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Backpacking Coron: A Disappointing Experience

We naively imagined that backpacking Coron was affordable and unrestricted. However we soon realised that this was no longer the case and the Philippines best kept secret was out!

Our expectations of backpacking Coron

After spending an amazing two months in Indonesia, it was time for us to move on. Indonesia exceeded our expectations and its fair to say that we didn’t really want to leave. However we were still excited about the prospect of backpacking Coron and El Nido. Palawan promised breathtaking scenery, good snorkelling and kayaking to remote tropical islands.

Coron had been on our travel bucket list for a long time. We very nearly booked a holiday a few years back, but chickened out as the distance was too far for a short break from London. Now we had a 60 days Visa and desire to explore Palawan!

kayangan lake in coron
We were looking forward to finally traveling to a place we’d dreamt of for so long!

As we boarded our Cebu Pacific flight from Manila to Coron, the crowd was not what we expected. They were mostly well-dressed selfie taking millennials from across the globe. In comparison, we were considerably crusty and disheveled after a month of living like vagabonds in West Papua.

Where were all the intrepid travellers, friendly backpackers and weather-worn divers? Scanning peoples luggage we hoped to spot a pair of fins, or anyone lugging around big bags of scuba gear, but there was none to be seen! Our first impressions left us quite intrigued…

A taste of Coron Town

When we arrived in Coron Town it was busy. There were plenty of amenities but also alot of noisy bars and restaurants which is not really our scene. We were staying in the main hub at the Coron Eco Lodge, so everything was in walking distance.

Wandering into town on the hunt for food we dodged cars, tricycles, bikes, people and dogs. For such a small and supposedly remote place it felt overly crowded. But perhaps it was more of a shock to the system for us after being away from civilisation for so long!

We knew the Philippines wasn’t renowned for its healthy cuisine but after spending the past month surviving on a very basic diet we were ready to indulge. There was definitely plenty of choice, but we struggled to find anywhere really catering towards hungry backpackers on a budget or what seemed to be good value for money. This left us dreaming about our simple fish and rice suppers back in Raja Ampat.

Avoiding touristy boat trips in Coron

A bit like Labuan Bajo in Indonesia, Coron Town is the jumping point to all main attractions. There are dozens of tour operators offering various island hopping trips to see the famous lakes plus snorkel and dive spots. Each traditional outrigger boat generally caters to around 20 guests. Perhaps we sound like the snobbiest backpackers ever but we aren’t all that keen on organised boat trips with lots of tourists.

Outrigger tour boat in Palawan, Philippines
Outrigger tour boats in Coron harbour

We prefer setting our own itinerary avoiding hotspots, but the prices being quoted for private boat tours were way out of our budget. This took us by surprise as we’d imaged backpacking Coron to be a little more affordable! Despite our best efforts (using a combination of Western charm / Nick pulling out the Asian card 😂) there was no negotiation to be had. It seemed as though the operators weren’t all that bothered about our business.

Finding a budget private boat tour

Taking matters into our own hands we headed straight for the harbour, deciding that the best option was to speak to boat owners directly, like the time we chartered our own snorkelling liveaboard in Komodo.

But unlike Labuan Bajo, Coron harbour didn’t really seem like much of a working harbour. There were no friendly fishermen or boat captains around. We could tell right away that the outriggers here were catered towards tours organised by the operators in town.

We got chatting to a guy who spotted us looking longingly towards the limestone landscape in the distance. He could arrange a private tour for the following day that was slightly cheaper. It was still a bit pricey for our budget, but at least we could tailor our itinerary with three spots of choice and if we bought our own lunch it was doable at 3,000 php per person.

Snorkels at the ready!

At 7am the following morning we found ourselves running to the market to grab our lunch – fresh fish, rice and a bunch of bananas. We were back on the Raja Ampat diet again!

Our guide took us through some paperwork and explained that we had to pay a marine park fee for each individual stop on our itinerary.

At 100 to 200 php per spot, our budget was all of a sudden spiralling out of control! It was a bit sneaky of the guide not to mention this when we arranged our trip with him the day prior, but there wasn’t much we could do about it now. We were already on the boat! The fees go towards local tribes who protect the area which of course we respect, but it did seem rather excessive.

