The Philippines’ province of Palawan is as close as it gets to a tropical beach paradise. The Palawan Archipelago is compromised of the large Palawan Island and about mind-boggling 1,780 islands and islets stretching from Mindoro Island in the northeast and Borneo in the southwest. To put this in perspective, the Galapagos are made up of 127 islands and islets.
So much diversity can feel overwhelming when planning Palawan itinerary. So together with fellow adventurers, I’ve put together this list of 12 unforgettable things to do in Palawan to help you plan your own adventure in South East Asia’s paradise. Underground River? Check. Island hopping? Check. Exceptional diving? Check. Volcanic lake? You got it, check. So read on and discover what makes Palawan unforgettable.
Take a private boat tour in Coron
A private boat tour in Coron is a great addition to any Philippines itinerary. With so many naturally beautiful places to explore, it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Palawan!
To arrange a tour it’s easiest to stay in Coron Town on Busuanga Island. Group tours are available for budget travellers, but these tours have set itineraries. The advantage of paying more for a private tour is that the itinerary can be tailored to individual wants and needs. Private tours don’t need to be arranged in advance and can be arranged at the pier in Coron Town each morning. There are many boats/captains waiting at the pier to be assigned to take travellers out on a tour.
The hardest part of arranging a tour is deciding exactly which spots to visit, as there are so many amazing places to choose from. One of the most popular stops is Kayangan Lake. On the short hike to the lake, there are stunning views of karst cliffs and the unbelievably blue waters of Coron Bay. The lake itself is a mix of fresh and saltwater and is said to be the cleanest lake in Asia. It’s certainly a beautiful place for a swim!
Other popular spots to visit in the area are Twin Lagoon, Barracuda Lake, Skeleton Wreck and Siete Pecados. Each spot has something different to offer, whether it’s great snorkelling or the chance to swim in crystal clear waters.
With so many amazing places to visit, taking a private boat tour in Coron is one of the best things to do in Palawan.
Recommended by Sam and Natalia of Something of Freedom
Island hop in El Nido
Island hopping in El Nido may very well be the exact reason you’re coming to Palawan to begin with, isn’t it?
Palawan offers so much, but there’s no doubt island hopping – and island hopping specifically in El Nido – is one of the best things to do in Palawan! The crystal blue water, the dramatic black rocks jutting out from below the sea, the starfish covering the ocean floor, and the cool breeze providing relief from the roasting sun as your boat skips along the sea… This is what you came here for!
And guess what? You have choices. There are four main island hopping tours in El Nido and each has a distinct twist, meaning one isn’t necessarily better than the other. All involve the picturesque El Nido that you’ve seen in a postcard as well as snorkeling.
Maybe you’ll have time for all four? Tour A and Tour C are usually the most popular with people who are short on time. You’ll need sunscreen, a swimsuit, a towel and a full day to do one tour.
Do make sure when booking an island hopping tour that you ask if the price includes the snorkel gear, it should!
Recommended by Nina of Where in the World is Nina?
Visit Flower Island
One of the best places to visit in Palawan is Flower Island, a small island located an hour’s boat ride away from Taytay. It is dominated by one resort, which is owned by the same business that owns the surrounding pearl farm.
On the island, you can stay in your own cottage, located right on the beach. They are pretty luxurious, with lots of space, beautifully decorated, with a four-poster bed and mosquito net. Each cottage also has its own private balcony area with a hammock to relax the hours away.
Flower Island is dominated by a large lighthouse, which lies in the centre. You can hike up to it, through the lush jungle, and from the top get some stunning shots of the surrounding area.
The island is surrounded by healthy, thriving coral, which makes it a paradise for snorkelling and diving. You’ll see plenty of marine animals including tropical fish, rays, giant clams, turtles and even a few reef sharks if you’re lucky. As a bonus, the water is crystal clear, and warm – a complete paradise!
The surrounding pearl farm is open to pre-arranged visits. It’s fascinating to visit if anything to see the way the farm is so heavily guarded. This is because they have to defend themselves against pirates who frequently try to raid them and steal the harvested pearls!
The standout highlight at Flower Island is the glorious sunset, which will take your breath away every single evening! To find out more, check out the Nomadic Boys’ gay guide to Palawan.
Recommended by Stefan and Sebastien of Nomadic Boys
Scuba dive at Coron
What makes Coron a unique scuba diving location is the dozen sunken Japanese battleships from the Second World War that have been turned into underwater specimens for history buffs and diving enthusiasts to explore.
Even though more Japanese war vessels are known to have been destroyed and sunk in the area, only a dozen have been recovered. These remnants of the war are now world-class scuba diving sites, giving Coron a reputation as the wreck capital of the world.
