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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Welcome to Palawan Paradise

PHILIPPINES | Sunday, 20 December 2009 | Views [805]

After all this time in Asia we finally make our first trip to the Philippines. With over 7,000 island where do you begin? Well the paradise island of Palawan of course. The flights were at night and we had a smooth journey on Cebu Pacific.  We’d expected some shuttle bus fun at Manila airport, to take us from International to Domestic, but it turned out we just had to pop upstairs.

Puerto Princesa

As we flew into Puerto Princesa we could see the town clearly, so knew it wasn’t very big and that getting around would be easy.  As we landed the pilot announce over the intercom, “welcome to paradise”, on first looks, he could be spot on. We decided to go for our first tricycle (motorbike and sidecar) experience, agreed a reasonable fare and set off to find a hotel room.  This was going to be a holiday where we turned up and searched for somewhere to stay.  Something we’ve not done for a long time and were looking forward to it.

Puerto Princesa is basically a one road town with little side lanes and a port area.  It hasn’t got masses of attractions and so only sees tourists who are on their way to, and from, the main beach areas.  Strolling around town was pleasant and we found the place to be very friendly and relaxed.  Obviously we had to check out a few cafes and restaurants, with the main discovery being that San Miguel is cheaper than pop, juice or a brew.  A fact that wasn’t going to help us have a healthy holiday!  Our time in Puerto revolved around wandering aimlessly and chuckling at the tacky Christmas decorations.  The Philippines is predominantly Christian so they were gearing up to one of their biggest festivals of the year.

Probably the best restaurant in town, certainly in terms of location, is Badjao Seafront Restaurant.  We had to get a tricycle from town but it was worth the effort.  The entrance is along a boardwalk over mangrove and the restaurant is built on stilts on the edge of said mangrove looking out to sea.  We’d been travelling all night and pottering all day, so it was time for an early bath in preparation for starting the holiday proper early the next morning.

We were up at 6am to check out, jump in a tricycle to the bus station and find a bus / jeepney bound for Sabang.  Even though we got there at 6.40am the 7am jeepney was already packed and heavily laden.  The bus wasn’t going until 9am, and we didn’t fancy hanging around, so we squeezed in like the conductor told us.  I eventually worked out where my seat was supposed to be so gingerly stepped down the aisle trying to avoid standing on bags and feet.  Steve than clambered aboard and soon had all the English speakers chortling with his; “Where’s my invisible seat then?”  It was apparent that he wasn’t going to be able to squeeze into the 3 inches allocated as his spot so we had to do a mid-aisle contortion act to change places.  By this time a handful of people had opted to sit on the roof with all the luggage and a few others were balanced on a plank across the back door.  Guess what?  We were full; it was 7 bells and time to go.

We chugged out of the bus station - it was amazing that the vehicle would move at all!  Even more astounding was how much speed the driver managed to pick up on the open road.  Everyone surreptitiously shuffled and shifted to get as comfy as possible.  Plus, we mentally prepared ourselves for 3 hours of gradually loosing the feeling in feet, legs and bum!  As overloaded as we were when setting off there was still room to add a telly, extra supplies and a few more customers on the outskirts of town.  I’m sure we went through some lovely scenery but we only got the odd glimpse as someone shifted.  The journey wasn’t too bad in the end and we reached Sabang 30mins faster than expected - just as well as Steve hadn’t even had a brew let alone breakfast.  At 3 quid a head it was good value for a most entertaining ride. 

Sabang

Sabang is a small town by the sea and it’s lovely.  The wide sandy beach is set against a back drop of jungle clad, limestone hills.  The sea is a glorious colour with brightly painted bangkas (similar to catamarans) bobbing about and the waves rolling in.  There are a handful of places to stay to suit all budgets but nowhere is particularly cheap for what you get.  After a thorough recky of all available guesthouses we reckon we got the best deal at Green Verde Guesthouse.  It was P800 (about 12 quid) for a wooden chalet set amongst coconut palms with a view of the sea.  In fact, we were so struck with Sabang, we decided to stay for 2 nights instead of the pre-planned one.  We felt there was enough to do and it seemed a shame to dash off.

