Balabac, the southernmost municipality of Palawan Province, has gained popularity as a tourist destination only in the past ten years. Fortunately, it remains non-touristy as compared to the northern destinations like El Nido and Coron. This is largely due to its remote location. To get to Balabac island from Puerto Princesa International Airport, one has to take a six-hour van ride to Buliyan Port, then transfer to a speedboat (1 hour) or ferry (2-3 hours) to the main island.
Most travelers to Balabac, however, don’t set foot on the main island of Balabac since they typically avail of island-hopping tour packages, which depart from the southernmost tip of the Palawan island. Multi-day tours take guests exploring the smaller, pristine white-sand islands and sand bars strung across the North Balabac Strait. On my first visit to Balabac in 2017, I joined an incredible island-hopping tour, where we swam, snorkeled and camped at these desolate, idyllic islands. Last March, I finally found the time to visit Balabac Island itself after a dive safari at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
There are a handful of historical and cultural sites one can visit in Balabac town, which is compact enough to be explored on foot. It only takes a few hours to half a day to explore the town. From my comfortable accommodation, Batalla’s Lodging House, I first walked to the Immaculate Conception Parish Church, a new church which was completed in 2015. The Roman Catholic edifice stands near the Masjid Awwal, the largest mosque in Balabac. A young boy offered to show me around the mosque and take me to the rooftop next to the large green dome, which overlooked the town.
Balabac town is surrounded by forested hills. On the western end of the settlement, the surrounding vegetation conceals the ruins of Fuerza de Principe Alfonso, a defense structure presently called Fort Culina. Southern Palawan, together with Balabac Island, used to be under the jurisdiction of the Sultanate of Brunei (1368-1888). In 1749, the area was ceded to the Spanish colonizers, who finally controlled the entire stretch of Palawan. According to this Spanish monograph, to prevent the usurpation of Balabac by British colonizers from Borneo, a Spanish military outpost was established on the island in 1858 and named Principe Alfonso after Alfonso XII (1857-1885), who would later become the King of Spain.
A short hike up a forested hill on the west side of town will take you to remains of the hexagonal fort with a watchtower. Sadly, the heritage site has deteriorated over the decades, having been vandalized by treasure hunters and neglected. One can barely see its adobe walls, which are now covered by shrubs and vines. I hope the municipal tourism office’s plans to restore the fort as a tourism site will become a reality soon.
My last stop on my walking tour is on the other side of town. Also situated on a hill, the Balabac Quincentennial Historical Marker is the newest tourist attraction. It belongs to a series of 34 concrete markers installed along the Philippine leg of the Magellan-El Cano expedition (1519-1522), commemorating the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the world.
Southern Day Tour
The most impressive heritage site in the municipality is a colonial-era lighthouse located on the southernmost end of Balabac Island. Cape Melville Lighthouse was built in 1892 to safeguard vessels traveling through Balabac Strait, between the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo. On the clearest of days, one could already see Banggi, an island belonging to Sabah, from here.
Unfortunately, getting there is no walk in the park like the previous landmarks. Typically, groups can hire a boat to take you there. Alternatively, solo travelers can also hire a motorcycle with driver (₱1,500). The hired driver has to be familiar with the destination, since getting there overland requires negotiating through tough off-road trails and forest paths, which can only be done in dry weather. On my second day, I hired local guide Tony Francis Valdez (Tel. +63 9514742861) to take me to the lighthouse, and visit a few more attractions along the way. Since there are no places to eat outside of town, I had to pre-order packed meals for breakfast and lunch for the guide and myself from Kusina ni Nanay Eths (Tel. +63 9311769563), whose owner works at the municipal tourism office.
The motorcycle trip from town to the lighthouse was one of the roughest rides I have ever experienced. It took us around two and a half hours to reach our final destination. Our route became progressively rougher the father away we traveled from town; we began cruising down a concrete highway, then winding dirt roads through coconut groves and seaside villages. Halfway through the trip, we stopped by La Isla Rancho, a desolate ranch with picnic tables and a mini-grocery (with cold drinks from Malaysia!), where we enjoyed our packed breakfast.
After brunch, we finally traversed dried-up rice fields with patches of thickets with no discernible paths for vehicles. The final stretch was a forested uphill hiking trail, where I had to get off and Francis had to push the motorcycle up a hill. But finally laying my eyes on Cape Melville Lighthouse after that butt-numbing excursion was worth all the trouble. Despite being in a derelict state – replaced by a modern lighthouse nearby – it was one of the grandest heritage lighthouses I’ve seen in the country. Rising 90 feet (27 m), its granite tower is the tallest among the Spanish-era lighthouses in the country, dominating the grassy coastal landscape.
While less comfortable than taking a boat, the advantage of traveling overland by motorcycle is that one can visit other tourist spots along the way. En route back to town, we visited a few natural sites like Indalawan Libon Beach, Indalawan Rock Formations, and Indalawan Falls.
How to Get There
From Puerto Princesa City, take a bus or van to Buliluyan Port, Bataraza. One may board a bus or van at Irawan Bus Terminal, or book door-to-door van via local van operators like Pilandok Transport. Travel time is at least five hours.
Before boarding at Buliluyan Port, tourists must register at Bataraza Tourism Sub-Office (blue building). Speedboats depart daily around 7:00 am, taking an hour to reach Balabac, while outrigger boats leave around 10:00 am daily, and take two to three hours to reach the island.
M/B JS Sea Express (Tel. +63 9187545753) has a new 600-hp twin-engine speedboat (₱700) that accommodates up to 41 persons, traveling Buliluyan-Bancalaan-Balabac. They depart Balabac for Buliluyan at 5:30 am daily, and offer connecting van transfers back to Puerto Princesa that you can book in advance.
Where to Stay
Only basic guesthouses can be found in Balabac town. I recommend staying at Batalla’s Lodging House (Tel. +63 9085505823) located behind Balabac Central School, and just a short walk away from the Municipal Tourism Office, where tourists can seek assistance. Accommodation starts at ₱1,500 for their spacious double air-conditioned rooms.