Although diving the shipwrecks is a fascinating underwater expedition, it is very different from seeing vibrant coral or schools of tropical fishes. The experience is not one of thrill or excitement, but rather a sombre reflection of war, death, and loss.
Due to the depth of the shipwrecks, an Advanced Open Water license is recommended, which allows divers to explore up to 40 metres below the surface. There are a few wrecks that are shallow enough for Open Water divers, but the dive site options will be restricted.
One of the most reputable dive centers in Coron is the Reggae Dive Center, and they have a great, professional dive team!
To get to Coron, you can either 1) fly to Francisco B. Reyes Airport (formerly known as Busuanga Airport) from neighbouring islands such as Cebu, Manila or El Nido, or 2) take a 6-hour ferry from El Nido. There is also a 20-hour ferry from Manila, which is an overnight journey.
Recommended by Mo at Travelust 101
Swim in a volcanic lake
The Kayangan volcanic lake on Coron Island is among the best of the many great swimming holes in Palawan. This is thanks in large part to the clearness and cleanness of the lake’s water. It has been referred to as the cleanest lake in the Philippines, the cleanest lake in Southeast Asia, and even the cleanest lake in all of Asia.
Kayangan looks similar to the lagoons in the Bacuit Archipelago, with jungle-clad karsts rising up from the water. The big difference, though, is that while the archipelago is a series of islands, this clear blue lake is completely cut off from the sea.
The lake has become very popular, so if you visit as part of a day trip from Coron Town as most people do, expect it to be busy. If you are lucky enough to avoid the tour groups and have the lake to yourself, though, the serenity and calmness of this place is very special.
To experience this, you would need to arrange a private tour with a boat operator and visit outside the usual times when the tour boats arrive. Most group tours follow a similar schedule, so they are easy to avoid. Visiting outside the peak tourist season of November to April will also ensure a more relaxed trip.
Recommended by Wendy of The Nomadic Vegan
Explore an underground river
There’s little doubt that one of the most popular things to do in Palawan is to visit the Puerto Princesa Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most famous attractions in the Philippines.
Several operators run tours, most of which can be booked in Puerto Princesa itself, either via an agency or at the hotel. One should be aware that despite its name, the river is not located in Puerto Princesa but at a nearby little village called Sabang, about 80 kilometres north of Puerto Princesa.
If time is an issue and comfort a priority, a tour would definitely be the most efficient way of seeing the river, but a cheaper alternative for budget-conscious travellers who have more time to spare is to visit the Puerto Princesa Underground River independently.
Whichever way one chooses to visit, the experience involves riding a boat along a river through a cave system for about 45 minutes. The caves are unique because of the complex ecosystem of flora and fauna that has acclimatised to the conditions within the cave system. It is also popular with tourists because of the number of rocks sporting weird or familiar shapes.
Though the lighting can be pretty bad, carrying a waterproof adventure camera is highly recommended, whilst flip-flops or water shoes are essential. Anybody suffering from a fear of bats should stay away!
Recommended by Nikki and Michelle of Cheeky Passports
Go free diving
If you’ve ever dreamed of being a mermaid (or mer-MAN!) Palawan is a perfect opportunity to give it a shot. With clear and tepid water, this island in the Philippines is a wonderful place to try freediving for the first time.
What is freediving, you ask? Unlike scuba diving, you go beneath the water’s surface without any tanks of air, which means you’ll have to rely on breath control. But don’t try this on your own, folks! Just like any extreme sport, you’ll want to learn from a professional.
Some experienced freedivers can hold their breath for upwards of 7 minutes! And while you certainly won’t be coming close to the experts, you’ll be surprised at how much you can improve in a single lesson. While it can sound a little scary to hold your breath, we found the techniques to actually be similar to yoga or meditation, and you’ll find yourself in a relaxed state during the whole lesson.
Even if you’re a scuba diver, learning the basics of freediving will really push you out of our comfort zone and show you a glimpse of what your body is capable of.
If you’re travelling in the Philippines and want to give this sport a try, you have lots of options. Pop into the Freediving Dimension office in El Nido and chat with the staff to see if it would be something you’re interested in. You can also book dives online and choose from all sorts of options, from a discovery dive where you learn the basics, to an advanced certification course.
Recommended by Katie of Two Wandering Soles
Go island hopping in Honda Bay
Everyone is going to tell you to head to El Nido or Coron when you visit Palawan, but if you’re short on time and want to stick near Puerto Princesa, then do not miss Honda Bay island hopping. Spending a day out here across these gorgeous islands is a lovely way to get your sea salt fix, whilst experiencing an array of fascinating moments.
