Palawan to me is Paradise.
For the longest time, I’ve always wanted to get lost in that enchanted Island; escape the city even just for a moment.
Well, thanks to a timely piso-fare promo and an unbelievably elaborate itinerary by a friend, I did eventually get the getaway I’ve always wanted. And from that adventure I learned two very important things. First, one must yearn to travel. It doesn’t matter when, where or how. Putting yourself out there and chasing your own adventure is a worthwhile experience that we should get at while we’re young and still can. Second, one must always bring thy sunblock. Unless you plan on looking like you just had a field trip around the sun, then thy sunblock should not be forsaken.
It’s true what they say about Palawan. Once you get there, you’d never want to look back. There’s not much of a mystery to it – the place is beautiful. The province has three major tourist destinations. There is Puerto Princesa, its capital city and where the Underground River is located, the El Nido group of islands and its most popular attraction, Coron, both located way up north of the province. There are plenty of other spots to choose from but these are the most popular. However, Coron’s beauty comes with a hefty price tag , so we settled for the other two, which were still pretty awesome by the way. We had five days to spare so we really tried to have as much fun as possible while still staying on budget. If you ever plan on visiting Puerto Princesa and El Nido, a list of what to do might come in handy. So I’ve put up a list of fun things you might want to try while you’re in Palawan. Well, the things I managed to try anyways.
THE 10 THINGS TO ABSOLUTELY DO IN PALAWAN
1) Dine in some of their cool Restaurants | Travelling should be as much a feast for the palate as it is for the eyes. Gastronomic tales do make good conversations and It’s nice to splurge in a good dining experience every once in a while. One of Puerto’s cooler restaurants is the Kalui. This was our first taste of Palawan and it definitely left a delightful first impression. The place has an artsy feel to it. It is a native hut decorated with different things like colourful plates and old furniture. After hours being in the plane and the airport, coming here was a much needed change of atmosphere. It felt warm and inviting. And surprisingly, the food was good and wasn’t that expensive. 2) Breathe in Puerto Princesa | This might break a little of the “escaping the city” vibe here. Coming from city, the last thing you might want to see is well… another city. But listen, Puerto princesa is a metropolis like no other. It wasn’t named the country’s cleanest city for nothing and trust me, you’ll have to see (or smell) it to believe it. While travelling through the city, I’d challenge you to spot a single trash on the sidewalk. Heck, I’d challenge you to throw trash on their sidewalk, which you probably shouldn’t because you know, the jail wasn’t probably a part of your itinerary. Out of curiosity, I asked our tour guide how they’d manage to keep the litter from their sidewalks. She then told us that every citizen in Puerto has the ability to perform a citizen arrest. Meaning, anyone caught doing anything nasty can be caught directly and brought to the police by anyone. How’s that for law enforcement. To be honest, Cebu could really use some of that right now. I’m looking at you, Colon. It’s nice to take a stroll around without breathing in pollution for a change. 3) Go Loco over the Crocos | If you’re in for some local celebrity-spotting, you might want to check on their resident Megastars. With their mega jaws, mega waistlines and mega appetites, their crocodiles are truly a mega sight to behold. Due to Palawan’s thriving wildlife, they are able to have one of the largest crocodiles in captivity. These creatures are huge. Despite these powerful attributes, all they mostly do is slack-off. There have been plenty of stories about fishermen going missing in the rivers of Palawan, and judging by the set of teeth I saw on these guys, I wouldn’t wonder if the boat goes missing as well. The farm also has a nursery where you can see young croc hatch-lings which are kind of cute; that is until they grow big enough to swallow you whole. Aside from crocodiles, the zoo has other animals on display which you should definitely check out. 4) Baker’s Hill | A hill that suspiciously sounds like the Chocolate hill’s distant relative, Baker’s hill is actually a little French village in the heart of Puerto. It has small restaurant village houses and statues of famous superhero and