Less than 48 hours since landing in Hong Kong, I was off on my next adventure. While I’m not always so spur-of-the-moment with my travel plans, I couldn’t say no to the Philippines. So off I went to the Island of Palawan with Intrepid Travel, a destination many refer to as “the most beautiful island in the world.” That’s a lot to live up to but I soon discovered that its praise is well-deserved. The trip was packed with culturally-rich experiences and although it was tough to narrow down this list, here are my favorite highlights from the tour.
A Walking Tour of Manila (and add-on)
Normally, their Philippines Island Getaway starts in Puerto Princesa on the Island of Palawan but our group arrived a day early to do a brief walking tour of Manila. As the capital city of the Philippines, I was expecting a bustling urban setting and there’s definitely a lot of that. Yet, there’s also a good deal of history imbedded into the culture. I particularly enjoyed our walk through the walled city, where we visited Fort Santiago, the San Agustin Church and Casa Manila. While I wouldn’t necessarily encourage you to extend your trip just to tour Manila, it’s definitely worth a visit if you have a long layover on route to Palawan or if you just really adore cities like yours truly. There’s definitely a different vibe here and on the island and I appreciated being able to experience both.
Subterranean River Tour in Sabang
After reading through the trip’s itinerary, this listing made my eyes pop. Some of you know that I’ve been writing a young adult novel this past year and well, there are caves involved in my story! Book-aside, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the top natural wonders of the world. At nearly five-miles in length, Puerto Princesa is the second longest subterranean river in the world. We glided through a subterranean cave system exploring large chambers, stalactites and stalagmites.
Naturally, this is a popular attraction so we opted to start our day early to avoid the crowds. After the two-hour bus ride from downtown Manila, there’s a boat transfer to the underwater cave where you can view monkeys and other wildlife in their natural setting before taking another boat into the cave. My pictures didn’t come out so well in the darkness but it was such a surreal experience. Our guide pointed out different natural cave formations and gave funny little anecdotes about some. The best and arguably worst part was the last two minutes when we sailed underneath hundreds of sleeping bats hanging upside down. Unable to look away, I felt a mix of horror and awe.
Tasting the local food
One aspect of Intrepid Tours that I really value is their attitude toward free time and meals. The price of this particular trip usually includes 7 breakfasts, 2 lunches and 1 dinner and this is so that passengers have greater flexibility in choosing where they want to eat and if they want to eat with the group or on their own. Since Intrepid is a budget tour company, you won’t have to worry about pricey meals. The same goes for the local beer and fresh fruit juices while the wines can be a bit more expensive because they are imported.
The food in the Philippines is divine and I had absolutely no intention of holding back. Pictured below is an ice-cream snack I had after our cave tour. With every meal I became more and more adventurous, eventually trying chicken butt (literally) and crocodile. The one thing I couldn’t get myself to eat was the woodworm but some people in our group found the courage. In general, though, I found the cuisine in the Philippines to be very healthy and yet still flavorful. There are a lot of dishes with vegetables and meat and sauces that ranged from super spicy to tart and sweet. The spiciness really came in handy I must say, especially because it was so hot and I was often dehydrated.
Mangrove Boat Tour & Firefly Sightings
I’m combining two activities into one section because they both revolve around Mangrove trees. After spotting an absurd amount of bats in a darkly lit cave (see above), I didn’t expect the Mangrove Boat Tour to compare. To my surprise, the relaxing river cruise was filled with wildlife like the seemingly innocent snake pictured below. This little guy pictured below might look harmless just catching some shut eye in a tree but he packs a punch in the form of poison. I also learned a lot about Mangrove trees like their ability to survive in salt water.
The second part of this highlight took place on our last night in Palawan. The firefly experience on the Iwahig River is about a 30-minute or so bus ride from Puerto Princesa. This is an evening attraction and unfortunately, my camera didn’t capture anything worth posting so you’ll have to use your imagination. It’s really a fantastic sight to see. Sailing along the Iwahig River, the only lights you see are the fireflies glistening amongst the mangroves by the river. In a word, I was enchanted. The only other light came in the form of a laser that our boat guide used to point out constellations, Jupiter and the norther star. That was unexpected so I was over the moon (pun intended).