The beaches are pristine, the boatmen really take care of you, there are plenty of opportunities to snorkel and sunbathe, and if you’re travelling solo, this is the perfect opportunity to meet lots of new friends! The coconuts that you pick up as you hop around are also top-notch. Lunch is included, too!
It is only a quick 30-minute ride from Puerto Princesa to the start of your Honda Bay island-hopping tour. I recommend you do book. To do this tour by yourself is much more expensive and harder to negotiate.
The islands you will visit on the day depend on what other boats are out, how the weather is and what the boatmen think are the best spots for the day. There’s a good chance that these islands may include Starfish Island, Luli Island and Cowrie Island. You will spend around three hours in each of the locations; so there’s plenty of time to relax or have all the adventures you want!
Recommended by Alice of Teacake Travels
Dive in Barracuda Lake
Don’t worry – this lake, despite its name, is not filled with barracuda. It is, however, filled with some of the clearest water you will ever swim in.
This large lake on Coron Island is formed by a tall wall of karst limestone that stretches all the way down to the bottom of the lake. Those same dramatic rock formations that make Coron so popular follow down the sides of the lake and have given the lake the reputation of having “underwater mountains”.
One of the best ways to explore this special lake is to go diving here. You can either do traditional scuba diving or take a freediving course here. If you aren’t a certified diver, don’t worry, this is actually an amazing place to learn both scuba and free diving.
If you’d rather stay toward the top of the lake, it’s possible to snorkel here or just admire it from above on a Coron Island day trip. Courses, fun dives and day trips can be arranged in Coron Town where most tourists stay during their time on Coron. From Coron Town, Barracuda Lake is about a 30-minute boat ride.
There are many tour operators and dive shops in town and all do very similar tours. If you are looking for some of the best operators, consider Art Cafe for island hopping and Corto Divers for diving in Barracuda Lake. Either way, you choose to visit, Barracuda Lake will not disappoint.
Recommended by Hannah and Adam of Getting Stamped
Find paradise on Nacpan Beach
You really shouldn’t miss Nacpan beach in El Nido when visiting Palawan. Although the road going to the beach is bumpy and muddy when it’s raining, when you get there, you’ll think you’ve found paradise. This 4-kilometre-long, fine-sand beach is surrounded by lush jungle dotted with coconut trees. The jewel-blue sea slowly laps at the sand, providing a soothing soundtrack.
Besides swimming, you can kayak, sunbathe, try stand-up paddleboarding, laze on hammocks, interact with the locals who live nearby and eat fresh seafood. Or take a walk to the southern end of the beach, a short distance that ends with a steep hill offering stunning views.
Recommended by Ferna of Everywhere With Ferna
Explore South Miniloc dive site in El Nido
If you plan to get below the surface anywhere in El Nido, it should be to the South Miniloc dive site.
A favourite among dive masters, this stretch of reef is teeming with marine life. There are lots of soft and hard corals that provide protection for fish and other species like blue spotted rays, green sea turtles and eels.
The headliners of this impressive dive site are the massive schools of yellow snapper that you are almost guaranteed to spot. They are amazing to swim with, around and through. When you come across the first large school, it is nothing short of magical.
If you have a lot of time in El Nido It’s best to plan your dives around the tide schedule, and a good dive shop can help you. Most dive shops will take a trip out to South Miniloc most days, if not every day. They visit often because it’s one of the best dives in El Nido and it’s shallow enough for almost any certification level.
There are more than a dozen dive shops located in El Nido Town but there are a few that stand out, including Palawan Divers and Aquanauts.
Recommended by Hannah and Adam of Getting Stamped
Go island hopping in Balabac
Balabac is an up-and-coming destination in Palawan. Located on the southernmost tip of the province, as of today only a few travellers venture to this location, made up of about 30 islands.
Currently, there are no commercial hotels or resorts in the area, only homestays and small inns. As such, you can spend 2-3 days island hopping to some of the most pristine islands you can find in the country.
Onuk Island has a beautiful beach with baby blue water and an underwater world of its own where you can see giant clams and turtles. Candaraman Island has a sand bar and a “starfish alley” where you can lay on the sand surrounded by a number of starfishes. Camiaran Island is a pinkish-sand beach. Punta Sebaring has very fine white sand that is incomparable to anywhere else.
For island hopping tours in Balabac, you can arrange one on your own by talking to local boat operators or joining a scheduled group tour (which is generally cheaper).
To get here, you need to take a flight to Puerto Princesa and then ride a van to Rio Tuba. In the morning, take a boat to mainland Balabac where you can secure your accommodation during your stay. It’s one of the more off-the-beaten-path things to do in Palawan.
Recommended by Katherine of Tara Lets Anywhere