Open your Lonely Planet guidebook to the Philippines and flip to the chapter on Palawan. “This is the hidden Philippines”, it says. “The undiscovered Philippines. The untouched Philippines.” The florid prose goes on and on as it waxes effusive about the pristine coral reefs, the untamed wilderness, the myriad of dazzling white sand beaches, all of it hidden in plain sight and just waiting for someone to discover them. This is paradise distilled down to its purest form, its most basic parts. At its core, the Philippines is very much a country that exists for explorers—forget the “beaten path”, you’ll be lucky to find a bushwhacked trail—and if you believe the hype, then Palawan is the adventurous heart beating at its very core. It is the final frontier.

Before you even arrive on the island, you will experience doubts and misgivings. After weeks of having been amongst just a handful of fellow foreigners, it is a shock to the system when you reach the airport and find yourself choked by a crowd of Europeans. As you queue to board the plane, you note that, unlike everywhere else you have been, at least three quarters of the passengers are Caucasian. Although you are geographically about as far from it as you could possibly be, for a moment, you feel as though you are actually witnessing the polar north under the light of the midnight sun: their whiteness is positively blinding and stretches out as though to the horizon, as far as the eye can see.

At some point in every traveler’s journey, you come to realize that guidebooks are something of a crock. This is your moment.

Puerto Princesa, the capital of and gateway to the rest of the province does little to improve the situation. After five weeks in the Philippines, you have become about as inured to the country’s cities as someone born in the west is likely ever to do. You are used to the growl of traffic, the poverty, the rancid smell of coconut fry oil, and the griminess that proves inescapable. And yet, Puerto Princesa is still a shock to the system, managing to feel like a podunk backwater town but still somehow incredibly slummy. There is little more than one road that runs straight through town, lined with restaurants, bars, and homes that are really shacks; it is shocking that of all places, this city has been bestowed with traffic lights, which seem woefully misplaced. As your trike driver wends through narrow back alleys in search of your guesthouse, you think that maybe he has made a mistake when he stops in front of dilapidated building with garbage strewn around its front porch in lieu of a garden. It has come highly recommended in your travel guide and for $12 U.S. per night, you get a private double room with a fan and a shared bathroom. The fan barely works, but it is no bother as the clapboard siding on the house has rather sizeable gaps between the slats, allowing through the occasional breeze heady with the rancid stench of rotting fish or trash, depending on the direction of the wind. It is far from glamorous, but you are leaving in the morning and the city is spread out just enough that it is not worth the effort to look for something less reminiscent of a drug den.

El Nido's beachfront
El Nido’s beachfront

Perhaps this is why your arrival in El Nido is a relief, albeit an unceremonious one. Your minivan deposits you at the bus station, located several kilometers outside of town. You are just slightly more than 200 kilometers north of where you woke up this morning, but the journey to get here has taken 6 hours and was filled with low-budget covers of easy listening hits from the ’80s. The roads were some of the worst you have encountered in the country, but other than that, the trip was pretty much in keeping with what you have encountered elsewhere (and honestly, the van was nicer than some of the buses you have taken and mercifully chicken-free). The truth is that no matter the distance, it always seems to take about half a day to get from one place to another in the Philippines. The best thing you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride. 

In some ways, El Nido is more primitive than your last stop, with electricity only kicking on at 2 pm and running until 6 am, with frequent rolling blackouts in between. WiFi is available when the power is on, though on most days, the speeds are such that it is generally only good for checking email. But you are not in El Nido to sit in front of your computer. Once more your guidebook claims that El Nido is a grim, awful little concrete jungle whose only saving grace is its position, right on the rim of the Bacuit Archipelago, home of those famed virgin beaches dotted amongst pellucid aquamarine water ringed by rugged limestone peaks.

PB140006
PB140015

And yet, you like El Nido quite a lot. It’s swarming with foreigners like ants in a sugarbowl, but that can’t detract from the fact that the place is seriously laid back and legitimately pretty charming… and not even in the kind of way where you have to qualify it! The snarl of traffic recedes to a gentle hum, and that characteristic friendliness you have come to associate with the Philippines still abounds in spades. Though the bulk of the strip in El Nido has been designed to cater to a foreign market filled as it is with dive shops, international restaurants—there is at least one place that makes dubious claims of offering Mexican food, but on the other end of the spectrum, another place offers pizza straight from a wood-oven that is some of the best you’ve tasted outside of Italy—and accommodation options to suit nearly any budget. The city doesn’t exactly sparkle, but it feels manageable and even kind of quaint, and everywhere you turn you catch sight of vertiginous craggy crests that make you feel as though you are in the shadow of a slumbering giant.

El Nido is the last place you expected to like, and yet you fall into life here fairly effortlessly over the course of a week. But one question continues to nag you: does Palawan deserve its moniker of the final frontier?

