Palawan’s allure never ceases to amaze. Coron and El Nido are both spellbinding with their stunning limestone rock islands and picturesque beaches. Puerto Princesa, considered the gateway to the last frontier, showcases equally impressive flora, fauna, and, natural wonders. The south of Palawan won’t be left behind though, as people are starting to discover the gem from down under. The municipality of Balabac is starting to make a name for itself. The southern archipelago boasts islands and islets with vast expanse beaches both pristine and raw.
- Where is Balabac?
- How to get to Balabac
- Island Hopping Adventure
- Tips and What to Expect in Balabac Island Hopping
Where is Balabac?
Balabac has long intrigued me and once the pandemic restrictions eased out and it’s much safer to travel, I decided to join a group for a Balabac expedition.
Our meeting place was in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, where our vans will take us to Balabac. It is located in the southernmost part of the Palawan region. Excluding Spratlys Islands, Balabac can be the westernmost point of the country. In the south, the islands are separated from Sabah, Malaysia by the Balabac Strait.
How to get to Balabac
To go to Balabac, the first thing to do is enter Palawan. The nearest entry point is Puerto Princesa. Puerto Princesa International Airport is the nearest airport to Balabac, serviced by Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, and Philippine Airlines.
The 2Go Ferry also services Manila – Coron – Puerto Princesa and vice versa routes.
From Puerto Princesa, there are a couple of ways to go to Balabac: one is the commute via passenger boats at Rio Tiba and the other is through boat hires through group tours and the local tourism office at Buliluyan Port in Bataraza, Palawan.
Commute via Rio Tuba
This route is used by local passengers heading to Balabac. It can be time-consuming as you have to wait for boats to be filled before it leaves Rio Tuba.
- From San Jose Terminal in Puerto Princesa, ride a van or bus to Rio Tuba. The vans usually leave for Rio Tuba from 4 AM to 5 PM. The fare is around P300 per way. Travel time is 4–5 hours. Buses leave for Rio Tuba up to 7 PM. Travel time can take longer with several stops.
- From Rio Tuba, ride a passenger boat to mainland Balabac. One leaves Rio Tuba daily, anytime between 9 AM to 12 NN. It is alas-puno, meaning it will leave when all seats are filled. Boat fare is around P370 and travel time is 4 hours.
Tourist Boat via Buliluyan Port
By far the most convenient and used by many if you are traveling as a group. If you are hiring a van, ride to Buliluyan Port in Bataraza. Travel time is 5 hours. If by commute, there are vans at San Jose Terminal in Puerto Princesa. The fare is P600.
At Buliluyan Port, there’s a local Tourism Office that can help book your expedition boats. Since boats are exclusive to your group, they can range from Php 8,000 to Php 10,000. So it is best to share the cost with a group. This includes days of exploring the islands inclusive of meals and stay.
Island Hopping Adventure
The Balabac Municipality consists of 36 major and minor islands. Balabac doesn’t have the dramatic limestones of its northern counterparts in Palawan, instead, the tropical islands have beautiful vast beaches some as far as the eyes can see, plenty of sandbars including the third and fourth longest in the country, and teeming marine life and endemic wildlife amidst by the enigmatic azure waters.
Our Balabac island-hopping adventure covers some of the common islands and places of interest we visited.
Our first island stop was already a captivating tropical island called Canimeran Island. White beach with tall coconut trees in the middle. The sand has a pinkish tinge. We spent our morning here for breakfast and playing with the friendly canines on the island.
From the island closest to Batazara, we traveled at least 3 hours to one of the farthest, Onok Island (also called Onuk Island). Located east of the main Balabac island, the picturesque pier extending to the sandbar and clear turquoise waters surrounding the island are one of the highlights of this island hopping expedition.
We stayed here overnight, enough to enjoy snorkeling to see the turtles, the fish, and the taclobo (giant clams) farms nearby. We feasted on crabs and other seafood for lunch and dinner. Gazed at the stars and enjoyed the sunrise on the island.
I was with freediving friends and it was natural to find a spot where we could free dive. Roughton Reef as we just less than half an hour away from Onuk Island. The water clarity was still excellent and the site features a wall drop with plenty of corals and fish. I can imagine divers seeing a lot more deeply into this reef.
Punta Sebaring (Bugsuk Island)
At the southern tip of the large Bugsuk island is the Punta Sebaring sandbar. Also known as the Queen Helen Sandbar, it is considered the 4th longest sandbar in the country at 1km long during low tide. We came at a high tide though but I felt the soft and fine white sand on my feet as I approach the exposed section of the sandbar. The place felt and look surreal. Considered one of the campsites in Balabac but is heavily infested by nikniks (sand mites). Even on our midday visit, I got a few bites when I went to the sand.
I remember Byan island as our lunch stop. But this island has some picturesque coconut trees bending towards the sea. It shares the same azure seas as other islands and a lovely beach.
Just south of Byan island is the Mansalangan Sanbar. Also known as the Angela Sandbar, the 3rd longest in the country, a little over Punta Sebaring at 1012.41 meters long. We were originally planning to have lunch here but the waves were rough on our visit. It was high tide when we came but the shape of the sandbar was visible under the clear Gatorade waters.
The tadpole shape Canabungan island was our siesta island. The head had a nice white beach and the tail is covered in vegetation. The place has swings, huts, and hammocks so conducive to relaxing. I took a short doze here.
Candaraman Island and Sandbar
By late afternoon, we headed to another sandbar, the Candaraman island sandbar, popularly known as starfish island. Indeed, there was plenty of starfish found along the stretch of its winding sandbar.
By sundown, we arrived on the island itself where we stayed overnight. It was an ideal island to camp with plenty of space. There’s also a concrete house with electricity. The cellular signal is also strong here.
Sitio Marabun (Matangule Island)
It was already our 3rd day exploring the islands of Balabac and we wouldn’t go home without a little shopping. We visited Sitio Marabun at the larger Matangule Island. There’s a Muslim community here and shops selling goods from nearby Malaysia at a good price.
This was one cute little islet with mangroves and a wide beach stretch. I enjoyed walking through the mangrove pathway here. I would say one of my favorites for swimming and beach time.
Our lunch was at the last island of our island hopping activity, Patongong Island. Sharing the same quality as other islands, Patongong is a larger and forested island with white beach coast.
Tips and What to Expect in Balabac Island Hopping
- Prepare to rough it out. Balabac is still undeveloped in terms of infrastructure. Don’t expect high-end resorts yet.
- Seas can be rough. The best time to visit is summer.
- Bring citronella oil to control sand mites.
- Best to bring your snorkeling gear if you plan to snorkel or free dive
- The cellular signal can be little to none.
- Make sure to waterproof bags and other items
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.