Take the slow boat to Coron, Palawan, Bohol and more unforgettable, friendly isles and find hidden coves, teeming reefs, picture-perfect volcanoes, and shoestring prices.
By Liliia DeCos
When travelers want “Southeast Asia,” most aim for Thailand, Vietnam, and Bali. For some reason, the Philippines remain an under-the-radar destination. But after six months of traveling throughout the region, we believe the opposite should be true: If you only have time for one country, go to the Philippines. And if you only have time for one area, make it the islands of Coron and Palawan.
Palawan has featured prominently in the “world’s best beaches”-type lists in the last decade or so, especially since another Philippine paradise – Boracay – became so overtouristed that it was shut down by the government and reopened with new restrictions on visitors. As tourists to the Palawan area increase, we can only hope the country will not make the same mistake twice.
The good news is that Palawan is a massive island and one of its islets, Coron, is a stunning national park with few overnight accommodations. These tropical islands are quite simply a paradise on Earth: pristine water, remote islets, hidden bays, coral reefs, and WWII shipwrecks.
You can spend the whole time relaxing or being active – there’s snorkeling, diving, canoeing, kayaking, and hiking – or some combo of both. And where else in the world can you boat to day-after-day of new reefs, paddle an underground river, and camp on a deserted island?
If you’ve only got a week or two, the Philippines can be more expensive than neighboring countries because flying from island-to-island can definitely eat up a budget. But for families who have more time, taking boats, buses and staying in smaller places, the country is as affordable as other Southeast Asian countries.
We found many compelling spots while hopping across a handful of the country’s 7,641 islands (see “The Good Stuff”) but without a doubt, the most beautiful part of the Philippines is its people. The locals give off a very kind, helpful and cheerful vibe. Their English is excellent so it isn’t difficult to communicate. And Filipinos love children and love to show it: Traveling with our blonde daughter made us the main attraction with the locals, regardless of what attraction we were visiting.
After traveling around the world with our kids for several years, the Philippines remains one of our favorite countries and we can’t wait to return. With so much to see and do, we’ve got at least 7,630 islands to go.
The ROAM Report: Palawan, Coron & More Islands – The Philippines
- Travelers: Liliia & Jose DeCos, plus their baby daughter
- Date: February 2016
- Itinerary: Manila (3 nights), Coron (5 nights), El Nido (Palawan) (3 nights), and Puerto Princesa (Palawan) (3 nights), Manila (1 night), Legazpi (1 night), Donsol (3 nights), Tagbilaran (Bohol island) (4 nights)
- Budget: Approximately $45-$65 per day, including $15 to $25 per night for accommodation, $10-$20 per day for food and transport, and $20 per day for activities (excluding diving)
The Good Stuff
Reefs of Coron Island
We took a boat from Manila to Coron city and stayed there for 5 nights. The famous Coron Island is located nearby and part of a national park so there are only a few hotels there. Most tourists stay in Coron city and go to Coron island by boat for short visits.
Every day, we took a different boat trip. There were about 10-15 people on each boat and we would spend the entire day crisscrossing these uninhabited islands and stopping to see gorgeous spots. We were swimming, lazing, floating and snorkeling all day, every day in one of the most beautiful places in the world!
Lunch was included in the price of the boat trip and truth be told, it was the best food we had in the Philippines. The crew members cooked fresh fish, vegetables, and rice right on the spot in front of us. It couldn’t have been fresher or more delicious.
If you are a scuba diver, Coron island is a must-dive spot. There several Japanese shipwrecks from World War II that are still in very good condition.
Island Camping near El Nido
El Nido is a small town on Palawan Island with the same type of activities as Coron city but for twice the price and with three times as many people. El Nido has an airport because most people simply have no time to take the “slow boat” to Coron. But this area also has much nicer sandy beaches than Coron if you want to have a relaxing day on the beach.
But one of the most unique and memorable adventures of our traveling life – by far – happened near El Nido: Camping on an deserted island in the South China Sea. It was unforgettable!
We met a group of people with whom we rented gear and a boat and went camping on an uninhabited small island. We made a small bonfire, cooked dinner over the coals, played guitar and sang songs until very late.
Our daughter loved it there! We lolled around in the warm water all day and played on the beach under the palms. By the end of a long day at the beach, our little trooper was simply worn out! She slept peacefully in a tent two meters away while we enjoyed the bonfire. Such good memories!
Underground River in Puerto Princesa
We went to Puerto Princesa specifically for another otherworldly experience: Paddling a tiny boat down the world’s longest navigable underground river – yes, that’s right, an underground river!
When we read about the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park and how you paddle through tiny, narrow, underground caves where only a boatman’s lamp guides the way, we knew we had to do it. And we were right: One look at the entrance to the underground river and we knew we would have one of our most incredible cave visits ever!
At the entrance to the cave, everyone receives an audio guide so the whole tour happens in complete silence. They do it this way so as not to disturb the cave’s ecosystem. For the visitor, it is equally satisfying – especially if you remove your headphones along the way and simply listen to the bats and the “silence” in the cave.
While kids of all ages are allowed on the boat tour, there were concerns from the guides that our little one might get scared in the dark and start crying. But all our worries were pointless when our daughter fell asleep in the baby carrier and didn’t wake until we came back to the light. (So if you go on a tour with a baby and you don’t breastfeed, prepare a bottle with milk for your little one in case she/he freaks out.) With older kids, I don’t think there would be any problem – it is way more fun than scary 😉
You can float the Underground River by yourself or with a tour group. We went with a group and regretted it. All groups arrived at the park entrance at the same time at around 10am, which resulted in huge lines and a couple of hours of waiting for our turn. But when we were leaving at around 2pm, there was no one waiting – just a few independent tourists who had the place to themselves until it closed at 6pm. That definitely looked like the way to go.
