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. Just offshore from El Nido, spectacular islands and limestone rock formations dating back 250 million years.
Yep, it’s just as gorgeous as it sounds.
Ranked as the best island in the world by Conde Nast Traveler in 2015, Palawan has been on my wish list for years.
OK, so it’s just one of 7,107 islands in the Philippines. But I would argue it’s the one island you can’t miss.
Never one to miss out on any island, much less one ranked as the “world’s best,” I knew my husband Dave and I just had to visit on our most recent trip to Asia.
From there, only one question remained.
But before I get to that question…
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.
With that in mind, I’ve created my own comprehensive El Nido Travel Guide with all the useful information I couldn’t find while planning our trip. I hope that what follows will help you plan your visit to this incredible island.
So, back to the only question that remained.
How the Heck do You Get to El Nido?
There are three ways to get to El Nido:
- Fly to Puerto Princesa & Drive – The most common way to get to El Nido is to fly into Puerto Princesa where all commercial flights to Palawan arrive. From there, El Nido is a 5 to 6-hour van or bus journey. I quickly nixed this idea after reading nightmare stories online about crowded vans and hairpin turns. Our last trip to the Philippines involved a particularly harrowing 2-hour transfer from the Kalibo airport to Boracay. A repeat of that drive + 3-4 hours? Pass.
- Take a Ferry from Coron – I was initially torn between visiting El Nido or Coron, so I dove deep into this option hoping 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 sank between the two islands. If you’re willing to overlook that, I’m sure it’s a lovely and scenic ride. Me? Hard pass. Next…
- Charter Flight from Manila – The third (and by far the most civilized) way to get to El Nido is by daily charter flight from Manila with Air Swift. The charter flights operate several times a day and our flights were just $265 each round-trip. Easily worth dodging a 6-hour crowded van ride or a potentially un-seaworthy ferry.
The charter flight from Manila to El Nido
Air Swift flights depart from a private charter terminal just a 5-minute taxi ride from Manila’s international airport. After a red-eye flight from Bangkok and a quick taxi transfer, we arrived at Air Swift’s delightful passenger lounge excited to begin our Palawan adventure.
The flight was full but comfortable and completely hassle-free. In just under an hour we landed at El Nido’s tiny open-air airport refreshed and ready to explore!
Hotels & Resorts in El Nido
For the total Palawan luxury experience, most visitors choose to stay at one of the four incredible private island resorts that make up the El Nido Resorts collection:
- Apulit Island – All-inclusive eco-resort, all rooms are Bora-Bora-like overwater bungalows called “water cottages.“
- Miniloc Island – All-inclusive eco-resort. Designed as a coastal village with just 50 thatched-roofed bungalows on a spectacular island.
- Lagen Island – Choose between Forrest Rooms or Water Cottages on this eco-sanctuary island.
- Pangulasian Island – The most luxurious of the 4 resorts and also the best beachfront. All 42 rooms are private beachfront villas, including 6 with their own pool (swoon).
The majority of the passengers on our charter flight were booked at one of these four fabulous eco-resorts. Their air-conditioned transfers were arranged while they waited comfortably in the lounge sipping umbrella-laden frosty beverages.
I stared wistfully at them as we made our way out of the airport in search of our own hotel transportation.
For this trip, we were on a tighter budget than those lovely El Nido Resorts would allow, so we opted for a more economical choice in the heart of El Nido town.
Our airport transportation? One of the ubiquitous local tricycles. It was an easy 20-minute ride into town but I was thankful we didn’t have much luggage. There was barely room for the two of us and the driver!
A more affordable El Nido hotel option
There aren’t a ton of hotel options in El Nido town and I had trouble finding a decent option. Until I came across an Instagram photo of just the idyllic El Nido ocean view I was seeking.
I commented on the photo asking for details 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 two of them have the post-card perfect views of the water, boats, and mountains. And the price was right at just $104 a night.
The view was exactly what I was looking for, but the room itself was definitely nothing special.
Other budget-friendly El Nido hotels
While we were in town, I checked out a few other affordable hotel options. Based on my research, I also recommend the MaryGold Beachfront Inn and the Sea Cocoon Hotel as great options in El Nido Town.
