Every now and then, when I need a morale boost or just want to distract myself, I start playing with Google Flights or Skyscanner to dream about my next trips. Sometimes, I come across interesting fares to destinations I had never seriously considered before. And that’s how my discovery of the Philippines began: with a great round-trip flight found for Puerto Princesa, the main airport in Palawan, the world’s most beautiful island according to various magazines and rankings.
Naturally, after checking the calendar, assessing the weather, and making quick evaluations, I had already secured tickets for November.
It was only after that I started to truly gather information and discovered that, although many spend only 3/4 days in Palawan, a week wouldn’t be enough for me to see everything I wanted. No worries, upon my return, I decided to go back with an itinerary that includes other islands in the Philippines 😀
A Week in Palawan – Costs & Information
I am very satisfied with the itinerary I created and followed for a week in Palawan, one of the most famous islands in the Philippines, home to El Nido and the spectacular Underground River, two of the most famous attractions in the country. Many people often spend 3/4 days in this province, but I strongly recommend spending more time and including Port Barton, a much less touristy stop that I loved.
As for El Nido, it is indeed terribly touristy, and accommodation and food prices are quite high. However, the spectacular rock walls and incredible island hopping it offers are something you absolutely cannot miss and are worth the sacrifice of facing such a touristy place.
Organizing a trip to the Philippines, or at least to Palawan, turned out to be quite simple because everything is well-organized, prices are essentially fixed regardless of the agency you use, and there are options available locally, allowing great flexibility and generally leaving room for improvisation and changing plans (which, however, is not at all my style!).
But let’s get to the practical information about my one-week travel itinerary in the Philippines:
- Period and duration: A full week, from November 18th to November 25th, 2023 (arriving in the evening and departing in the evening)
- Total cost of the trip: Approximately €700 per person, including flights to/from Japan
- Places visited: Puerto Princesa, El Nido, Darocotan Island, Port Barton
- Transportation (prices per person):
– Flight with Cebu Pacific (low-cost airline) with only 7kg hand luggage (plus a little trick)Tokyo-Puerto Princesa via Manila, around €215
– Shared van from the Underground River to Palawan, €12 surcharge on the excursion price
– Round-trip transfer between Darocotan Island and El Nido, €11 organized by the accommodation
– Shared van from El Nido to Port Barton, €11 booked via 12go (so you can pay with a credit card)
– Shared van from Port Barton to Puerto Princesa, €10 booked via 12go (so you can pay with a credit card)
- Accommodations: We chose mid-range accommodations with an en-suite bathroom, paying special attention to the shower. Prices vary greatly depending on the area, with El Nido having a generally worse quality/price ratio, despite many options. Keep in mind that there are also many other options available locally, such as hostels and guesthouses, not found on Booking.com, especially like motels.
– Puerto Princesa: One night at Diakopes Inn, chosen for the free shuttle from the airport. They were super friendly and organized the Underground River tour and transfer to El Nido. The room was very hot and not soundproof at all, the air conditioner was very noisy, and we were welcomed by a cockroach in the room. 1,680 pesos with breakfast.
– El Nido: Three nights at Bayview Country Inn El Nido, where we had a great experience with both the room and services. It’s a 10-minute walk from the main area of Corong Corong and about 10 minutes by tricycle (or 40 on foot) from El Nido. It’s not on the beach, but it’s a highly recommended accommodation. 3,850 pesos per night with breakfast.
– El Nido/Darocotan Island: Unique experience at Isla – The Experience for one night. A beachfront bungalow with shared facilities and no air conditioning but only a fan. It’s not a luxury accommodation, but a truly unique experience that I will talk about in a dedicated article. A bit overpriced, to be honest: 5,200 pesos without breakfast.
– Port Barton: Two nights at Aquarius Port Barton, a simple inn run by the lovely Minda. Modern shower but in a single room with the toilet getting wet, air conditioning with a supplement, but the fan was enough for us. Very simple accommodation, but we enjoyed our stay. 1,200 pesos per night without breakfast.
- General costs: Regarding excursions and transfers, the fees are fixed and the same for all operators and not expensive. We’re talking about excursions around €20 and transfers around €10. The cost of meals varies greatly depending on the location, with El Nido having doubled or even tripled prices, and the type of place: simpler and local places can be eaten for a few euros, while fancier restaurants (where credit cards are usually accepted) still cost less than €20, and portions are always very generous! Perhaps the most expensive things are water and snacks on the islets visited during island hopping, so I recommend starting the day with supplies purchased on the mainland.
