Balabac Island: Sandbar Hopping Paradise in Palawan

It’s been three consecutive long weekends now and ironically, I’ve been spending my rest days and holidays just right here in my room, doing the thing I missed ~ blogging. And contrary to what my family, friends and workmates are speculating, I didn’t go on a travel spree all this time. With this, I can finally share my Balabac Island travelogue in this “comeback” article.

Approaching Onuk Island, Balabac, Palawan. All shots are taken by Em Smith (@emsmithcb) and yours truly.

Daydreaming of a holiday destination, Palawan could be in everyone’s list. Claimed the top spot (No. 1) once again in Travel + Leisure magazine’s awards “World Best Island list for 2017”, Palawan indeed captured the heart of travelers from all walks of life worldwide. Rightfully so, Palawan boasts El Nido’s beautiful lagoons and secret beaches, Coron’s limestone karst, Calauit’s safari, Puerto Princesa’s subterranean river, flower and water park. Read it here: Chasing Wonders in Palawan: A Wanderer’s Travelogue

Truly a wonderland, but there’s more to Palawan than those mainstream and tourist-filled spots. Let’s explore BALABAC ISLAND!

Bask in the beauty of Balabac

Enter your own slice of exotic paradise in Balabac, an exceptional escape into the Palawan’s last frontier. Balabac is a group of islands located in the southern most part of the archipelagic province of Palawan, just north of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. This far-fetched beauty is untamed, free from commercial establishments, and offering stunning beauty and unrivaled paradisiacal thrill worthy to be recognized with international fandom.

Summer may have ended but there’s no stopping Em Smith (@emsmithcb) and I from chasing after the sun, the sea, and most of all, the sandbars. Despite its under-the-radar status, our 4D/4/N trip to the last jewel of the South was rather special and possibly my favorite travel experience so far due to the exhilarating 12-hour non-stop sandbar hopping adventure. Yes, there’s such a thing as sandbar hopping and you can experience it only in Balabac Island.

Blessed with white sand shores, strips of creamy sandbars and clear blue waters ~ which are, by the way, perfect for a relaxing ambiance ~ you’ll never think twice in basking in the beauty of Balabac. I had been to some popular beaches in the Philippines but so far, I haven’t seen a beach (or sandbar for that matter) that is as lovely and alluring as Balabac’s especially when talking about the sugary white sand and azure waters surrounding each sandbar. Free from any exaggeration, the adjectives I just mentioned about Balabac Island is the closest I can describe to a real prolific paradise.

Sandbar Hopping Spree in Balabac Island

1. Canibungan Island

Canibungan is the first island we visited in our 12-hour sandbar hopping that day. The weather seemed uncooperative as dark clouds were lurking behind our boat and the waves were never still. So we thought it’s going to be a bad day but we never lose hope. We opted not to stay long in this white-sand island decorated with bayhops, seagrass and various types of corals few meters from its shores. But I wouldn’t mind being deserted in this island just like in Survivor tv series. Lol!

2. Mansalangan Sandbar

Just few minutes from Canibungan island, we came across a visible strip of white land mass glimmering in the middle of nowhere. It is actually a long stretch of stunning creamy sandbar confined in a turquoise waterscape and such beauty was a sign that it’s going to be a reat sandbar hopping adventure ahead. When our boat docked in the tip-most point of the Mansalangan Sandbar, we immediately jumped out of the boat and at the same time, the sun showed up giving us more reasons to celebrate and embrace God’s gift before us.

We spent less than 40 minutes in Mansalangan sandbar, taking photos and throwing action cameras in the air just to take good aerial shots of this beauty. Now look at that view?! Clear azure waters and a strand of sweet sugary sandbar. And oh, if you haven’t noticed, there’s actually a log marooned in its coast like a cinnamon stick and I thought it’s a perfect spot to stage your selfies.

3. Punta Sebaring

Located in the far-end of Bugsuk Island, Punta Sebaring beach  is our next stop and it is where we ate our lunch courtesy of our cool boatman, Ayeng. There is an entrance fee of Php 100.00/pax inclusive of cottage and overnight stay in the island. We even have a free coconut “buko” juice upon arrival, thanks to our ever thoughtful boatman.

Shot by my best travel buddy Em (@emsmithcb) in Balabac’s finest white sand.

Punta Sebaring is the said to be the go-to destination for visitors in Balabac who are plannning to stay overnight in the island by tent or hammock. Just take extra pre-cautionary measures (put insect repellent lotion) to protect yourself from the bites of niknik (gnat). Punta Sebaring is privately owned and houses the biggest and widest stretch of cottony white sand in the whole of Balabac group of islands. There are lots of pine trees abounding the long coast extension and the beach is dotted with pantropical creeping smooth vine called beach morning glory or “lambayong” in bisaya.