Following a very late breakfast it was time to explore.  The main beach is to the right of the pier, as you’re facing the sea, and the shoreline is rocky on the left hand side.  It was all very peaceful, restful and photogenic and before we knew it, the time had come for an afternoon boat ride.  At the far end of the beach there is an area of mangrove and the trips last about 45mins.  The two people who paddle the boat also act as your guides.  It was lovely drifting through the trees without an engine puttering away in the background.  One guide was particularly knowledgeable and even though we’ve been on many a mangrove trip we learned a few more facts.  We’ve never been amongst such old, up to 200 years, or tall, up to 30m, mangrove trees.  There wasn’t much wildlife around but we did see a couple of baby water monitors and 4 mangrove snakes.  At the end of the trip they showed us an area they are replanting and we were invited to sow a seed each.  It felt like something special at the end of a most pleasant little trip.

Our intention was to be healthy at the beach so we prepared ourselves for sunset brew.  As soon as the generator kicked in at 6pm I plugged in our little travel kettle only to plunge the entire guesthouse into darkness!  The owner went from chalet to chalet asking if anyone had a laptop and we honestly answered no!!  Beer anyone?!

Underground River

Most people pay for a boat to get them to the mouth of this river but we knew it was possible to walk.  Why pay P600 (a tenner) a head for a 15min boat ride when you can walk and take in the scenery?  We were fairly confident we’d spotted the start of the trails when down at the mangrove so retraced our steps.  The only slight problem was that we had to get over the water and didn’t fancy getting out boots wet.  Luckily someone from the mangrove boat trips set up arrived and offered to row us over for only P20.  On the other side we found ourselves in a beautiful, secluded, deserted bay.  At the end of this was the start of the walk proper and we were very pleased to see it was sign posted.

The path was very clear and it’s obviously regularly maintained – good to know we weren’t very likely to get lost!  It was great walking through the forest without having to deal with tricky obstacles every 5 paces.  The path followed the coast and we enjoyed listening to the birds chirping their early morning song with the waves crashing in adding background percussion.  While crossing the river in the mangrove we saw a couple of parakeets and we were hopeful that we would see more wildlife as the day progressed.  We quickly reached the Ranger’s Hut, registered and set off on the Monkey Trail.  We plumped for this one as we knew it was easier to follow and we wanted to be at the underground river in time for the 10am boat trip.

About halfway along the path splits and again is sign posted - we’d found the start of the Jungle Trail for the return walk.  We’d read that it wasn’t so easy to follow but it looked clear enough and we got the impression that the whole area is well looked after.  The Monkey Trail involved climbing up and down steps over headlands.  Just as well the steps and boards were there as one rocky outcrop was like a mini Pinnacles (Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia) with some big, deep gaps.  We made it to the mouth of the river in perfect time for the 10am trip.  Most of the visitors arrive as part of organised tours from Puerto Princesa and tend to consist of huge family groups.  Today was no exception and there was a big group registering and squawking and squealing every time a macaque came within 5 meters of them.  We signed in and hung around at the back until the loudest had filled a boat!

The underground river stretches through a cave system for about 8km but our trip only took in the first 1.5km.  Apparently if you’re into caving and getting wet you can investigate further but we declined!  Our guide constantly prattled on but only a fraction of it was interesting.  There was way too much of the old; “This formation looks like……..”  Granted a couple of them were pretty good but most were just silly.  However we did see the resident bats, swiftlets and a cave snake.

As we emerged from the river there were loads of people waiting for the 11am trip – we’d timed our day perfectly!  We pottered around the beach area but the hoards of day trippers soon saw us scurrying back to the trails.  Monkey and Jungle trail both start at the same place and share the route for the first kilometre.  Once the path split it soon became apparent that it would be easy to follow so at least we could make a round trip of it.