Other useful information about the Philippines:
Before delving into the details of my Palawan itinerary, here are some useful tips for any trip to the Philippines:
- Visa: For Italian and Japanese citizens, it is not necessary to apply for a visa in advance; a passport with at least 6 months’ validity from the exit date is sufficient. A tourist visa is applied upon entry, valid for 30 days.
- Time Zone: The Philippines are 7 hours ahead of Central Europe Time, 6 during daylight saving time.
- Connection and Wi-Fi: The phone signal in the Philippines is often weak. In some areas of Palawan, like the Corong Corong beach near El Nido, or on many islands during island hopping, there was no signal at all. Wi-Fi is also often weak and slow. However, physical SIM cards are available at the airport; I chose to opt for an e-SIM for convenience, and it worked relatively well. I used Airalo, 5GB for me and 3GB for Dice. If it’s your first use, with the code MICHEL5108, you’ll get a $3 discount on the e-SIM.
- Plugs: The Philippines use Type A flat blade sockets, like those in Japan and North America. Type C (European) sockets are occasionally found as well, but it’s better to bring an adapter.
- Currency Exchange: Most payments must be made in cash, including hotels, restaurants, and excursions. It’s essential to have cash on hand, and it’s definitely better to get it in Manila. We exchanged money at the airport; the best exchange rate is at the BDO counter at Terminal 3 (there’s also one at Terminal 1, but with a less advantageous rate). There is a fixed fee of 250 pesos when withdrawing from ATMs, and often in El Nido, they either don’t accept foreign cards or are out of cash. In that case, I recommend going to the RCBC Bank counter near the town hall. It seems to offer the best rate and is generally stocked with cash. However, I still recommend arriving on the smaller islands with cash.
- Insurance: It’s always a good idea to get travel insurance for any eventuality. In a country like the Philippines, where it’s better even to brush your teeth with bottled water, having insurance that covers potential medical expenses for various stomach issues is even more important. Also, insect bites (unfortunately, Dengue and Malaria are prevalent in various areas, and many beaches are invaded by sandflies) or in case of accidents if you rent a scooter. In short, it’s always advisable to travel insured, especially in the Philippines!
- Climate: The Philippines are an archipelago consisting of many islands in a monsoon-prone area. Palawan is located in the southwestern part, generally more sheltered and with a dry season from December to March. We went towards the end of November, at the beginning of the better period, and we were fortunate to experience generally night-time heavy rains and only a couple of rather quick daytime showers. In two instances, we were sheltered! Less than half an hour of rain and then back to bright sunshine and calm seas!
My itinerary in Palawan, the most beautiful island in the world
Palawan is considered the most beautiful island in the world, and the natural landscapes you will see here truly take your breath away. Beautiful and extremely exciting places made me teary-eyed on the first day after exiting the Underground River, thinking about how wonderful nature is and its ability to create magic that humans would not be able to conceive.
Dark rock walls rising among lush green vegetation emerge from crystal-clear and intensely blue waters, dotted with beaches of the whitest sand. I’ve heard, and I have used, the word “Paradise” to describe a pleasant place, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that among all the “Paradises,” Palawan is the “Paradise of Paradises.”
I feared that a week of mainly sun, beaches, and sea would tire me, but the beauty of these landscapes, capable of providing truly breathtaking views, allowed me to savor every single day. I left the Philippines with the promise to return and explore other areas of this country.
Here’s a brief summary of my one-week itinerary in Palawan; more detailed posts on each stop will follow shortly.
Day 0 – Arrival in Puerto Princesa in the Evening (layover in Manila)
We departed from Tokyo with a low-cost airline, Cebu Air (of which I really can’t complain: yes, it’s a low-cost airline, but the seats are comfortable, and the check-in and boarding procedures were fast and smooth). We had a 4-hour layover at Manila Airport, where we exchanged currency at BDO in Terminal 3 and tasted Filipino fried chicken and pasta at Jollibee, the Filipino fast-food chain.
Day 1 – Underground River and Transfer to El Nido
Having coordinated with the hotel where we stayed in Puerto Princesa, we organized a trip to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World: the underground river in Sabang. The daily visitor limit is restricted, so I highly recommend booking the visit in advance. The van picked up participants directly from the hotels; we were a group of 12, including the guide, and the van was full. However, we were later divided into two groups because the boats to reach the underground river could only carry a maximum of 6 people.
It took about 3 hours to pick up everyone and reach Sabang (with a bathroom and snack break along the way). The buffet lunch of Filipino food was included in the price. From the port of Sabang, it’s about a 20-minute boat ride (beware if you suffer from seasickness!) to reach the entrance of the underground river. There, you’ll be given an audio guide (also available in Italian), and you’ll board smaller boats to navigate the calm waters inside the caves for about 40 minutes.
