Located in the southwestern Philippines, the jungle island of Palawan has often been described as the country’s “last ecological frontier.” With artifacts dating back 50,000 years, prehistoric cave formations, secret lagoons and incredible flora and fauna, Palawan is the most biodiverse island in the Philippines.
The northern part of Palawan is considered the most scenic with the Bacuit Bay Nature Reserve surrounding the small fishing village of El Nido (my choice for our stay). Just offshore from El Nido, you’ll find spectacular islands and limestone rock formations dating back 250 million years.
Ranked as the best island in the world by Conde Nast Traveler in 2015, Palawan has been on my wish list for years. It’s just one of 7,107 islands in the Philippines but many would say it’s definitely the one not to be missed.
Since it’s not like me to miss out on any island much less one ranked as the “world’s best” I knew my husband Dave and I had to get there while we were in Asia last month. So after relaxing stops in Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe there was really only one question remaining…how do we get to El Nido?
An El Nido Travel Guide
Before I move on to how we got to El Nido, I should mention that I spent weeks scouring the internet looking for reliable information on Palawan or a decent El Nido Travel Guide. With the exception of a few great blogs, information was scant or heavily weighted toward the tour company that created it. So, with that in mind, I wanted to create my own basic El Nido Travel Guide containing all the useful information I would have found helpful while planning our trip in the hopes that it will help future visitors to this incredible island.
So off we go…
How to Get to El Nido
There are three ways to reach El Nido. The first and most common involves a 5 to 6-hour van or bus journey from larger Puerto Princessa where all commercial flights to Palawan arrive. I read nightmare stories online about crowded vans and hairpin turns so after the 2-hour nail-biting transfer we’d done last year from the Kalibo airport to Boracay, I knew tripling that drive was not an option for us.
The second option is by ferry from Coron. Since I was initially torn between visiting El Nido or Coron, I looked into this option in the hopes that perhaps we could visit both. Here is what I found…
The ferry takes 8-10 hours (though you will be told it takes 5-6). Seating is limited to hard wooden benches. The luggage compartment is flood prone. Ferries rarely run on-time and can be canceled due to rough seas. I even found one horrifying story of a boat that literally sunk between the two islands. If you’re willing to overlook that, I’m sure it’s a lovely, scenic ride. Uh, next…
The third (and by far the most civilized) way to get to El Nido is to take one of the daily charter flights offered by Swift Airlines from Manila. This was definitely the right choice for us. The charter flights operate several times a day and our flights were just $265 each roundtrip. Easily worth dodging a 6-hour crowded van ride or a potentially un-seaworthy ferry.
The flights depart from a private charter terminal which is about a 5-minute taxi ride from Manila’s international airport. After a red-eye flight from Bangkok and a quick taxi transfer, we were thrilled to arrive at Air Swift’s comfortable passenger lounge to wait out the 2-hour layover before our flight.
The flight was full but completely hassle-free and in just under an hour we landed at El Nido’s tiny open-air airport refreshed and ready to explore.
Where to stay in El Nido
For the total Palawan luxury experience, many visitors choose to stay at one of the four incredible properties that make up the El Nido Resorts collection – Apulit Island, Miniloc Island, Lagen Island and Pangulasian Island. Most of the passengers on our charter flight were staying at one of these properties and their transfers were arranged while they waited comfortably in the lounge.
Since we were on a tighter budget than those properties would allow, we opted for a more economical choice in the heart of El Nido town. Our airport transportation was one of the local tricycles and it was an easy 20-minute ride into town (though I was immediately thankful we didn’t have much luggage, there was barely room for the two of us and the driver!).
There aren’t a ton of hotel options in El Nido town and I was having trouble finding a decent option until I came across an Instagram photo posted by a current visitor to El Nido showing the perfect ocean view I was hoping for.
