Are you planning a visit to the Philippines and dreaming about lounging on pristine beaches, jetting around to untouched islands, and not having to share any of it with anyone else? If so, skip the over-crowded areas of El Nido and Coron in the north of Palawan Island and instead head south, to the Balabac Islands.
Balabac is a group of 31 islands, many of which are totally uninhabited. You’ll find pink sand beaches, vibrantly colored coral, a wide range of marine life, endemic mouse deer, and welcoming locals. But what you won’t find are many other foreigners. Which means that this off-the-beaten-path island paradise will be yours to enjoy, all by yourself!
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Balabac Islands Travel Basics
Know Before You Go
- The Philippines are an archipelago of over 7,000 islands. There are hundreds of stunning places to visit but many take some time and patience to get to.
- At the time of writing (June of 2018), the conversion rate was 52.47 Philippine Pisos (PHP) to $1 USD. So if something costs 100 PHP, that’s just under $2.00 USD.
- Expect to rough it here. You’ll be sleeping under a mosquito net in the great outdoors and your shower will simply be you dumping cold water over your head from a bucket. There are no luxurious resorts in the area… yet.
- There are very few amenities available for purchase so be sure to bring snacks, alcohol, and any medications and toiletries you may need.
- There are no ATMs around so be sure to bring enough cash to pay for your tour and to tip your guides if necessary.
- You’ll likely see a lot of trash around. Sadly trash in the ocean tends to wind up on the shores and it isn’t cleaned up regularly. Don’t contribute to the problem – pack out what you pack in.
- Don’t expect to have cell service once you depart Rio Tuba.
What to Pack for the Islands
You’ll be spending your days cruising in a boat to the various islands around Balabac in the hot sun. Be sure to pack a swimsuit, a quick-dry beach towel, something to cover your shoulders or a foldable hat in case the sun gets too intense, and plenty of sunscreen.
Evenings are warm but you’ll likely want to cover your arms, legs, and feet due to sand flies and mosquitos. Choose lightweight, breathable pants, a comfortable long-sleeve top, bug spray, and a rechargeable fan to keep you cool when you’re trying to fall asleep.
Your tour guide may or may not run a generator at night and offer to let you charge your electronics. Ask them ahead of time and if they don’t, be sure to pack a battery pack so you never run out of juice. And if you plan to bring any expensive camera gear on your boat tour, be sure to bring a dry bag to keep everything dry.
Other Packing Essentials:
- Body soap for washing the salt and sand off at the end of the day
- Body lotion in case you get sunburned
- Toilet paper and/or baby wipes
- A jacket for chilly boat rides back to camp
- Headlamp or flashlight to find your way to the toilet at night
What to Budget
Your tour package will be all-in, meaning that all of your meals, coffee, snacks, bottled water, accommodation, island entrance fees, and boat tour will be covered in the price. Expect to pay around $50 USD per person per day.
We booked our tour through Balabac Island Safari and paid 20,000 PHP (~$380.00 USD) for a 4 day, 4 night tour.
What to Tip Your Tour Guide
Your tour operator will most likely also be the owner of their business so the price you pay will go directly to them. However they may employ a boat hand who would most definitely be excited by an extra tip of 200 PHP per day.
Is it Safe?
There are rumors circling around the Philippines that pirate terrorists are kidnapping tourists in the Balabac Islands region. We never felt concerned for our safety and we never actually found any information regarding past offenses against tourists in the area.
There have been outbreaks of malaria on some islands so bring bug spray and cover-up around sunset when they are the worst. You can request that your doctor prescribe you antimalarial medication although the side effects can be quite severe.
Best Time to Visit the Balabac Islands
The best time to visit the islands south of Palawan is March through May when the water is calm, the rain is infrequent if ever, and the weather is sunny and pleasant.
Be sure to check the weather before you visit as you won’t have as much fun if rain is on the horizon. You’ll encounter very rough waves and possibly even typhoons from November to February so it’s not an ideal time to visit.
The Balabac Islands are located off the south end of Palawan Island. The closest international airport is in Puerto Princesa. That is a bustling city so pick up snacks for your journey, sunscreen, bug spray, and any alcohol that you might want to consume over the next 4 days here.
You’ll need to arrange a shuttle van from Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba. They leave at 4:00am and the journey will take you around 5 hours. The van will stop once so you can get breakfast and use the toilet. Your hotel can help to arrange the van or you can call Jeremie Dorig directly at 09126067994. He does the trip back and forth daily. The price is 500 PHP per person.
