Palawan: Is the ‘World’s Best Island’ Really the Best?

Palawan: Is the ‘World’s Best Island’ Really the Best?

Palawan: Known as the World's best for a reason

Travelers and publications have rated Palawan, an island in the Philippines, as the best (or second best, or third) island in the world for years.

Not only that: Palawan has managed to sustain this rating across quite a few websites and magazines, no small feat in the capricious world of travel writing,

Is Palawan the World’s Best Island?

There’s no question: Palawan is stupendously pretty. Lush, jungle-ridden limestone cascades importantly into water incarnating a different shade of blue-green at every cove.

Kayaking in El Nido, Palawan

Palawan is the archetype of islands. It’s what you imagine when you’re daydreaming about the vacation people say you’re supposed to desire.

Beauty alone, though, doesn’t a best island make. Palawan is phenomenal, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best.

Palawan’s Forgotten Capital: Puerto Princesa

OK, so Palawan’s biggest city isn’t exactly forgotten. There’re plenty of accommodations and everyone flies into there as they prepare to travel North.

Palawan Puerto Princesa
The only picture I took in Puerto – for reasons mentioned below

But most people neglect to spend time in Puerto. Its premier attraction is Earth’s longest underground river. Even this record-breaking waterway is an hour from the city.

Allow me to suggest an extra few days in Puerto Princesa. I found the people, food, and atmosphere to be wonderful.

The thing about the capital is it’s not representative of why Palawan is touted as the world’s best island. This is likely why people shun it. Palawan’s draws are it’s limestone cliffs and azure waters, of which Puerto has neither.

Palawan outpost boat tour
Yup, nothing like this in Puerto Princesa

This phenomenon is in part why I wouldn’t say Palawan tops the island charts. Puerto Princesa was more fun and eclectic than was El Nido, which we’ll get to below. The place is more authentic and the people less jaded by mass tourism.

This is, of course, the rub of any serious tourist destination. Tourists come to compose the majority population and thus culture is dominated by the commercialism left in their wake. ‘Authentic’ and ‘rising’ destinations are often doomed to this very fate.

A lagoon in El Nido, Palawan

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Large swathes of Palawan and El Nido are still plenty authentic.

However, if you’re willing to forego the instagrammable jewels of Northern Palawan for a few days then you’ll be rewarded by the welcoming authenticity of Puerto Princesa. It was for this reason I suggest spending a day in Manila as well.

El Nido: Palawan’s Crown Jewel

Average beach view in El Nido, Palawan

El Nido is a small town in Norther Palawan. It is surrounded on all sides by glistening bays and lagoons, verdant jungle, waterfalls, and desert islands.

There are tens of themed and interesting hostels/hotels and hundreds of tour operators. The list of activities is endless, and you’ll be well-suited by spending at least a week here. El Nido’s well-loved cousin of Coron sits to the North and takes about 2 1/2 hours to get to by speedboat, but there’s enough here to keep anyone busy.

My friends and I stuck to the water. The ocean is El Nido’s most obvious conduit to activities.

Kayaking right off the town of El Nido, Palawan

Getting to/around Palawan

Obviously you’ll need to fly to Palawan. I mean, you could boat. But that would be dumb.

Flying to El Nido is more expensive by a magnitude of 3 when compared with flying into Puerto Princesa. The drive from Puerto, however, is roughly 4 hours. If you’ve got money to blow and don’t want to suffer the drive then by all means fly.

Boat in El Nido, Palawan

Most people elect to drive in from Puerto Princesa. Your hotel/hostel can arrange a shared van for a discount (we stayed at Treffpunkt hostel and loved it – plus they cut us a deal on the van).

You can also take the large bus from Puerto’s bus terminal, which is similarly priced but more comfortable. The ride, however, will take up to two hours longer if you choose this option.

Beach-jumpting in Palawan
How you’ll feel after getting out of the shared van

For private mini-buses, prepare to be shoved into the back with to many others like cattle. It’s a normal and necessary part of any SE Asian transport experience.

The drive is gorgeous but plagued with hellish mountain roads and drivers who seemingly have little regard for human life. The shacks, rice paddies, jungles, and mountains along the way make up for the bat-outta-hell chauffeuring.

The bravest among you can try some Balot on the way – don’t look it up, just eat it!

Be wary of crop and trash burning along the way. Most pollution on Palawan is derived from this archaic practice. This is another reason I can’t in good spirits select Palawan as the world’s best island.

El Nido, Palawan

El Nido Bay after Kayaking

Don’t be alarmed when they drop you at the bus terminal. It’s going to be hectic and you will be pestered. However, there’s but one strip of main road and all hostels/hotels are within walking distance.

Get acquainted with your surroundings by grabbing a stellar vegan meal at The Cavern restaurant. I’m no vegan, but the food was stellar and Jose (the proprietor) a real gold-mine of personality and information. He set the direction for our trip with advice, maps, and plenty of recommendations.

El Nido unfolds as a stunning destination when you make your way down to the beach. Thanks to this, I would suggest taking up accommodations next to the beach. Plenty of hostels and hotels hug the most prime of real-estate and don’t charge more than an extra 10 USD per night.

