Escapes

Puerto Princesa: How To Have A Great Trip In 2021

Puerto Princesa is the capital of Palawan, a long and narrow island in the far west of the Philippines.

It's best known as the home of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, more commonly known as the Underground River. This stunning natural wonder is an absolute must-see, and one of the Philippines' UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The River alone makes the trip worthwhile. But fewer travelers realize that Puerto Princesa is also home to other fascinating ecotourism sites as well as a compact and surprisingly developed city center.

Whether it's your sole destination or a stopover en route to other parts of Palawan, it's hard to go wrong with a stay in Puerto Princesa.

In fact, after several trips to the Philippines, it remains one of my favorite destinations.

This guide aims to cover everything you need to have a fun, safe, and affordable trip in 2021 and beyond. 

Table of Contents

What time of year should I visit?

As with most tropical destinations, it's best to visit Puerto Princesa during the dry season. That's late December through April or May, in most years. 

Frankly, "dry season" is a bit misleading since it'll still rain on occasion, and perhaps quite hard. But compared to almost daily downpours the rest of the year, rain is less likely to derail your plans in winter or early spring.

You'll encounter high humidity and temperatures year-round. A typical day tops out around 88-89F / 31C, and seldom varies by more than 2-4 degrees seasonally. Daylight is equally constant this close to the equator, and there is no daylight savings time to account for.

Attending festivals in Puerto Princesa

There are festivities throughout the year, but the majority are scheduled during the dry season of (roughly) December-May.

Here are some of the most notable ones:

  • New Year's festivities
  • The Balayong (cherry tree) Festival in late February/early March, leading up to Puerto Princesa's foundation day on March 4th
  • Pangalipay sa Baybay, a sort of summer kick-off in early April 
  • The Seafood Festival in the third week of April
  • The Kamarikutan Pagdiwata Arts Festival during April's full moon
  • In recent years, a Water Festival has taken place in late May
  • Baragatan sa Palawan is a celebration of Palaweño culture in late June
  • The Tandikan (peacock) Festival lasts for most of September and features a popular parade
  • The Kalag-Kalag Festival celebrates All Souls' Day, a major event throughout the Philippines in late October/early November
  • Various Christmas events run throughout December, including a tree lighting and a multi-day city fiesta

You should plan to budget a bit more for hotels during these events, especially for ones that take place near the city center.

If an event is the main reason for your trip, then always confirm before booking. Dates are subject to change, and cancellations do happen. 

In the Philippines in general, you can usually find the most up-to-date info on an event's Facebook page. Cities and tourism boards may also have info on their websites, but it's still worth double-checking on the event's official Facebook page before making any firm plans.

How can I get to Puerto Princesa?

If you're coming from anywhere beyond the island of Palawan, you'll want to fly into the Puerto Princesa International Airport.

The airport is just a couple miles from the center of town and from most of the better hotels, so transportation to your accommodations will be quick and cheap. 

The terminal itself is spacious and modern, built in 2017 to replace an much older building that struggled with the 2+ million people passing through.

Flights are cheap and plentiful

The most frequent routes will be from Manila, Clark, and Cebu. If you're traveling from elsewhere, you'll probably need to lay over at one of those airports. 

Fares vary, of course, but are often as low as US $50 round-trip from Manila, and occasionally drop to US $30-something.

In recent years, smaller Philippine cities and even international destinations like Taipei and Seoul have had direct routes to Puerto Princesa. However, availability changes seasonally (or even more often) and trips may run just a couple days per week.

Ferries are available, but not worth it

It's possible to take a ferry from as far afield as Manila and Iloilo. But unless you're particularly fond of boats, it's not worthwhile. Ferry prices are on par with flights--often even higher--and the trip takes over 24 hours.

Ferries may make sense to/from outlying islands off Palawan, such as Cuyo. But even then, a Cuyo-Puerto Princesa flight may be both faster and less expensive than the sea trip--even if it requires detouring all the way back to Manila for a layover.

