Yes, a DIY Balabac Palawan itinerary and travel guide!
Last year, Hali and I were exchanging stories with a 60-year-old fellow traveler, who then told us we should visit Balabac. For the uninitiated, Balabac group of islands is a relatively unknown summer haven for backpackers seeking unspoilt beaches and preserved local culture. It is located at the southernmost tip of Palawan in the Philippines and is just a few hours away from Sabbah, Malaysia.
Along with five other friends, Hali and I ventured here on the first week of March for our first summer escapade (and also Hali’s birthday celebration — he said age isn’t important).
This is a complete travel guide to Balabac, Philippines. To see a more in-depth look at each islands, make sure to see the islands in Balabac we’d been to here!
It was a bit challenging to arrange a DIY vacation to Balabac. At the time of our trip, there was very little material in the Internet especially with regards to island hopping prices and contact details.
5-day Balabac Palawan itinerary and expenses
I would like to credit a good acquaintance, Johnry, for sharing this Balabac itinerary along with a detailed list of expenses. Most expenses listed herein are reasonable even for a solo traveler, except for the island hopping rate, which is P7500-8000 for 2 days.
You don’t necessarily have to island hop for P8000. If you’re on a budget and have no one else to go with, you can just visit nearby islands — Onuk Island, Candaraman Island and Sicsican Island, for about P1500. Going to Punta Sebaring costs an additional P500.
The costing that accompanies this itinerary is for 2 people.
5:00 – 5:15PM From airport, ride trike to junction 1 (P50 per trike)
5: 15 – 6:00PM Multicab to San Jose terminal (P15)
6 :00 – 6:30PM Dinner
6:30 – 10:30PM Travel to Rio Tuba (P300 each for van)
10:30PM Check in at White Heaven Lodging (P250 room for 2 pax)
7:00 – 8:00AM Ride tricycle to pier, breakfast on stopover (P50 each)
10:30AM – 2:30PM Boat ride to Balabac mainland (P350)
2:30 – 2:45PM Register at tourism office in the municipal hall
2:45 – 3:00PM Check in at lodging (P400 for 2 pax per night)
3:15 – 5:00PM Balabac mainland tour via motorcycles (no fixed amount, gave P100 each)
Island hopping (Melville lighthouse, Camiaran, *Onuk, Candaraman, Sicsican Islands)
Island hopping (Ramos, Canabungan, Nasubata Islands)
04:00 – 04:30AM Wake up call
04:30 – 05:00AM Walk toward pier
06:00 – 10:30AM Boat ride back to Rio Tuba (P350 each)
10:30 – 11:15AM Trike to San Jose Terminal (P20 each)
11:15 – 12:00PM Lunch
12:00 – 17:00PM Van travel back to Puerto Princesa City (P300 each)
Transportation cost: P1210 each
Accommodation cost: P725 each
Island hopping cost: P8000 for 2 days (P4000 each)
Food and miscellaneous fees: P1000 each
TOTAL COSTS: P6935 each for 2 people
Update as of January 2018:
Boat operators now offer packages (including transfer from Rio Tuba, island hopping and accommodations), so make sure to ask about the rates given your group size. If you’re not with a large group or simply want more convenience, a package is highly preferable.
Kuya Boboy and Ate Lorna offers a 2-day package for P3500 per person, including island hopping, accommodation and meals. You will be fetched from Rio Tuba and then proceed to island hopping. The rate is P4500 if Onuk Island is included. Please see contact section below.
Note that rates may still change as there are talks of standardizing island hopping rates (as of January 2018).
Balabac travel guide: Planning a budget-friendly trip
As you can see from the itinerary above, travel and accommodation expenses are cheap. Even fresh seafood and cooked meals are low priced. Eateries sell meals for as low as P45 a plate with one rice. This is why I only allotted a budget of P1,000 for food. Again, it depends really on how big your appetite is, so adjust accordingly.
Island hopping is the only costly item in expenses, though it is still reasonable considering the distance of the islands from each other.
Alternatively, there are select travels and tours that offer island hopping in Balabac, Palawan. The ones I know of are:
Rates depend on how many days you’d spend in Balabac. If you’re going to avail of a packaged tour, you also need to gather more companions since there are a minimum number of participants per event.
We originally planned to avail of one. After computing possible expenses and consulting with the rest of the group, we decided to do the trip DIY. A DIY trip is the more cost-friendly option (as of 2016).