There were loads of birds fluttering around but per usual we couldn’t see them very well.  Eventually something bigger crashed through the leaves and we realised we’d found another troop of macaques.  It’s always so much better to see them totally wild than scavenging near people.  A few hundred meters along the track there was more crashing and general jungle noises.  Yep – more monkeys but we’d found some hornbills too.  We were watching them raid the fig tree of its bounty when Steve spotted something else high up in the canopy.  Luckily the foliage wasn’t too dense and we were amazed to find that we were watching a Palawan bear cat.  In fact they aren’t related to bears or cats – they’re actually called binturong and are a member of the civet family.  It’s one of the biggest animals to forage in the tops of trees and needs to use its prehensile tail to help it move around, another wildlife first for us.  We’d had a fantastic day – a much more energetic walk than anticipated and plenty of wildlife thrown in for good measure.

The next morning it was time to move on so we headed for the 7am boat bound for Port Barton.  The boat was eventually ready to leave by 8am!  Sabang may have a new, huge concrete pier but they really should have built a jetty too.  To load the boats the locals had to balance the packages on their heads and wade through chest deep water to deposit their cargo.  By the time they were ready to take passengers the tide had gone out a little and they pulled with all their might to get the boat as close to the shore as possible.  I still went in up to my waist(!) and spent the first part of the journey dripping and chilly.

Other than that the 3 hour boat ride was uneventful but lovely watching the coast line whiz by.  At Port Barton they haven’t invested in a jetty either but the beach is very sandy and the boats can get right into the shallows.  So I only got wet up to my knees on disembarking!

Port Barton

The beach and bay here are as lovely, if not more so, than Sabang but without the mountainous backdrop.  We wandered down the white sandy beach getting a feel for the place and looking for a good spot for a brew.  We settled for El Bruseca and before the kettle had even boiled were discussing room prices and being shown a unit on the front.  Between us we made a token gesture at checking out other places, but since we were already on first name terms with the owner of the first place, decided to look no further.  You can’t put a price on a warm, friendly welcome and the room was perfectly adequate with a cracking balcony and huge hammock.  Our little private garden led directly onto the beach so we were more than happy.

We spent the rest of the day wandering up and down the bay checking out other places to try for food and drink.  We very quickly came to the conclusion that we were staying in the best guesthouse.  We were very surprised to find numerous restaurants to try – Judy’s turned out to serve up the best food at very reasonable prices.  As we were pottering we were approached by a man with a boat offering to take us on a snorkelling trip.  We quickly and easily established where we would go and how much island hopping and snorkelling would be involved.  It sounded like just what we were after and he quoted a price much lower than expected.  Then another lad from our guesthouse wanted to join us so it all became even cheaper.

Although we’d found the best place to stay it turned out that its attached restaurant was the most expensive place in town.  So we popped to Bamboo House who rustled up a good breakfast with tasty and affordable coffee.  By 9am we were all aboard our bangka and ready for a day of island hopping and snorkelling.  The first stop was Aquarium Reef where we had to enter the sea from the boat.  The water was incredibly clear and pretty deep.  I let the others plunge in first and then I tentatively slipped in but hung onto the boat.  Way too deep for me to pluck up the courage to doggy paddle around but with the boat moving in the waves I got to see loads of coral.  Steve said it was amazing and they were the best corals and sponges we’d ever seen.  I didn’t see all that many fish but Steve said near the drop-off there were plenty.  The huge bowl corals were a definite highlight.

The next stop was Exotic Island – we’re not sure how authentic the names of these places are but they were very apt.  This uninhabited island is very tropical and would have been even better if there hadn’t been a group of barely clad German tourists beached on the sand.  Luckily the cove was big enough to lose them!  We stayed there for some time and while we were snorkelling (directly off the beach by the way) our boatman prepared lunch.  There weren’t any currents for me to worry about and I didn’t have to go far to find some fabulous soft corals and sponges.  Lunch consisted of a big tuna that the boatman’s Dad had caught the night before, veggie salad and rice. 

