I have found the one. Of all the beaches I’ve been to in the Philippines —I’ve had my humble share (come to think of it, probably my only achievement)— Balabac is one of the finest, if not the best.
Before this trip, Calaguas in Camarines Norte held my number one spot if we’re just talking about “the best beach.” Coron is on a league of its own with its dynamic seascape. Kayangan Lake is magical, and Banol Beach looked photoshopped even in person. El Nido had its moments, of course. But lo and behold, Palawan houses yet another hidden gem. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Balabac.
Balabac is located in the southernmost tip of Palawan and borders north of Sabah, Malaysia, which is surreal if you think about it whilst sailing from one island to the next. This group of islands is home to a rich marine life and other endemic species. I’ve seen turtles (a lot of them) and stingrays as we docked our boat in Onok. There was an owl in Candaraman and lots of tuko (tokay gecko). The islands are relatively unspoiled as it is remote with very few tourists.
Turquoise blue waters abound the place — a haven for people who love crystal clear shallow waters, unlimited sandbars and fine, fine white sand. The sand here deserves a post of its own – soft, fine, pillowy, and flour-like.
I came here with my high school friends. Every year since 2009, we have gone on annual vacations, almost always in search for the best beach. We’ve been to remote places in Luzon and a few in Mindanao including Anawangin Cove, Hundred Islands of Pangasinan, Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte, Calaguas Beach, Carabao Island, Caramoan, El Nido… to brag a few. And now we’re here, back to the beautiful island of Palawan.
For Balabac, we arranged an all-in package tour which costs us around 7,500 pesos (150USD) each. This includes all our food, accommodation, and boat rides for the next four days. Our other expenses outside of this include plane tickets, van transfer, food and lodging on our way home, and alcoholic drinks with loads of chips.
We were a group of nine. The tour package changes depending on the size of the group. I’ll try to give a rough breakdown of our expenses later in this post. I’d say, a total of around 10k (200USD) pesos per person excluding airfare.
Yes, unfortunately, it is not cheap. Good thing Balabac lives up to its price and more.
DAY 1: CANDARAMAN ISLAND
Upon landing, we already arranged a direct van transfer from Puerto Princesa airport to Buliluyan Port. This takes about 5-6 hours of land travel. From Buliluyan Port, we took our first boat ride, a total of 2 hours, to get to our first island and overnight stop — Candaraman Island.
We arrived at Candaraman late in the afternoon. Obviously we were exhausted and hungry from riding almost all modes of transport since 5am: airplane, van, boat, carabao (cheka). We’ve been praying that somehow there’s already food for us when we get there. And to our delight, our hosts -Ate Lorna and Kuya Onyok’s party – have prepared the most delicious afternoon snack for us. HOTCAKES!
You know how all things taste a hundred times better when you’re starving? This is the most delicious pancake on this side of the beach. Forget about butter or margarine or some sprinkle of sugar. I’m just happy we had snacks in the first place. Even the basic 3-1 coffee trumps pumpkin spice latte that time in the afternoon.
Though we were sweaty and sticky, we had a good view of the sunset from our cottage. We chatted eagerly all excited for our island hopping the next day. Pancakes in my mouth, I was silently hoping it really looked exactly like the Instagram photos I’ve seen. I mean… That’s how we roll now, right?
Candaraman has a good-enough beach, the kind you get from the best of Luzon beaches. There were a few people on the island, some guests and a number of locals who maintained the place. There’s an abandoned port along the shoreline, a lot of tents, and a medium-sized nipa house for guests to sleep in. The bathrooms are relatively clean, and there’s electricity courtesy of a generator till 10 in the evening. However, there is no mobile signal in Balabac, especially for smartphones. I was on an unexpected digital detox while we were there.
You could walk the shores in meditative fashion if you’d like. It’s a long stretch of a shoreline and mostly quiet. The only thing I didn’t like was the lack of sea breeze. When night falls, it gets pretty hot in Candaraman. Air is in limited supply. If only I could buy a sack of air I would. So we slept for two days out in the open, right near the shoreline.
First Stop – MANSALANGAN SANDBAR
On our second day, we set off early on the first of many island-hopping boat rides. One thing to note in Balabac is that the boat rides are LONG, usually ranging from 1-2 hours each island. I could do a lot of things in those two hours, but no. Be prepared to sit and roast in the sun for at least four boat rides a day.
Mansalangan Sandbar was our first stop.
Please. Take a look at this hot mess! It looks exactly like that (if not better).
What a beauty (gawd beauty is an understatement for this beauty lol)! White sand stretching out into the blue-green waters, all of it sparkling in the morning sun. Empty. No one around but US. (Alright there were two girls before of us who also overstayed to get “the shot” but that’s still nothing.) We’ve been ooohhhing and ahhhiingg all throughout, mostly in disbelief that this is the first of the many supposedly.
As you can see, our photos were mostly us taking a gazillion pictures of ourselves in this backdrop. I could stay in this sandbar for… well, a couple more hours. LOL. It was hot you guys. I could feel the sun scorching my skin. But should I really care at this point? Nah! I wanted more of these blue-green madness. Give it to me!
Second Stop – PUNTA SEBARING ISLAND
You can just feel how HOT this photo was. When we landed in Punta Sebaring (our second stop), it was low tide, and so we had to walk the rest of the way to the main cottage spot. Thing is, the SAND in Punta Sebaring was an experience all on its own.