Exploring Kayangan Lake

As the boat slowed into Coron Bay just outside of Kayangan Lake the scenery was breathtaking. Dramatic limestone shards loomed over us and the turquoise waters below. We were so excited to be here!

Beautiful Coron Bay
The landscape surrounding Coron Bay is some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen

As we grabbed our gear, the guide explained that we had to wear life jackets in the lake. It seemed like an odd request. There would be no waves or current so why did we need such precautions? We tried explaining that we wouldn’t need the jackets, but he wasn’t having any of it. This rule was put in place because two tourists drowned in the lake not long ago! We understood, but admittedly it put a bit of a downer on our feelings of freedom and adventure.

The famous Coron Bay viewpoint

After a small hike we reached the famous viewpoint over the bay. We had to wait our turn, but once we got a chance to look it was simply beautiful. Our guide (slash personal photographer) was on hand to take our picture and ushered us into what he described as a ‘cave’ for another photo opportunity.

An underwater moonscape

On the other side of the cliff the scenery was equally as stunning. A small wooden jetty lead us around to the entry point of the lake. We somehow managed to convince our guide to let us get in without the jackets, and slipped into the pristine water. The sensation of swimming in freshwater was very different to the sea, it was so cool and very relaxing.

Under the water, the scenery was how you’d imagine the surface of the moon – A smooth grey rock bottom with outcrops of strange underwater stalactites. It was a completely different experience to snorkelling a reef. There wasn’t really any fish life except for a few fresh water shrimps, but we loved every minute of it!

Our first wreck snorkel

Coron is famous for its Japanese shipwrecks. The majority are only really accessible as a diver, but some are shallower than others so we decided to add Skeleton Wreck to our itinerary for the day as it sounded pretty cool.

snorkelling skeleton wreck in coron
A ball of mesmerising sardines!

Although the water looked clear from the boat above, visibility was low and we struggled to make out the wreck without freediving down deep. The most impressive sight was an awesome ball of sardines swimming together in formation right next to it. Something we had yet to see on any of our other snorkel expeditions!

We discovered some nice corals and better vis further around the bay, but more and more tour boats kept arriving. We decided to cut our visit short after a huge outrigger turned up with pumping music and dive-bombing passengers.

Lunch at Coral Garden

The next stop was lunch. We envisioned tucking into our fish on a remote beach but instead, the boat dropped anchor right next to our final spot for the day. Coral Garden, an expansive reef in the middle of the channel between Coron Town and the entry to the lakes. Juggling plates on our laps as the waves hit the boat wasn’t quite what we’d in mind, but we were amused by the situation.

As our guide and captain slept on the deck, we exhausted the reef below. The snorkelling wasn’t all bad, but didn’t compare to the likes of Komodo, Bunaken or Raja Ampat in Indonesia and it certainly wasn’t a ‘garden of coral’. We left our final stop with a tinge of disappointment.

So, Coron isn’t off the beaten track after all?

By 2pm we were back in our hotel, reflecting on the day. There was no denying that we had seen some of the most breathtaking scenery in our lives. We felt guilty for not enjoying the day as much as we should have, but there was just something special missing. We’d had such high hopes for backpacking Coron. In our minds we had imagined it being a place for discerning travellers, somewhere undiscovered. We never expected it to be this touristy.

In many ways it reminded us of Thailand, but minus the food and backpackers budget. Coron was still untouched, but in our opinion it was no longer a hidden gem. Clearly the secret of Palawan was out. Maybe that’s why we couldn’t help feeling disappointed?

Giving Coron the benefit of the doubt

After spending a few days moping around and generally feeling a bit sorry for ourselves we decided to bite the bullet and give one of the group boat tours a go. On our strict budget, this was our only option if we wanted to see more of Coron. We chose the ‘Reefs and Wrecks’ tour and paid 650 php each including a stop off at Pass Island for lunch, on the beach this time!

coron life jackets
The jackets also double up as a nice cushion for long boat journeys!