PB170045

Its rugged beauty is undeniable, not overstated in the least, and at times life does feel a bit more stripped down and back to basics than other places. Then again, you’re not exactly roughing it in El Nido, intermittent electricity not withstanding: the only reason you’ll camp on a beach here is if you pay for the privilege of doing so on your own private island, or if all other lodging options are booked out, as sometimes happens during the high season. In light of that, it’s less surprising that this is the one place you have set foot in the Philippines where Westerners easily outnumber the locals and tourism has clearly become its bread & butter. Road conditions are still sufficiently rough that traveling around the island remains enough of a hassle that certainly some travelers are dissuaded from making the journey. But as more money pours into the island, roadwork will pick up the pace, and it’s only a matter of time before the masses overcome even this obstacle.

PB140007
PB140004
PB170043

For now, Palawan remains largely untouched but definitely not undiscovered. There is piece of paradise there waiting for you, just know that when you find it, you may just have to share.

 

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

We want to hear from you!

Required fields are marked with red.
Anything you share with us will not be published, traded, sold or otherwise used outside this site in any way, ever. We will not spam you.

We moderate comments, so if you haven't posted with us before and your comment doesn't show up right away, we will get to it, no need to post it twice. Thanks for your patience!

A comment is required.

Name is required. You can only use alphanumeric characters (a-z, A-Z).

CommentLuv badge

Read comments (21)

  1. May 2, 2013 at 11:13 am
    May. 2, '13

    So happy to see this! We loved El Nido! One of our favorite places we’ve ever been, although you’re right-it’s not exactly ‘roughing it’, and it’s only a matter of time until it’s way overdeveloped. We stayed on a private island for the same price as most sketchy hotels back home, and it was by far our favorite thing we did. That made it feel like the last frontier for us 🙂
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted..Tainan Walking Tour: Retracing Taiwan’s Oldest Streets

    • May 3, 2013 at 9:09 pm
      May. 3, '13

      Ha ha! In many ways it looks like we were Philippines twins as we hit most of the same places you guys did and, as you’ll see, did the same island hopping tour too! Great minds really DO think alike! 😀

  2. May 2, 2013 at 3:54 pm
    May. 2, '13

    Haha so funny that you posted this today, in a similar vein to my “guidebook bashing” ;-P Definitely interesting to read this though, as Philippines have been on my radar for a while now and even if I don’t manage to get there this year, I’ll hopefully get there soon. Sometimes you end up liking the places you assume you’ll hate and vice versa. Travel definitely surprises you sometimes.

    • May 3, 2013 at 9:11 pm
      May. 3, '13

      We are constantly being surprised on this trip, loving places we thought we’d dislike, and vice versa, so there really is no way to know until you go and see for yourself. What I really hate about guidebooks is how they so often hype everywhere they write about, so that everything sounds good even if it is not really a tourist spot for good reason. We have wound up in a few places where we have wondered why the heck our guidebook recommended them as there was literally nothing to do, but now we know to take everything with a grain of salt and to ignore Lonely Planet’s opinions and just go do the things that sound interesting to us.

  3. May 2, 2013 at 4:12 pm
    May. 2, '13

    You must read Legal Nomads! Because that’s how I know about El Nido.

    It’s funny how quirks about a place become some of the most endearing qualities. Sometimes it’s just inexplicable.

    What’s the candle lighting about? Looks cozy!
    Carmel recently posted..TENTATIVE ITINERARY

    • May 3, 2013 at 9:14 pm
      May. 3, '13

      We have a food roundup coming for El Nido, so all will be revealed about the candle lighting in that! 😉 You’re right though about quirks becoming endearing… I think there are a lot of things about the Philippines that rightly do drive travelers nutty, but we pretty much loved all of it. Except the roosters! 😀

      And we do read Legal Nomads (I think Jodi’s affection for the Philippines rivals our own!), though I admit, we actually heard about El Nido & Palawan from one of our neighbors in Toronto who is originally from the Philippines.

  4. May 3, 2013 at 8:56 am
    May. 3, '13

    My God, it’s stunning! I have actually just been reading a book where the author spent some time in the Philippines and was convinced just by his words to add it to my bucket list. These pictures have just reenforced my desire to go!
    Arianwen recently posted..Rio Carnival: Surviving the world’s biggest street party

    • May 3, 2013 at 9:17 pm
      May. 3, '13

      It’s so funny because as I said when I first started our posts on this country, we hadn’t even originally planned to visit the Philippines at all and we wound up here completely by chance (or cheap plane tickets… you be the judge!). It’s so hard to believe we almost missed out on this wonderful paradise, so I’m glad our photos has convinced you not to make the same mistake!

      • May 4, 2013 at 2:57 am
        May. 4, '13

        I feel exactly the same way. It was a completely last minute decision to visit the Philippines and it was so magical! With hindsight we should have cut time in Bali/Lombok and then we could have ventured to these amaaazing islands you keep writing about! One day 🙂
        Maddie recently posted..Indonesia round-up

        • May 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm
          May. 5, '13

          Well, like they say, hindsight is 20/20 and you can’t take a trip like ours constantly assuming that you’ll like the next place even more than the one you’re in. I’ve really been trying to embrace living in the moment and just enjoying where I am RIGHT NOW without worrying that an extra week spent in one place will mean less time spent somewhere else. Even within the Philippines we feel like we only saw a scan sliver of what this country is all about, so I hope one day we can go back to revisit some of our favorite places, but also to explore even more!