cartoon characters that I’d imagine must be popular among families looking for somewhere to bond during the weekends. It has a park, a zoo and an observation deck that gives you a good view of the city. And what’s a baker’s hill without its baked goodies? Well, their chocolate crinkles are pretty tasty, I can tell you that. I bet the place looks lovelier in the evening but we can only afford a few hours. Still, it’s a definite stop over if you’re looking for a good place to buy gifts for the folks back home. 5) Prison Break at Iwahig | Yep, you read that right. See, I wasn’t kidding when I said it was an elaborate itinerary. When the tour guide said that our next stop was going to be a prison, I kind of hoped she was kidding. When she said that it was an open prison, and by open she meant the prisoners roamed freely, that’s when I almost choked myself on a chocolate crinkle. Suddenly, the crocodiles seemed much more appealing. I mean, I’ve never been to any prison before so a lot of crazy shit popped into my head. But the tour guide promised us that it was going to be safe. She’s been doing this for a while now so that was reassuring. The Iwahig Prison wasn’t only a free prison, it was a huge prison. Hectares upon hectares of land constituted the facility. In fact, it is so big it even has a local community inside it. There are plenty of guards too so there’s really nothing to worry about. Prisoners typically wore color-coded shirts depending on the weight of the crimes they have committed. We were then brought to a very old function hall where we were treated to a surprise dance number by the inmates themselves. This might not be what you exactly have in mind but it’s sure worth a try. 6) Try the Tamilok | We, Asians, seem to have only one mantra regarding our food, and that is “If it is alive, then it can probably be eaten.” If I were to describe the tamilok I’d say it is very similar to eating a severely obese spaghetti. Having a gummy and somewhat rubbery texture does not help you swallow it any easier. The thing is a stuff of nightmares. It’s a worm for heaven’s sake. I’d like to think that it has no business whatsoever in any living human being’s mouth and that it should rather be left alone in the ground where it rightfully belongs. You can eat it raw – slime and all – or you can lower the fear factor level down a notch and eat it breaded and fried. Although it looks a lot like it, pretending it is calamares does not help. Either ways, good luck. The best way to eat this would be to summon every happy thought in you and then gobble away. Why did I even bother eating one, you might ask? Because YOLO, that’s why. 7) Sample the famous El Nido Soup | There are a lot of things the El Nido Soup is famous for. But if there is one thing it is most famous for, it’s the hefty price tag. Aside from that, what makes the soup special is not the soup itself but the ingredient that’s in it. Its main ingredient is something that you might not normally want in your bowl of hot soup – hardened saliva. Yep, one bowl of steaming hot spit. But it’s no ordinary spit. It comes from the balinsasayaw birds that are then harvested by farmers in the caves of Palawan. They produce them to make their nests on cave walls and crevices. Once hardened, farmers collect them to be sold to Chinese merchants who dub the material to have miraculous healing properties or to chefs who cook them into soup. Regardless, I urge anyone to try it. If you’re on a tight budget like me, I suggest splitting it with your friends. The taste is nothing out of the ordinary but hey, how many people can say they’ve eaten bird spit soup, right? 8) Discover the Islands of El Nido | El Nido does not disappoint. The islands are postcard-perfect beautiful. The best way (probably the only) way to enjoy the islands would be to go on an island hopping adventure. One day would probably not be enough so I suggest you schedule a two-day trip devoted to riding a banka around El Nido. Believe me, once you take a plunge in these aquamarine waters, you wouldn’t want to get out. There seems to be a standardized package tour system among the boatmen so deciding on which islands to choose isn’t that difficult. There are four packages: A, B, C and D. Each package has about four to five islands in them. Strangely, walking around different shops I noticed every single travelling agency had the same tour packages , down to what islands comprise each package. Since the boatmen have probably more experience than anyone, just ask them which tour package is the best. In our case, they suggested tours A and C.
