• Qistina Khairudin


1. Sail to El Nido's Secret Beaches

Across the sea from El Nido, Bacuit Bay's limestone islands loom in the horizon, just waiting to be discovered. There's honestly no point to visiting El Nido if you do not go island-hopping around the archipelago's many beaches. You can go kayaking at Miniloc's Big and Small Lagoons, or enjoy finer white sand and clearer water at 7 Commandos Beach, or rediscover Matinloc's Secret Beach.

Motorized outrigger boats may easily be hired from multiple providers around town. Just check with your El Nido hostel, hotel, or resort many resorts and pension houses have their own craft for hire or will recommend a trusted outside provider.

Island tour packages and rates have been largely standardized by the El Nido Pumpboat Owners and Operators Association, although some price variations may occur based on the added services each provider offers. Basic island-hopping tours range from PHP 1,200-1,400 (around RM102 – RM120)

2. Explore the World's Longest Navigable Underground River

The Cabayugan River flows down from the Saint Paul mountain range within the 22,000-hectare Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, before descending into a cave. The subterranean part of the Cabayugan River is the park's title attraction.

The underground section of the Cabayugan River is five miles long about half of this is navigable by boat. Visitors can ride a paddle-powered outrigger boat from the cave's mouth and sail about a mile into the cave, marveling at the exquisitely-shaped limestone formations within the cave and the bats and swiftlets that call the inner chambers home.

Millennia of water flow have created picturesque stalactites and stalagmites that local guides have named: "Carabao" (a stalagmite that looks like a water buffalo), "Sharon Stone" (a formation that kind of looks like a shapely woman), and a stalagmite formation named after the "Holy Family".

Despite the "Puerto Princesa" in the name, the underground river park requires a separate bus-and-boat jaunt away from the capital. As limited slots are available on a daily basis for tour groups, tourists are advised to seek the services of local travel agencies to book a tour.

3. Commune with Fireflies on the Iwahig River

No electronics, no cameras, just your small group canoeing on a still river in pitch-black darkness waiting for the firefly show to begin. Put your cameras away only the most powerful professional cameras can pick out the ethereally bluish swarms of fireflies that flit from the mangroves along the Iwahig River, this experience is based on the writer itself and he tried and failed to get the perfect shot of fireflies.

Travelers are herded three at a time into a small outrigger canoe, manned by a guide who paddles his charges about a kilometre upstream and back. The boat glides past the mangroves that the fireflies call home, the flies put on a lightshow as you sail past.

Tours begin past 8 p.m., and cast off from a small dock in Iwahig town, some 45 minutes' drive from the capital Puerto Princesa. Tours are easily arranged through most area hotels.

4. Discover the Philippines' Rarest Birds

Wherever you end up along Palawan's length, you'll only be a few minutes' drive away from some of the best birding sites in the Philippines. Birdwatchers swear by the hidden corners and far-flung places where they've seen and heard the island's avian residents in action.

Palawan is an important stop for birds flying this hemisphere's migratory routes. The East-Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF) runs between the northern Arctic Circle and New Zealand, with Palawan in the middle offering a breather to over 170 species of migratory birds escaping the cold weather from either pole.

Even without counting the part-timers, Palawan offers 15 endemic bird species found nowhere else. Birders gladly go out of their way to check these birds off their list, including the Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), the Palawan scops-owl (Otus fuliginosus) and the cave-dwelling Palawan swiftlet (Aerodramus palawanensis).

5. Go Wreck Diving in Coron

A surprise 1944 raid on fleeing Japanese ships gave Palawan's Coron Bay its most precious asset yet. On September of that year, 24 Helldiver bombers found a Japanese supply fleet and took 15 minutes to blow them all up.

In the present day, the six shipwrecks offer a tempting target for divers of all levels of experience. Beginners can glide past the ships' exteriors, admiring the coral-encrusted cranes, portholes and armaments. Expert wreck divers can enter the ships and discover a dark, lost world of abandoned engine rooms, scattered personal effects and bomb holes opening to the deep.

