BALABAC AT A GLANCE
If it were a royal clash of the best island destinations in the Philippines, BALABAC group of islands would surely take the highly priced throne – and that’s saying it without an ounce of exaggeration. It simply is a quintessential canvass of a top-notch tropical paradise. It’s secluded, pristine, uncrowded and has the finest sands and clearest waters in all of the Philippine archipelago.
In retrospect, Balabac, Palawan was shrouded with so much terror. Hearing news of constant crocodile attacks at its river communities; of visits by smuggling foreigners from the nearby countries; of widespread practice of cyanide fishing and illegal poaching; and of the long journey both in land and water to get to the islands – make travel discouraging and uneasy. But with the advent of tourism and the rise of its popularity among travelers, all of these news of terror are slowly cleared out.
Nowadays, Balabac is off to becoming a safer place for tourists than before. Crocodile zone signs are installed in certain places to warn off people of possible crocodile sightings, illegal fishing and poaching have been stopped, presence of undesirable immigrants from the nearby countries has been thwarted, and roads and transport system to the islands have been paved and slowly developed – all due to the concerted efforts of the local and national government.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT BALABAC
Here are few things you need to know before going to Balabac group of islands.
- Balabac came from the word “Balabag” since as observed by the Spanish conquistadors, the island faces south and perfectly transverses the sun at it rises from its east part and sets to its west.
- Balabac is a second class municipality comprising of about 36 islands at the southernmost tip of Palawan, Philippines. It is situated near Balabac strait where there is high concentration of ridges and sandbars so most of its islands have wide shallow reef and waters are only few inches deep.
- For its location, without considering the on-dispute Spratly Islands, Balabac has been recognized as the last of the last frontier of the country.
- Balabac is more close in proximity to Sabah, Malaysia than the provincial capital of Palawan, Puerto Princesa. So locals can easily make border crossing to the nearby Malaysian territory, mostly by using motorized canoes.
- Most of the islands are flat and plain, engulfed with only soft sands and a cluster of verdant trees. However, Balabac proper, it’s main town where most of the population are, is mountainous. Most of its areas are loaded with coconut trees making it the primary crop of the region.
- The group of islands has a rich marine and terrestrial ecosystem. Balabac takes pride in owning some of the endangered species from seawater crocodiles, sea turtles and the nocturnal Philippine mouse-deer (or pilandok) which can be found at the mountain areas of Balabac proper.
- Balabac shelters a mix of people from Tausug, Sama-Bajau and Pangutaran, and Mapun, but the greater population is composed of Molbog people who are the original dwellers of Balabac. The locals observe Muslim practices as a way of life; their livelihood includes subsistence farming and fishing.
- Access to education has been a major challenge in Balabac primarily because of transport, as some of its barangays are an island away or are totally distant from the town proper where schools are instituted. Nevertheless, some of its locals devote themselves to teaching informal education on some of its islands.
- The natural condition of Balabac islands are raw, pristine and uncrowded, totally void of commercial tourism which is a delight for travelers looking for off-the-beaten path destinations. Its underwater situation however can be saddening since some of the coral gardens are heavily damaged due to cyanide fishing that was a rampant practice in the past. Some of the islands though, were able to safeguard its coral preserves like that of Sicsican, Canibungan and some parts of Onuk Island.
- Due to the constant expansion of communities in Balabac, some of the natural habitats of freshwater and estuarine crocodiles were disturbed which resulted to reported crocodile attacks. In an effort to warn off travelers, the local government installed Crocodile Zones to caution people for possible crocodile sightings.
- Crocodile attacks were reported to happen in Balabac proper particularly at the mangrove areas of barangay Salang and Catagupan, and not on the islands where island hopping tours stop over which are more than an hour away and are separated by an open sea where waves are tough and water currents are strong, nearly impossible for the crocodiles to cross.
- The islands of Balabac are too distant from each other, usually 30 minutes to an hour of boat trip, and sea swells along the way can get tough especially during the monsoons. The best time to visit for island tours is during summer from late March to early August. Avoid the months of November and December when heavy downpour and strong winds are likely to happen.
- Of late, tourism is progressively regulated around the islands of Balabac as spearheaded by DOTr-MARINA. Regulations on the appropriate boat type for island hopping, in coming up with a whitelist of tour operators who have undergone proper orientation and seminar have been slowly enforced. In my experience, the coast guards were heavily checking boat trips from Rio Tuba to the other ports in Bancalaan and Balabac Proper.