Within in Palawan, go by road

Puerto Princesa is smack dab in the middle of Palawan, roughly 5-7 hours by road from both northeastern (El Nido) and southwestern (Bataraza) extremes. Buses or shared vans shouldn't exceed PHP 500-600 (US $10-12) for a trip all the way to El Nido, with proportionately lower rates to midway points like Port Barton or San Vicente.

As of writing, no flights are available between Puerto Princesa and the island's other main commercial airports (El Nido and San Vicente).

If you're taking a shared bus, van, or jeepney, then it will probably arrive at the San Jose bus terminal, around 4 miles north of the airport or 2.5 miles north of the city center. A ride from the bus terminal to your local destination will be inexpensive. Speaking of which…

What's the best way to get around town?

The western half of Rizal Avenue, from the airport's perimeter to the cathedral and port, is by far the most walkable part of town. Seeing as it's the city center, you'll find all the usual shopping and restaurants within walking distance, and even a few parks and museums.

If you're traveling farther, or the heat is getting to you, then your options are motor trike, jeepney, or multicab. (A multicab is a sort of truck with covered bench seats, not unlike a more pleasant jeepney.) Buses are also available, but most often used for visiting the outskirts or other cities.

Fares seldom exceed PHP 50-100 (US $1-$2) dollars within town, or perhaps twice that amount for outer neighborhoods.

Finding a ride, bargaining (for trikes), and navigating traffic jams will add significant time to the Google Maps estimate. Leave spare time to account for all this. (And yes, even this far from Manila, traffic can still be a drag!)

Taxis are a recent development in Puerto Princesa. Just a few vehicles were introduced around 2015, and while there are likely more by now, official numbers aren't readily available. 

Rideshare services like Grab are not available as of writing. Motorcycle taxis aren't, either, but pilot programs will supposedly launch soon.

An important note on distances

If you're heading outside the city center, then always map your destination in advance. 

A Puerto Princesa address could be considerably farther away than you expect. The official city boundaries encompass over 900 square miles, or almost twice the area of sprawling Los Angeles. 

The gorgeous Sabang, home of the Underground River, is technically in Puerto Princesa yet far from anything resembling the city proper. That particular drive takes 1.5-2 hours of narrow, winding roads through villages and hilly jungle, all somehow with "Puerto Princesa" in their address.

What's a good budget for my Puerto Princesa trip?

Compared to Manila travel costs, you'll spend slightly less on hotels and food around the city center. 

Moving outside the city, you'll find beautiful beach resorts at a wide range of prices. On the whole, they tend to be better values than in tourist hotspots like Boracay.

Hotels near the city center

On the high end, expect to pay US $100-200 for standard rooms at one of the few luxury hotels like the Best Western Ivywall

Prices generally fall as you move north from downtown, notwithstanding some resorts like the striking Balai Princesa.

Near the city center, most of the better value hotels are garden-style properties in the range of US $40-$60/night. They typically use local (or local-style) decor and feature a large pool in the center. Some go over the top with quirky and garish decor, to be frank, but there's no accounting for taste!

If you can do without full hotel amenities, then you'll also find small hotels, guesthouses, and B&Bs for perhaps US $15-$30, on the low end. That usually covers a simple but clean and modern room. 

Backpackers and ultra-frugal travelers can find $10 rooms without much difficulty. Many folks report a nice stay, but I can't attest to their quality or comfort.

Hotels and resorts outside town

Puerto Princesa has a relatively pleasant city center, but nature is the real draw.

To that end, I recommend spending at least part of your stay at a beach resort. 

While it's possible to spend next to nothing for a quaint nipa hut on the beach, you can also find high-end options for about US $75-$150/night and up. They're more or less luxurious resorts at the price of a Holiday Inn in the US, so the value is hard to beat, if your budget permits.

Below is a handful of suggestions that should fall in that price range, although peak season or more deluxe rooms can be significantly more.

