions that crosses sandy beaches and also old growth forest and mountain ranges. The local people I met at Sabang beach were incredibly friendly and welcoming; it must have also been the laid back island attitude because even the peddlers selling local handicrafts don’t harass you to buy things unlike other touristy spots. It felt very safe, and there were also security personnel stationed by the beachfront of our hotel for extra measure but it didn’t feel like it was needed.
Before catching our flight back to Manila we made reservations at Kalui seafood restaurant which was recommended as one of the best seafood restaurants in Puerto Princesa. The food was delicious and very fresh, and a fun place to be as the restaurant is built in a traditional style with all wood detail and no walls. Highly recommended if you’re already in the area, and it’s best to make reservations.
- During peak season (Dec – May) book the underground tour in advance as there are visitor limits to the park. The tour costs about $40 USD with boat transportation, permits and usually lunch included.
- If you want to do the Sabang X Zipline (highly recommended for $10 USD) include it with your underground river tour so that the same boat can drop you off at the starting point and pick you up where it ends, and can then take you back to the wharf.
- Rainy season is from June – October and the rain causes the water to turn murky as the sediment is stirred, so you won’t get that picturesque blue shown in all the magazine photos. I went in July and the weather can turn quickly from sun to storm.
- Drop by Kalui seafood restaurant in the core of Puerto Princesa tucked away from the busy streets it provides one of the best options for local cuisine and fresh seafood.