Travel guide to South Palawan.
Everyone who travels to Palawan does Puerto Princesa’s Underground River and island paradise El Nido (and maybe some places in between) and many visit Coron. But barely anyone travels to South Palawan, meaning the very most southern islands, close to Malaysia. In between Puerto Princesa and Rio Tuba there’s not much to do, but at the very south there’s a bunch of gorgeous islands. So to me and my buddy Don it seemed like the right place to go! Especially after 2 crowded tourist-trap-tours, which would only get much worse El Nido.
Traveling to South Palawan
The drive to Rio Tuba is very scenic and worth it even if you’re not going down further. After 6 hours in a minivan, 20 minutes on a tricycle and 4,5 hours on a boat we finally made it to Balabac. Only to be hugely disappointed, as the town was dirty & stinky with nothing to do. No place to swim anywhere nearby, no restaurant, no motorbikes for rent (not even from locals, but persistence might have paid off), no driver to take us around the island (bad roads due to rain) and no boat available to take us island hopping; the thing we came for!
The only available tour-boat (according to the coastguard) was booked already by Filipinos and we were told there was no other way to arrange a boat… We left the next morning with the 6am boat to stay at the appealing Bancalan Island that we saw the day before, surrounded by one endless beach and beautiful water.
Staying at South Palawan
Bancalan island only receives a handful of foreigners a year, so we got some surprising looks. We were taken to the only ‘guesthouse’, which didn’t have any rooms available due to construction and whatever other reasons. But we were directed to a house nearby where the friendly Sanchez family kindly offered one of their own nice rooms for p150 a night. Without any restaurant on the island, they made us wonderful food every day (Philippine food isn’t always very good, to us foreigners, so were very happy) and during 4 days we enjoyed a real authentic off the beaten track travel experience.
We did 2 half day (5am-12pm) tours on a small boat, fishing and visiting some of the wonderful nearby islands and their lovely inhabitants. We could not have wished for much more. Catching fish and then grilling and eating it ‘cowboy style’ on a deserted island was simply fantastic. Finishing off the day drinking gin/water/flavoured powder with the locals was a great way to get to know each other and they really enjoyed talking to us.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to visit the prettiest island, Onuk Island. Apparently that could only be done from Balabac, due to registration and permission. The distance is quite far as well, so it would be a very long boat ride. There’s a waterfall there too at Balabac, which is said to be really nice. Not sure if that’s really the case.
Useful information about traveling to South Palawan
Traveling to the southern Palawan Islands:
To get to the southern islands in 1 day from Puerto Princesa: arrange a minivan pickup from your guesthouse or catch one at roughly 4am at the San Jose bus terminal (which will likely pickup guests in town first). That way you should able to catch the boat at 11am in Rio Tuba. Ours departed at 10:50 though and depending on the number of passengers it will depart between 11:00-13:00.
Registering at South Palawan islands:
You’ll need to register yourself as a visitor at Bancalan and Balabac and maybe other islands as well. At Bancalan you’ll also need to register yourself for safety reasons at the marine office. It is actually even advised to bring a ‘bodyguard’ or someone extra (besides the boat driver) for protection. Read the Safety section below. In our case we had a retired marine, who took us around with his son Jerry, great people.
We were told that no matter which islands you go to, you’ll need to register to Balabac. Information is often not correct. We didn’t know anything about registering and at Balabac no one told us. Since we just came from there, we were definitely not planning on going back and having to stay another night there. No one made an issue of it.
Island hopping in South Palawan:
Island hopping is mostly done from Balabac, but can be done from Bancalan too, just find a boats guy. Keep in mind that waters get rough, especially later in the day. Expect to pay p2000 for a full day tour. Start early. I advise 2 half day tours. Not only because of the wind and rough waters, but a full day is simply too long on a small boat. Expect a sore bum, getting splashed and sunburned. Bring sea sickness tablets if you’re prone to that.
To visit the ‘hotspot’ Onuk island, stay at Balabac, register and get permission from the major to visit his private island. A fee will need to paid.
Swimming, snorkeling & fishing in South Palawan
There’s nice beaches, don’t expect them to be very clean though, except after high tide. The water is lovely, but often shallow. So its best to time your swim at high tide and beach bumming at low tide. Yep, not ideal.
Dynamite and cyanide fishing has and continues to kill the corals. You won’t see a lot of fish either during snorkelling and won’t catch many, if many. Don didn’t catch any, the locals caught a few.
Phone, internet & electricity:
There’s no internet connection (yet) at these islands and electricity is limited. Also the cellphone connection barely worked.
Safety in South Palawan islands:
This Muslim part of South Palawan is not the safest of places to visit, due to drug trafficking (Bancalan is red alert zone apparently) and Abu Sayyaf presence in the south of the country (mainly south at the ‘mainland’ though). Also there’s a higher risk of Malaria, islands as Bancalan are fairly safe though as they’re palm tree islands, islands as Rizal with forest and water streams have the highest risk. But honestly, the list of incidents that happen in my own home is much larger. So how scared should you really be. Yes, you can get kidnapped here and your head might get chopped off. That is not cool, of course, but compared to the dangers back home I wasn’t that worried.
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