Hali and I went here along with four travel companions, and we spent about P5000-6000 each for a 6-day trip.
If your return flight from Puerto Princesa is scheduled at 7PM onwards, you can make your itinerary as short as 5 days. However, I recommend extending your trip to 6 days and staying for at least 3 days in Balabac to fully explore this southern summer paradise in Palawan.
Getting to Balabac, Palawan
I’m just going to add a few notes since I’ve already written the directions above. Make sure to read the tips below! Especially those related to food.
All in all, it will take 2 days from Puerto Princesa City to commute to Balabac. Going back from Balabac to Puerto Princesa will take at least 1 day.
From Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba
In San Jose Terminal in Puerto Princesa, you can ride either a bus or van going to Rio Tuba. I’m not aware if there are fixed schedules for the public vehicles, but when we got there the last bus was to leave at 7PM and the van, at 6PM. Commuting via van is faster since there are lesser stopovers. We opted for the van, but we still waited for other passengers to fill in the remaining seats.
It’s safe to be at the terminal at around 5-6PM to make sure you won’t miss a ride to Rio Tuba.
Tip: If you’ll be staying overnight in Puerto Princesa, you can check out the lowest prices of accommodations here.
Normally, there is only one schedule for the boat via Rio Tuba-Balabac route. A boatman told us they make a second trip depending on the number of passengers, but I get the impression that this rarely happens. The schedule of the boat changes; ask the front desk at the White Heaven Lodging (or other accommodations if you’ve found one) about the boat schedule for the next day.
The tricycle fare from the lodging to the pier is only P20 per person. The reason we gave P50 each is we asked our drivers to make a stopover for breakfast and wait for us. We were led to a large eatery called GB that serves delicious beef stew with rice noodles (which is a must try, take my word for it). I just don’t want you guys giving out P50 per person when the pier isn’t really that far.
Rio Tuba to Balabac
Based on blogs and accounts of fellow travelers, the boat enroute to Balabac usually leaves at around 12 noon, but in our case, the boatmen started loading passengers at 9AM and then left immediately when all the seats are taken.
The passenger boat makes a few stops. You’re about an hour away from mainland Balabac after you pass by Bancalan Port. The port in Balabac looks less amazing, but hey, you won’t really go there to hang out in ports, right.
Similarly, there is also one schedule for the boat leaving Balabac to Rio Tuba, at 6AM in the morning. The boat is either docked in the unloading pier or VCI, depending on the sea level.
Balabac, Palawan: Contact information section
JD lodging (Sing and Swing lodge): 0910 662 0073
– P400 per night for 2 pax
– P250 per night for 1 pax
MLK lodging: 0939 517 6169
– P400 per night for 2 pax
Other contact details:
Kuya Onyok/Boboy, boat operators: 0936 398 8961
Kuya Fidel, boat operator: 0999 561 4998
Kuya Jerry, shuttle service Puerto Princesa City – Rio Tuba: 0927 705 5910/0946 260 6260
How to get to Onuk Island
Update as of March 2017:
As per Blissful Guro, you can contact this point person to secure your visit to Onuk Island: Ronald Astami, 0935 155 6264.
As of February 2017, Onuk Island has been opened officially to the public. There’s a new hefty rate for a day tour, which is P3000 per head (discounted rate for groups; regular rate is P5000), covering the boat ride and lunch. For overnight stay, the rate is P5000 per head (again, discounted rate). The management of Onuk Island has their own service boats. Service to other islands is excluded.
Update as of January 2018:
Ate Bebeth is no longer part of the tourism office, and I’ve removed her contact detail above.
Accommodations and boat rides
For any query regarding accommodation and island hopping prices, you can contact Ate Bebeth. There are more available accommodations in Balabac than listed here and other boat operators as well.
We stayed at JD lodging for the duration of our trip. The rooms are surprisingly spacious. The restrooms and shower stalls are for common sharing but clean and regularly maintained. The electricity in the whole Balabac group of islands is up until midnight only, but you can request for the generator to be turned on during the night in JD Lodging for P300 per night (all rooms covered).
During our boat ride to Balabac, I chatted with Kuya Fidel whom I found out also offers island hopping tour for a cheaper rate. However, since Kuya Boboy has been my contact ever since preparing the itinerary and I’ve already reserved and confirmed the date for our island hopping with him, we pushed with the latter’s services.
