When most people think of palm trees and perfect beaches, The Philippines isn’t the first location to spring to mind.
However on my recent trip to the north of Palawan province, I discovered a coastal paradise on earth.
Having survived the madness of Manila and the hordes of tourists in Boracay, I hopped on an overnight ferry bound for Coron Town, the tip of Busuanga island and gateway for many travelers to the incredible Palawan. On arrival in Coron Town, I will admit I was a little disappointed; it looked just like any other Filipino coastal village and there wasn’t even a beach! However upon actually looking at a map and chatting to the friendly and helpful staff at Seahorse Guest House I discovered that the real attractions lay a short ferry ride away on Coron Island. After booking into a day trip to see the sights for the next day, I decided to spend the rest of my time exploring the town. This proved to be pretty underwhelming, aside from seeing the local markets and walking along the main streets there wasn’t a whole lot to do. The real attraction, however, is a sunset climb to the top of Mt Tapyas, which towers over Coron with its Hollywood-style signage. It’s a steep incline but the view from the top at sunset more than makes up for the difficulty of getting there.
The next day I set off to explore the main attraction: the beaches and lakes of Coron Island. Any travel agency and many hotels and hostels can book you a place on a day tour for 1000 to 1500 pesos (US$20-31), however they are all largely the same regardless of which company you go with. The first stop was Siete Pecados, home to the most impressive reef I’ve had the privilege to snorkel in. After checking out the colourful coral and alarming some bright local fish, the group sailed on to the famous Twin Lagoon where the warm salt water from the sea meets the cold fresh water of the lagoon through the narrow gap in the cliff face. The two mixing waters cause an interesting temperature shift in the water, as the warm patch you’re floating in one minute will make you shiver the next!
After a delicious picnic on the beach fresh including fresh fish and crabs we got back on the boat and headed for our last stop, the pristine Kayangan Lake, known for its beautiful underwater rock formations and schools of skittish needlefish. After the steep climb up from the dock it was a relief to arrive at the oasis that was the lake for a well deserved cool off before heading back to Coron Town.
Flights out of Coron are quite expensive so I took the cheaper and generally more popular option of a six hour ferry trip to El Nido on the northern tip of mainland Palawan. It was a saga to say the least. The ferry was the kind of outrigger boat usually used for day trips but with a flat roof deck used to store extra people. For the first hour it was a bit of a novelty but any good humour quickly wore off once the intense sun forced those of us not lucky enough to score a seat inside the boat (i.e. the majority of the passengers) onto the decks to squabble with each other over a spot in the shade. As you can imagine, I arrived in El Nido in desperate need of a shower and a comfortable spot to recover in. I found both of those things in Spin Designer Hostel, El Nido’s brand new “flashpacker” really changing the game for Filipino hostels. The friendly vibe, helpful staff, awesome daily breakfast and planned activities were part of what made my stay in El Nido so memorable.
Despite the uncomfortable journey to get there, El Nido actually turned out to be my favourite location in The Philippines. It manages to combine relaxed vibe of Coron and the beaches of Boracay without the overly tacky tourist scene and the result is a friendly seaside town with plenty of beaches to kick back on with a beer and a book. Like in Coron, the most common way to see the sights is by taking a day trip and once again every travel agency and many accommodations offer the same four tours for approximately 1500 pesos (US$31). The most popular trip is Tour A; three lagoons and two beaches where visitors can snorkel on the reefs, paddle in impossibly clear water and swear at the biting damselfish. A particular highlight was Big Lagoon, the turquoise water surrounded by high limestone cliffs is a popular place to kayak or paddle board. Small Lagoon and Shimizu Island are a great place to snorkel with the local sea life and if you’re lucky enough you can see a turtle! The day finishes up at Corong Corong Beach for buko (young coconut) and beer or a final swim.
El Nido is also blessed with a number of waterfalls and beaches on the mainland, however unless you can ride a scooter you are limited to taking an expensive tricycle ride to reach them. I had heard about Nacpan Beach from other travelers however as a solo traveler I wasn’t prepared to foot the 2000 peso bill to get there on my own. Luckily for me during a beery conversation with the manager of Spin I mentioned this and what do you know, two days later the hostel planned an excursion out to Nacpan. It was definitely worth going for a lovely day on the beach and a drive through the beautiful scenery, and for only a fraction of what I would have paid had I gone on my own.
Coron and El Nido were the highlight of my trip to The Philippines and definitely somewhere I would recommend to beach and nature lovers. Palawan lived up to its reputation as one of the country’s most beautiful provinces and well and truly provided the beach break I needed!