I commented on the photo asking which hotel this was and that’s how I stumbled onto the Pura Vida hotel in the heart of El Nido town. Pura Vida has just 3 rooms but 2 of them have the post-card perfect views of the water, boats and mountains that I was looking for. And the price was right at just $104 a night.
We booked our first 3 nights at Pura Vida but they were booked up for our last night so we decided to splurge on a resort property for our last night. After exhaustive research, we decided on the El Nido Cove Resort which was situated on the coast about 15 minutes north of town.
But, of course, the draw of El Nido isn’t really El Nido itself, it’s the awe-inspiring island-hopping in the surrounding area. So after settling into our hotel we headed out to book our first tour.
Cash is King
During my diligent research on El Nido, I found a recurring theme with regard to cash…bring it. Preferably lots of it. Multiple websites stressed that ATMs were non-existent in the town and all tours had to be paid in cash. We had been able to pay for our hotels online via Paypal but we stressed out over how many Philippine pesos was enough to cover food, drinks, tours and any emergencies for 4 days.
We later learned that the cash situation was not exactly as dire as portrayed online (hence the need for a reliable El Nido Travel Guide). There was indeed one ATM in El Nido town, though I’m told it can be notoriously unreliable. And when it does have cash, there’s often a long line to use it (I have Instagram verification of this). And depending on which company you use to book your tours (there are a ton to choose from) you can often pay online with a credit card if you book in advance. Additionally, if you book any of your tours through the El Nido Boutique & Art Café in town, they do take credit cards. It’s also a handy place to eat your meals if you want to use a credit card.
So, while there is, in fact, an ATM in El Nido, I wouldn’t count on being able to use it. If you’re planning to visit, definitely bring enough cash to carry you through, just in case.
El Nido Tours – Island Hopping in Paradise
But back to more fun subjects like island hopping! Unlike Thailand, where a myriad of island-hopping tours are available from Phuket or Krabi, the tour companies in El Nido keep it simple. There are just 4 primary tours conveniently labeled Tours A, B, C and D.
Each is a full-day tour covering a certain region of the astounding Bacuit archipelago and includes lunch. All are reasonably priced at $25-$30US per person depending on tour type/company, etc…not a bad deal for a full day trip with lunch! Some tours vary slightly but here’s the typical breakdown of what each tour includes:
Tour A – Lagoons & Beaches
Includes: Secret Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Shimizu Island, 7 Commandos Beach
Tour B – Caves & Coves
Includes: Pangalusian Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Vigan (Snake) Island, Cathedral Cave, Pinasil Island, Cadugnon Point & Cave
Tour C – Hidden Beaches & Shrines
Includes: Helicopter Island, Tapiutan Island, Matinloc Island & Shrine, Secret Beach, Hidden Beach
Tour D – Island Beaches
Includes: Cadlao Lagoon, Pasandignan Beach, Nat Nat Beach, Paradise Beach, Bucal Beach
If you have four full days in El Nido, it would be a well-rounded experience to spend one day doing each tour. If you’re short on time, Tours A and C are considered the “must-do” choices.
We had 3 full days but we wanted to relax in El Nido for at least one. Luckily, we found a local company that offered a speedboat tour combining Tour A/B or C/D into a single day. The tour was limited to 10 people (more appealing to us than the 25-30 on most tours) and the speedboat allowed you to reach many more destinations in a single day. The price was similar to the cost of two tours ($55 US).
The downside was that the boat didn’t run unless they had at least 4 people signed up and for our first two days in El Nido, no one else had booked the tour. So we decided to book it for our third day, when 4 people were already booked for a combined Tour A/B. I typically like to front-load the must-do experiences in any destination, it lowers the risk of bad weather or some other disruption causing you to miss out entirely. But the forecast looked good for our whole stay so we took a chance.
Since Tours A & C were considered the most popular tours (they cannot be combined in a single day due to the distance between the two areas), we booked Tour C for the next day and headed off to find some dinner.
