Puerto Princesa is the hub of tourism on Palawan, the “top island in the world” in 2014 according to Conde Nast. It’s a small city and really is best described as the gateway to the many Palawan attractions like the Underground River, Honda Bay, and El Nido.
We spent a few days in “Puerto” when we first arrived in Palawan and then another night on our way back to Manila. We explored the city and ate some fun meals.
Puerto Princesa Hotel
We stayed in two Puerto Princesa hotels. The first, where we stayed for 4 nights, was Sheena’s Pension just outside the main part of town. On the way to Manila we also stayed one night at One Rovers Place right on Rizal Ave. in the heart of downtown.
Sheena’s is a mostly quiet place in a very rural part of the “city.” When we first arrived we fell in love and thought we would actually change our plans and stay longer. There are a couple of huts set in a tranquil garden as well as some smaller rooms next to a nice free form swimming pool.
We had one of the huts and it was great. There’s a giant covered porch with a comfy day bed. Inside there’s a big bedroom, bathroom, and what appeared to be a former kitchen. Now it’s just an extra space with a counter and second sink. The hut itself was probably the nicest we stayed in throughout the Philippines.
There’s a small restaurant on the property where you can get a variety of dishes for very low cost. On the menu there’s standards like chicken adobo and pancit noodles, but you can also make special requests ahead of time and they’ll try to buy the required ingredients at the market. The restaurant also serves beverages all day (we may have cleaned out the supply of 1L Red Horse though). There’s also a small store at the end of the driveway that sells snacks and other essentials.
Having the pool was perfect and the kids were in it every day. There are a couple of tables with umbrellas next to it where we could hang out while they splashed around if we didn’t want to swim too.
The only downside to the pool is Sheena’s also rents the space to day users who come and have karaoke parties there. The music is loud and the singing is… well, it’s karaoke (most people aren’t very good at karaoke). They stop around 10 p.m. and we sort of got used to it by the time we left. Though we did think about renting the machine ourselves a few times just to have a couple hours of quiet during nap time.
It’s about a 15 minute tricycle ride from downtown (70-80 pesos, less than $2). There’s really nothing in the way of restaurants within walking distance, so you have to take a trike if you’re tired of the on-site restaurant. Most of the time this was fine and we didn’t have trouble flagging one down. Once or twice we had to wait 15 minutes or so before finding one. Many drivers don’t know exactly where Sheena’s is, so pay attention on your way in so you can direct a driver if necessary the next time.
Overall we really liked Sheena’s Pension. The price was right (834 pesos per night, $19) and the good, cheap food on site plus a pool are huge positives along with the wonderful cottage itself. The staff was amazing, so friendly and made us feel at home. It’s family run and we felt like we were guests of the family.
These pros more than made up for the annoyance of the karaoke playing several hours a day for us. We aren’t exactly the quietest group ourselves (as anyone who has witnessed a 3 year old’s tantrum can attest, let alone two of them simultaneously), so the karaoke was just background noise. Honestly we felt like we were learning something about the culture as most of the parties were locals having birthdays or holiday gatherings that we got to observe. But it was loud, no way around it. If you’re after serenity 24/7, look elsewhere.
One Rovers Place
We learned about One Rover’s Place from from a sign posted at our El Nido resort (Telesfora Beach Cottages). The staff and owner of Telesfora recommended Rovers Place as a good option in Puerto Princesa before flying out because of its convenient downtown location close to the airport.
One Rovers Place is right on Rizal Avenue about a 2 minute drive to the airport. There are several restaurants within walking distance and many more a short trike ride away. Despite being right downtown it was pretty quiet – our kids probably made way more noise than the city traffic.
We had a large room with two twin beds but no bathroom. There were shared bathrooms at the end of the hall which worked out fine. We never had to wait and the bathrooms were always clean. There didn’t seem to be a lot of people staying there so it might have been more difficult if they had higher occupancy. You can also pay more for a room with private bathroom.
Our room was 950 pesos ($21) for the one night, including breakfast for two and free airport transfer in the hotel’s van. We felt really welcome from the moment we arrived. We were even served cold lemongrass juice when we checked in which felt great after the 6 hour van ride from El Nido.