This sand was insanely soft and also insanely NOT HOT. How is that even possible? In 100-degree weather, I would expect nothing less than a scalding sand. But alright, in Balabac paradise —particularly Punta Sebaring Island— the sand is lukewarm and soft as marshmallows. It can get ankle-deep with each step. The softest sand I’ve been to was Apo Reef in Mindoro. But this one takes the cake. I mean we could actually make cake out the flour-like consistency of this sand.
There’s not much to behold in Punta Sebaring though. You can’t swim because stingrays are present in the area. So that leaves us with just THE sand and, well, the view.
We gathered in the shade and ate a sumptuous lunch of blue crabs and fried chicken. Just eating (not preparing our own food or not even cleaning up after our own selves) is another level of heaven on earth for us. We were so used to being DIY cowboys in our younger days that we literally prepared everything during our beach trips. If we could clean up the waters, we would – mind you.
But here we are. All our money gone (lol) but very much well-fed and well-rested. Thank you to Kuya Onyok and Ate Lorna and their team who took good care of us. You get what you pay for, right?
There’s nothing more glorious than just stuffing my face with seafood for this entire vacation.
DAY 3: ONOK ISLAND
On our third day, we finally visited the Hollywood star of Balabac’s islands— Onok Island. Locals, recent day trippers, blogs, madlang people all have stellar, raving reviews of Onok. It has become a running joke among us days before how much it would live up to its hype.
Oh Onok! The promised land! The mecca of our trip. The beach of all beaches. The one to shut down all the rest. Onok just couldn’t defend itself from our sky-high expectations. On a range of 1 to Onok, we will settle for nothing less than what was promised – the best island in Balabac.
Alas, we arrived yet again on a low tide. A lot of people were still in the island. That whole wooden bridge and cottage above looked liked an old dilapidated pantalan. We couldn’t hide our disappointment, almost on the verge of asking for our money back.
Turns out, Onok was a late bloomer. He will grow on you as you spend more time with him: take him out to dinner, get to know his personality and quirks (and possibly his favorite color and food and tv shows), and see his beauty from sun up to sun down. Good thing we stayed overnight.
Onok slowly revealed itself to us. When dusk came, a series of yellow lights draped the wooden bridge. It was quite romantic. The horizon, in all its unobstructed glory, transformed into a kaleidoscope of candy colors. Unlike Candaraman, Onok had an abundant supply of fresh air. With a cold drink in hand, we basked in sea breeze and the lull of the water around us. No mobile signal. Quiet. Windy.
In the morning, at around 5:30 am, I woke up to my friend Jing’s clamor. I then witnessed one of the most beautiful sunrises ever. That bridge above is actually like a front row seat to an unobstructed theater screen featuring only the sky and the sea. Everywhere around I could see the glorious blaze of the sun changing by the minute as it came out of the skies. My mouth was wide open, my camera phone clicking like crazy, and I was silently thanking myself for being there and God or whomever created this.
By the time we left Onok the next day, the high tide had filled up the shoal and all we can see were the clear waters sparkling below us. It was so pristine – a blinding beauty of greens and blues. I have finally fallen for Onok.
DAY 4: PATAWAN ISLAND
And for our final day and final stop, Patawan Island shut everything down.
Hallelujah, praise Jesus! Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Patawan Island slapped us with its stunning, drop-dead gorgeous, supermodel beauty. For a split second, I thought God Himself was going to come out of the waters and welcome us to heaven. I mean if this is not tropical heaven then I don’t know what is.
Patawan boasts two kinds of swimming area. On the one side, the waters are still as a lake, deep enough to swim in, but definitely very chill with no waves whatsoever. We devoured this side for sure: swimming, jumping, paddling, posing, laughing. I gulped a good amount of sea water but I didn’t care. I love Patawan so much I wouldn’t mind being married to this bish.
The other side felt like an industrial washing machine, only this time with the clearest water you could possibly imagine. It was sparkling. The waves on this side were wild and would hit you like you’re dirty laundry. Massage-like? Perhaps. But because it’s too pretty a water, you’re bound not to complain. Bring it on and give me a proper wash, you mineral water you.
It’s been more than a week since we’ve been back in Manila. I still think about Balabac like a handsome summer fling I would probably not see again. It may have been fleeting (it may not also be the cheapest nor the easiest to get to), but it was love nonetheless.
For a second there, I’m proud to live in the Philippines — to come from a land of such pristine beaches I wonder why I’d ever want to go anywhere else, really.
This is my very simplistic budget and itinerary guideline. My friend Jing (thank you so much dai!) handled our plan so basically it’s only now that I am actually trying to understand how I got there in the first place. Shoot me a message if you have questions. I’ll help out as much as I can.
Estimated Budget: 10-11k exclusive of airfare
*7,500 – for tour package 3days-2nights (includes accommodation, island hopping boat rides, all the entrance/environmental fees needed, three-meals-a-day food)
*1,200 – van roundtrip
*500 – lodge for return trip in Puerto Princesa
*1000 – miscellaneous food and alcoholic drinks
How To Get There:
1. Fly from Manila to Puerto Princesa. (1 hour plane ride)
2. Ride a van (arrange in advance) from Puerto Princesa to Buliluyan Port. (5-6 hours travel time)
3. From Buliluyan Port, take a boat ride to Candaraman Island. This will be the home base for the next two days of island hopping and already part of the tour package.
4. Island Hopping: Candaraman Island, Mansalangan Sandbar, Candaraman Sandbar, Punta Sebaring, Onok Island, Patawan Island.
Our main contact was Kuya Onyok: 09123993543
You can also check out this Instagram Page – Balabac Palawan – for more tour package options. (Thank you Jing!)
P.S. If there’s anyone planning to go back there in July 2019, I’d like to go back and would love to join another group for cheaper travel budget.