A Day Snorkeling in El Nido
I’m dedicating an entire post to the amazingness of El Nido so much more on that later. For now, just know that Palawan is among the best snorkeling and diving sites in the world so this is a must for anyone who remotely loves the ocean, which I’m guessing is most people. We started bright and early in the morning for a full day snorkeling trip. We made a few stops along the way, including two lagoons cleverly named Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon before indulging on a freshly prepared lunch of grilled squid, fruit and veggies.
Island hopping in El Nido is a photographer’s dream and yet, I couldn’t manage to capture on film what I was seeing with my naked eyes: jagged limestone islands, rocky coves, virgin rainforest and of course white sandy beaches. Under the sea was just as colorful, with beautiful coral and hundreds of species of tropical fish, and three species of endangered sea turtles although I didn’t see those. El Nido’s forests are host to more than 100 species of birds, a large number of which are endemic to Palawan. The area around El Nido is a protected marine park, and is believed to be the real location that inspired Alex Garland’s The Beach. We also spotted dolphins. Success!
Riding in Style
Instead of staying in downtown El Nido like Intrepid normally does (the hotel was booked) we spent two nights in El Nido Cove Resort overlooking the water and offering a very laid-back vibe. That said, we weren’t walking distance to the downtown area which only meant one thing: tricycles. These are easy to book from the reception desk and the ride is cheap. Honestly, it was one of my favorite parts of the trip and it’s the easiest thing to do anywhere in the Philippines.
In my opinion these tricycles are a stroke of genius. They aren’t too bulky like regular buses and yet they’re big enough to fit two-three passengers (probably more if you don’t mind being a little squished). There also happened to be a gorgeous sunset that night, as there is nearly every night in El Nido as I’ve been told. Bumping along in the tricycle with the wind whipping through my hair and the neon sky lighting our way, I felt free. Intrepid likes to showcase different types of transportation on their trips, from tricycles to public buses. If I had an extra day on my own, I would have hopped one of the many vibrant jeepneys strolling through town.
Nature Trek to the Batak Community
I’m also dedicating an entire post on this experience but for now, I’ll give you a brief overview of what to expect. The Batak are one of about 70 indigenous peoples of the Philippines and there are only about 500 Batak people alive today. Once a nomadic people, they’ve since settled in small villages and we had the privilege of visiting one of these communities and learning about their culture and how they keep tradition alive in everyday life.
This is an easy day trip from Puerto Princesa and it really only takes a few hours, leaving the rest of the day to relax at leisure. The hike takes about 1.5 hours each way depending on how fast or slow you walk. I’d suggest wearing sneakers or shoes with grip because there are several streams you need to cross and the rocks can be slippery at times. Once we arrived in the village, we took a brief tour of the facilities: a school, church, a bathroom, family homes and even a basketball court before sharing our meal with members of the tribe. The Batak people often suffer from malnutrition because vegetables are scarce on their land but do what they can to stay healthy.
Adorable animals at every corner
Part of me can’t believe that I’m including this in my highlights but after sifting through so many photos of animals, I couldn’t help but smile when I landed on the two cuties pictured below. One is of an incredibly perky dog we saw at a budget hotel and the other is a monkey that lives in Sabang right where the underground cave is located. For wild animals, it’s smart to keep some distance to avoid contracting diseases, should they carry any. Plus, hovering could be interpreted as a threat.
As a city girl, the only animals I’m used to seeing are the ones I don’t want to see like mice or even worse, rats. Now that I’m in Hong Kong, I’ve been seeing way too many creepy crawling insects for my taste. But in the Philippines I saw friendly dogs who loved being photographed and monkeys that didn’t mind me invading their space. Then there were the crocodiles and the snakes and all the fireflies that flickered in the night sky along the Iwahig River. It was almost as if I was on an eco-centric tour and yet, this is just how things are in the Philippines. Nature is all around: from white sandy beaches to cascading cliffs.
What trip made the biggest impression on you? Tell me in the comments below!
This trip was hosted by Intrepid Travel. All opinions are my own.
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