The tour ends around 3:30 PM, and you’ll be brought back to Puerto Princesa, or as in our case, you can request to arrange a van transfer at the Salvacion intersection to get to El Nido.
From Puerto Princesa to El Nido, it’s over a 6-hour van ride, but by making this transfer, you save almost an hour and a half, arriving in El Nido in the evening without losing a day in transit!
Days 2 and 3 – Island Hopping in El Nido
In El Nido, there are 4 different tours to visit the stunning islands that make up the Bacuit Archipelago. The most popular ones are Tour A and Tour C, but we chose to replace Tour C with Tour B because the highlight of C, the Secret Beach, seemed to be often unreachable due to strong marine currents in those days.
The tour prices are fixed, ranging between 1,400 and 1,200 pesos and always include lunch. You can rent snorkel gears, as well as reef shoes, for 100 pesos. Be aware that to get on and off the boats, you have to wade through water that sometimes reaches waist-high.
Day 4 – Nacpan Beach and Darocotan Island
In the morning, we reached the magnificent Nacpan Beach, north of El Nido, which was by far the most beautiful beach of the entire trip (perhaps also because we went early, and there was no one!). Later, we headed to the small port village of Teneguiban, from where we boarded for Darocotan Island, where we had the unique experience of Isla the Experience, spending a night in a beach bungalow. You can find more details on this experience in the article about where to stay in El Nido.
Day 5 – Transfer to Port Barton
After relaxing a bit more and swimming in the sea off Darocotan Island, we returned to El Nido, where the transfer to Port Barton awaited us. The transfer lasted about 4 hours, allowing us to arrive in this delightful village still untouched by mass tourism, which immediately fascinated us.
Day 6 – Island Hopping in Port Barton
Even in Port Barton, you set off for an island hopping adventure, costing the usual 1,200 pesos with lunch included. The landscapes here might be less “characteristic” compared to El Nido, but, in my opinion, the snorkeling spots were better, and it’s also possible to see sea turtles swimming in these waters!
Day 7 – Beaches of Port Barton and Evening Return Flight
You spent the day reaching Coconut Beach and White Beach, just outside the village of Port Barton, enjoying the crystal-clear waters before picking up your backpacks in the late afternoon and taking the transfer to Puerto Princesa Airport (about 3 hours). There, you caught the midnight flight, again via Manila.
Reflections and Considerations on My Trip to the Philippines
My first impression of the Philippines was absolutely positive, but I am well aware that I visited what can be considered the “business card” with which the Philippines attracts tourists. We are talking about one of the poorest countries in Asia, where it is recommended to even brush your teeth with bottled water, where toilet paper is thrown in the trash and not in the toilet, and where the electricity needed for air conditioners is often a luxury reserved for tourists.
Certainly, a one-week trip is not enough to fully explore the Philippines. We are happy to have focused only on Palawan, without even reaching the nearby (and equally recommended) Coron. We will definitely visit it on a future trip, probably in combination with Cebu, which, by the way, is connected with direct flights from Tokyo and could be an excellent beach extension after your trip to Japan!
On a human level, I really liked the Philippines. I don’t know if it is possible to generalize or not, but in Palawan, I found excellent organization with perfectly respected schedules, excellent coordination for both transfers and during excursions, when they coordinated to distribute themselves in various stops to avoid overcrowding. They were quick to find answers and effective solutions in case of problems!
The locals are also skilled (and a bit crazy) drivers, capable of speeding on all curved or muddy and bumpy roads without ever swerving or losing control of vans and tricycles! During the day, international pop music fills the air, while in the evening, original voices give way to karaoke, a true passion of the Filipinos!
But above all, they are good and honest people. Genuine kindness, friendship given without ulterior motives, transparency, and honesty about prices, suggesting the most economical solution, even if it is less profitable for them. Truly pure individuals who made me appreciate this country even more and left me with a strong desire to deepen my knowledge by talking even more with the locals next time!
I also noticed a great attention to the environment: Palawan is a terrestrial paradise, and the inhabitants know it well and try to preserve it. Little single-use plastic (except for water bottles for safety and hygiene reasons), a lot of recycling, cleanliness of streets, beaches, and sea, and a constant invitation not to leave trash and, on the contrary, to collect it when found in the sea! On this point, however, I must specify that, unfortunately, it concerns only Palawan and, in particular, the tourist areas, but far from the eyes and judgment of tourism, things do not go the same way… Well, at least mass tourism occasionally brings something positive! Let us always remember to do our part to preserve the planet and not harm natural paradises like Palawan!
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