The province of Palawan is home to some of the most picturesque places I have ever been; I’m talking post-card perfect, no need for photo-editing; just raw beauty. It is rapidly becoming a huge tourist destination for both Filipinos and foreigners and is drawing more and more people every year. While most foreigners seem to congregate in El Nido, we decided to make another stop en-route by first taking an overnight ferry from Manila to Coron, spending a few nights there and then another ferry to El Nido. And I can’t stress how glad I am that we went to Coron – if I had to do it again, I would probably skip tourist-crowded El Nido and just visit Coron.
Most of the tourists in Coron were Filipino – I love seeing people travel their own country! However, no one is here to see the town; the main tourist-draw is the tours of the surrounding islands and lagoons. Within a ten-minute walk through town, there must have been a hundred (or more) companies selling tours, each with slightly different itineraries but all hitting a couple of the same spots.
Although we had two full days in Coron, we only wanted to do one tour. We narrowed it down by finding one that offered both of the spots we wanted to see most – Twin Lagoon and Kayangan Lake. The only company that did both on the same trip (that wasn’t a “highlights” tour for double the price) was Coron BUDGET TOURS: Tour-A (cost: 750 PHP/person). The five stops listed were: Twin Lagoon, CYC Beach, Coral Garden, Kayangan Lake, Skeleton Wreck, and one other beach.
Tour-A: Coron Island Tour
Our first stop was CYC Beach/Coral Garden which was actually two stops in one. It wasn’t the best feeling, the first stop actually being two stops: how many places were we actually visiting… Our guide assured us this was the only two-in-one stop and we let it go, off to snorkel and check out the beach while our boat-crew prepped lunch. There were dozens of boats anchored around us and snorkeling was a bit hazardous. The water was clear and while there were plenty of fish it wasn’t anything to rave about. After snorkeling for some time, we spent a few minutes on the small crowded beach before swimming back to the boat. *While it didn’t matter to us, it would have be nice to be told in advance that you had to swim yourself to all the spots, as the boat never parked very close.
When we got back to the boat we waited for everyone else to return (we were among the first). After a few minutes everyone accept one guy was back on board. Everyone was a bit annoyed with having to wait and our guide reluctantly got in the water to swim to shore and look for him. Once she returned having searched the small island, we pulled up the anchor and started to look for him in the snorkeling area. After awhile, people went from annoyed to worried… had we lost someone from the group? Our boat decided to circle the small island in case he had attempted to swim around it or gotten lost. We circled it twice. After over an hour had gone by, our guide was starting to freak out (rightfully so!). Around this point we realized we were running out of time in the day and maybe wouldn’t make all the stops on the tour. I honestly thought they would (or should) cancel the tour. One women on board thought otherwise and voiced her opinion that it wasn’t the boats job to look for a missing person, they should inform the coast guard and “get on with the tour”. I stared at her openly shocked; how am I supposed to enjoy the tour when there’s the possibility that another member of our group has drowned! Our guide did call the coast guard and then dropped us off at the next stop to have lunch while the boat-crew went back to continue searching for the missing guy. An hour or so later, the missing guy was dropped off on the island we were at by a small boat that he had supposedly flagged down. He was furious our boat had left him. Supposedly he thought it was okay to try and swim to another island (in the half hour we had been told we had in the area) and no one had seen him waving his hands frantically when he was in open water, a tiny heading blobbing up and down in the sea. Our guide was relieved but also incredibly stressed out and he refused to apologize. She was clearly still freaking out from the entire situation, having held it together until he was found, and once he started to get mad at her, she then fainted on the beach. When she came to, she explained we would have to skip one stop but would still have time for two more stops. I was still a little shocked we were even going on with the tour.
The next two stops were gorgeous – and the ones we had wanted to see most – but the sun was setting fast and we didn’t get the entire allure of sparkling clear waters (which are most visible with overhead sunlight). It was especially disappointing at Kayangan Lake where the underwater rock formations are one of the main attractions and by the time we were there (which was actually after the posted closing time) it was too dark to see much underwater.