- The local government has plans on deploying fastcraft to its ports and utilizing the abandoned airstrips in Candaraman and Bugsuk Island to make traveling to Balabac easy and convenient.
HOW TO GET TO BALABAC
Getting to Balabac is quite exhausting, BUT the islands are definitely worth the long journey! To get there, you need to take a flight to Puerto Princesa via these carriers:
- Philippine Airlines
- Cebu Pacific
From any of these Philippine destinations:
At Puerto Princesa airport, charter a tricycle to San Jose Terminal. Fare is P100 for a group of 4. Travel time is about 20 minutes. At the terminal, take a shuttle to Rio Tuba. Fare is P450, travel time is around 4 hours. Shuttle service is available as early as 4AM.
A more convenient and easier option is to arrange a van pick up at the airport or at any place around Puerto Princesa town proper to Rio Tuba for only P400. Pick up time is around 2:00AM to 3:00AM, which is ideal so you can get to Rio Tuba port at an earlier time.
Here are van drivers that offer pickup from Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba and vice versa:
- Melvin +63 955 285 8153, +63 938 354 9040
- Jeremy +63 912 606 7994
The road to Rio Tuba is well-paved for most of its section. After four hours of travel, you will arrive directly at Rio Tuba port. If the shuttle stops at the bus terminal, you may take a tricycle for P100 to the port.
At Rio Tuba port, go immediately to the personnel who enlists passengers bound for Balabac. There are two boats, each with a total capacity of 90 persons; the one at the left section of the port leaves for Balabac Proper for about 4-hour boat ride, fare is P350; and the other on the right side goes to Bancalaan port for around 2 hours of travel time, fare is P250. The distance between the two ports is around 2 hours so make sure you get on to the right port. Get the right information from your tour operator to avoid any inconvenience.
Note: Boat trips to Balabac only happen once in a day at around 10AM, and the number of passengers are controlled at around 150 so make sure you get to the port an hour before departure time. In addition, the coast guards at the port are tight at security, depending on weather conditions, boat trips may be cancelled.
Some tour operators and guides like Kuya Motet Sanson arrange direct transfer from Puerto Princesa to Buliluyan port, an unfinished port closer in proximity to Balabac than Rio Tuba. For faster travel time, contact him at +63 915 734 0809 or +63 939 363 7676.
Getting around and away Balabac
To get around Balabac proper, you can take a bike or hail a tricycle to get to certain places. A full day land tour to some of the tourist spots in Balabac proper like Melville lighthouse, Indalawan Beach and Falls, and a Japanese Fort can be done on a tricycle or motorbike which costs around P700.
To get to other islands of Balabac, travelers need to charter a boat which usually comes on an island hopping tour package. Of late, there is no standard rate for one day island hopping activity but price ranges from P1,500 to P5,000 per person.
To get away from Balabac, you need to get to the port at Balabac proper. Boat trips back to Rio Tuba port depart once a day at 6:00AM. If it’s peak season, buy your ticket a day prior from 2:00PM to 5:30PM; if it’s not, you may go to the port around 4:00AM when they start selling tickets, bring any identification for screening purposes. Fare is P370, travel time is close to 5 hours. Boat capacity varies from 50 to 65 persons.
Once you get to Rio Tuba port, you may charter a tricycle to the bus terminal to take a shuttle back to Puerto Princesa. If you arrange a van, they usually wait at the abandoned Caltex gasoline station near the eateries. To get there from Rio Tuba port, go straight to Rio Jade store then turn right. The vans will be a stone throw away.
2019 TOP ATTRACTIONS IN BALABAC
I visited 11 of the 36 islands of Balabac and ranked them in a separate blog. If you want to know the full list, check out this link: Balabac Top 10 Island Attractions.
For samples of these island attractions, please see the following:
Onuk (or Onok) Island is often the most hailed and talked about among all islands in Balabac, which comes as no surprise. The island is engulfed with white, floury sands that extend to a 5-meter wide reef where sightings of green sea turtles and pink dolphins await. Its waters are disposed with cylinders of light as it shades change from fluorescent to deep blue. To me, Onuk Island is the very example of a top-down tropical paradise.
Punta Sibaring has the most refined sands in all of Balabac islands. It’s too powdery that your feet would naturally sink as you step on the sand whether its a wet or dry surface. For this very reason, the shores of Sibaring is often frequented by stingrays as it make for a good hideout while they rest. Stingrays are venomous creatures; although docile, they can become reactive and may whip their tail as defense against any moving threat. Hence, it is customary for boatmen to check any sightings of stingray on the sands using their paddle before allowing guests to get down from the boat.
