Palawan is definitely in a transition state-- somewhere between best-kept secret (at least among Americans) and mass-tourism. On multiple occasions, we bumped into travelers that we had met earlier in Manila and Boracay. That's how small El Nido, Palawan feels. It's on everyone's itinerary and rightly so. The funny thing is, the options for accommodation fall on two sides of the extreme- very basic (yet overpriced) and luxurious. Since we didn't properly reserve in advance, we were stuck with one of the worst rooms I'd ever stayed in for the first two nights. It was extremely overpriced considering it had an unbearable moisture smell (which meant we had to sleep with the window open and DEET ourselves up at night), a non-functioning toilet, and questionable sheets. When a room freed up two nights later in an excellent, albeit relatively pricey, "designer" hostel, we felt like kings with an aerated room, a clean and functioning bathroom with a shower, a tasty breakfast, and more. We moved accommodation one more time just to see what else was on offer and ended up in a very comfortable hotel. Read on for my guide to Palawan!
Where NOT to stay: Mochileros Guesthouse
Good places to eat a meal or snack:
- Shakes at Shady rest cafe
- Crepe stand next to Shady rest cafe (this place gets a lot of action at night)
- Burgers at Alofa
- Drinks at Pukka Bar
- Breakfast at Art Cafe
- Altrove for good crispy pizza- get there early to snag a seat
- V and V bagel- The pan bagnat was out of this world and made by a French expat
- Happiness bar- satisfying shakshuka and good homemade bread. It's in Corong Corong like Republika Bar (see note below) but directly on the beach and not up high.
Unlike Boracay, there's no raging club or bar in Palawan but laid back bars dot the beach and the town's main drag. Here are a few I enjoyed:
- Reggae bar- drinks and live music on the beach
- Habibi- for shisha at a beachfront cafe (upstairs)
- Kalabar- bar run by French expats (seeing a theme here?) with delicious cocktails like pineapple mojitos and good ceviche and tartare, pingpong, and a DJ (inside "The Bazaar")
- Republica Sunset Bar- take a trike to Corong Corong (just past El Nido) and catch the sunset of your dreams at this place run by Spanish ex-pats. They have a good Spotify channel on play and tasty if not weak pitchers of sangria. The Spanish tortilla and ceviche are very good.
- Island hopping tour- there are plenty of places to book this- we used Art Cafe and did Tour C- the snorkeling was amazing and we saw blue star fish, tons of little biting jellyfish, and lots more. The boat capitans grill lunch while you're out at sea and then you have a meal of fresh fish and fruit waiting for you when you hit the sand.
- Nacpan beach- we rented a scooter to this beach (which was NOT easy to get to- we got lost muliple times. If you're coming from El Nido, the turnoff on the left is very subtle.) Good swimming here and good restaurant on the beach
- Kalit waterfalls- with that scooter you should also go here- you'll need a local guide and flip flops are essential (sneakers don't work because you keep crossing rivers)- the ice cold falls are a refreshing and scenic way to cool off from the Philippine sun
- Rent kayaks (they go quickly so do it in advance!) and head away from the El Nido coastline until you can veer left. Around the corner is a beautiful secluded beach where you can enjoy a quiet swim and a picnic lunch. I brought a pan bagnat from V and V bagel! Watch out for the strong current on the way home.
- It's custom to take off shoes before entering restaurants and other businesses in Palawan (For some reason, I didn't encounter this on the other islands I stayed)
- Lack of internet-wifi sucks in Palawan. Even if your accommodation says there's internet, it's often through one cell phone and you'll never get connected. Singh's is the only foolproof solution. A very entrepreneurial Indian guy runs it out of his upstairs apartment in town. Bonus: you get free wifi if you buy Indian food!
- Daily power outages- these are the norm so get used to candlelight. One night we were having dinner and the power was out from the moment we ordered our drinks until right before we finished our meal. Another evening while at Happiness Bar, it was the same story so their menu was limited and they gave me a lantern when I went to the restroom.
- Lots of mosquitoes in Palawan
- "Hello, sir ma'am" is the standard introductory greeting. For some reason I enjoyed this.
- El Nido airport is an experience- we had to take two trikes to get there. It's totally worth it to fly back to Manila from this "airport" instead of going back to Puerto Princesa. There are cows on the runway and you're given a wooden boarding pass which you sadly have to return when you board. It's a small plane back to Manila but luckily the flight is short.
- Book accommodation early as El Nido proper is small and the decent (read: reliable plumbing) places go fast
- Rent a scooter and explore the surrounding areas
- Buy bug spray and make use of it from day one!
- Fly back to Manila via the El Nido airport. Yes, the airfare is a little higher than going back to Puerto Princesa, but remember how long the ride took you? Time is money, baby. Plus it's worth it if only for the experience of getting a wooden boarding pass
Snorkeling crystal-clear Palawan waters
Waiting for the sunset at Republica Bar
Aforementioned Republica Sunset Bar with their chill music accompanying the sunset
(Not too shabby) view from room at Sea Cocoon Hotel
View of the bay from my hike for wimps (as opposed to the death-defying Taraw Peak hike)
Singh's Internet Cafe (and living room Indian restaurant!)
Sign: "Fastest INTERNET connection in town! Wifi is not free unless you order Indian food"
Wooden boarding pass at El Nido airport
Our plane back to Manila