Island Hopping Day 1 – Tour C
We were up at the crack of 8am the next morning and grabbed breakfast before reporting to our tour office at 9am. From there, they walked us to another check-in desk where we were combined with others doing Tour C and offered snorkeling masks and fins. By 9:30am we were boarding a traditional Filipino blue and white bangka boat and setting sail for a day in paradise with 24 others.
And paradise is exactly what we found in the spectacular Bacuit archipelago, starting with our first stop at Helicopter Island. More properly known as Dilumacad Island, the island is nicknamed for its helicopter-like, limestone profile from a distance. Though it was a bit crowded with boats from other Tour C-goers (a recurring theme for the day), the beach was stunning and we snorkeled for a bit before heading on to our next stop, Tapiutan Island for lunch.
Amazingly, the crew began cooking our lunch on a tiny grill on the back of the boat at our first stop and by the time we settled onto the white sand of Tapiutan Island they were serving up freshly grilled fish & chicken with rice and fruit. It was a terrific lunch with an even better view overlooking the South China Sea!
Matinloc Island & Secret Beach
After lunch we continued on to Matinloc (a local term for beautiful) Island and Matinloc Shrine. We stopped first at Matinloc Shrine, a sacred monument built in 1982 to honor the blessed Virgin Mary and where the Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mother is held annually on May 31st. After viewing the monument, we climbed a steep stone walkway to a gorgeous lookout point among craggy limestone outcrops for some carefully balanced photos.
Matinloc Island is most famous for its Secret Beach, which we’d been assured by our tour company was no secret anymore! She was definitely right as we approached the limestone cliff in the rocky sea and joined a dozen other tour boats already anchored outside the entrance. Since the beach is inaccessible by boat, reaching it involves a bit of bravery…in two parts.
The first part is navigating the swim through a narrow crevice in a soaring rock wall to enter the lagoon. I’d read this involved swimming underwater, but it didn’t (at least not at the time of day we arrived). The lagoon is calm and quiet inside the entrance, but outside the crashing waves can give you more of a push through the small crevice than you might ideally prefer.
Luckily, our guide strung out a rope from the boat to the opening and braced himself on the rocks inside the crevice to help us through as we held onto the rope. It sounds mildly horrifying but it really wasn’t. I caught a friendly wave and with a gentle pull by our guide and I was through without a hitch.
Enter bravery, Part 2…jellyfish avoidance. In my pre-trip stalking of Instagrammers visiting El Nido, I’d read lots of posts about jellyfish stings. None seemed to be too bad, mostly mild stings, but it was definitely a common theme. And after entering the Secret Beach I realized where they had all gotten those stings. Apparently, those little suckers get you as you come through that crevice somehow.
I only experienced mild discomfort from my stings (which was gone by that evening) but others on our boat had very visible and painful stings and I saw one young girl who swam through the crevice start bawling as she entered the lagoon, though I’m not certain whether that was from jellyfish stings or hitting the coral. Dave was one of the few who got none so he didn’t think it was a big deal at all. Luck of the draw, I guess.
But the swim to reach the Secret Beach was well worth it, once inside it was like something out of a movie. In fact, according to local legend, Alex Garland’s novel The Beach was written while the author was a frequent visitor to this very spot. Of course, while the novel may have been written here, it was actually filmed in Thailand at the sublimely scenic Maya Bay.
Secret Beach was actually more of a waist-high lagoon and less a sandy beach but it was peaceful and relaxing despite the 30-40 other tourists we were sharing it with.
Fortunately, when we arrived back at the boat, the crew was prepared with cups of vinegar to pour on our jellyfish stings and that worked like a charm for mine. And though we saw lots of jellyfish on the rest of our days out on the water, I didn’t get stung again and neither did Dave.