Mayon Volcano near Legazpi
The Mayon volcano is the most active volcano in the Philippines – it last erupted in 2018! But that’s not why it draws tourists from everywhere in the world: Mayon has a perfectly symmetric, conical shape and it is known as a “perfect cone” volcano. The mountain delivers a true postcard view!
We stayed in Legazpi near the Mayon Volcano National Park. There is a nice volcano park and look out area nearby. The park is kid friendly and you can hike to the viewpoint with a stroller or simply hire a tricycle and driver/peddler. We walked one way with our baby girl in a baby carrier and caught a ride on our way back.
Whale Sharks in Donsol
We ticked another item off our bucket list in the Philippines: Swimming with whale sharks. Donsol is the only eco-friendly way to see and interact with these gentle giants. Their eco-tourism conservation program is set up and monitored by the WWF. It is a dramatic contrast to the unsustainable whale shark experiences in Cebu where the whale sharks are fed so that there is always hundreds of boats with hundreds of tourists swimming with these big fish every day.
In Donsol, you cannot be guaranteed of seeing a whale shark. Sometimes you spot 2-3 whale sharks, sometimes 5 and sometimes 0. From your boat, a captain and a spotter try to find one and if they are lucky, the passengers get closer and jump into water. We got lucky!
The best part of swimming with whale sharks is that they are in their natural habitat and are not coached by humans. If they feel bothered by swimmers, they can dive away in seconds. So it is really a matter of chance how long you’ll spend with these beautiful creatures – be it one minute or ten. Every minute we spent with the whale sharks was a gift.
Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers on Bohol Island
There are two reasons to visit Bohol Island: See the unique landscape of the Chocolate Hills and meet the world’s smallest primate, at the Tarsier Conservation Center – you can even do both in one day via motorbike or tour. After our experience with the crowds at Puerto Princesa, we opted to rent a motorbike and spent the whole day cruising around.
You might wonder how we did it with a little baby but as you can imagine, motorbikes are a popular family vehicle in Southeast Asia. We followed the locals and drove all three of us on one motorbike, with our daughter between us in a baby carrier on my stomach. She was protected from the wind by Jose’s back and she looked quite happy before falling asleep after ten minutes on the road. But if you are not confident on a motorbike, it would be better to rent a tricycle with a driver for the day, or join a tour group.
Taal Volcano near Manila
Manila as a city has few attractions and most tourists dislike it because it is huge, busy and dirty. While we found this to be mostly true, Manila is a Westernized city with big malls and a large range of products so we were able to stock up on all the formula, diapers and other baby essentials we needed. We were also able to purchase boat tickets to the islands in town, which we had some problems trying to do online.
In just a couple days, you can see all the sights of Manila – churches, forts, parks, seaside – but the real reason you need stay in Manila is to trek to the Taal volcano – the smallest active volcano in the world. It is truly spectacular because it’s not just a simple volcano – it is on an island in a lake, and on that island, there is another lake with an island topped by the volcano. Wow!
Taal is only 30 miles from Manila. It is easy to get there via an organized trip or by public transportation but we went independently and didn’t regret it. It was easy and fun. We befriended a nice Filipino-Polish couple with whom we shared a boat to the volcano island and who invited us for dinner to their house later that day. Kids love the trip because it involves a bit of hiking or horseback riding to get up the mountain. Be sure to bring a baby carrier if you have a little one like we did – strollers are a no-go on this walk.
The Not So Good
Somewhat Expensive The Philippines can be more expensive than neighboring countries because the South China Sea nation is comprised of more than 7,000 islands. For travelers on a tight schedule, flying around and staying in resorts can definitely eat up a budget. But for families who have more time, taking boats, buses and staying in smaller places, the country is every bit as affordable as other Southeast Asian countries.
Western Influence America’s influence has made the big cities very “Westernized” – think shopping malls, KFC, Wendy’s and McDonald’s everywhere. But the small towns and remote islands remain authentically Filipino.
Traveling Takes Time It takes a long time to get from place to place. With so many islands, the Philippines has a lot to offer but even with a whole month on the island, we felt constantly on the move and didn’t manage to see everything we wanted.
So-So Food Here’s where the Philippines suffers from its location: Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, the food of the Philippines isn’t very exciting. We never went hungry but we actually found ourselves eating fast food at times to shake things up – something we typically avoid doing.
Good to Know
- Fly from Asia Direct flights from Europe or the Americas to Manila can be much more expensive than getting to Bangkok or other Southeast Asian big cities. However, local carriers like AirAsia fly to the Philippines from neighboring countries for less than $100.
- Kid- and Baby-Friendly The Philippines is an easy country to visit with babies and children. All Western brands of formula, diapers, baby food and anything you are used to having in your home country can be found in the markets.
- Not Stroller-Friendly It is very difficult to travel with a stroller. We used a baby carrier instead.
Good for Next Time
- Banaue We definitely want to visit the rice terraces situated in the Ifugao province, at the north end of Luzon island.
- Boracay Island Now that it’s all cleaned up, it would be great to see what drew so many tourists.
- Tubbataha Reef – Diving here is among the world’s best but it is quite remote – and not easy or cheap to visit. We’d like to go someday during the best time for diving, mid-March to mid-June.
Liliia DeCos – May 2019
Originally from Ukraine and now based in Spain, Liliia has traveled literally across the world with her husband Jose and their two young daughters. Follow their intrepid walkabouts at bring_baby_abroad and see Liliia’s amazing photos on Instagram at bring_baby_abroad or on ROAM where she won Best Family Photo of 2019.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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