Named after the largest of its 1,780 islands, biodiversity hotspot Palawan is the “last ecological frontier” of the Philippines. The emerald archipelago is strung across turquoise waters, making island-hopping the best way to experience signature Palawan experiences like floating through an underground river, swimming in hidden lagoons, and diving among World War II shipwrecks.
“New normal” protocols, such as wearing face masks and maintaining physical distancing, are in place throughout Palawan; all visitors are required to have a negative COVID-19 test prior to arrival. Due to the enhanced health and safety measures and wealth of activities, Palawan is worth considering when you’re ready to take that long-awaited island getaway.
Begin your adventure in Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s provincial capital and main arrival hub. Located near the midpoint of Palawan Island, the city is the launch pad for banca (traditional outrigger boat) island-hopping tours in nearby Honda Bay, a globally important habitat for the endangered whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea, reaching lengths of up to 32 feet. Protected in the Philippines since 1998, the colossal whale sharks visit Honda Bay seasonally to feed on Philippine anchovy, shrimp-like krill, and small fish.
To conserve, protect, and manage Honda Bay’s natural resources, the bay was designated a Marine Key Biodiversity Area. Sustainable tourism activities, such as the banca tours, support local conservation efforts. Typically, banca trips stop at three islands in Honda Bay and allow ample time for snorkeling, swimming, and spotting marine life. Along with whale sharks, you could see bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, and gentle-giant dugongs, a close cousin of the manatee. In the azure waters surrounding Starfish Island, look for staghorn corals and orange sea stars.
Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River
From Honda Bay, head north to Ugong Rock Adventures, a community-based sustainable tourism project managed and run by a local indigenous cooperative. The project’s focal point is a free-standing, limestone karst tower laced with caves and named for the haunting hum (ugong in Tagalog) produced when cave explorers tap a stalactite with a rubber mallet. Hear the humming sound on a spelunking (caving) tour and hike up the tower for big-thrill activities like zip-biking and ziplining. On the way to Ugong Rock, stop at the Buenavista Viewdeck for Instagram-worthy views of glimmering Ulugan Bay.
Next up is a national treasure: Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a World Heritage site voted one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. To protect the park’s mountain-to-sea ecosystem, a permit is required to visit. Book a guided boat tour (permit included) to glide through cathedral-like caverns on one of the world’s longest navigable underground rivers. Physical distancing is enforced throughout the tour and boats are sanitized between rides to protect the health of guests and guides.
Continue north to El Nido, located at the tip of the Palawan mainland, for island-hopping in a mesmerizing dreamscape: Bacuit Bay archipelago. Part of the nearly 350-square-mile El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines, the Bacuit Bay’s 45 jungle-cloaked islands and towering karst islets dot impossibly-clear blue waters.
On day tours, eco-friendly outrigger boats leapfrog between islands like Miniloc, home to cliff-lined lagoons and a secret beach reached through an underwater passage, and Vigan, nicknamed ‘Snake’ for its serpentine sandbar.
Book a dive trip to swim through the kaleidoscope of colors created by the estimated 800 species of fish and 120 species of coral found here. Among the most vibrant Bacuit Bay sea creatures are the clownfish, parrotfish, and seahorses. For a more private Bacuit Bay experience, book a stay at the El Nido Resorts sustainable retreat on Miniloc Island or Pangulasian Island. To help create a safe environment, both luxury properties are limiting occupancy and have implemented enhanced health protocols, such as foot baths, misting, hand sanitizing, and thermal scanning upon arrival.
The island-hopping grand finale is Coron, part of the Calamian Archipelago north of Palawan Island. Coron Town, located on the main island, Busanga, is the starting point for boat tours to jagged limestone islets, shallow-water coral reefs, and fascinating shipwreck sites—including remnants of seven Japanese World War II vessels sunk in September, 1944.
A best bet for beginner scuba divers is the wreck of the Okikawa Maru. The well-preserved oil tanker sits at relatively shallow depths (32 to 85 feet under the surface), is covered with hard and soft corals, and is surrounded by swirling tropical fish.
For a less-technical underwater adventure, hop on a boat to neighboring Coron Island and experience the mind-boggling beauty of Kayangan Lake. Dubbed “the blue lagoon,” the world-famous lake is tucked among surreal rock formations visible above and below the surface of the water. A volcanic hot spring feeds the lake, meaning the water temperature goes up as you dive down. As with all Palawan destinations where visitors are returning slowly but surely, the outdoor setting is nature made for physical distancing and enhanced safety standards are in place to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
For more travel guidelines and updates visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip for information.