It was mandatory for all passengers to wear life jackets for journey, or at least be seen wearing them as we left Coron harbour. You certainly couldn’t fault the Filipinos for their attention to safety!

Possibly the worst snorkel experience ever

The first wreck was quite possibly up there as one of the worst snorkel experiences of our lives (aside from that time at Pink Beach!) The wreck itself was really cool, but fighting our way through hoards of snorkellers flapping about in the water, was not. Guides with ropes were pulling people along who couldn’t swim and there were boats constantly moving in and out of the area.

Freediving down to check out the wreck between the chaos wasn’t easy, especially trying to avoid being kicked in the face on our way back to the surface. We couldn’t wait to get out of the water.

Finally some decent food at Pass Island

Lunch at Pass Island was lovely. Although the islands only purpose is a stop-off point for all the tour boats, it was still beautiful. The water surrounding the island was perfectly turquoise and we enjoyed sharing a delicious lunch under shady palm trees with our fellow tour mates. The boat crew laid out a big table with fresh fish and an amazing aubergine salad. It was quite possibly the best food we’d eaten all week!

On our way back to Coron Town, we caught the sunset. Although the days experiences had been mixed we met some really great people and felt satisfied after seeing more of the area. But in our hearts we knew that it was time to move on.

Onwards and upwards

Our broad plan had been to travel from Coron down to El Nido, but after discussing this with other travellers we decided against backpacking Palawan entirely. If we didn’t like the touristy vibes in Coron, there wasn’t much hope for El Nido.

skeleton wreck beach
We didn’t love Coron, but we still had some fun moments

We were disappointed that Coron hadn’t lived up to our expectations, but we still managed to enjoy our time despite the negative aspects. Coron is without a doubt, an area of outstanding natural beauty so of course we couldn’t blame people for wanting to come here. Looks like we were just too late!

If it weren’t for all the overpriced boat tours, hidden fees, food and tourists we probably would have enjoyed backpacking Coron a lot more than we actually did. And maybe if we hadn’t have been on such a strict budget we could have.

The beauty of being a backpacker is freedom and flexibility. If you don’t like a place, you can just move on! With no itinerary or real time constraints we were able to rethink our plans and opted to travel to the lesser known Padre Burgos instead. We wouldn’t let this experience tarnish our opinion of the Philippines, we just had to find somewhere that really was off the beaten track.

Have you ever travelled to Coron or El Nido? What was your experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!


  1. Hi!
    We haven’t been to Coron but to ElNido. And yes it is crowdy as I belive Coron is.
    Also the bay is not bathable (is that a word? 😅,
    you must either walk on the beach and cliffs for a while to reach clean water or take tour boats to amazing islands/beaches. But with 15-ish other ppl…
    We did both. From El Nido bay we walked by the sea to the airport. Beautiful beaches ♡
    And sea. But
    ..we got badly bitten by sandflies. They where on the dry seaweed on the beach.
    Also when we flew from ElNido to Manila they told us and every one else to put the hand luggage into the check in luggage which ment it got over weight and that cost more than the ticket for the 20kg luggage-ticket we had bought. (At that time we could only pre book our personal ticket on line and we had to go to the travel agency in El nido to buy tickets for our luggage)
    We wouldn’t has it undone but we are not going there again.
    Enjoy your travelling ♡
    Best regards
    Eva /Sweden

    1. Hi Eva,

      So lovely to hear from you, and thank you so much for your comment! We loved hearing about your experience of El Nido!

      It sounds very similar to Coron in that you need to take boat trips to see all the best places. I think we made the right decision to skip El Nido, your description really confirms our suspicions. Overall we are glad to have experienced Coron, but we won’t be rushing back any time soon 😉

      It’s so funny that you mention the extra luggage costs – The same thing happened to us! We were really quite frustrated by all the hidden costs in the Philippines, especially the separate terminal fees that we had to pay when catching a flight, ferry and even a bus. It’s definitely not something we’ve experienced anywhere else in SE Asia!

      Thanks so much again for sharing your experience with us.

