After enjoying a few days on the surfing island of Siargao, I moved on to the capital city of Palawan, Puerto Princesa. The city is located in the western province, and it is the westernmost city in the whole of the Philippines. A lot of travellers may not consider Puerto Princessa as a destination to explore, instead opting to fly into Puerto Princesa and board a bus or mini-van and head straight to El Nido. However, I would recommend spending at least a couple of days in this city.
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Puerto Princesa was surprisingly, one of my favourite destinations in the Philippines namely because I got to swim up close with the beautiful whale sharks. I previously decided against interacting with whale sharks in the coastal town of Oslob, in Cebu, due to concerns around their safety and welfare. It was a bit of a gamble waiting to get to Puerto Princesa, as of course there is no guarantee when it comes to spotting wildlife, but I was not disappointed, it was such an amazing experience.
- Visa – British Nationals can enter the Philippines without a visa for an initial period of 30 days. However, as I stayed for 5 weeks I got a tourist visa from the Philippine Embassy which allowed me to stay for up to 59 days. For the most up to date information, consult the Philippine Immigration website here.
- Immunisations – some are required, check out my go-to website for up to date information: https://nathnac.net
- Safety – I felt relatively safe whilst I was in Puerto Princesa, exercise usual caution around looking after valuables and being safe alone or at night.
- Currency – Philippine peso (PHP)
- Language – Filipino is the national language which is the standardized variety of the Tagalog language, as well as English. I also spoke with several Filipinos especially in Cebu who spoke Cebuano. There are 4 indigenous languages (including Tagalog and Cebuano) with around 10 million or more native speakers and a further 8 languages with around 1 to 3 million native speakers. As a general rule though as a tourist – most people can speak English.
Travelling from Siargao, I had to fly to Cebu first off, and then catch a connecting flight to Puerto Princesa. However the flights were relatively cheap, and I managed to find some bargains through my trusty Sky Scanner app. Puerto Princesa has connections with several other airports in the Philippines including Cebu, Manila, as well as some other countries including Seoul in South Korea, and Taipei in Taiwan. Once I arrived I then hopped in a tricycle (also known as Habal Habal) for around 150PHP to reach my hostel accommodation.
There wasn’t a huge selection of hostel options in Puerto Princesa, but I loved the accommodation I chose in the end – Balai Esperanza. The accommodation is basic and is situated quite a distance from the main town, although very nearby a lovely beach. The best thing about this accommodation was the host, he was so helpful and welcoming and made the best vegan breakfasts for me during my stay! He also helped me to arrange my boat tours for when I arrived in El Nido, which ended up being much cheaper than a lot of the boat tours I saw advertised when I reached El Nido.
During my stay in Puerto Princesa, I enjoyed two boat trips, one to swim with the whale sharks, and another to visit the underground river. Transport from my hostel was included for both. Other than the tours though, it was relatively easy to get around by habal habal (tricycle). There was a little confusion to begin with, as the tricycles are colour coded and can only operate in certain zones of the city on certain days. So I was turned away numerous times without understanding why, until a kind tricycle driver finally explained it to me and helped me on my way. Check with your accommodation which colour coded tricycles are operating in your area on that day beforehand. You should expect to pay only around 10PHP per KM.
Swimming with Whale Sharks
Having been in the Philippines for a few weeks and previously visiting Oslob, I had my heart set on swimming with whale sharks. I intended to see them in the popular tourist destination of Oslob, known for its whale sharks however after some research I decided against it. You can read about why I chose Palawan instead in my blog post here. If you’re considering swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob, then please read the rest of this blog post first, because Palawan is truly the best experience for seeing these beautiful creatures up close.
I was collected from my hostel around 6:00 am, and after making a few more hotel pick-ups along the way we arrived at Puerto Princesa port where we would board our boat. After organising equipment and getting our snorkels and flippers prepared we set off. On our way out to sea, we had a short briefing about the itinerary for the day and the do’s and don’ts for when we finally found the elusive whale sharks, such as absolutely no touching, and keeping a safe distance from the whale sharks.
The whole experience was brilliant, and quite physically challenging too, so great for those who are strong swimmers. Once we cruised along in our boat for an hour or so the boatman started their search for the whale sharks, we were told to ready ourselves with our snorkels and flippers and sit at the edge of the boat ready to jump. Around 20 minutes later we could all see some commotion and fish flying in the air breaking through the sea surface, followed by:
GO GO GO GO, GO M’am!! GO GO GO GO GO!!
