The island of Palawan in the Philippines has shown up recently in some pretty big articles by the New York Times, CondeNaste Travel and others, singing its praises as the top island (or one of them) in the world. So you’re ready to fly into the Philippines and simply and easily see all the sights on Palawan, right? Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Palawan also happens to be one of the biggest islands in the Philippines and it’s western most island out of about 7,500. Therefore, you really have two different practical options if you’re traveling to Palawan only for a few days (or don’t want to spend all of your time traveling): the PuertaPrincessa and EL Nido trip, or the Coron trip.
I’ll explain both a little bit and also clue you in why if I had to pick one, I’d probably go see Coron over El Nido again.
First off, don’t worry, because both trips are absolutely amazing, and you’ll witness some of the most beautiful nature on the planet.
The vast majority of tourists fly into Puerto Princessa, the capital city of Palawan. Other than the conveniences of an airport and a few older colonial churches and structures, there isn’t a whole lot to do and see in this city, but it is a jumping off point for the Underground River, which is the second longest in the world and one of the New7Wonders of the World (there are a bunch of those lists.)
From there, most people go on to El Nido, but that requires a harrowing 5-hour van ride north. (El Nido does have a tiny and super charming airport but the flights are with super expensive Skyjet Airlines.) It’s still worth it when you get there since from the small-ish town of El Nido you can book an island hopping tour on a small local boat and see some AMAZING islands, beaches, lagoons, and more than will ensure you have an epic screensaver photo for life. However, most people stay for only a couple days, and then have to take the 5-hour van ride back to the city, and then maybe another over night before catching their flight out to Manila or Cebu.
Coron, on the other hand, is it’s own separate island (its also a municipality that encompasses other islands, but that get’s confusing). But for our purposes, we’re talking about Coron Island.
It’s sort of hard to get to. There is no flight from PuertaPrincessa, which would make total sense, so you have to either take a looooonnnnngggg ferry from Manila or a 7-hour ferry ride from El Nido.
BUT you can take a direct flight from Manila to Coron on CebuPacific Air, the Philippine’s low-cost airline. I recommend booking the first flight of the morning because CebuPacific is notorious for how late their flights take off, especially in the afternoons when they pile up. Likewise, the airport on Coron (called Busuanga) isn’t equipped to land planes at night, so if you’re late in the afternoon, your flight will be canceled, and you’ll have to come in the next day. Plus, the 40-minute van ride from the airport to the coastal port town of Coron is a great way to take in the scenic countryside. If it’s just you and you don’t ave much baggage, take a habal-habal – a motorcycle taxi –for better views.
The town of Coron isn’t anything too beautiful, just like El Nido. It does have a few quaint restaurants, one or two bars for travelers, and a whole lot of tourist shops. You can book your island hopping tour in any of them because they all pretty much offer the same tours. In fact, they offer them by letter (Tour A, Tour B, C & D, etc.). Each highlights a few different islands, and some focus more on scuba diving or snorkeling. But you literally can’t go wrong with any of these island tours, and I recommend taking at least two of them in a 3-day period. I find that you get a LOT of sun and heat for one day, so back-to-back tours are a little too exhausting, and it’s good to take a day off in between.
Where El Nido is already feeling like a tourist turnstile, Coron has maintained a little bit more of its mellow and local appeal, thanks to the fact that it’s more isolated. El Nido is starting to get a bad rap as a place for low budgetbackpackers to get wasted and party, which is never good for the scene. But Coron is still more about the nature, and it’s totally safe to wander around town in more of the local areas and see a real slice of life. El Nido does have some nice beaches outside of town up and down the coastline and more resorts. But on Coron, the hotels are much more simple and even though they aren’t cheap, you won’t find many luxury or even western-standard 4-star accommodations. I find that it’s best to book a more local bed and breakfast or guesthouse not right on the main streets in the heart of town. Not only will you save a few bucks with a lower price, but you’ll get to enjoy the more local feel and meet some great people.
When it comes to the island hopping tours, Coron will deliver in a big way. Pick up one of the cheap waterproof bags they sell everywhere, bring a goofy sunhat, plenty of sun block, and a GoPro or underwater camera because you’re going to love it.
The green volcanic islands and deserted slices of beach will be jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but my favorite are the lagoons, and Hidden Lagoon and Kayagan Lake are on just about every itinerary.
On your day off from island hopping, I recommend climbing the 721 steps to the overlook on Mount Tapyas, where you can take in an incredible view of Coron Bay at sunset. But wear comfortable shoes and bring water because it’s a pretty solid workout!
When I think about it, the best way to see both is to go to El Nido for one trip, travel around the Philippines some more, and fly back to Coron another time for a separate long weekend trip! Go see both!