The Blue Palawan is the closest high-end resort to town, a mere three miles from the airport.

Several resorts dot the coast of Honda Bay, such as the beautiful Dos Palmas, situated a few miles offshore on Arrecife Island. Farther up the coast, the Astoria Palawan is another upscale.

The western coast of Palawan is far less developed than the areas near the city center or along Honda Bay and the highway to Roxas. Accommodations are fewer and farther between, but this area is home to my personal favorite: Daluyon. It's a beautiful, modern-tropical property that's enjoyable in its own right. And better yet, it's located on the clean and quiet Sabang Beach, just a couple miles by boat from the Underground River. 

Right next door, Sheridan Beach Resort is another excellent choice in a more contemporary, Western style.

The 3 best things to do in Puerto Princesa

Puerto Princesa is renowned for its Underground River above all else, so that's naturally the first activity listed below. Honda Bay is popular and beautiful, and the firefly watching is a low-key local draw that's easy to fit into your itinerary.

Here's what you need to know about each.

1. Explore the Underground River and Sabang Beach

I've already mentioned the Underground River at least a couple times, because the experience is that spectacular.

(Source)

The eponymous national park is large, covering nearly 86 square miles: about the area of Seattle. The river itself has an inconspicuous entrance in a pretty cove two miles east of Sabang, accessible only by boat. From there, it winds 5 miles into the guts of a small mountain, making it the world's second-longest underground river (after Mexico's Sistema Sac Actun).

Your boat-tour guide will narrate a trip through the impressive and rather bat-filled caves. Unless you're prone to claustrophobia, it's one of the most remarkable nature experiences you could ask for.

(Source)

Several organized tours are available for about US $40. They usually fill a full day, in light of the two-hour drive from the city center to Sabang. It's well worth picking a tour that includes a Sabang Beach stop, if at all possible. The nearby Ugong Rock and Sabang X ziplines are also popular stops that may be on the agenda.

If you do decide to book for yourself, it's wise to get an entry permit from the downtown booking office. Capacity is strictly limited, as is typical of delicate natural sites. The bus/van/jeepney ride will take at least two hours, not including the trip to the San Jose bus terminal. On the bright side, it rarely costs more than US $4 each way.

2. Go island-hopping around Honda Bay

Honda Bay is a large inlet to the northeast of Puerto Princesa. 

It has dozens of miles of coastline and contains several popular island-hopping spots. A group tour will last a full day and cost about US $30, including the islands' environmental fees, snorkeling gear, and perhaps lunch. 

Island-hopping on Honda Bay is a popular day trip in Puerto Princesa
(Source)

Many tours will pick you up from a hotel in town. If yours doesn't, then plan on perhaps US $10 (less if you're comfortable negotiating) for a trike to the Santa Lourdes wharf, about 8 miles north of the airport.

Many visitors also plan their own tours. Prices may be slightly lower--it depends on your activities, hotel location, and negotiation skill/comfort--but the biggest advantages are flexibility and privacy. 

These days, I lean toward the convenience of affordable group tours, but it's hard to go wrong either way.

3. Watch fireflies on the Iwahig River

Around the bay to the west of the city's peninsula lies the mouth of the mangrove-lined Iwahig River. 

That area is best known locally for the Iwahig Prison, which is an unwalled, rehabilitation-focused facility with a working farm run by inmates. The grounds are open to visitors during the day, and perhaps worth a quick stop if you're nearby.

But the real draw from most tourists' perspective happens at night. The mangroves along the riverbanks are home to countless fireflies, which put on a show for the daily canoe tours.

Fireflies are visible at night on the Iwahig River in Puerto Princesa
(Source)

The entire outing lasts just a few hours, since it's only 12 miles from the airport. Organized tours including dinner and hotel pick-up cost about US $30-40, but it's an easy one to book for yourself. Ask the tour operators or hotel staff whether it's a visible "season" for the fireflies, and remember your mosquito repellant!