When we got back to shore we had to pay for our tour (they didn’t ask for pre-payment) and we expressed that we didn’t feel we should have to pay the full price. Not only was our tour tainted with almost losing someone, but we skipped one stop and two stops were basically in the dark. The man collecting payment was blown away by our request – he thought we were being outright ridiculous and we should still pay the entire price. This turned out to be our first encounter (of many) in the Philippines that even if things you specifically paid for are broken, don’t work or don’t go as planned, you still pay the full amount. We also made a point of calling out the guy who essentially ruined our trip but he stuck to his sullen mood that we ruined his trip and he was in his complete right to try and swim to another island…. Never apologizing to the rest of the group or the guide.
Overall, the tour hit some amazing places and would probably be the best tour I have ever done anywhere in the world in terms of the beauty of the destinations, itinerary, route, food (it was delicious), and cost but it was obviously slightly spoiled from temporarily losing someone, worrying he had drowned and the aftermath that followed.
The only other thing people tend to do in Coron is take a short hike up to Mt. Tapayas. Dan did this hike one morning and we attempted again on our last day for sunset which turned out to be a mistake. Just before sunset seems to be the time when all of the tour buses drop off bus loads of passengers to hike up the small path and it gets quite crowded.
People visit El Nido, Palawan for one reason: Island hopping (the same reason people visit Coron). El Nido is a small, very crowded tourist destination that is popular with backpackers and young travellers but nothing is priced accordingly. We expected things to be a bit more expensive than in Coron, but everything was about double the price (including the tours). Our guesthouse/hotel was in much worse condition than our previous one and somehow cost significantly more – and there weren’t many cheaper options. The other main difference from Coron is that the tours offered by literally every establishment in El Nido are exactly the same – they visit the same places and the prices are set by the government (Tour A = 1,200 Tour B = 1,300 Tour C = 1,400 Tour D = 1,200).
The lack of a price or destination difference between companies made it even harder to choose one. We ended up researching it a bit and picking a company with one of the largest boats which correlated to being one of the most comfortable – Caera Travel Tours. We also negotiated to have the environmental fee (200 pesos) and water shoes (100 pesos) included in the price which made us feel like we were getting a deal. What I found amusing was that almost every company advertised that snorkels were included in the price and yet at the end of our tour, the guide collected 100 pesos from anyone who had rented a snorkel: I guess no one bothered to read what they paid for and the guide felt like collecting some extra money for himself…?
Tour-A: Lagoons & Beaches
Tour A, which is the most popular tour, is centered around Miniloc Island. The tour visits two Lagoons — cleverly named Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon, then stops at a picturesque little beach, another lagoon and the last stop is a long and crowded beach covered in beach chairs where you can enjoy drinks from the bar.
1st Stop: Small Lagoon – Small Lagoon is a deceptive name, it’s not actually very small. In fact, it’s so large that almost everyone rents a kayak in order to properly see the entire area in the short amount of time. While I wasn’t overly pleased with having to pay an additional 300 pesos right away for a mere 30 minutes in a kayak, I was incredibly tempted by the amazing turquoise-green, shallow water bay and lagoon that was supposedly up ahead through a small gap in the rocks. (*And the kayak rental was worth it, albeit very overpriced)
2nd Stop: Big Lagoon – Since we had booked our tour on a very large boat it parked the furthest away from the lagoon meaning we had a very long swim/walk ahead. Our guide accompanied us this time, helping those who couldn’t swim well (most of the Filipino tourists on board couldn’t swim) get to the lagoon. There was a lot of walking where the water was too shallow to swim and I was incredibly thankful we had water shoes. Worse than the sharp rocks/dead coral were the hundreds of thousands of jelly-fish in the water. While supposedly the clear ones (most popular) don’t sting, the sight of them still made me nervous and I did see a couple of the ones that do sting. I also got unlucky and stepped on a territorial rock fish which bit my leg three times and hurt a lot more than I expected it to (and left marks for about three days).
3rd Stop: Shimizu Island – This is where we stopped for an amazing feast of a lunch. Most boats brought the food and passengers to shore; however, we enjoyed our lunch on board. The gorgeously laid out buffet was much more than I was expecting! We didn’t go onto the island at all but our guide pointed out that the stunning limestone cliffs on the island are where swiftlets nest and produce the much sought after bird’s nest soup, believed by Asians to have healing powers.