Our last stop for the day was Hidden Beach, another lagoon area that required a bit of a swim to reach. But this time no jagged crevices were involved and it was an easy swim through shallow waters. The beach is actually called Kalusa Beach and it’s a long strip of white sand surrounded by a serene shallow cove perfect for snorkeling or just a relaxing afternoon float (our choice). The only disappointing thing about this stop was that due to the late afternoon hour, the tall rock formations left much of the lagoon in the shade so it wasn’t ideal for pictures but it was gorgeous nonetheless.
After Hidden Beach we boarded our boat once again and began the hour-long ride back to El Nido. We showered off the sand and salt and headed down the road to the Art Café again for dinner to conserve cash just in case we hadn’t planned well enough.
Day #3 – Kayaking El Nido
For our third day we wanted to sleep in and spend a little time exploring El Nido town. After breakfast we re-confirmed our speedboat tour for the next day and then rented kayaks to cruise around the bay for a while. It was another hot day so we didn’t last long before returning for a late lunch and a walk around town.
El Nido town isn’t much – mostly tour operators and restaurants – but it has all the essentials aside from an abundance of ATMs. It was a good opportunity to save our strength for our final day of island hopping the next day.
Day #4 – Combined Tour A/B by Speedboat
When we originally booked the speedboat tour, I wasn’t sure exactly how many of the stops on Tours A and B we would be able to see. We were hoping to see everything on Tour A and at least Snake Island from Tour B. But as it turned out, with the speedboat, you can reach every stop on both tours in a day.
We boarded the small speedboat with 6 other people for a total of 8 passengers. The boat’s capacity was 12 so 8 was a comfortable number and allowed everyone plenty of space (a step up from the Tour C boat we’d had earlier in the week which was packed pretty full).
At 9am we headed out of the bay toward the islands under a cover of clouds that I hoped would eventually dissipate. Our first stop was the blissfully empty 7 Commandos Beach. It seems with the speedboat tour you miss the usual crowds at this popular end of day Tour A stop! The beach is named for the 7 remaining Japanese commandos who lived on the island after WWII.
For lunch, we stopped at Pangalusian Island and miraculously had the entire beach to ourselves. By this time the clouds had indeed cleared and the sun was shining brightly. We walked the beach exploring the island and snorkeled for a bit while the crew prepared lunch. It was an amazing spread, similar to the seafood & BBQ chicken lunch we’d had on Tour C but with shrimp and mango. Lunch was absolutely delicious and most of us went back for seconds.
From there, we headed straight for Pinasil Island at top speed and were surprised when our captain took the boat literally into the island, which turned out to be Cathedral Cave. The cavern is only accessible by small boats like dinghies and kayaks (not the typically bangka boats used for tours) so it was a real treat to actually go inside instead of viewing it from afar. Our speedboat was just small enough to maneuver inside the cool interior of the cave and the views were magnificent.
The other cave on Tour B was our next stop and we arrived at Cadugnon Point and disembarked onto its sandy shores. For this cave, we’d need to climb a bit – not up, but in. The entrance to the cave is a small, waist-high opening about 2’ high x 4’ wide. Our guide was kind enough to lay a life jacket across the rocks so we didn’t get dinged up while climbing inside.
Cadugnon Cave is an important anthropological site where pottery dating back to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 BC) has been recovered. The rock formations inside are spectacular and we were even able to climb up a limestone hill to get even deeper into the cavern. Truly a remarkable experience!
Next up, we made the short ride over to Snake Island. Properly named Vigan Island, this tiny island is nick-named for the S-shaped sand spit that “snakes” off its shoreline (not actual snakes, or I can assure you my husband would never have set foot on it!).
There were just a handful of other boats there when we arrived (a plus) but it was also high tide, when the curve of the sand is much less prominent (a minus), so I could tell this wasn’t the optimum time of day to visit.
We climbed the short path up to the lookout point to get the best view of the “snake” and then walked along it in the knee-deep turquoise waters. It was a supremely beautiful spot with shallow sparkling waters that seemed to stretch for miles. And though we didn’t see it at its most popular time of day, it was nice to have it mostly to ourselves.