Regardless of your choice, I highly doubt that you’d be disappointed. Honestly, I don’t think words would suffice so I’ll let these pictures talk instead. 9) Island hopping in Puerto | I was serious when I said it was the life aquatic. There was no way we’d settle for a single island hopping activity. Not when a group of islands was very close to Puerto. Compared to El Nido, the islands near the capital were fewer. By comparison, El Nido was more enchanting due to its massive limestone rock formations, but these islands have a charm of their own. But the real treasure wasn’t found above the water, it was what’s below that makes it a definite stop for Palawan explorers. Honda Bay was the first stop which was a fish sanctuary. Imagine going into your local fish market. Now, the market turns into this huge aquarium and all the marine animals magically burst into life. Put in some corals here and there and you have a clear picture of what Honda bay looks like underwater. So many marine creatures in such little space. If you’re lucky you’d even get to see a school of Barracudas in the deep parts of the sanctuary. It’s a fish frenzy wherever you look. 10) Scratch the Underground River off your bucket List | Since being named one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Underground River is probably tied with Coron as Palawan’s most sought after attraction. It was already famous then but after being included in the seven wonders list, the number of tourist flocking the spot has skyrocketed, raking in not just local but international tourists as well. And that’s for a good reason. I was surprised to learn that we had to ride a pump boat to reach the underground river.
All this time I imagined it would be way inland inside a mouth of a cave. So after travelling by boat, I thought we would see the mouth of the cave near the shore. Instead we were greeted by a thick forest. Quite the thrill, there. It was a river after all. So we went deep into the forest and after a few minutes of hiking we finally got to see it. To be honest, my heart sank quite a bit. I was expecting this huge cave entrance that could fit a ship. What was in front of me however was nothing more of a hint that there was a cave inside. We took a few pictures and rode a small banca. Together with two foreign tourists we embarked into the unknown. The entrance was so low you could touch some of the rocks dangling from above. Whatever reservations I had earlier was completely swept away the moment we came in. The cave inside was beyond huge. This is what you’d normally call a tip-of-the-iceberg situation, except it’s a cave. It was dark so each banca had its own light which we were asked to maneuver ourselves. Despite the total darkness around, our tour guide was really funny and outgoing so that really lightened the mood.
You’d have to have quite the imagination if you want to keep up with the tour guide’s description of the various rock formations inside the cave. There’s the mushroom and the Virgin Mary which were easy, but sometimes no amount of squinting will ever make things any clearer. Take the Nativity scene for example. The guide was asking if we could see Mary, Joseph and the three wise men and all I could see were these plain rocks. If this was indeed the Nativity scene, they were probably on vacation somewhere. But I just went along and went “yeah”. Whenever the light touched some of the rocks, they would glimmer faintly which was really beautiful. The tour guide said that a place deep into the cave was a place where the surface shined like diamonds but sadly was not part of the tour. Recently a fossil of an ancient sea cow was found deep in the cave but again, this was off-limits, too.
It was pleasant cruising in total darkness with the cool air brushing your face. Every once in a while you’d meet fellow tourists and it’s impossible not to wave hi. Being in the dark too long, it was comforting to see other people alive and well. As we went deeper, the ceiling gained height as well. Then there was this section where the whole ceiling was covered with black dots; they turned out to be bats. It was scary because I’d imagine them getting all cranky and swooping down on us. But it turns out, these bats are used to this kind of attention. A few more paddling of our tiny banca and we were finally taken to the highlight of the whole tour – the Cathedral. But to be honest, it was so big you can probably stack five cathedrals in it and still have plenty of room left for parking space. It was immense. It’s just there, still, and yet it’s hard not to experience this larger-than-life sensation. Everyone fell silent and was probably too stunned to talk. We just looked up in unison, gasping at this natural wonder. It was truly a sight to behold. Sadly, the highlight was also the turning point. It was time to go back. The whole underground experience was surreal, it was like being in a whole different world that you don’t get to see every day. After that, I kept thinking what the first explorers felt when they first entered the cave. I’ve seen many pictures but that was nothing in comparison to being there in the flesh. Maybe, like us, they just felt silent as well and gasped at the treasure they have found.