travel bite: Palawan, the Philippines

MY stay in the Philippines was peppered with spur of the moment decisions that never failed to prove as successful as the one that got me to the country in the first place. And – thanks to two like-minded travellers that I met who enthused profusely about their stay in Port Barton – my skipping of Boracay in favour of the island of Palawan was a prime example of one of these.

deflated giant Christmas decorations heaped on the side of the road in Puerto Princesa

Nabbing myself a last minute flight from Bacolod to Puerto Princesa, this bustling town was my first stop on the island. Less than 24 hours here and I was already hooked; it was a food Mecca by Philippine standards. Dining options included a veggie restaurant with a Mexican inspired menu and salads galore, a continental deli offering home-comfort foods and cheese plates (!!), and a giant outdoor establishment drawing in locals and travellers alike, offering all that the Philippines can when it comes food (and well too).

When not eating (or sleeping – first time at Banwa Art House, second time at Color Mansion) I pottered the streets, getting lost amongst the locals in a maze of ramshackle homes, relaxing on the seafront promenade complete with music blaring, children playing and snack sellers roaming, and browsing the market that comes alive at night with fresh produce. This was interspersed with unsuccessful searches for sunscreen that did not include ‘skin whitening’ as a selling feature – a near in possible product to find in much of the Philippines.

fishing boats moored by the promenade in Puerto Princesa

kiddie bicycles and tricycles for rent along the promenade in Puerto Princesa

decorated tricycles ply the streets of Puerto

It was then off to Port Barton – to stay at El Busero, hang out at Barton Bistro, and eat at Evergreen, Elsa’s and Bamboo. This  remote fishing village, accessible only by a two hour bumpy dirt-track jeepney ride, only has electricity between the hours of 1800 – 2400 and limited (read ridiculously slow) internet connections. Generators allow for some power at other times, but don’t expect cold drinks to be at your beck and call 24/7. And it is amazingly easy to get stuck here. By will.

lPort Barton beach

Days unwind slowly. Lazy breakfasts lead on to beachside lounging, followed by light lunches then afternoon siestas. Walks past returning fishermen selling their daily catch end in sunset drinks that continue on to dinner with friends, finishing with an early night to bed on a satisfied stomach and slight spinning from a few sociable beers. As I said, it’s easy to get stuck. Despite possible reservations that one may get bored here.

And if you are feeling adventurous there are daily activities at your disposal. First up there’s the island hopping, which generally consists of visits via bangka boat to Exotic Island and German Island, lunch, and snorkelling at three different sights. Then there are the waterfalls, to be found via about an hours walk through the forest/jungle. I never quite mustered up the will to do this (my time rolled by on the premise of ‘one day on, one day off’ with them generally being ‘off’) but I have been reliably informed that they are worth the effort. Though not if you get to the wrong ones – if you feel slightly underwhelmed by your destination then you are lost and have not arrived at ‘the’ waterfalls.

view from Exotic Island onto another private island

Exotic Island remained gloriously sunny whilst clouds gathered back over in Port Barton

lunch was of freshly grilled fish, cooked by our crew upon arrival at Exotic Island

German Island

the view of Port Barton in the distance from my hammock on German Island

There are also other beaches to discover along the coast. And this was by far the best ‘day on’ that I had. Walking south along the shore, past the ‘first beach’, ‘second beach’ and mangroves, you will – after approximately 45 minutes – come upon the large sweeping curve of sand that is the ‘third beach’: White Beach.

This stretch of white sand and crystal waters is an idyllic spot from which to view the cluster of islands nearby, swim in the gentle sea and sunbathe on the deserted beach. Then try the ‘long route’ back via the hills and forest, leading you into town via the homes on the outskirts of Port Barton.

White Beach, Port Barton

If and when you do manage to motivate yourself to leave Port Barton it is worth journeying up to El Nido. I had been adamant against this, but became swayed yet again after having met like-minded travellers that were offering me their brilliant company as well as a place to stay if I did manage to get there.

Following a jeepney / mini-van / coach expedition to this popular northern outpost of Palawan (the wheel – axle included – flew of my mini-van mid-drive, hence the extended trip involving a coach) I finally arrived. Having booked ahead for the ever-busy La Banane Hostel I dumped my stuff on my dorm bed and headed out into what felt like a major city in comparison with Port Barton’s limited amenities.

Then the madness began.

the view from my dorm bed at La Banane out onto the beach that was no more than 5 metres from the door

For me, El Nido was five nights of drinking, dancing, sleeping in, recovering on the beach, and then doing it all over again. This was interspersed by bonfires, good food (Blueazuls for veggie options and falafel, Altrove for large authentic pizzas) and involvement in/observation of many of the activities that the El Nido festival taking place at the time had to offer. Said activities included: basketball competitions (for which the boys made up of fellow La Banane residents participated in and collected a 1000 peso prize), water buffalo races (riders facing forwards, then backwards), piglet chasing, catching and winning (yet another La Banane triumph) and amateur boxing tournaments (from the ages of 8 upwards).

walk north of El Nido's main beach and you will find deserted stretches perfect for recovering from a hangover on

the northern beaches also offer a great place from which to watch the sun set

The piglet winning was followed by its killing and spit roasting the next day which led to a fabulous feast put on by the La Banane staff, serving up authentic Philippine Lechon. All parts of the animal were devoured, from cheek to trotter, including a divine dish made from its liver.

our piglet 'Jeff' and his captor

Eventually I had to tear myself away from El Nido and return to Puerto Princesa as I had a plane to catch to Bangkok. It was hard – not made any easier by yet another late night drinking session on the beach – but bearable. And it was with good cause, as I would be passing through Bangkok on the way to the next stop on my travels, Vietnam.

as usual, no local bus or jeepney ride in the Philippines would be complete without an over-laden vehicle - this time from El Nido to Puerto the bus was sporting two motorbikes amongst its other wares

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