Mansalangan is one of the longest sandbars in the Philippines – quite a fascinating hallmark that teases visitors of its stunning charm. Truly, Mansalangan holds together an expanse of creamy white, powder-like sands that are engulfed with shallow waters glowing steadily in radiant light.
The small island of Patawan, which can be circumnavigated in 10 minutes, is one that has pink-tinged sands because of the presence of red organ pipe corals in the area. Like the rest of Balabac islands, its clear waters are only few inches deep and its seabed are splattered with soft sands that feel slushy on the feet.
Come low tide, the five unnamed sandbars near the coast of Candaraman Island expose itself to visitors. Along with it are spattering starfish which beautifully creep through the fine-grained soil that envelopes its long sand strips. Tourists may hop from one sandbar to another when the tide is low, or frolic around its light bluish-green waters when the tide rises. Careful to not stress out the starfish. Never throw them out to the water or pick them up for more than 3 minutes.
2019 TOP THINGS TO DO IN BALABAC
For the many things to do in Balabac, getting into its finest sandbars should be a priority in your bucket list. Balabac owns the 3rd and 4th longest sandbars in the Philippines. Check out Mansalangan Sandbar and Punta Sebaring Sandbar.
As you would expect, the waters surrounding Balabac islands are shallow, with seabeds made of soft sands, and are radiant as a glowing light so it makes perfect sense to frolic around and enjoy the beaches.
Needless to say, the marine life and reserves in Balabac are close to perfection. Go diving to the ridges of Onuk Island or go snorkeling at the swimming spots in Sicsican and Canibungan island – see how beautiful the coral gardens are. If you are lucky, you might encounter sea turtles and dolphins at Onuk Island. But for certainty in your sweet leisure, the giant clam sanctuary is just a glance away from the boardwalk. Take your boat and go snorkeling around it.
As for golden hour chasers like me, Balabac has the best spots for sunrise and sunset; if you may, moonrise as well. And oh, the islands are void of strong light so if it’s a new moon, don’t forget to capture the Milkyway at around 2:00AM to 3:00AM.
If you want to experience the culture, pay a visit at Tabodniayo at Bancalaan Island. The small community masters the art of wood ship making and native mat weaving.
BALABAC SAMPLE ITINERARY
You need to spend at least 3 days to fully enjoy what Balabac can offer. In coming up with your itinerary, you need to know how close the islands are from each other, what the weather would most likely be, and what time in a day would you plan to visit each island as the tides really matter. You get to the sandbars on a low tide, and you need to leave certain islands like Onuk on a high tide when the boat no longer touches the reef as you depart. That is why it’s important that you coordinate with a trusted tour guide.
My 4-day trip was made possible through the help of Kuya Motet Sanson and his co-tour guides Kuya Al (our boat captain) and Kuya Ricky (his brother). I highly recommend that you make your island hopping tour with them as they know the islands well, have undergone orientation with DOTr-MARINA, and has a good connection with the owners of Onuk Island in case you want to visit for day use or overnight. They also provide good food and own a camping area in Candaraman Island, which are included in their tour package. Also, Kuya Motet helped me arranged my transfer from Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba which made my trip to Balabac hassle free. Contact him if you want to travel solo or be a joiner in a group tour at +63 915 734 0809 or +63 939 363 7676.
Here’s my Balabac solo itinerary for 4 days. The total budget amounts to P8,2700+, which includes expenses for transportation from and back to Puerto Princesa, accommodation, island hopping activity and entrance fee.