Puerto Princesa Restaurants
While only in Puerto for a few nights we managed to find some good restaurants.
Our favorite was probably Tom Tom’s, a German place hidden away on a side street south of Rizal Ave. Great sausages and steaks. This was the first time we’d had a real steak in a couple of months and it more than lived up to our expectations. The owner is also hilarious and we had a good chat while we waited for our food. The ambiance inside is good and we also loved the beer garden outside. We took a trike from One Rover’s place (20-30 pesos, less than $1).
Kinabuchs is basically a parking lot turned into a restaurant, which actually worked great for us because the kids could run circles around the table (literally) without bothering anyone too much. The big draw here is the chance to try tamilok (also known as mangrove worms – yum), a local delicacy that is somewhat like an oyster. We had ours fried but you can also get it in a ceviche.
KaLui is near Kinabuchs on Rizal Ave. and has an awesome interior décor that you would never guess from the street. Inside you take off your shoes when you enter and it feels very south seas tropical. It’s set up with low tables so you sit on the floor on rice sacks. A little like Paupatri in Boracay. We went to KaLui for lunch and split a fixed price combination meal that was a great value (about 450 pesos, $10, for the entree). It fed the four of us easily and was full of unique dishes. Our favorite was probably the curry fish rolls – amazing!
Puerto Princesa Activities
Our favorite Puerto Princesa activity was exploring Baker’s Hill, a short trike ride from downtown. Besides that we did a day trip to Honda Bay (post in the works) and spent some time around town trying to get business cards made up (success!) and taking care of other errands (bug repellent? check. duct tape? check. 3L box of wine? check).
Baker’s Hill is almost like a small amusement park. There’s a huge playground for kids, statues of comic book and movie characters (and a Buddha), a variety of food options, animals to look at, and more.
The place seems very popular with locals. A trike driver in town told us he brings his kids there every weekend and during our visit there were definitely lots of local families enjoying the playground.
Famous for its “hopia”, a dense pastry with a flaky outside crust, the bakery shop at Baker’s Hill is a must. We bought a box of the hopia while we were there and Kat was wishing we got a case when it ran out a few days later. There’s also tarts, cakes, cookies, and other sweets if the hopia isn’t your thing.
We had a surprisingly delicious pizza lunch at Baker’s Kitchen (they’re small so we needed 2 full pizza’s for the four of us) along with fruit shakes from the stand across the way from the pizza place.
Our trike cost 100 pesos ($2.25) to get from Sheena’s Pension to Baker’s Hill. The driver was wishing he charged more when the trike broke down halfway up a giant hill on the way! The driver on the way back was smarter and charged us 120.
Puerto Princesa Shopping
We spent some time wandering Rizal Ave. but other than finding Philippines Home Depot (I got way to excited about this) we had a lot more luck in two malls in the area.
There’s one just south of Rizal, on Lacao Street (look for Jollibee on the corner) with a supermarket downstairs and a department store above. The store here seems to cater to folks stocking up their sari saris (small neighborhood stores) and there are giant lines where customers pack up bulk quantities of dry goods. There are a few lanes at the far end for us small time shoppers though, so look for them if you’re not buying 100 packages of ramen noodles!
A larger, more modern mall (Robinson’s Place) is north of downtown on the highway. Robinson’s Place has lots of typical mall stores and restaurants. We ate there one night when Jasper had protested Filipino food for a few days in a row and we felt like we should find the poor kid some mac and cheese.
We also used Puerto Princesa as a base to do a day trip to Honda Bay which we’ll write about more in an upcoming post.
We did not do the one-day round trip tour of the Underground River from Puerto Princesa.
Many tour operators offer such a day tour. While it’s promoted as the “Puerto Princesa Underground River”, it’s actually in Sabang which is a couple hours north. Unless your van breaks down on the way – ours did when we traveled up there a few days later. Then it’s 4 hours with a “snack break” on the side of the highway.
We stayed a few days in a Sabang beach hut to enjoy the beach, Underground River, and other activities there on our own schedule. Definitely recommend that approach if you have the time. Lots more on Sabang coming up as well!