By this time, it was nearly 3pm and I was getting antsy to get to the highlight of the tour, the Big and Small Lagoons. But we had one more stop to make for snorkeling just off Shimizu Island. We didn’t go ashore at Shimizu but we could see a large monitor lizard walking across the beach from where we stopped for snorkeling. Apparently, most of the Tour A trips stop at this island for lunch. I think I preferred our lunch stop. Shimizu was a lovely island but I prefer my meals without a side of monitor lizard!
Finally, we were off to the big finale of our tour, the Big and Small Lagoons. Scientists believe these lagoons were once caves that collapsed millions of years ago eventually leading to awe-inspiring rock formations and the creation of these two incredible lagoons.
First up, the Big Lagoon. At this stop most visitors have the option of renting a kayak from a floating dock near the entrance to explore on their own. However, since we were pressed for time, we had to settle for a slow tour around the lagoon in the speedboat. The lagoon was peaceful and serene with just 2 or 3 other boats inside, unfortunately, due to the late afternoon hour, it was mostly in the shade and my pictures didn’t really do it justice.
We arrived next at the Small Lagoon and again had the option to rent a kayak to explore on our own. Entering the Small Lagoon requires going through a small opening in the rock and is accessible only by swimmers or kayaks so here we absolutely wanted to rent a kayak to see the inside. And I’m so glad we did!
It was absolutely stunning inside, even more beautiful than the Big Lagoon. The water was a magical hue of emerald and the soaring limestone walls were lined with beautiful orchids. Again, the only disappointment was the late afternoon hour which meant most of the lagoon was in the shadows. We kayaked around the perimeter and enjoyed exploring the small pools around the edges before rejoining our group on the boat for the short ride back to El Nido.
Standard Tour vs. Speedboat Tour
I’m glad that we did both types of tours while in El Nido because it gave us a good feel for which we’d prefer if we come back. All in all, I’d say there were pluses and minuses to both. With the typical Tour C, we hit all the stops at the perfect time of day (with the possible exception of our last stop, Hidden Beach). Although each stop was crowded with other boats, I got some great pictures. And I enjoyed being on the traditional bangka boat, despite the higher number of passengers.
On the combined A/B speedboat tour, I loved how quickly we could get from one island to the next. Very little time was spent in transit and the boat was comfortable and uncrowded. I also loved that we were the only boat in most of the places we visited.
However, it was a lot to cram into a single day and I didn’t like that for the 3 places I was most looking forward to (Big & Small Lagoon and Snake Island) I didn’t get great pictures due to the lateness of the day when we visited. All things considered, I’d probably stick with the typical tour boats and visit El Nido’s most amazing spots at their most popular times of day, despite the crowds. There’s a reason the boats visit at the time that they do, that’s when each spot is at its most photogenic!
Last night – Resort Style!
For our last night we decided to upgrade our accommodations a bit and check out one of El Nido’s resort properties, the El Nido Cove Resort. Located just north of El Nido, near the airport, the resort just opened in late 2014. Our garden bungalow was spacious and luxurious compared to our basic room at Pura Vida but we did miss the ocean view.
The resort had a restaurant located right on the water and after cleaning up from our day on the water, we headed there for dinner and a sunset. It was a terrific way to spend our final night in El Nido. And after all the stressing out we did over how much cash we would need to survive the week, we even managed to have some left over at the end of our stay which we applied to our final night’s hotel bill.
I hope future visitors to Palawan will find this El Nido Travel Guide helpful. We really fell in love with Palawan and I look forward to returning one day to try out one of the incredible El Nido Resort properties like Miniloc Island or Lagen Island.
But for now it’s on to Singapore and Bangkok for a few days before returning back to the States. After nearly 3 weeks in Thailand and the Philippines, this month’s adventure is coming to a close but I have no doubt a new one is just around the corner…til then!