Planning my Philippines trip was harder than planning any other trip I’ve been on. Part of it is because there are so many incredible options -- and part of it is because there’s no clear “good” or “best” or “right” set of places to go. Not to mention the long ferries, flights, and bus rides required to get anywhere. (Islands are complicated like that.)
To make your planning a little bit easier, I offer this advice:
There’s basically no reason to go to Puerto Princesa, other than to use the airport or possibly hop on a liveaboard to Tubbataha Reef.
I learned this the hard way. I didn’t have a particular plan for Palawan. But supposedly there was this really cool “underground river” that’s a UNESCO site, and Honda Bay is amazing for island hopping -- there’s also a firefly tour, where you go out on a river in the mangroves and see tons of fireflies. It sounded like about two days worth of stuff…
But when I arrived at PPS, the Puerto Princesa airport, I quickly realized I was the only traveler who was going into Puerto Princesa -- everyone else was taking a tricycle to the bus station, or hopping on a van and heading straight to El Nido.
This option didn’t seem attractive to me -- it’s approximately a 5-hour drive, and at this point I still thought there would be a lot to do in PP…
I ended up leaving at 7am the next morning. The town itself doesn’t have a clear “center.” There are some places to visit, like the Bay Walk (it’s deserted all day, because there’s no shade and it is super hot outside). There is also a church, and maybe a museum or two. But it’s really nothing amazing.
I didn’t end up going to Honda Bay, because someone told me that after El Nido, Honda Bay will be disappointing (they do, however, let you feed the fish -- a terrible thing from an ecological standpoint, but I suppose it makes for good photos, because you'll be absolutely swarmed), so why not just spend the time (and money) in El Nido?
I didn’t end up going to the underground river -- maybe for you, it would be worth it. But I did, like, four seconds of self-reflection and realized I’m just not really into caves, and that’s basically all it is. An expensive and crowded cave, that takes about two hours each way to get to from the city.
For the right kind of tourist, it would be very cool. But me? I decided to spend the afternoon and evening in PP, then take a super early van to El Nido.
And I don’t regret it at all.
The only thing I regret is that, because I spent that half-day in PP, I didn’t have time to dive the Irako wreck in Coron. (I had to choose between that and the dugongs, and the dugongs won.)
(And I don't regret it, even though:)
And if you're worried about missiung the fireflies -- don't. They have a tour like that in Coron. It's cheaper (or, at least, similarly-priced), and can easily be done after your island hopping, dugong swimming, or wreck diving experiences. (It starts at 6pm -- they take you to this fancy seafood dinner at a floating restaurant, then put you on a boat to see the magic.)
There is also Maquinit Hot Spring in Coron, and I believe they will let you in until 8pm. It's 200 pesos, and takes about 25-35 minutes to get there by tricycle.
So if you’re trying to figure out what to do in Palawan, don’t make the same mistake I did. Go directly from PPS to El Nido -- or, if you can afford it, fly directly to El Nido. I found the bus/van ride to be very pretty, but it’s long.
And probably loud. The drivers like to play their music pretty loudly (this is true pretty much everywhere in Southeast Asia), so if you have an audiobook (I was listening to Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, by Simon Winchester -- which was really cool, because a lot of it focuses on this part of the world) or want to listen to your own music or podcasts, invest in noise-canceling headphones.
Or a flight to El Nido. If you’re short on time, it’s totally worth it.
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