A Sea Lover’s Sanctuary
Palawan’s pristine nature beguiles even the most practiced snorkelers. Unspoiled beaches abut clear turquoise water teeming with schools of fish. The biodiversity—both on land and sea—is overwhelming. For adventure travelers willing to make a long and at times arduous journey, this remote area is pure paradise. (Make sure to bring a book to read while you’re waiting for oft-delayed flights and boat rides.) Once you arrive in Palawan, you’ll probably spend the bulk of your days in snorkeling gear (or scuba, if you’re certified); that’s how captivating you’ll find this underwater world. But if you crave a momentary change of scenery, there are also ample opportunities to kayak and hike—just remember to leave some time for relaxing on the smooth white sand.
The islands of Palawan
The islands of Palawan, a Philippine province that’s often called “the last frontier,” lie between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea, stretching from Mindoro in the northeast to Borneo in the southwest. Palawan Island is the longest and narrowest, measuring 450km (280 miles) long and 50km (31 miles) wide. El Nido is one of the most popular destinations on Palawan. Bacuit Bay is home to more than 800 species of fish; 400 species of coral; endangered sea turtles; marine mammals, including the endangered dudong or sea cow; and marine invertebrates, including giant clams that can reach a meter in length.
While El Nido’s beauty and biodiversity is gasp worthy, the area has become relatively developed as a tourism center. For more secluded waters, travel a bit farther to the northwest and explore the exquisite beaches, reefs, and mangrove forests of the Calamianes Group of Islands—comprising Busuanga Island, Culion Island, and Coron Island. The waters off Coron on Busuanga Island are renowned for the sunken World War II wrecks there. A few are even in shallow enough water for snorkelers to catch a glimpse. Toward the end of the war, a fleet of Japanese tankers and warships were found hiding in the sea near Busuanga. In response, the U.S. Army dispatched its entire aerial fleet to attack the Japanese, leaving an array of significant artifacts underwater. Floating around these pieces of history is a somber experience, but one juxtaposed with the wonder of seeing so many thriving marine species in the same place.
The other not-to-be-missed thrill comes from snorkeling through the reefs in Coron Bay. An exotic ecosystem lives in this complex of seven lakes surrounded by rugged limestone cliffs. If you’re lucky enough to witness a feeding frenzy, you’ll be overwhelmed by the vast numbers of fish swimming in circles around you. But at any time of day, your gracious marine hosts will undoubtedly show you a good time.
Philippine Tourism Authority, DOT Building, T.M. Kalaw St., Manila ( 0632/524-71-47; www.wowphilippines.com.ph and www.tourism.gov.ph) and www.palawan.com.
Tour: Wilderness Travel, Berkley CA ( 800/368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com).
When to Go: Nov–May.
Busuanga (also called Coron) Airport, connecting through Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.
$$–$$$ El Nido Resorts Lagen Lodge, Bacuit Bay, El Nido ( 632/750-7600; www.elnidoresorts.com). $$–$$$ El Rio y Mar Island Resort, San Jose, Coron ( 63/920-951-5009; www.elrioymar.com). $–$$ Dive Link Resort, Uson Island, Coron ( 632/376-2048; www.divelink.com.ph.).