4th Stop: The Secret Lagoon – OK, the secret’s out…as you’ll see when you arrive and have to wait in a long line for your turn to crawl (or swim depending on the tide) through a hole in a rock, to enter Secret Lagoon. Once inside, Dan and I spent all of two minutes as it was way too crowded to properly enjoy and then waited in line again to get out. The bay just outside of the lagoon on the other hand is stunning! But I guess you have to climb through just to say you’ve been there and because you’ll never know what’s on the other side unless you try!
5th Stop: 7 Commandos Beach – There isn’t anything very special about this beach but it works well as a last stop to relax and have a drink (or two, or three). There’s a fairly large bar with a decent (and well-priced) selection of drinks at the far end of the beach and the area around the bar is lined with beach chairs and some covered huts where you can find refuge from the sun.
Coron vs El Nido Tour: It was interesting having done an island hopping tour in both Coron and El Nido, to be able to compare them. In some ways they were very similar but in other ways, very different. If I had to pick, I would go with the tour in Coron. The quality of the lagoons, snorkeling and beaches is about par; however the price in Coron is significantly cheaper and it’s much less crowded and touristy. The lack of jelly-fish and long walks over dead coral in Coron was also a huge plus. One group on our tour in Coron disliked that you couldn’t buy beer and snacks at all the stops like in El Nido but that really didn’t phase me. The length of the tours was about the same and the lunch buffet on the El Nido tour was only slightly better.
Like everything else in El Nido, scooter rentals are ridiculously overpriced, and you have to return the scooter by 7PM ( a “full day rental” doesn’t mean 24 hours like in most other places in the world…). Since we had four nights in El Nido and wanted to explore the area we coughed up the money to rent a scooter for a day. We drove out to Nacpan Beach, which is seemingly where everyone who rents a scooter drives to. You can also hire a tricycle (tuk-tuk) to drive you out there but it’s about the same price, if not more, than renting a scooter. There’s a small entrance fee at the beach and you need to show that you’ve paid the Environmental Fee for the area. The beach stretched out seemingly forever and other than right at the entrance was fairly deserted. We found a decent beach restaurant to have lunch at and enjoyed a couple drinks before riding back towards El Nido. I think this is the only place in the world where a beach-side lunch costs less than the equivalent in town! The road out to Nacpan beach is being paved at the moment so the ride is a bit rough at parts.
For sunset we headed to Marimegmeg Beach otherwise known as Sunset beach. We had hoped to have dinner there but after we checked the prices at the one restaurant there we decided to wait until we were back in town.
The main purpose of our visit to Puerto Princesa was to catch our flight to Boracay. We also considered visiting the famous underground river but when we arrived at night and tried to book a tour for the following day most places were already closed down and the few that were open had highly inflated prices so we opted against it. Before arriving in Puerto Princesa we had read that the city had been admired numerous times for being the cleanest and greenest city in the Philippines. This is so incredibly far from the truth and I am totally confused as to how the words “Puerto Princesa” and “green” were ever first used in a sentence together. Just walking down the street I had to cover my mouth choking on the polluted air. There was nothing nice or relaxing about the filthy city, nor was there anything ‘green’.
The only good thing that happened there was when we stumbled upon Kalui Restaurant, the number one restaurant on TripAdvisor. When we saw how fancy it looked inside, the hundreds of people seated inside (it was huge) and a sign that said “full” – we thought we were out of luck, on both getting a seat and it being way over our budget. However, having found this beautiful haven I wasn’t quite willing to give up and we asked to see a menu anyways. My jaw almost dropped – the prices were less than we were paying for crappy, cheap food in El Nido. This is when it first hit us how incredibly overpriced El Nido really was. We managed to get a table outside *not the best, as there were lots of mosquitoes* and ordered the set menu for two which came with a small seaweed salad to share, a small soup, an eggplant-tempura appetizer, chili prawns, two fusion curry fish rolls, two small but mouth-watering seared tuna steaks and half a coconut filled with fruit to finish. The tuna was probably the best food we’ve eaten in months!
Other than one good restaurant, Puerto Princesa had nothing else to offer. A lot of tours can be booked from here to neighbouring areas but we had enough of tours for a while. We looked into renting a scooter but there wasn’t even anywhere to ride to. In the end it was good we hadn’t booked a tour because when we woke up the next morning Dan was sick. The host at our guesthouse said that almost every guest that comes through there who was previously in El Nido is sick. Supposedly they have issues with water quality and many of the restaurants use the water to wash vegetables, etc.