So we all hurriedly slipped into the water face down and started paddling. We managed to see our first whale shark! but this one was not so sociable and after a few moments decided to dive away from our sight.
So as you can imagine you need to be quick on your feet and ready to swim quickly to keep up with these huge whale sharks which are obviously much quicker than us mere humans in the big blue! Throughout the day though we experienced more sightings, some more successful than others, but every time was so exciting to see whether we could catch another glimpse.
We were also fortunate enough to have a marine researcher on board with us, which is not uncommon as she described how her organisation are studying the effects of tourism on the whale sharks along with recording other information about their sightings on the trips. She was very helpful and said that there were mainly male adolescent whale sharks in the area we were visiting that measured around 4 metres but whale sharks can actually grow up to a whopping 12 metres. Each whale shark also has its own unique spotted patterns.
At around 12 midday we all stopped for lunch escaping the midday sun and enjoying a Filipino feast of rice, vegetable dishes, pineapple and banana, whilst we enjoyed the beautiful views of the wide-open sea, which was just mesmerising. We had one more stint at trying to find the elusive whale sharks after lunch but with no luck, although I think we were more than lucky in the morning with the number of sightings we experienced so everyone returned home happy. We arrived back to Puerto Princesa Port around 2:30 and after some drop-offs, to various locations, I was home just after 3, and ready for an afternoon siesta!
The day started with a pick up at around 8 am, and then a few more pick-ups from various hotels in the Puerto Princesa area. Once we had all attendees onboard we made our way to the Underground River area, where there is a lot of waiting around! Firstly, we were told we would have to wait around an hour so that our guide Harold ‘aka Harry Potter’ would collect and pay for our relevant ticket admission to access the underground cave. Fear not though there were two activities on offer to state off the boredom, either an exhilarating zip-line across the beach or a tranquil paddleboat tour along the mangrove-lined river.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t budgeted for extra activities and was already breaking my budget limit for the day, so decided to just chill in the shade whilst I waited for my other explorers with a fruit smoothie. Before we would depart for the underground river, we enjoyed a buffet-style lunch, included in the total ticket price with various Filipino dishes on offer. My faves so far are vegetable chop-suey and vegetable lumpia, they’re so good!! Once we finished our all you can eat buffet lunch we boarded our boat to reach another part of the island, only accessible by boat. Twenty minutes later we arrived, and walked through a short forest trail, seeing some long-tailed macaques on the way! I wasn’t quite quick or brave enough to get a photograph!
Then we were at the waters edge ready to enter into the cave. It was quite busy so we had to wait around 30 minutes for our boat, but once on board, it was a great experience. There are lots of different rock formations to see, many of which have been described and categorised into different objects like the ‘Vegetable Garden’ various rock formations looking like bananas, garlic, onion etc. As well as a ‘Teranasaurous Rex’, and then a more religious affair of ‘Jesus in a Manger’. The tour guide also tried to ‘fun-up’ the experience by creating shadow puppets on the wall with his torch although this was a little annoying at times.
As well as the beautiful rock formations of the cave the area is also inhabited by 8 different species of bats. We saw them constantly flying around and could hear the clicking sounds they make to effectively use their sonar navigation system to help them fly in the dark, because aside from the torch the boatmen used the area was completely pitch black. We were also told to make sure we kept our mouths firmly closed, because we may ingest water from the rocks which could contain harmful bacteria but also and I think more importantly because we could swallow bat poop!
The whole tour also included a great audio guide which provided detailed information about the underground river explaining why it’s one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World which was really useful as I couldn’t hear a word the boatman was actually saying when he did speak to us. The tour lasted around 30-40 minutes and it was eerily beautiful and interesting to learn about the history of the rock formations and wildlife in the area. Once we had finished with the tour, we hopped back on our boat, and then after a quick break back on to the van where we would begin our long and arduous 6-7 hour journey to beautiful El Nido.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my trip to Puerto Princesa and that I’ve convinced you to add this city on to your itinerary, even if it is just for a couple of days. Swimming with the whale sharks is probably one of the best underwater experiences I’ve had so far, and cannot recommend it highly enough! have you visited Puerto Princesa too? What did you see and do? If you have any questions or queries I’d love to hear from you get in touch using the comments section below.
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