We liked Outpost Hostel the best, but didn’t stay there.

Accommodations

I wouldn’t recommend the first hostel we stayed at, which is a little ways up the road from Outpost. It’s called Swinging Carabao. It was dirt cheap. There were plenty of reasons for this, among them the lack of both social environment and of walls. You could hear traffic (often bikes without mufflers) blaring from the road all night. Obviously there was no A/C.

Outpost Hostel, El Nido
The view from Outpost

One of the best ways to experience the social culture of El Nido without paying the premium for an expensive hostel (like Outpost) is simply to stay somewhere close to one and wander over in the morning/evening.

Outpost was perfect for a few reasons: it ran its own island tours, had great food and coffee (try the pork sisig), and offered a solid social environment for solo travelers. It was here that my friend and I met the group of people we’d spend the rest of the trip with.

Palawan lagoons

Two other themed hostels come to mind when considering decent options. Spin Designer hostel is perfect for those willing to shell out a bit more cash for laid-back experience fraught with amenities. This is the best option for digital nomads and trendier folks.

Mad Monkey hostel (the infamous party chain) is best for partying but is on Nacpan Beach, the most beautiful around but far-removed from the town and island tours.

Town/Nightlife

El Nido proper is small and compact, its township activities confined to a single street.

To get around, you can either rent a scooter for 10 USD a day or take a tricycle taxi for 1 USD per ride into town (you can haggle for shorter rides).

One thing I found interesting about El Nido was its mediterranean food. It’s delicious and the price is right, unlike some of the burger stands that dot the street. Filipino restaurants abound off the main drag, which mainly caters to tourists.

Palawan sunset
Sunset from El Nido town

During the day you can hit the gym (cramped, filled with dogs, no A/C) or eat and shop. People don’t come to El Nido to pal around in town, after all.

Nightlife is more dismal here than you’d expect. It’s no party destination like Thailand’s islands, so those who’re looking to really get down and dirty ought to consider that. There’s always a party at Mad Monkey, but in town the bars tend to be no more eclectic/interesting than non-tourist destinations.

near mad monkey, palawan

The Outdoors

This is what you came here for. The ultimate beaches with the kind of water you don’t even have to photoshop. Formidable limestone jungle-reefs and marine wildlife encounters.

Most boat-operators stick to the standard tours in El Nido, as they’re all renowned and well-known. These are tours A, B, C, and D.

Boat tour, El Nido Palawan

The rub? These tours are busy. With many tours going to the same beaches at the same time there’s no room for privacy.

Luckily, Outpost Hostel had a solution.

They offer tours for a few USD more, but they do them in reverse. Not only that, but they combine either tour A/B or C/D for the best of each.

We chose C/D, and are glad we did. The highlights include El Nido’s best snorkeling areas and the ‘Big Lagoon’, which is just about the most beautiful slice of ocean you can imagine.

Palawan's best lagoon - Big lagoon El Nido
Big Lagoon, El Nido

Wanna see things on your own terms? Consider renting a sea kayak. There are myriad coves/caves/desert islands within paddling distance.

Also, you’re on vacation. You’ve been drinking beer and splurging on food. It’s time for some exercise and sea kayaking will whip you into shape!

Sea Kayaking in El Nido, Palawan
Farther than it looks, folks

It’s on the tours and in the water more generally where El Nido shines. Palawan is truly unique in its ocean geography, and there’s no better display of this than on El Nido.

I found it nearly impossible to be anything but elated almost every moment of the tour, and for the first half of kayaking (the second half was hell because we decided paddling a few miles was a good idea).

Nacpan Beach

The most famous and beautiful beach around El Nido (that is accessible by more than simple island tours) is Nacpan beach. It’s a whole kilometer of white sand rung by a series of islands, limestone cliffs, mountains, and restaurants/bars.

Nacpan takes roughly an hour to get to from El Nido proper. If you’re taking a tricycle taxi then prepare for a serious ride. It’s bound to be bumpy, long and less than comfortable.

It didn’t help that we crammed five of us (plus the driver) into one taxi. But it was certainly an unforgettable ride.

Plan for at least half a day exploring this beach, and bring sunscreen (obviously).

Nacpan Beach, El Nido, Palawan

Palawan: Summary and Review

It’s no surprise that many people would rate Palawan as the World’s best Island, or at least put it up there with others.

However, there are simply too many islands out there which balance everything a person could want. Indonesia is particularly good for this (Lombok and Flores, for example) as are many of the islands in Thailand.

El Nido beaches

Palawan takes the cake for beaches and natural beauty, but I look for a more well-rounded package. I want an island with mystery, adventure, developed areas, a good party scene, and natural beauty. Though that’s a lot to ask there are certainly places I’ve been which balance all of these better than Palawan.

Yet, it’s still one of the prettiest places you can imagine. Combine that with Filipino hospitality, cheap goods, and laid-back culture and you’ve got a few reasons for Palawan being No. 1 in the eyes of many.


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