      All the best,

      Claire & Nick 🙂

  2. I traveled to El Nido in February a few years ago. The hotel I booked turned out to be right across the street from a club pumping out heavy bass music all night. Around 11pm my first night I went searching for another hotel. As it was high season there was little to be found, but after a couple of hours searching I booked a room at Bill Tourist Inn, which was a bit pricey, but my only option to prevent insanity. Walked back to my other hotel, grabbed my stuff, threw the key on the bed and never looked back. Bill Tourist Inn turned out to be a very decent place and I only wish I’d found it earlier when I was booking accommodation. Over the next few days I did a couple of the boat tours out of El Nido, but was thoroughly disappointed. Everywhere we went there were many other boats, noisy, and not conducive to a relaxing time. El Nido is really small, but very densely packed with tourists all doing the same thing. I can’t really recommend this place to anyone.

    I left El Nido after 5 days and went down to San Vicente, which is a small town about halfway between El Nido and Puerta Princesa. Not much to do there but the guesthouses were a lot quieter, and there’s a nice beach – Long Beach – where you’re almost guaranteed to be the only person around. Not much in the way of snorkeling or stuff to look at, but it was peaceful, the water was nice, and I considered it an improvement on El Nido. I’ve been told that this is supposed to become “the next Boracay.” (Signs of development were in the air) If you’re aware of what’s become of Boracay you’ll probably laugh at why anyone would want to ruin a perfectly peaceful place like that…. I’ve come to the conclusion that if the destination is famous then I probably don’t want to go there…. and will look for other travel options.

    I just returned from two weeks in Raja Ampat and that’s definitely a place I’ll go back to again.

    1. Hi James – Thanks for sharing your impressions of El Nido with us. Sadly we are hearing more and more stories similar to yours, which is very much in line with our own personal experience of Palawan. We must admit this ‘famous destination syndrome’ is a worry where Raja Ampat is concerned, but hope the current efforts towards conservation and sustainable tourism will continue. Presumably you had a great time since you’re already considering another trip? Would love to hear about your experience!

  3. hi,bit sad to hear a lot of negative comments about palawan,yes it is very busy with tourists,and theres plenty of construction at a rapid rate of knots,but i think people forget that in these sea countries,espescially phils,theres little to no jobs for locals and tourism presents a way out for a lot of people.
    its easy for us westerners to complain etc etc but on the flip side people are climbing out of poverty which can only be a good thing.
    I visited coron last year and had a great time,in fact i wish i had stayed longer.i took my advanced open water which was predominantly wreck dives which were totally amazing,seeing untouched wrecks that have been sitting on the seabed for over 60 years,many carrying different cargos which you could clearly see,got some great memories
    My accomodation was cheap and basic in coron main town and very quiet at night,so no issues sleeping.
    The philippines is fast becoming a tourist hotspot and that brings its own set of problems for the authorities to deal with,the latest being the complete shutdown of borocay,that should serve as an important reminder to the authorities that left unchecked,tourism will run rampant throughout these beautiful places and that rules and regs should be in place to prevent the mass invasion of tourists,they need to take the long view and not the quick peso
    i will be returning to phils this year but also want to go to indonesia,so im interested to read your blog from there next

  4. Hi Claire,
    I am Alexia from France. We are planning a trip to Philippines next January, and we are looking for non-touristy places to be. We think memories are less valuable when you are in a crowd 😉
    I took good note of your article about Padre Burgos.
    Did you go to other non-touristy places that you would be keen to share by PM (so that they can remain non -touristy^^)? I think you have access to my email address? Thank you very much !!!

    1. Hi Alexia, thanks for your comment and apologies for the delay in getting back to you, we have been off-grid in Raja Ampat for the last two months. I could not agree more 🙂 I can only really recommend Padre Burgos to you, as the other places we visited (Palawan specifically) were very touristy… Hope you enjoy your trip, if you find anywhere awesome off the beaten track you’ll have to let us know! All the best, Claire

  5. So pleased l did my dive trips to ALL those places, Indonesia+Philippines, 15-20years ago for months at a time. Pretty basic with lots of unspoiled underwater videoing. It was unspoilt FEW TOURISTS, which sound like main problem now. I dare not go back

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