  5. May 5, 2013 at 2:37 am
    May. 5, '13

    I just love your writing style! You suck me in and take me along for the most pleasant ride, even if it’s a bumpy six-hour one through the Philippines. It sounds like Palawan was a wonderful experience, despite all those you had to share it with. It’s sometimes an unfortunate part of travel that all the best places have already been discovered.
    Jessica Hill recently posted..Life & Death Along the Ghats of Varanasi, India

    • May 5, 2013 at 10:11 pm
      May. 5, '13

      Thanks so much for the extremely sweet compliment, Jessica!

      It’s true that when traveling it can be really hard to find amazing places that others haven’t also discovered, but we have rooted out a few hidden gems along the way. And in the end, I can’t fault the hardy souls who flock to El Nido for doing so, because it really is gorgeous!

  6. May 5, 2013 at 3:20 pm
    May. 5, '13

    I think, sadly, anyplace listed in a Lonely Planet guidebook automatically loses the right to be called an undiscovered frontier. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth visiting, though. Sometimes it’s hard to escape the fact that great places are going to attract a lot of people – as much as I’d like everyone else to stay home so I could explore without the crowds.

    • May 5, 2013 at 10:15 pm
      May. 5, '13

      You’re absolutely right about things being in guidebooks but then getting called “undiscovered”! Although, I will say that despite its many faults, the Lonely Planet is pretty thorough in terms of generally having at least a little bit of information on most of the places we wanted to go—we never hit a single place in the Philippines that wasn’t covered in some capacity in the Lonely Planet, but definitely some places were more popular than others, whereas certain places really did feel undiscovered (even if that wasn’t really the case).

      But in the end, it doesn’t really matter if a place gets a lot of tourists if it is able to maintain the aspects and atmosphere that bring people to it in the first place. We never really found the increased number of tourists in EN to be a big drawback, but I did want to let others know that if they are expecting it to just be them and the locals, they will be disappointed!

  7. May 7, 2013 at 3:25 am
    May. 7, '13

    El Nido is going on our list of places to check out when we get to the Philippines in August now. It’s interesting how your perception of what a place will be like can vary so much from how you feel about it in reality – we’re just starting to discover this too!
    Amy recently posted..Love at First Sight: Visiting Melbourne

    • May 8, 2013 at 10:41 am
      May. 8, '13

      Yes, at this point in the travel game, we try to just do enough research to figure out if a place sounds like it has something that will likely appeal to us, but have realized having huge, built-up impressions about what it will be like once we’re actually there is really just a recipe for disappointment. That said, it’s always great when you reach a place you thought would be middle of the road only to find that it’s perfect for you… it’s such a happy surprise!

  8. May 9, 2013 at 11:03 pm
    May. 9, '13

    I think it looks wonderful! I love places like that. Places tht are not overly developed yet, yet have got certain luxuries, such as daytime electricity. There are many similar places like that in Cambodia actually and whenever I get the chance I go and visit them.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Everest Base Camp chronicles

    • May 11, 2013 at 6:43 pm
      May. 11, '13

      Yeah, honestly, not having electricity for a couple of hours (or even up to 12) each day isn’t a big deal as it definitely gives you an incentive to step away from the computer and see the world. We stayed at a place in the Philippines that literally only had electricity for 2.5 hours every day, so in comparison to that, El Nido was really luxurious!

  9. December 29, 2015 at 5:30 pm
    Dec. 29, '15

    My goodness, Stephanie! I don’t know if you’ll remember me but we went to Woburn oh 100 years ago! We played in the Wind Ensemble. I’m making summer plans to the Philippines and decided to do some googling. Found your site and looked up the author… lo and behold, it’s you! WOW! Seems like you are having a wonderful time! Hope you are doing well and have a wonderful 2016!

    • January 19, 2016 at 1:49 pm
      Jan. 19, '16

      Willis! Of course I remember you! What a small world that you would stumble across our blog. Thanks so much for reaching out & I hope you have an(other) amazing time in the Philippines this summer. We can’t wait to return the next time we are in that part of the world—there is still so much to that beautiful country that we need to explore. All the best to you in 2016; I wish you many adventures!

  10. Rai
    July 8, 2016 at 1:32 pm
    Jul. 8, '16

    I went to Palawan back in 2008 with my then boyfriend now husband. I was completely surprised to learn that everywhere I went, I was the only Filipino tourist. Palawan used to be so inaccessible to Filipinos coz of it’s distance (closer to Malaysia), especially before budget airlines were around. It would take 33 hours by ferry from Manila to northern Palawan. Now, I am hesitant to visit El Nido coz it’s too touristy like Boracay.

Leave a comment!