Traveling to Puerto Princesa without island-hopping and snorkeling in particular is like going to the Arctic Circle in a bikini. It’s not just unreasonable, it’s totally wrong, and pointless.
Snorkeling in Honda Bay was quite simply one of the best snorkeling experiences of my life. I doubt I will ever snorkel elsewhere that will offer such color and diversity outside Palawan. It has set an unfortunately unreasonable standard that I don’t think I’ll be quite as happy snorkeling elsewhere. Waiting to be proved wrong (diving not counted).
DIY level: Easy (set tour rates go for about Php1,200 per person! Crazy! Just do it yourself!)
Time needed: One full day (6 AM – 5 PM travel time included)
Things to buy: Food from the market for grilling (example: liempo cuts, uncooked rice, soft drinks, fish and other grillable seafood, fruits for dessert), utensils (paper plates, cups, extra bag of charcoal), bottled water, underwater camera/case (A MUST!), bread for fish feeding, goggles/own snorkel gear to save on rent fees, and a positive, child-like disposition towards the beauty you are about to witness.
How to get to Honda Bay Wharf:
(Read my post on Puerto Princesa’s unique tourism culture here for a better understanding of their system)
Commute: Best for the DIY solo backpacker. There are jeepneys/multicabs along the main roads Rizal Avenue and Puerto Princesa North Road with the signage “Honda Bay”. Fare is something like Php 20. Cons: Cannot stop at the snorkel shop on the way for renting snorkel gear, underwater camera case, buying bread for fish feeding, nor at the public market where you can buy food to be cooked on Pandan Island.
Tricycle Hire: Best for a group of 4 or less. As is common with provincial tricycles, Puerto Princesa’s can accommodate up to 5 persons (with zero legroom). So if you are traveling alone or in a small group, hire a tricycle. We hired Manong Edgar (very sadly, lost his contact number), as he has agreed to a roundtrip service for Php 500, after having spent the day doing the City Tour with him. Sweetest deal I’ve ever heard from a Puerto Princesa transportation service. You can stop any tricycle driver (preferably not the blue DOT-accredited ones so as to be able to haggle) and talk with him first a day or two before your Honda Bay trip, agree on a time, place, and price for his roundtrip service. Try to catch him alone and keep the price secret between you as many are in cahoots about a certain unreasonable “standard price” they set which I think is for the DOT-accredited tricycles only, and which ordinary tricycles will try to get away with.
Multicab Hire: Best for bigger groups. The day before your trip, scout for a friendly-looking multicab driver and talk to him in private (doing so in front of his peers will give you a hard time haggling, as Puerto Princesa has developed a protectionist system when it comes to hire fares and they will not budge). Ask him for his price to pick you up from your hotel early in the morning and then to pick you back up in the afternoon from Honda Bay. He will give something like Php 1,000. I was able to bring it down to Php 700, which I think is still too high (Honda Bay is only about 30-40 mins away from city center, and he can still go through his day being a regular jeepney while he waits to pick you up again), but there were five of us plus our things, so I agreed. We were serviced by Kuya Charlie’s Multicab (0915-9622218).
Van Rental: Official van rental rate is at Php1,500. Non-negotiable, sadly. I think of it as an institutionalized rip-off.
At the Wharf:
Go directly to the office to book your boat. Boats come in various sizes and capacities, prices ranging from Php 1,500 – Php 1,800.
NOTE: You have an option to pay for island entrance fees in advance, but I suggest not to, as you most likely will not want to check out all the islands available for visiting. It is better to talk with your boatmen first about what you want to see and do, and to have them suggest which ones to visit.
Pay for environmental and terminal fees (around Php 70 per head total). Then off to your adventure!!
Pambato Reef is the deepest snorkeling area. AND THE BEST. There is a lifeguard-station-cum-boat-parking-lot jump-off point from which you will swim to the reef. They will not allow you to remove your life vest, no matter how much you insist. You are not allowed to feed the fish, as it disrupts the ecosystem. Why is this important? Because here, you will see the best and most colorful assortment of fish and corals that will truly mesmerize you. Forget snorkeling elsewhere — this is the place to be. It’s like having jumped into a display aquarium at Ocean Park. Entrance at Php 50/head.
Corals in this picture were from Pambato Reef snorkeling
Pandan Island for lunch and as a last stop. “Finding nemo” with your guide (snorkeling to look for clownfish), photo ops, grilling (boatmen will usually offer to cook for you but it’s also fun to do it yourself), relaxing. Php 100 per head entrance fee, so do take your sweet time. Table and hut rentals available, and food and drinks on this island are expensive. so bring your own. It can get crowded, though, during peak season. So if you want peace, ask your boatmen if there is a quieter island where you can be allowed to grill and have lunch (Cowrie Island, for example).
Other islands available to visit:
Starfish Island is, you guessed it — renown for starfish abundance, plus a relaxed atmosphere with huts to rent
Luli Island is a quaint little island whose name hails from the Filipino phrase, “lulubog-lilitaw” (“sinking-surfacing”) as reference to its behavior during different tide phases.
Snake Island, a sandbar island, was no longer visit-able according to our boatmen, for reasons unknown.
Plus other small islands which names I’ve forgotten because I decided to skip them. All with their own entrance fees ranging from Php 25 – 100 per head (why, though? This irks me a lot).
While it would be nice to visit all islands, I would rather stay longer in choice waters to view unlimited schools of fish and the really mesmerizing neon-colored ones and their coral habitats. That’s what you’ve paid for to see, after all. The water is clear, and there aren’t scary sea-grass or weeds to wade through before getting to the good stuff, which is great. Sand is not as white as pictures would commonly depict them, but with a light flesh, crushed-seashell appearance to it. During the whole trip, you will pass by pretty mangrove islands that look like they’re floating directly on the sea, which makes for a good view, as well as the endless horizon of sea.
This is the most worth-it part of a Puerto Princesa trip. As a sea-and-sun lover, to me, this beats the Underground River and City Tour hands-down. I would do it again if I ever go back. I heavily endorse DIY-ing this trip, as it is one of the easiest and most straightforward activities you can do in Puerto Princesa, and compared to other things in this city, you’d be glad about what you’re paying for.
(Plus, I hate and would like to discourage the tourist-trap-py culture that Puerto Princesa is rapidly and unhealthily cultivating. So no set tours for me here. Ever. I will post a separate entry on this soon.)
Again, I cannot stress enough that to vacation in Puerto Princesa without Honda Bay island hopping is utterly wrong, and a loss. So be sure to include it in your itineraries!