Philippines - Getting to know Palawan & El Nido
Palawan is known as the Philippines’ ‘last ecological frontier’. This 650km sliver of an island lies at the heart of an archipelago of almost 2000 more islands that trail off leisurely towards Malay Borneo in the south west. Palawan is unspoilt, sparsely populated and studded with perfect white-sand beaches, but it’s much more than this. There are rugged mountains, teeming jungle, towering limestone karst cliffs, ultramarine lagoons and pristine coral reefs to explore too.
The lively town of El Nido at Palawan’s northern tip provides the gateway to nearby luxury eco resorts on far-flung coral islands around hot-spots such as Bacuit Bay. If Palawan is indeed ‘the new Boracay’, it is at least a hundred times bigger, largely undeveloped and currently with excess capacity for barefoot, romantic journeys into a tropical dreamland.
When it comes to exploring, it’s hard to know where to start. There are no crowds to follow, but instinct will lead you to the beach – and from the beach into the clear blue water. The world-class diving and snorkelling sites are too many to mention, and the hidden lagoons and jaw-dropping coastal features are easy enough to discover for yourself when you go island-hopping.
The biodiversity is stunning, both under the sea and in the jungle which tiptoes down the hills to the very fringe of the beach. If you can tear yourself away from the reefs, the trekking and hiking trails offer a fantastic alternative. And then back once more on the beach you can take advantage of the watersports: paddleboarding, windsurfing and kayaking to neighbouring deserted islands.
What to do in Palawan & El Nido
- Visit the coastal city of Puerto Princesa, the central hub leading to all of Palawan’s natural riches, offers a welcome change of pace from paradisical beaches, with its great – and fast-growing – selection of local Filipino and cosmopolitan restaurants.
- Dive Coron Bay, where the abundance of marine life is joined by the well-preserved remains of the Japanese fleet sunk by American planes in 1944. A guide can take you right through the 170-metre ships, an unforgettable experience, or you can stay outside and peep into the cabins, exploring the decks, cranes and guns, now all encrusted in living coral.
In the 1960s, the remains of a 22,000 year-old man were found along with 1,500 burial jars in Tabon Cave in southern Palawan, where signs of human habitation date back 50,000 years. The cave is hard to reach and government controlled. In the north of the island, Ille Cave is only a 45 minute drive from El Nido, and has recently given up archaeological finds including 20,000 prehistoric human artefacts and the bones of a 14,000-year-old tiger.
Number one among Palawan’s many local dishes is danggit – sun-dried, salted rabbitfish.
Getting off the trail in Palawan & El Nido
- Recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park boasts one of the world’s longest navigable rivers, at over 8km long. Located in Sabang on Palawan’s west coast, the dense tropical jungle is home to cheeky macaque monkeys, monitor lizards, rare Hornbills and White-breasted Sea Eagles, along with countless other rare species. Far beneath the earth snakes the immense tidal river, passing through an awe-inspiring series of caves made up of intricate, long-hidden rock formations.
- Another UNESCO World Heritage Site you can take in is the Tubbataha Reefs National Park. This spectacular coral atoll ecosystem in the middle of the Sulu Sea is some ten hours by boat from Puerto Princesa. The season for diving in calm seas is short, between March and June, and demand is high.
- The terrestrial equivalent of Tubbataha Reefs is Mount Mantalingahan, an oasis of incredible ecodiversity that can be found in the sparsely inhabited jungle-covered mountains of southern Palawan. A hiking trip here will bring you to the home of bearcats, bearded pigs, Peacock Pheasants and many more rare or endangered species.
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