The van will drop you off at the Petron gas station in the town center and you’ll need to take a tricycle to the pier. There will be plenty around and the price is 100 PHP total for the trip.
Once at the pier you’ll be directed to sign the manifest at a small stand and buy a ticket for your boat.
If you’re headed to Balabac then you’ll want to board the RE Express. However, if you are getting picked up by your tour guide in Bancalaan you have the option to take either the RE Express, the MB Ladyol, or the Charlie. The price for any boat is 250 PHP per person to Bancalaan or 370 PHP per person to Balabac.
The boats depart daily (weather permitting) and leave when the boat is full any time between 10:30am-12:00pm. Make sure you arrive to the pier by 10:00am at the latest so you don’t get left behind!
TIP: Get on the boat early to reserve a seat. Locals tend to use their bags to save seats early and then go sit in the shade. So even if the boat doesn’t look particularly full you may be surprised how many seats have bags sitting on them when you go to pick your seat.
Getting Back to Civilization
Several boats depart from Balabac Islands daily but be sure your captain calls ahead to reserve you a seat.
The boat leaves from Balabac Poblacion at 6:00am-6:30am with a stop at Bancalaan around 7:30am-8:00am. The Lady Loy and Charlie leave directly from Bancalaan at 7:00am.
When you get dropped off at the Rio Tuba pier you can either board a shuttle back to Puerto Princesa there (it will be packed) or take a tricycle back to the Petron Station where (less crowded) shuttles leave every few hours.
TIP: The pier is swarming with men who will want to carry your bag both onto and off of the boat for you. Plan on tipping them around 10-20 PHP per bag if you choose to enlist their services.
The Balabac Islands are incredibly underdeveloped so don’t expect to be staying in lavish accommodations. The easiest way to explore the islands is to hire a tour guide. The price of your tour will include some kind of tent, hammock, or mattress to sleep on. Don’t expect to have air conditioning or a fan to keep you cool after dark.
If you choose to spend the night in the city of Poblacion on Balabac Island you have a few choices; MLK Lodging or JD Lodging (Sing and Swing). Both offer a fan room for 2 people for 400 PHP.
Finding a Tour Guide
If you choose to book a tour guide in advance of arriving to the islands, there are several to choose from. Keep in mind that wifi in the area is minimal so it may take up to a full day for them to respond to your request. We booked our tour with Balabac Island Safari which is owned and operated by Captain Andong and his wife. Their “base camp” is located on Canibungan Island and is currently in mid-construction. Accommodations include a bed with a mattress, a roof over the bed (but no walls), a mosquito net hanging over the bed, a toilet, and a bucket for showers.
Motet Sanson is another popular tour guide in the area. His base camp is on Candaraman Island.
If you don’t book a tour in advance you can take the boat straight to Balabac Island and hire a boat and guide once you arrive. The local coast guard can give you information on what licensed boats are available based on how large your group is and what you want to see and do. Regardless of the route you choose, you’ll need to bring your passport and check-in with them during your trip so if you don’t do it at the beginning, your tour guide will bring you here during your stay.
It is not advised to organized a do-it-yourself tour as most of the islands are privately owned and require prior coordination to visit.
Dining in Balabac
If you book onto an all-inclusive tour then the price you pay per day will include meals, coffee, snacks, and bottled water. Most meals will include rice and fresh fish. If you have any food allergies or avoid meat products you may have a challenging time figuring out what you can eat. Be sure to tell your guide ahead of time and bring plenty of snacks, just in case.
Balabac Island Highlights
Bugsuk Island: Punta Sebaring
The sandbar here is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before! As you walk you’ll find that suddenly you’ll sink up to your knee in the fine, white sand. Spend your time lounging in the water and laughing at the bubbles that emerge from the sand. This was one of our favorite stops along our tour!
The portion of the island that is open to visitors is privately owned by a friendly family. They have a few covered areas for lunching, a nice sandy beach for lounging, and plenty of leaning palm trees for climbing!
Comiran Island (Pink Sand Island)
Red coral mixes with white sand to create the beautiful pink colored sand on this island. It won’t take you long to wander around the entire island, admiring the enormous shells laying on the picturesque sand.
If you choose to visit Onuk Island you’ll need to pay an additional 3,000 PHP per person for a day tour or 5,000 PHP per person to spend the night (includes accommodation and meals). Be sure you select a guide who can take you there as it is not offered by all.
Don’t plan anything! Relax, you’re on vacation. You’ll wake up early every morning to make the most of your day and your tour guide will take care of all of the planning. Just sit back and enjoy this beautiful landscape!
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