How to spend 4 dreamy days in Balabac, Philippines
Get lost in an endless expanse of translucent blues in Balabac, the southernmost tip of Palawan, the Philippines’ last frontier.
I’ll let you in on a secret. Who would’ve thought that the world’s most desirable island, Palawan, had more to offer beyond El Nido and Coron’s dramatic landscapes? Skip the tourist-filled shores and embark on an exhilarating but rather fulfilling beach-packed adventure to the barely touched islands of Balabac.
Here’s your ultimate four-day trip guide to one of the archipelago’s most treasured gems.
Day 1: Onok Island
Balabac’s remote and remarkable charm does not look like quite anything you’ve seen anywhere else in the Philippines. It is situated further south of Palawan and just three hours away from Sabah, Malaysia. On a clear day, Mount Kinabalu is visible from the islands.
Set foot on the wooden stilted walkway of Onok Island and stare in awe at its turquoise waters comparable to the Maldives. Get your eyes peeled for egrets, sea turtles, stingrays and tiny fishes hopping gracefully in the shallow clear waters.
Lounge on the vanishing sandbar
There are abundant reefs and sandbars dotting the Balabac Strait. Onok Island has the widest vanishing sandbar with the whitest and purest sand in Balabac. The shifting tides reveal a sight to behold come mid-afternoon. Feel the soft sand beneath your toes as the aquamarine waters gently sway to the shore.
Chase the sunset
The long and winding journey to Balabac is worth every second of your time. Find yourself swooning over the sunset views at Onok Island. Gaze at the blazing hues as the tides slowly rise and progress to the submerged walkway on stilts.
At night, your local boatmen will prepare your early dinner, which consists of mostly seafood dishes with sliced fruits on the side. Don’t forget to charge your phones as electricity only lasts until 10 pm at the Onok campsite. Set up your tent facing the beach, where you’ll sleep underneath the shade of tall palm trees. Rest up so you’ll be the first to witness the sunrise.
Day 2: Starfish Island, Canibungan Island and Mansilungan Sandbar
Island-hopping tours in Balabac begin early in the morning. Refuel with a hearty breakfast meal. If you’re an early riser, you’ll get more chances to explore the islands longer than planned.
Balabac comprises 31 islands, and each is approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour apart. Don’t expect to visit them all at once because most of the islands depend on the shifting tides. Unpredictable wind directions and weather conditions could also change your island itinerary for the day.
Go stargazing underneath the sapphire waters
Starfish Island is the dreamiest spot perfectly laid out on the edge of the blissful seascape. Dotting the tranquil blue waters are countless sea stars, primarily Chocolate Chip Starfish. If you get lucky, you’ll see quite a lot of them depending on the shifting tides.
Lunch at Canibungan Island
Have your lunch served on day two of your Balabac tour at Canibungan Island, a powdery white-sand beach fringed with pine trees. There are hammocks tied to coconut trees, where you can lounge and admire the panoramic scenery in front of you. Then, cool off at the crystal emerald waters verdantly landscaped with abundant seagrass beddings.
Snorkel at Mansilungan Sandbar
End the day snorkelling around the calm, shallow waters of Mansilungan Sandbar. It’s a sight to behold that emerges from the translucent waters at midday. The pearl-white sand feels like talcum powder the minute you set foot on the soft, smooth shoal.
Day 3: Sicsican Island, Cabon-Cabon Island and Timbayan Rock Formations
Often overlooked as a croc-dominated island, Balabac is evidently as safe and serene as the rest of the coastal towns in Palawan. Besides countless white-sand beaches and vanishing sandbars, the islands are dotted with jagged rock formations on its outback coastlines.
Admire the hat-shaped Cabon-Cabon Island
The morning boat ride to Cabon-Cabon Island is surprisingly still and calm. When I asked our boatman, he said we were passing by a stream in the middle of the sea. Just a few metres from where we were heading, we spotted dense, thick mangroves where saltwater crocodiles were believed to be slumbering.
Cabon-Cabon Island is among the smallest islands in Balabac. Not too far ahead is a white-sand beach with shallow waters that glow blissfully. The rocky islet offers sweeping views of the West Philippine Sea. Don’t forget to wear your aqua shoes before posing for the gram on the beach rock units.
Hop your way around Timbayan Rock Formations
When the barreling waves were back, we stopped by what the locals call Timbayan Rock Formations. Be prepared to hike up a small hill that overlooks a natural runway on top of overhanging huge boulders and granite rocks. You can ask your boatmen to set up lunch on the island before heading to your next stop.
Take a short nap on the sun loungers at Sicsican Island
One of the picturesque palm-fringed islands in Balabac is the Sicsican Island. Its calm, pristine waters make it perfect for a swim. But if you’re too exhausted from your boat ride for hours on end, just laze on the beach or in a hammock and sun loungers while sipping fresh coconut juice in hand.
Fronting the beach are A-frame houses that serve as a campsite for backpackers. A portion of the island is reminiscent of Siargao, one of the best islands in the Philippines famed for its laid-back beaches and vast coconut woodlands.
Day 4: Patawan Island, Tangkahan Island and Canimeran Island
Not known to many, the Philippines is the centre of the world’s biodiversity. The last of its last frontier also prides itself as a biodiversity hotspot. Aside from being the nesting spot for pawikans or sea turtles, Balabac is also home to endemic wildlife species like Pilandok or the Philippine mouse deer.
Step into the pink-hued sand at Patawan Island
Organ pipe corals (Tubipora musica) are abundantly growing on pink beaches, particularly in the islands of Patawan and Comiran. The shifting tides reveal a dolphin-shaped island at Patawan with steady waves perfect for swimming and snorkelling.
Laze in a hammock at Tangkahan Island
Time suddenly stops and picks up again when you’re stuck in paradise. Make the most of your fourth and last day in Balabac by admiring the laid-back beach of Tangkahan Island. Swim to your heart’s content before heading to your last stop for lunch at Canimeran Island.
Make a final pitstop at Canimeran Island
Head in for a seafood lunch to refuel and recharge before routing back to Buliluyan port. Amid lush greenery are large huts where you can set up your packed lunch on the picnic tables. The sand at Canimeran Island is also tinged with crushed red corals, making it look pinkish. Cap off your last day in Balabac with a refreshing dip which you’ll surely miss when you get back home.
A traveller’s checklist
Fly from Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila to Puerto Princesa, which takes 1 hour and 25 minutes of flight time. From there, it’s roughly a five-hour drive by van to Buliluyan Port in Bataraza, the nearest jump-off point from the mainland. Then, you’ll hop on a speed boat that will take you to Balabac town proper, which is about two hours of travel time.
There are no luxury resorts or hotels on the islands, just yet. But there are lodging options and camping sites with A-frame or tipi houses and tents. Let the softly caressing waves lull you to sleep and wake up to rewarding sunrise views on the beach.
Feast on freshly cooked seafood dishes like crabs, lobsters, Lapu-Lapu, Tuna and Tanigue prepared or captured at sea by your kind-hearted boatmen en route to or from the islands.
- Balabac has limited campsites for your trip. It’s best if you book private tours that already include food, accommodation and transport. You can check out Balabac Expedition by Fidel or Kamp Malaya for joiner packages.
- Bring extra money, snacks and drinking water to stay hydrated. There are no ATM machines or currency exchange centres on the islands.
- Make sure to bring your power bank especially if you camp overnight on one of the islands. There is limited electricity supply so it’s better to charge your phones while the generator runs on the campsite of your choice.
- Pack light. The whole trip involves countless boat transfers and the waves may leave you soaking wet.
- Expect to go rough backpacking. Some areas have a limited supply of water.