Coron's wrecks range in depth from 10 feet to as deep as 140 feet, with an average depth of 60-80 feet. Motorized outrigger boats called banca take divers from Busuanga Island to the wrecks, which are clustered surprisingly close together: you can spend several days just picking your way through the shipwrecks and dodging the considerable marine life in the area, including yellowfin tuna, groupers, scorpionfish and sea turtles.

  • Irako

The best of the wrecks and still almost intact; it’s home to turtles and enormous groupers, who hang in mid-water and eyeball you as you float past. A swim through the engine room reveals a network of pipes and valves inhabited by moray eels and lionfish, which look like liquid flame and have spines that deliver a hefty dose of poison.

  • Akitsushima

A big ship lying on her side with a crane once used for hoisting a seaplane. Between Culion and Busuanga islands, near Manglet Island, the wreck attracts huge schools of giant batfish and barracuda.

  • Kogyo Maru

Japanese freighter lying on her starboard side in 34m of water. In the large cargo holds you can see loaded construction materials, a cement mixer and a small bulldozer, while there are anti-aircraft weapons on deck.

  • Morazan Maru

Japanese freighter sitting upright at 28m. Large shoals of banana fish, giant batfish and pufferfish the size of footballs can be seen, especially around the mast, bow and stern. It’s easy to get into the cargo holds, making this a good wreck dive for beginners.

  • Taiei Maru

Japanese tanker covered with beautiful corals and a large variety of marine life. The deck is relatively shallow at between 10m and 16m deep, and is well suited to wreck-dive beginners.

6. Guard Against Invaders at Taytay Fort

Called Fuerza de Santa Isabel by its Spanish builders and Taytay Fort by present-day locals, this coral-limestone-walled fort was built in the early 1700s to defend Taytay against pirates and slave raiders.

The roughly square-shaped fort occupies an outcropping over Taytay Bay from this vantage point, defenders could rake the bay with cannonfire, sinking any foolhardy pirate ships within range. Climb up the stairs into the fort’s upper levels and you arrive at what looks like a small park, with benches overlooking Taytay Bay and presently dormant cannons still looking out to the sea, as if still on guard against pirates.

A recent PHP4.5 million ($90,000) renovation effort is currently restoring the chapel in the middle of the fort and introducing shops and an interactive museum to the experience.

The town of Taytay is located some 136 miles north of the capital Puerto Princesa, and can be visited as a detour on the way to (or from) El Nido. Location on Google Maps.

7. Go on Safari at Calauit Island

The departed dictator Ferdinand Marcos had some crazy ideas, but few of his brainstorms beat his vision of an African Safari in the north of Palawan. In 1976, Marcos talked the Kenyan government into donating African mega-fauna to the Philippines and proceeded to stock Calauit Island with giraffes, zebra, and antelope.

You'll ride or walk around several established trails and feeding stations to see the few dozen giraffe and zebra that were descended from the original arrivals. (Several species of antelope can also be seen, but mainly from afar.)

The African imports mix easily with some local large animals as well, among them Calamian deer and wild boar.

A safari to Calauit can be easily arranged from the town of Coron any hotel or resort around Busuanga Bay will be glad to direct you to their partner tour agencies.

8. Explore a Prison Without Walls at Iwahig

Established during American rule in 1902, Iwahig was first conceived as an overflow facility for prisoners from Bilibid Prison in Manila. Later administrators took advantage of the terrain to convert Iwahig’s purpose from punishment to rehabilitation.

Iwahig has some 4,000 prisoners on site. They can choose to farm on their own plots of land or create products that they can then sell to the tourist trade. A merit system allows prisoners to earn points and profits that go towards their release trades include fisheries, carpentry, and farming.

The tourist experience includes a dance routine performed by select inmates and a visit to a graceful old building formerly a recreational center for prisoners that now showcases the prisoners’ handiwork for sale.

Located at Barangay Iwahig some 12 miles west of Puerto Princesa, the penal farm takes some 30 minutes to drive to. Arrange for a trip with a local tourism provider or hire a car to take you there.

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