Once we’d let that feast go down it was time for the next part of the tour – Paradise Island.  When we landed in Puerto Princesa our pilot welcomed us to paradise and he wasn’t wrong.  This little island is protected so we had to pay a P50 entry fee.  I’m all for protecting these places but didn’t understand why they; had lobsters in a cage, were allowing people to take a knife and harpoon into the sea and provided feet paddles so you could stand on the coral.  Hey ho!  Couldn’t resist having a peep at the lobsters but managed to refrain from joining in the other activities.  That said once again the snorkelling directly from the beach was very good.

Moving on we popped to an island that is obviously having a resort built on it.  To date they have less than a handful of rooms but have built a concrete path all the way round and up to the top and to a look-out platform.  All very nice but a bit odd.  On the way back to Port Barton the boatman stopped in an area he called Twin Rocks Reef.  I stayed dry as it was a bit choppy – besides which Steve said the coral wasn’t any better than we’d seen earlier in the day and there were very few fish.  All-in-all it was a great day out and was good value.  Sunset beer time.

Travel Day

The Puerto Princesa jeepney, we’d been led to believe, would go at 8am but we got the distinct impression that the timings were flexible!  We’d told plenty of the locals that our plan was to catch this here jeepney and, believe me, there was no way we were going to miss it.  Not only was the lady from the guesthouse ready to come with us (presumably she had business in Puerto Princesa) but someone from the jeepney came to get us.  Told you they were lovely, friendly, helpful folk on Palawan.  It was approaching 8am but we could sense from the lack of customers and urgency that we wouldn’t be setting off promptly.

By 9am it looked like we’d be making a move in half an hour or so.  Don’t forget we’d been sitting in the jeepney all this time!  You have to book your seat somehow; we didn’t want to leave the day bag unattended and the rest of the luggage was stowed on the roof.  It seemed the seat booker of the day was a plant but we were right out of those!  Not only did we have our spot but we’d been given the best seats too – up front in the cab.  We were sure they’d plonk at least one more person in there with us but evidently not.  To be honest we fully expected to be charged for 3 seats but once again – no.  So with plenty of leg room and ring side seats we were ready for the off.

More sacks and baskets were hauled up onto the roof and the driver hopped in.  The initial part of the journey involved crawling around town in first gear collecting a few more passengers and packages galore.  By 9.30am we were finally full up enough to be on our way.  Out on the road proper we were straight into beautiful scenery and a lovely breeze coming through the windscreen.  On Palawan jeepneys the front window is propped open; refreshing trundling along the country lanes but a fair face battering on the main road.  Not too uncomfortable but we felt like we’d been subjected to some sort of exfoliate treatment by the end of the trip!

We got to Puerto Princesa in plenty of time to catch our evening flight to Manila.  We thoroughly enjoyed Palawan and would recommend a trip should you get the opportunity.  We would have loved to have had more time to explore further, particularly up to El Nido in the north as everyone raves about the place – will we sneak in a return trip sometime in the not too distant future?

Travel Information

Transport

We flew to Palawan from KL via Manila with Cebu Pacific and they seem to be a decent budget airline.

http://book.cebupacificair.com/Search.aspx

Hotels

Can’t remember the name of the place we stayed in in Puerto but had a meal at this place at the roof top restaurant and seems to be a nice gaff.

http://puertopension.com/

The Green Verde in Sabang was nice but a bit pricey at 800 peso for a bamboo hut, great views of the sea. Turn right onto the beach from the pier, about 100 yards.

For a treat, the only posh resort in Sabang looks really nice and we had a decent meal and a cheap bucket of booze at the beach bar.

http://www.daluyonresort.com/

Food

Our top picks are-

Fresh, on the main road in PP has a nice garden a huge range of dishes.

Daluyon in Sabang had great food but a bit more up market ( you get what you pay for).

We enjoyed good food at Judy’s and Bamboo House in Port Barton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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