Palawan has shed its former image to become one of the best destinations in the world
When people speak of Palawan, they speak in superlatives: It’s said to host the cleanest city (Puerto Princesa, the capital), the longest underground river (the Puerto Princesa Underground River, at least until 2007, when divers found an even longer one in Mexico), and the cleanest lake (Kayangan in Coron). A point of pride for the locals, no doubt, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that Palawan started being called one of the world’s best islands – finally, the superlative that matters to travellers.
Palawan’s climb to prominence as a tourist destination has been slow, if also steady. It is telling that for decades Palawan was referred to as ‘the Philippines’ last frontier’ – not a bad thing, by any means, but it says a lot about Palawan’s image as remote, exotic, and a little bit rough.
Fifteen years ago, when I first visited Puerto Princesa (Port of the Princess) – named to honour a daughter of Queen Isabella II of Spain – I envisioned a sleepy port town with a stretch of beach, and perhaps a few houses up for rent along the shore line. As the plane started to circle the Puerto Princesa airport, I leaned out the window to see – not the row of tiny beach huts of my imagination but a good-sized island paradise, with a colony of beach houses lined up along the shore, and a pier extending out into a clear, emerald-green sea.
Arrecefi Island, in the waters of Honda Bay, is about an hour northeast by boat from the capital. The waters of Honda Bay are essentially the same as those surrounding Tubbataha Reef, about 150km away. Tubbataha isn’t just one of the world’s foremost dive spots, it is also a marine biodiversity. And a quick look at the Philippine map will also show you that Puerto Princesa is in the same geographical area as that other iconic beach destination: Boracay.
Honda Bay is blessed by teeming underwater seascapes and its islands by powdery white sand. It’s paradise, or at least it’s as close as one can get to the idea of it. The hour’s ride from the town proper makes Honda Bay and Arrecefi Island just remote enough to be a proper getaway, though not so far as to be inconvenient. And once you’re there, it becomes apparent that there’s little reason to even want to leave.
It’s a wonder that Honda Bay has remained as underrated as it has throughout the years, though it is unlikely to remain so, given the resurgence of interest in Palawan.
For now though, Puerto Princesa remains on that pleasant verge just before extreme popularity. Puerto Princesa is currently experiencing a small boom in hotels and other tourism facilities, for example. But the town itself, despite claiming the ‘highly urbanised’ classification from the national government, still feels mostly like a smallish, if bustling, provincial town, with pockets of quirkiness.
On the one hand, you’ve got the baywalk – the city’s attempt at creating a boulevard for wholesome, family-friendly entertainment. It’s all mostly middle-of-the-road, mainstream fun, where locals and visitors go for a bite to eat, to socialise, to kick back a bit.
Around the town centre is where one will find the restaurants that have, over the years, quietly defined the character of the place. KaLui’s (kaluirestaurant.com), for one, has for years been a favourite, drawing the artsy local crowd before becoming a tourist must-do. The restaurant serves a surprisingly sophisticated menu, heavy on vegetables and seafood, and emphasising freshness and refined tastes. When we were there, we were served a set menu that included a fresh green salad of mountain ferns, a delicate hunk of grilled tuna on a bed of mashed sweet potato, a dish of spiced prawns, and a soup made with ginger broth. No gastronomic fireworks here, but the original commitment to local ingredients and clean flavours continues to pay off.
Elsewhere scattered around town, one will find remnants of Vietnamese culture, brought over by refugees who were granted asylum in Puerto Princesa – nearly half a million of them, from 1979 to about 1993 – first in a refugee camp, and later in the Viet Ville community in San Lourdes, about 13km north of the town centre. The Viet Ville restaurant, now fallen into mild disrepair along with the rest of the community, nevertheless serves good and authentic Vietnamese food in hearty servings, for rock-bottom prices.
This push-and-pull between the mainstream and the idiosyncratic is also evident in Puerto Princesa’s tourist spots. Ask a local what the top tourist draw is, and he or she is probably going to point you to the Puerto Princesa Underground River, out in the town of Sabang, north of the town proper. The Underground River – 8.2km long – is a wonder of nature, and even if it is no longer the longest of its kind in the world, it remains deeply impressive.
Fortunately, its popularity has meant that the local tourism office has made sure that tourist access to the site is extremely easy and well-organised. A centralised booking office in the city issues the necessary visitor entry permits, and helps tourists find accredited guides; last February, the office launched an online booking facility (ppur.com.ph).
The hour-long drive to Sabang takes you right up to the St Paul Mountain Range, where it borders Babuyan River and St Paul Bay. And from there, your guide will take you right into the underground passage in an outrigger – the experience, no matter how busy the spot gets at peak tourist season, still feels primal. At the very least, it’s still a unique and often breathtaking sight, one well worth seeing at least once in your life.
A bit more searching around, however, and the more intrepid and curious travellers might instead find themselves at the Iwahig Penal Colony – an apt, if somewhat unlikely, symbol of Palawan’s character. The prison is run as a work farm with very porous borders: No high walls or searchlights here; instead, the prison is surrounded by huge tracts of land, cultivated and farmed by the prisoners.
Once upon a time, it made sense for the Philippine Bureau of Corrections to put up a place like the Iwahig Penal Colony, because Palawan’s remoteness and inaccessibility from the rest of the country made escape pointless. But over the 110 years since it was founded, Iwahig has evolved, whether by accident or by design, into something far more hopeful. The idea, first, was to establish a self-sustaining prison colony where inmates could grow their own food. Later, with ‘settlers’ given their own land, the focus for the penal colony shifted toward rehabilitation through the dignity of honest work.
First-time visitors to the Iwahig Penal Colony will be in for a surprise as soon as they drive up to the gate. The guards are lightly, if at all, armed, and often as not, a prisoner is right there with them, offering to assist visitors with parking. Registration is quick and unfussy – enter your name into the guards’ logbook, and you’re done. Later, when leaving, the guards will do a cursory check; it is clear that escape (though it happens) is not high on the guards’ list of worries.
On a sunny day, you’ll find the prisoners working the land, pretty much free to come and go as they please, though clearly some internal self-government is at work. It’s another kilometre or so from the gate to the prison’s central plaza, and there the colony looks more like a sleepy provincial town than a prison, if not for the Wanted posters of escapees (there were three) posted in the administration office.
The old social hall – a grand old building that still retains its original turn-of-the-century bones – has been converted into a souvenir shop where the low-security prisoners interact freely with tourists, to hawk their handicraft or to quietly ask for handouts. For a couple of years now, a small group has even put together a dance troupe to entertain visitors and solicit donations.
The entire experience is at once mildly surreal and amusing, and also somewhat sad, but one does get the impression that the prisoners have bought into the idea of prison-as-rehabilitation-instead-of-punishment, and that they are active participants in the process. There isn’t a sense of victimisation or bitterness, just the acknowledgment of one’s past faults, and the willingness to hope.
And so it is with Puerto Princesa: Once the home of the exiled and a forgotten frontier town, it is beginning to recognise that it is, after all, no longer as remote and removed as it used to be. Revitalised and stepping confidently into the future, Puerto Princesa is a place for new dreams and new beginnings.