10 February 2019
In Conde Nast Traveler‘s annual lists for the Reader’s Choice Awards, Palawan has been declared as the best island in the world more than once in recent years. It seems that the rest of the world couldn’t stand the competition and so the list was subdivided into regions in 2018. Palawan is still at the top of the game, being in the top 3 islands in Asia, alongside Siargao and Boracay.
Boracay seems a strange choice as, unfortunately, it’s become too touristed—the island closed for “rehabilitation” in April 2018 to compensate for overcrowding and unregulated development.
Port Barton is not competing at that overly exploited level, although the completion of a minimally decent road from the airport at Puerto Princessa has halved that five hour trek to a less gruelling two and a half hours in a minivan. (Details on transport here) Travellers are not likely to have to get out and trudge around the muddy trenches on the mountain section whilst the driver tries to extract his vehicle, as they did only a short while back. When I first visited it was easier to get in by boat from Sabang, even though that entailed facing waves several metres high in a very small native banka.
The muddy trenches before the jungle road was surfaced
Despite the difficulties, or indeed because of them, Port Barton had a small number of resorts even in the early 1990s, or earlier. The intrepid visitors were adventurous travellers more than comfort-seeking tourists. That heritage is still evident amongst the clientele of the backpacker-friendly resorts of the town.
There are still no landlines in the town, but now you can communicate to the rest of the world as both Smart and Globe have installed towers. Speeds aren’t great, especially when the tour boats get back and the electricity gets switched on in more resorts for the evening. (Electricity is potentially available 24 hours a day, but to save expense some places will only provide it in the evening. I’m told that even Pamoayan has had 24 hour mains electricity since October 2018.)
That lack of electricity is not such a problem – the climate is generally at least tolerable without air-conditioning, and often the sea breezes makes 30 degrees very pleasant. Being close to the beach, or on a smaller island in the bay, and with a room that’s got some airflow, is much nicer than a thermally insulated cave with the conditioner’s motor running all night.
You may have to run for an ice cream
Fresh food is stored in ice rather than in a refrigerator, and it’s not easy to get ice-cream, but cold beer is never far away. It used to be easy to get fresh fish every day, and patik or lobsters were unbelievably cheap. The local catch is now less dependable, with restrictions imposed to safeguard stocks, diminishing stocks themselves, and competition from merchants shipping seafood to Puerto Princessa. So there may be days when no fish are available.
In some years the small town can seem quite crowded with tourists, but only for a few weeks in January or February. On occasion visitors have slept in tents on the town’s beach as the resorts have been full, but that is rare. Most people turn up without a prior booking and find somewhere adequate. There are quite a few low-cost backpacker dorms and home-stays, and several comfortable seafront places catering for families. At least one of the islands in the bay has an excellent glamping option. There is nowhere that is high-end luxury in the local area.
A typical Port Barton store
Usually the town feels like a frontier outpost, with no urgency to do anything except relax, chat, enjoy the view and the weather. There are a few small shops selling necessities, but they are small and so do not have much variety and generally cater for the local population’s needs, tastes and budgets. Some souvenirs may be on sale, but the quality is not generally very high. Prices are a bit higher than in Puerto Princessa, partly driven by transport costs, but partly economies of scale and competition.
Rush hour in Port Barton
There is not much vehicular traffic in the town – everything is walking distance and it is not en route to anywhere else, so the roads are small. So traffic pollution is not an issue. Kids cheerfully and safely play in the street until dusk. Noise can be a problem if you are not used to cockerels and dogs barking, you may want earplugs – or stay on a small island.
There is cheap food available, and some of it is okay especially if you like local dishes and portions. There are no fast-food outlets, so pizzas and burgers are locally made and of variable quality. Foodies may find something of interest but don’t look for Michelin recommendations.
The tap water is treated and I know of no problems drinking it – it is also environmentally better than adding to the piles of plastic bottles in the sea.
Visitors typically spend time on the beach or take a trip around the islands and reefs, with a few trekking in the jungle to visit a waterfall, and a few strong souls hiring a kayak for some personalised island hopping. This is a place to sit and soak up the atmosphere, not rush around doing anything much. There is some night-life, and that can be too noisy for some, but energising for others. Hardened party-animals may be disappointed.
Tourist boats moored at Port Barton beach
The magic really comes through when you find yourself on an empty beach on one of the islands in the bay, maybe a short stroll from a hammock to the water’s edge, and a short swim to watch the life on a coral reef. Most will settle for the compromise of a reef tour with a group, and a barbecue on an island for lunch.
You’re already in paradise, so what else is there?