(Note: it appears the operators sometimes close due to crocodiles in the river. If that's the case, then try another firefly watching location near town. Your hotel should be able to recommend a popular one.)

Your Puerto Princesa questions answered

How many days do you need?

You could fit all three of these must-do activities into two busy days. A third day would allow for a more leisurely pace, as well as time to stroll around the city itself. 

Three or four full days--excluding travel time--should suffice for all the above, plus more beaches (like Nagtabon, on the western coast) and/or a short stay at a resort outside the city.

Are credit or debit cards accepted?

You'll generally have no problem paying by credit/debit card at new, touristy, or Western-style places in Puerto Princesa City. The same goes for mid- to high-end hotels and resorts throughout the island, to the best of my knowledge.

However, cash is a surer thing when you leave the modernity of downtown or your beach resort. Many small businesses, ticketing offices, and so forth simply don't accept credit cards. Even when they do, it's not unheard-of for technical issues to take card readers offline on occasion.

Speaking of cash...

Are there convenient ATMs?

ATMs are readily available in and near the city center. The situation changes as you get farther out into the countryside, and small communities like Sabang have no ATMs at all (as of writing). 

It's wise to grab a reasonable amount of pesos before heading out. While you can probably change US dollars (and perhaps a few other currencies) for PHP at various resorts, it'll be an unfavorable exchange rate--if even possible.

Is it a safe place to visit?

Puerto Princesa City is a quieter and lower-crime area than most Philippine cities of similar size. And compared to large and often gritty metros like Manila and Cebu, Puerto Princesa feels like a big village.

Palawan as a whole does not have the security concerns of parts of Mindanao, where local terrorists have wrought havoc on locals, government forces, and even tourists. That said, Mindanao-based Abu Sayyaf perpetrated a large and tragic kidnapping from Puerto Princesa's Dos Palmas resort in 2001. A few kidnapping threats have emerged and passed in the intervening years, but to my knowledge, nothing like has happened again on the island.

As of writing, the most plausible dangers for tourists are the usual geographic and climate ones, namely mosquito bites, occasional typhoons, and strong undertows (especially on western beaches like Sabang and Nagtabon). Fortunately, Palawan experiences fewer and milder earthquakes than most of the Philippines.

Can I get by with English?

Like nearly everywhere in the Philippines, most locals in Puerto Princesa speak English--and usually fluently.

You'll hear Tagalog most often, but visitors will be just fine without it. 

Still, it's always appreciated when visitors do learn some Tagalog basics and pleasantries. Proficiency can also be enriching for an extended stay. (If that's your goal, then Glossika is a terrific tool. I've also reviewed it right here in detail.)

You'll hear a mix of other common Philippine languages, too. Locals hail from every corner of the country, especially in recent years as Manila and other large metros have gotten ever more stiflingly overcrowded.

There are several indigenous peoples around Palawan, including inside the expansive borders of Puerto Princesa. Their members may or may not speak English--or Tagalog, for that matter--but it's highly unlikely that you'd cross paths as a tourist.

What province is Puerto Princesa in?

Puerto Princesa is the capital of the Province of Palawan, which includes the island of Palawan proper and nearly 1800 minor islands. Palawan belongs to the region of Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, and Palawan), which is in turn part of the Luzon island group.

Palawan was supposed to have been administratively transferred to the Western Visayas region in 2005, but the change was unpopular and has yet to take place.


Resources:

Events: https://www.travel-palawan.com/cultural-heritage/calendar-of-palawan-festivals-and-events/

A typical Honda Bay tour: https://www.travel-palawan.com/product/honda-bay/#tab02

Underground River information: https://ppur.com.ph/blog/how-to-get-to-sabang-puerto-princesa-palawan/

https://undergroundriver-puerto-princesa.blogspot.com/p/underground-river-fees_20.html

More on Palawan and Puerto Princesa:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palawan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Princesa