Kuya Boboy and Onyok were very helpful, cooked our meals (mostly fresh seafood) when we were island hopping and chatted with us on our night drinking sessions. Their sister, Ate Lorna, was also a great help. She accompanied us to getting a permit for our supposed visit to Onuk Island and helped prepare our packed lunch for island hopping the next day. If you see her, ask her to show you a cheap eatery where you can get delicious rice meals. We were suki at this eatery, but the cook merely laughed when we told her we’d recommend her place in our blog.
P.S. If you decide to get the services of Kuya Boboy and Kuya Onyok, please tell them Hali and I say hi. 🙂
If you happen to find this eatery, don’t forget to request a tauban dish (a type of large squid common in the area).
Balabac, Philippines: FAQ Section
I’ve added this section as an update. Ever since posting this Balabac Palawan itinerary and other features, we’ve been drowning in inquiries, and though the attention is flattering, sadly I can’t keep up with all the messages.
When is the best time to go to Balabac?
As far as I know, summer is the best time to visit here. Anj of Kilometer Zero PH clarifies that ber-months are still good, but during the amihan season (from December to February) the waves can get particularly rough.
For those asking if it’s okay to visit on a specific week on a specific month on a specific year, please refer to news on weather updates instead.
Is it safe for foreigners to visit Balabac?
Now this is a tricky question to answer. I don’t want to answer a simplified yes and give false confidence or a no and completely scare off other people. I haven’t actually thought about this until after I received an email asking for security issues in Balabac.
This is from our experience: When we were there, we didn’t feel any tension or presence of threat. We also saw foreign travelers in the island. In fact, I had the impression that whereas local tourists are still oblivious to the existence of Balabac, it is already known among foreign backpackers, at least at the time of our visit. After receiving the said email, I researched and found out that there are indeed warnings about visiting this location and, in general, in the southern parts of Palawan due to the presence of rebel groups.
If you ask me, I’m going to say, yes, it’s safe, but I do not have the official say on this. For safety precautions, take heed of travel warnings, particularly for foreign tourists. For other safety concerns, please communicate with Balabac’s tourism office.
Alternatives to Balabac, Philippines
Balabac isn’t the only nice destination in Palawan, it’s just the most remote and possibly the only left that isn’t commercialized yet. There are other established tourist locations you can visit.
Puerto Princesa offers its own island hopping and scuba diving adventures, not the mention the world-renown Puerto Princesa Underground River. El Nido and Coron are world-known vacation spots, famous for limestone karsts and clean lagoons. There are also low-key destinations in Palawan that offer a quiet time off, such as Port Barton.
If you want to get an idea of other great attractions, here’s a list of the best places to visit in the Philippines.
Must-read! Setting expectations straight
I was really happy with the way our planned turned out.
However, I would like to just use this opportunity to talk about environment consciousness and objective travel blogging.
Balabac unfortunately has a garbage problem. I noticed this when we were when doing a short habal-habal tour in mainland Balabac and when we visited Camiaran and Canabungan Islands. There is garbage trash in the shores. Maybe it’s because Balabac isn’t an official tourist destination yet (but is that an excuse?) and/or most islands are home to residential communities.
When we were waiting idly for the sunset in Canabungan Island, my good friend Kit and I talked about how this was never mentioned in blogs.
Either this is a recent issue (highly doubtful) or the bloggers simply chose to exclude this in the narrative. While we all aim to highlight the best features of a location, it’s still misleading to exclude important details that can affect everyone else’s experience. Local blogs are especially guilty of this: posing about the good and conveniently ignoring the bad, for readership. I would like to emphasize that blogging is different from simple sharing in social media because this medium is open to public.
Hopefully, as the local tourism in the municipality grows, there will be more effort to clean-up the potential tourist islands in Balabac.
I would like to thank everybody who’d been helpful in answering my queries and giving me necessary contact details for creating this Balabac travel guide and also to our boat operators Kuya Onyok and Boboy and Ate Lorna.
Of course, I’d like to thank my companions as well. I appreciated how everybody observed punctuality. If we agreed on a 6-AM call time the next day, everyone would be up and preparing at 5:30AM. (Respect for other people’s time is sadly not that common even for travelers nowadays.) There was a lot of laugh trips and fun conversations all throughout our vacation.
Of course, I’m not going to forget greeting my beloved, Hali, a happy, happy birthday! Half of the fun in traveling is being with you.
Don’t forget to watch our summer experience in Balabac, Palawan, in this video:
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