Both are beachfront with stylish, clean rooms. Staying in town is very handy for booking tours and having easy access to shops and restaurants.
We booked our first 3 nights at Pura Vida, but they were fully booked for our last night. A sign that a splurge was in order? Obviously. So we booked the beachfront El Nido Cove Resort just 15 minutes north of town for our final night.
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 room at Pura Vida it was time to investigate our tour options for the next few days.
Cash is King in El Nido
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 town and all tours had to be paid in cash. We paid for both hotels online but stressed out over how many Philippine pesos was enough to cover food, drinks, tours, and any emergencies for 4 days.
We soon learned that the cash situation is not exactly as dire as portrayed online. There is one ATM in El Nido town, though it can be notoriously unreliable. When it does have cash, there’s often a long line to use it.
Depending on which company you book your tours with (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 tours through the El Nido Boutique & Art Café in town, they 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, Don’t count on being able to use it. 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: Pangulasian 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
So, which El Nido tour is the best?
If you have four full days in El Nido, spend one day doing each tour. If you’re short on time, Tours A and C are considered the “must-do” choices.
Secret Option “E” – A speedboat tour
We had 3 full days but we wanted to relax in El Nido for at least one.
Luckily, the folks at Pura Vida suggested a company with a speedboat tour combining Tour A/B or C/D into a single day. The tour was limited to 10 people, which was more appealing than the 25-30 on most tours. Plus the speedboat allows you to reach many more destinations in a single day. The price was similar to the cost of two tours ($55 US).
The two most popular tours (A & C) cannot be combined in a single day due to the distance between the two areas. So we booked the A/B speedboat tour for our 3rd day and Tour C for the next day. Tour plans complete, we headed off in search of dinner.
Island Hopping Day 1 – Tour C
We were up at the crack of 8am this morning to grab breakfast before reporting to our tour office at 9am.
From there, we merge with others doing Tour C and are swiftly outfitted with snorkeling masks and fins. By 9:30am we are aboard a traditional Filipino blue and white bangka boat and setting sail for a day in paradise.
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. It was a bit crowded with boats from other Tour C-goers (a recurring theme for the day), but the beach was stunning.
We snorkeled for a bit before heading on to our next stop, Tapiutan Island for lunch.
By the time we settled onto the white sands of Tapiutan Island the crew began 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!
After lunch, it was on to Matinloc (a local term for beautiful) Island and Matinloc Shrine.
First up, Matinloc Shrine, a sacred monument built in 1982 to honor the blessed Virgin Mary. From there, we climbed a steep stone walkway to a gorgeous lookout point among craggy limestone outcrops.
Secret Beach (or not so Secret Beach)
Matinloc Island is most famous for its Secret Beach. Of course, our guide assured us it was no secret anymore! And boy was she right.
As we approached the limestone cliff in the rocky sea, we joined a dozen other tour boats already anchored outside the entrance. Secret Beach is inaccessible by boat, so reaching it involves a bit of bravery…in two parts.
How to get to Secret Beach
The first part? Navigating the swim through a narrow crevice in a soaring rock wall to enter the lagoon. My research suggested this involved swimming underwater, but thankfully it didn’t (at least not at the time of day we arrived).
The lagoon is calm and quiet inside. But outside the entrance, the crashing waves can give you more of a push through the small crevice than you might ideally prefer.
Luckily, our guide had a plan. He strung a rope from the boat to the opening and braced himself on the rocks inside the crevice. Then he helped each of 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 from our guide and I was through without a hitch. Easy breezy.
Enter bravery, Part 2…jellyfish avoidance.
In my pre-trip stalking of Instagrammers visiting El Nido, I scrolled past lots of posts about jellyfish stings. None seemed to be too bad, mostly mild stings, but it was definitely a common theme.
After entering Secret Beach I discovered the source of all those stings. Apparently, those sneaky little suckers get you as you come through that crevice.
I experienced only mild discomfort from my stings (which was gone by that evening). However, others on our boat had very visible and painful stings.
I saw one young girl swim through the crevice and start bawling as she entered the lagoon. I’m not certain whether it was a jellyfish sting or if she hit the coral. Either way, it didn’t look pleasant. Dave escaped with exactly zero jellyfish stings 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.