During noon time, the tide rises and the wide beach will turn into a sandbar as the water engulfs portion of the coast’s seabed. And I must say it’s pure art of nature. The sandbar, however, somewhat became a repository of logs and some debris that were washed ashore. Best time to visit Punta Sebarinng is in the afternoon or early morning where the tide is usually low and the wide powder-like sandbar emerges.

The unique sand of Punta Sebaring is the finest among the soils I’ve ever set my wayfaring feet into. Half of your legs will literally submerge deep into the banks of the granular and saturated sands. It looks scary at first but trust me, it’s actually fun to experience striding half of your legs through the “quick” sand.  It’s a must-try in Punta Sebaring I must say. The water still exudes sky-blue hue and the lush pine trees and bayhops added interesting finish to the sprawling seascape of Punta Sebaring.

4. Onuk Island

Let this postcard perfect picture of Onuk Island’s majestic beauty speak for itself.

Formerly known as Roughton Island and owned by a politician in Balabac, this alluring paradise is located at the tail-end of Palawan, Philippines. I’ve heard rumors about the good, the bad, the challenges going to this island but it didn’t stop us from including it in our itinerary. It’s the most coveted island when you visit Balabac and yet it’s the most elusive among all the islands. Aside from the perception of many travelers that Onuk Island management charges lavish entrance fee per person (P3,000 for day tour to P5,000 for overnight), many travelers noted one cannot visit Punta Sebaring and Onuk Island on the same day. But let me prove all of them wrong. I’m gonna tell you the biggest tip to include both Onuk Island and Punta Sebaring in your itinerary without breaking the bank. Please see Itinerary section below.

This ring-shaped atoll is enclosed with azure waters that extends up to 4 kilometers. You can feast your eyes on various shades of fluorescent, arctic and ultramarine blue waters that seem to go on endlessly. And the gorgeous creamy white sandbar is just right in front of the walkway and will surely serve as a playground for beach enthusiasts.

Don’t leave Onuk island without swimming and diving in its unique spot, the giant clam mini sanctuary. The the calm and crystal clear waters make it great for snorkeling and kayaking inter-island channels. Occasionally, there are beautiful surprises underwater as you encounter sea turtles “pakiwan” just swiftly swimming around the healthy eco-marine system of the island.

One can actually roam and frolic around the islet in the middle of the reef in just 10 minutes. The white sand beach is fenced in the ring-shaped atoll making it comfortable to tread your soles into the fine sands. It’s a great destination for relaxation, camping and a surreal place for communing with nature.

I must say that Onuk Island is the best island in Balabac ~ with the things I just noted above, coupled with stunning photos ~ I rest my case.

5. Candaraman Sandbar

Pastel Seascape. Photo credits to Em Smith (@emsmithcb)

And of course, the last, but not the least, sandbar destination of the day is Candaraman Island. There are at least 5 unique unnamed sandbars scattered around a huge land mass just off the coast of Candaraman Island in Balabac. Every sandbar exposes itself during low tide and in our particular experience, the sandbars were visible around 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

It was already late in the afternoon and the vibrance of the waters may have been reduced but once you land on the beach, you can’t help but get awe-struck by the view of the stunning aquamarine waters and the stunning islands as the backdrop. We hopped from one sandbar to another and enjoyed what each gem has to offer.

Candaraman island sandbar is monikered as starfish alley obviously because each strip of powdery sandbar is littered with lots of starfish of various sizes and colors. And speaking of colors, don’t leave Candaraman without taking beautiful shots of the fiery sunset.

As the sun was about to set below the horizon, there are little clown fishes moving around a hammer coral, probably their home, and I shouted “Look, I finally found Nemo!” With the ongoing sunset in the west and dual rainbows vividly sparkling in the south, it was a heart-warming moment seeing beautiful creations of God demonstrating intricately natural relationship, allowing other elements to flourish and proliferate. And with that, we returned to the bay of Balabac Poblacion filled with satisfaction and inspiration.

How To Get To Balabac

Getting to Balabac is a bit of an expedition but it’s worth the journey. Puerto Princesa has its own international airport catering increased flights to/from various destinations all over the world. From Puerto Princesa airport, go to San Jose Terminal and catch a van going to Rio Tuba, Bataraza. There are lots of vans operating as early as 4AM until 6PM bound for Rio Tuba. Travel time is 4-6 hours depending on the traffic. Once you reach Rio Tuba van terminal, head directly to Marabahay Pier Site and catch the only passenger boat going to Balabac poblacion (mainland) scheduled to depart as early as 8AM and as late as 11AM. Travel time is around 4 hours.

To maximize your Balabac trip, you may also opt to arrange your land trip with private operators of van-for-hire (Hajija Van 0910-065-3687 or Bachelor Transport 0907-712-9479) and contact a boat service operator in advance (see contact details of Kuya Ayeng below) to arrange pick up of your group in Rio Tuba and start your island/sandbar hopping therein.