|Van pick up at hostel in Puerto Princesa||2:00AM||P400|
|Stop over at a restaurant for breakfast||5:00AM||P100|
|Arrive at Rio Tuba port||7:00AM||–|
|Enlist for boat bound for Bancalaan||8:00AM||–|
|Depart from Rio Tuba||10:00AM||P250|
|Arrive at Bancalaan Port||1:00PM||–|
|Depart to Candaraman Island||1:30PM||–|
|Start of Island Hopping Day 1||2:00PM||–|
|Lunch at Patawan Island||3:00PM||P100|
|Back to Candaraman Island||5:00PM||–|
|Sunset at Candaraman Island||6:00PM||–|
|Lights Out (I slept in a tent)||8:00PM||–|
|Start of Island Hopping Day 2||8:00AM||P1,500|
|To Onuk Island||12:00PM||–|
|Lunch at Onuk Island||1:30PM||–|
|Wander around Onuk until sunset||6:00PM||–|
|Overnight stay in Onuk in a makeshift||8:00PM||P3,000|
|Start of Island Hopping Day 3||8:30AM||P1,500|
|Punta Sebaring 2||10:00AM||–|
|Punta Sebaring 1||11:00AM||–|
|Lunch at Canibungan Island||12:30PM||–|
|Snorkel at Canibungan||1:30PM||P100|
|To Balabac Proper||3:00PM||–|
|Arrive at Balabac Proper||5:00PM||–|
|Wander Around Town||5:30PM||P450|
|Immaculate Conception Parish and |
|Stayed at MKL Lodge||6:00PM||P450|
|To Balabac Proper Port||4:00AM||–|
|Roll Call of Boat Passengers||5:45AM||–|
|Depart from Balabac Port||7:00AM||–|
|Arrive at Rio Tuba Port||12:00PM||–|
|To Puerto Princesa||1:30PM||P400|
Tips when traveling around the islands of Balabac
- The emergence of tourism in Balabac has brought positive changes in the safety and security of the region. In my experience, the locals were socially aware; they were friendly and were happy to engage in a conversation with travelers. I was able to speak with a few of our Muslim brothers while on board on the boat for Balabac. Two were student journalists, one is a former secretary of Balabac town and the other was a long-time caretaker in Crocodile Conservation Park in Puerto Princesa. Our talks were healthy, they freely opened up the status quo of Balabac which was really helpful as I get around the islands. I can only speak for my experience, with regard to safety, it’s always wise to contact your local guide beforehand and assess the situation before deciding to push through with your trip.
- Manage your expectations about the tour. I’m putting this in a serious note. You must know that the islands are an hour away from each other, and traveling around them is weather and tide permitting so a change in your itinerary is always expected. On bad weather condition, sea swells around the islands of Balabac can become powerful and rough which is dangerous as most of the tours use only outrigger boats. Concerning the tides, going in and out of the islands needs perfect timing, on a low tide some of the islands are not accessible because of its shallow, wide reef. Ultimately, as a passenger, you need to trust the decision of the boatmen as they are always after of your safety.
- As far as my experience goes, all islands of Balabac have soft, powdery sands and clear, azure, swimmable waters so it’s not hard to choose which to visit in case you only opt to stay for a day or two.
- Most of the islands have network connectivity with 1 to 2 signal bars, but have zero data connectivity.
- There is no ATM in Balabac, and establishments only accept cash. The nearest ATM is located at the town of Rio Tuba.
- There is water and electric supply via generator at Balabac Proper, Onuk Island, Candaraman Island, and Bugsuk Island. As there is limited supply of electricity, make sure to bring a flashlight so you can get around at night, and extra batteries or powerbanks for your gadgets.
- Because of strong sea swells, water might get inside the boat so always ensure that your gadgets are waterproof and bags are positioned at a higher place where water can’t reach.
- Bring a sunblock or any cover from the heat of the sun as some of the boats for island hopping have no roof, and lather your skin with insect repellent at night time to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
- For most of the tour operators, food is included in the tour package. However, if you are a picky eater, bring your own food or make sure to notify ahead your tour guide of the food that you can or want to eat.
WHERE TO STAY IN BALABAC
Don’t expect of anything luxurious, camping is the name of the game when it comes to accommodation in Balabac. There are four islands that have camping areas: Punta Sebaring, Candaraman, Onuk and Canibungan. When camping out, it’s best that you bring your own tent for comfort. Although tour operators may provide guests with tent like Kuya Motet Sanson, others offer a rental fee for P100.
For homestay and basic lodge, most are found at Balabac proper as listed below. Onuk Island also offers homestays but need to be pre-arranged with your tour operator.
- JD Lodging House (Sing and Swing Karaoke Bar) +63 910-662-0073
- MLK Lodging House +63 939 517 6169
In case you did not catch the boat trip to Balabac, you can stay in Rio Tuba at Dewelyn Lodging House +63 999 9034 854.
Like in any parts of the Philippines, most of the locals in Balabac can understand English. However, here are some good phrases that might prove useful when you find yourself endearing with them.
English to Molbog (language for most of the locals in Balabac)
Thank you – Mogsukor
Morning – Dorok
Afternoon – Mapun
Evening – Gabi
How much is… – Pida horga…
English to Sinama (the language of Sama people)
Hello – Salam
Thank you – Magsukol
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