Amazing coral reefs, crystal clear lagoons and untouched white sand beaches have long attracted a small but steady stream of travelers to the islands of Palawan in the Philippines. Recently, the islands got the attention of the world when they were voted by the readers of Condé Nast Traveller as the best in the world. Despite the recent publicity the destination still has yet to attract throngs of visitors and still retains its virtually pristine beaches and a bit of an off the beaten track feeling.
Palawan is really a complex of over 1700 individual islands stretching almost 2000km (1200 miles) along the western border of the Philippines. Palawan is the largest island and almost all coastlines measuring almost 500km long but only 50km (30 miles) across. Beautiful lagoons, photogenic karst topography and sugar beaches give way to a rugged chain of mountains covered by a vast blanket of still virgin rain forests.
Puerto Princesa is the provincial seat of government and just an hour’s flight from Manila is the first stop for most visitors to the islands. It’s a popular tourist destination in and of itself for its beach resorts and popular sea food restaurants. Its local claim to fame is that it’s both the cleanest and greenest city in the Philippines.
El Nido known for its beautiful lagoons, rugged limestone cliffs, waterfalls and perfect white sand beaches tops the list of must see destinations for most visitors. The small sleep village lies at the far north end of the island and is just over a half days drive from Puerto Princesa. Whether you dive or snorkel the amazingly clear waters team with a rich variety of marine life ranging from turtles to whale sharks. Over 30 dive sites ranging in depth from 5m to 30m are located within close proximity. The most popular activity is not diving but exploring the islands on the traditional Bunka boats. Cadlao Island is one of the closest and is dominated by a 640m (2000 feet) limestone cliff that hides several lagoons and white sand beaches. A pleasant hike can be made on the island to the Makammo Lagoon which surrounded by mangroves is excellent for bird watching. Pangulasian Island is famous for its broad white sand beach and a small trail can be climbed to the islands highest point offering excellent views of the surrounding bay. One of the most amazing beaches reachable only by swimming through a narrow rock opening is found on Matinloc Island. The sea surrounding El Nido has almost countless islands and even a week would not be enough time to fully explore the beautiful region.
A possible day tour or overnight from Puerto Princesa is the Subterranean River. The Subterranean River has been nominated as one of the newest 7 wonders of the natural world and is well worth a visit. The enormous underground cave stretches more than 24 km (15 mi) long and 4.3 km (2.7 mi) can be accessed by raft and is open to exploration. Visitors will find numerous cave formations as well as massive underground chambers. One of the largest of these is the Italian’s Chamber which is recognized as one of the largest caverns in the world by cubic volume.
At the far northern end of Palawan lies the Calamian Island group which is best accessed via a flight from Manila to the small city of Coron. If you just have a few days in the Philippines this might be the better option since you can avoid the long drive from Puerto Princesa to El Nido and the islands here might be just as spectacular. The area is most famous for its wreck diving and coral reefs. It’s possible to arrange island hopping tours from Coron to several islands with beautiful white sand beaches. One possible stopping point is the strange island of Calauit which, surprisingly, is actually a free ranging game reserve for African wildlife including Zebras and Giraffes. Another great stop is Kayanga Lake which is afresh water lagoon surrounded by limestone cliffs and often claimed to be the cleanest lake in Asia.
The islands chain of Palawan is long enough to stretch across several climatic zones but the region to the north of Puerto Princesa that is of the most interest to travelers is best described as having just two seasons. The wet season last from June to December with the heaviest rains occurring during July and August when tropical depressions are most common. The dry season is the best time to visit and lasts from December to May. Given the tropical nature and proximity to the ocean temperatures vary little and are consistently comfortable throughout the year with average highs just above 30C (around 86F).