Boat Operators in Balabac

Discover the most breathtaking spots in Balabac with the most hospitable and affordable tour service of Kuya Ayeng. There are a couple of boat operators that organize group tour packages and offer island hopping or sandbar hopping. I’ve canvassed the prices of these tours and the inclusion of destinations in each tour, and I’LL TELL YOU, there is no better tour service offering island/sandbar hopping in Balabac than that of Ayeng.

This is the boat of Kuya Ayeng

Kuya Ayeng owns two to three boats with boat capacity from 2 – 25 pax, accepts solo traveler and joiner trips. The rate is per person, way cheaper than any other tour operators in the island. Free meal onboard (breakfast, lunch and dinner included). Contact Kuya Ayeng via these mobile numbers – 09291658328 (Smart); 09452569259 (Globe)

Accommodation in Balabac

Expect basic accommodations, and lodging facilities in Rio Tuba and Balabac. If you happen to reach Rio Tuba and didn’t catch a ride in the only passenger boat going to Balabac, then you will have to stay overnight in Rio Tuba. There are a number of accommodations in Rio Tuba that are near the port such as Fanz Lodging House (Php 300 fan room with Cr, Php 600 for A/C with Cr) but we opted to stay at White Haven (fan room with own cr at Php 300) near Rio Tuba’s van terminal in Santo Nino Street.

We stayed at MLK Lodge for two nights despite lack of signboard that could have easily been identified by visitors.

There are only two accommodations in Balabac Poblacion ~ MLK Lodge and JD Lodging. We stayed at MLK Lodge (Smart 0939-517-6169 or Globe 0916-679-3993) with basic fan room and own CR with rent amounting to Php 500 per room per night. Its neighboring boarding house, JD Lodging (sing and Swing) is offering fan room, solo for Php 300 and aircon, double for Php 1,000.

Or you can wake up with new horizons and close with nature in these idyllic islands ~ Onuk Island and Punta Sebaring, Bugsuk Island ~ via tent or hammock, backpacker style.

Itinerary and Budget for 4D/4N Balabac Trip

When visiting Balabac Island, allot at least four days (including the travel time) to fully experience the fun and it is not just a mere suggestion but rather a mandatory one. The total estimated budget is Php 6,200 per person (good for two pax) including land and sea fares, accommodation (double sharing), tour package, including entrance fees & food during the tour. Here’s a sample itinerary of our 4D/4N Balabac Island Trip highlighting the insanely satisfying sandbar hopping spree:

Day 1 – Arrival in Puerto Princesa. Prepare for a grueling 5-6 hours land travel to Rio Tuba via van (Php 450). Check in at White Haven (double sharing, fan at Php 300 per room per night)

Day 2 – Wake up early. There’s only one boat trip going to Balabac Island Poblacion or mainland daily. Fare is Php 350 one-way, boat departs at 9am or as soon as the passenger boat is full. Roam around the island and visit Culina Watchtower, Indalawan Falls and Melville Lighthouse. Stayed at MLK Lodge (Php 500 per room per night). Make sure to charge all your gadgets as the power supply in Balabac Poblacion is not steady (power schedule is from 2pm until 6am)

Day 3 – 12 hours of non-stop sandbar hopping adventure (Special package by Kuya Ayeng for only Php 4,000 each, including Onuk Island & Punta Sebaring, free onboard meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner)

7:00 AM – departure from baybay (shore), pray for a good weather ahead
8:00 AM  – arrival in Canibungan. We didn’t roam the island, just took some picture from the boat and head directly to the second destination.
9:15 AM – arrival in Mansalanagan sandbar. Explore the sandbar and took some selfies
9:45 AM – departure from Mansalangan sandbar
10:20 AM – arrival in Punta Sebaring (owned by Gov. Alvarez, previously by Rene Prinsipe) Entrance fee is Php 100 inclusive of cottage, with buko juice. Beware of Niknik
11:45 AM – lunch at Punta Sebaring (included in the package)
12:15 PM – departure form PS
2:00 PM – arrival in Onuk Island. Tour the island
3:45 PM – departure from Onuk Island
4:50 PM – arrival at candaraman sandbar (1st). Wait for the sandbar to rise (or the tide to get low)
5:30 PM – transfer to 2nd sandbar formation. Marvel at the glorious sunset.
6:30 PM – departure from Candaraman
7:00 PM – arrival at baybay (shore)

Day 4 – Departure from Balabac mainland and head back to Rio Tuba by ferry (Php 350). Ride a van (just few meters from the pier waiting for arriving passengers) going to Puerto Princesa (Php 400).

Sunrise shot using Huawei GR5 2017 during our last day in Balabac, on board a ferry going back to Rio Tuba, Palawan.

Travelers described Balabac, Palawan as ‘every beach lover’s dream destination’ but I call it a prolific paradise offering a one-of-a-kind sandbar hopping adventure. I will definitely go back to this dream-come-true paradise called Balabac.

Share your Balabac experience or queries in the comments section below. Fore more adventures and travel photos, follow us on IG @vivomigsgee and @emsmithcb.

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