Palawan – A paradise in disguise

The storm was getting closer. You could feel it. The ocean was still quiet but the water was creeping higher for every wave rolling in. The air vibrated. She was coming right at us. The typhoon. It was the calm before the storm. Literally speaking.

The calm before the storm, El Nido, Palawan, the Philippines.

I didn’t know much about the Philippines. I knew it was the filming location of Swedish reality show ”Survivor”, that it had superb surfing, and supposed to be cheap. Very cheap. A country of 7,000 islands, five times more than Thailand, scattered in the Philippine Sea. A promised land rumored to have the most beautiful, or, more precise, unspoiled beaches in Southeast Asia. Could it still be the case in the 2020s?

A country of 7,000 islands, five times more than Thailand. A promised land said to have the most beautiful, or, more precise, unspoiled beaches in Southeast Asia.

Palawan seemed to be the sweet spot. Relatively easy to get in, large enough for a personal experience, and of safe distance from the ”charter tourists” in Boracay. I touched down in Manila at 3’clock in the morning. An overnight stay in the dodgy capital seemed inevitable. Incoming jets are almost always scheduled for late evenings, while the turboprops operating the islands depart in the mornings. You just have to embrace the inconvenience. It’s the only way.

Marimegmeg Beach, Palawan, the Philippines.

The plane touched down on the small airport of El Nido, situated on the northern tip of Palawan. Just an hour flight from Manila, but a completely different world. The glue sniffing kids tugging my clothes at the ATM the night before were suddenly replaced by smiling girls with flowers in their hair. I exchanged 300 pesos for a tuk-tuk, telling the driver to take me to “town”. He looked at my bags and squeezed them into the tiny three-wheeler. Two in the back, one in my knee.

Just an hour flight from Manila, but a completely different world. The glue sniffing kids tugging my clothes at the ATM the night before were replaced by smiling girls with flowers in their hair.

As the travel hub of the region and the gateway to the Bacuit archipelago, El Nido Beach is the best entry point to the island. I passed down in the sand. It was calm and quiet, just a couple of dogs playing on the beach. I looked around. As when you wonder if you have come to the right place, just to realize it was still early morning. A low-key place in the day, transforming into a cool traveler’s vibe in the night. Surfers, backpackers and young couples – everyone sharing the same value. The pursuit of originality.

It felt fresh and exciting. Even the walking street had a local, authentic atmosphere. Rooftop bars, barbecues, and strait-from-the-sea restaurants scattered along the beach. No hey-mister-give-me-money attitude. No fake smiles. No “bar girls” waiting at the venues. A place not yet succumbed to the homogeneity of international tourism, but still enough developed to offer high standard hotels, excellent restaurants, and good customer service.

El Nido Beach, Palawan, the Philippines.
El Nido, Palawan, the Philippines.
El Nido, Palawan, the Philippines.
El Nido, Palawan, the Philippines.
El Nido, Palawan, the Philippines.
El Nido, Palawan, the Philippines.

Being surrounded by hundreds of islands, island jumping has become the main activity in El Nido. And although standardized group tours are offered all along the beach, they are still carried out with a personal touch. We left the shallow water on a 30 feet bangka, the Philippine answer to the long-tail boats of Thailand. The iconic double-outrigger, used both for fishing and transportation, has undeniable been a symbol of island life throughout the country.

A low-key place in the day, transforming into a cool traveler’s vibe in the night. Surfers, backpackers and young couples – everyone sharing the same value. The pursuit of originality.

We set course towards the Bacuit Bay to the sound of guitar, local Philippine songs sung by the crew. It didn’t take long for our first stop, the beautiful Matinloc Island, reminiscent of Maya Bay in Thailand. With its pearl white beaches, lush palm trees, and limestone rock formations, it could have been Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, or any other Krabi island lost to the mass tourism of the 21st century. But it wasn’t. It was the perfect alternative.

Bacuit Bay, Palawan, the Philippines.
Bacuit Bay, Palawan, the Philippines.
Bacuit Bay, Palawan, the Philippines.
Bacuit Bay, Palawan, the Philippines.
Bacuit Bay, Palawan, the Philippines.
Bacuit Bay, Palawan, the Philippines.

If it wasn’t for Ursula, we would have chartered our own bangka the following morning. But the typhoon, baptized by the local community, was about to hit the island. ”It’s coming right at you”, one of my friends in Manila told me. Needless to say, this is something to expect when you travel the Philippines, especially during the typhoon season between June and September.

Used to weather hundreds of storms, my friend had only one message: “Stay inside and take cover.” He was referring to the rather sophisticated system developed by the Philippine authorities, grading the typhoons on a 1 to 5 scale. All sea trips in the region are closed at “1”, while “5” means a full blown disaster. Ursula was a 4.

Traditional bangka boats, Palawan, the Philippines.

A closed sea meant other kind of opportunities. Inland adventures. Just as in Thailand, motor bikes are available for rent just about everywhere you go. All you need is cash money, an ID card, and the gut to take on some bumpy roads. The prize? A chance to see something even more unique, trailblazing into uncharted territory.

I jumped on the motorcycle and headed south. I was looking for the untouched stuff. The places you no longer find in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Were them to be found? It definitely felt so. The further away I got, the more promising the surroundings. I passed green fields with grassing cows, children playing in backyards, and beaches so soft my feet never wanted to leave. The day trip paid off.

El Nido region, Palawan, the Philippines.
El Nido region, Palawan, the Philippines.
Marimegmeg Beach, Palawan, the Philippines.
Marimegmeg Beach, Palawan, the Philippines.
Marimegmeg Beach, Palawan, the Philippines.

Situated 180 km south of El Nido is Port Barton, a small coastal community on the west side of Palawan. Although sounding short, the drive was longer then the distance. “Is this really the right way?”, I asked the driver, as we turned into yet another gravel road, bombarded with craters from last night’s rain. He knuckled, I was not the first to ask. But it was. It was also the only way to Port Barton.

If El Nido is the current star of Palawan, Port Barton is the up-and-coming, cool rock band. It’s the back-packer version of El Nido. A paradise in disguise, filled with surprises.

So, was it worth the journey? Definitely. If El Nido is the current star of Palawan, Port Barton is the up-and-coming, cool rock band. It’s the back-packer version of El Nido. A paradise in disguise, filled with surprises. No large resorts. No crowded beaches. Just small scale life. An opportunity to interact with the local community. Simple, but warm and welcoming.

Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Coconut Beach, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Coconut Beach, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Coconut Beach, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.

The archipelago surrounding Port Barton is less spectacular then El Nido’s, but the feeling is even more more exotic. Wild and untouched. So if you are looking for secluded beaches, matching some of the best in the world, this is where to go. Seizing the opportunity, we rented a private bangka with two crew members, taking us to whatever island we pointed at.

We were soon served fresh sea food, grilled fish, and mouth watering fruits from the surrounding palm trees. I was suddenly eating the same coconuts, at the same place, as the contenders in my childhood favorite reality show Survivor, called “Robinson” in Sweden. Not knowing the local language I showed the seller my appreciation with a thumbs up. He just smiled. And cracked another coconut.

Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Pamuayan Beach, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Pamuayan Beach, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Pamuayan Beach, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Peña Plata, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Peña Plata, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Peña Plata, Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.

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