Once back on the boat, the crew are at the ready with cups of vinegar for our jellyfish stings. It works like a charm for mine.
Our last stop for the day is Hidden Beach, another lagoon area that requires a bit of a swim to reach. But this time no jagged crevices are involved and it’s a leisurely swim through shallow turquoise 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.
The only bummer about this stop is the late afternoon hour which leaves much of the lagoon in the shade. Not ideal for pictures, but it’s gorgeous nonetheless.
After Hidden Beach, we’re back on boat for the hour-long ride back to El Nido. Overall, it’s been a truly fabulous day.
Back in the room, we shower off the sand and salt and head down the road to the Art Café for dinner. Not just for good food but also to conserve cash just in case we haven’t planned well enough.
Day #3 – Kayaking El Nido Beach
On our third day, we sleep in and spend the day exploring El Nido’s beach and town.
After breakfast, we rent kayaks to cruise around the bay. It’s another picture-perfect but hot day and we don’t last long before returning to shore for a late lunch and a stroll around town.
There’s not much to El Nido town – mostly tour operators and restaurants. But it has all the essentials aside from an abundance of ATMs. And the relaxing day is a good opportunity to save our strength for our final day of island hopping tomorrow.
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 hoped to see everything on Tour A and at least Snake Island from Tour B. As it turns out, with the speedboat you can reach every stop on both tours in a single day. Brilliant!
We board the small speedboat with 6 other people for a total of 8 passengers. The boat’s capacity is 12 so 8 is a comfortable number allowing everyone plenty of space. A nice change from the Tour C boat which was packed full two days ago.
At 9:00am sharp, we head out of the bay toward the islands under a cover of clouds (darn it). Our first stop is the blissfully empty 7 Commandos Beach.
With the speedboat tour, we 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.
Lunch on Pangulasian Island
For lunch, we stop next at Pangulasian Island. Once again we have the entire beach to ourselves and I’m starting to appreciate the genius that is the speedboat tour.
By this time the clouds are gone and the sun is shining brightly. We walk the beach exploring the island and then snorkel for a bit while the crew prepares lunch.
It is an amazing spread. Similar to the seafood & BBQ chicken lunch from Tour C, but with shrimp and mango. It is absolutely delicious and we go back for seconds (we are not alone).
From there, we head straight for Pinasil Island at top speed (3 cheers for the speedboat).
We are momentarily surprised when our captain takes the boat literally into the island, which turns out to be Cathedral Cave.
The cave is only accessible by small boats like dinghies, kayaks, and conveniently, our little speedboat. The traditional bangka boats used for the ABCD tours are too big, so it’s a real treat to actually go inside the cave instead of viewing it from afar.
Our speedboat is just small enough to maneuver inside the cool interior of the cave and the views are magnificent.
The cave at Cadugnon Point
The other cave on Tour B is our next stop and we arrive at Cadugnon Point and disembark onto its sandy shores.
For this cave, we 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 is kind enough to lay a life jacket across the rocks so we avoid scraped knees 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 are even able to climb up a limestone hill to get even deeper into the cavern. Truly a remarkable experience!
Next up, a 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!).
Only a handful of other boats are there when we arrive (a plus). But it is also high tide when the curve of the sand is much less prominent (a minus). Unfortunately, not the optimal time of day to visit.
Undeterred, we climb the short path up to the lookout point for the best view of the “snake.” Then we take a walk along it in the knee-deep turquoise waters. It is a supremely beautiful spot with shallow sparkling waters that seem to stretch for miles.
Though we didn’t see it at its most popular time of day, it is nice to have it mostly to ourselves.
By this time, it is nearly 3:00pm and I’m antsy to get to the highlight of the tour, the Big and Small Lagoons.
But first, Shimizu Island
We make one more stop for snorkeling just off Shimizu Island. We don’t go ashore at Shimizu but we do spot a large monitor lizard walking across the beach from the boat.
Apparently, most of the Tour A trips stop at this island for lunch. I think our lunch stop was better. Shimizu is lovely but I prefer my meals without a side of monitor lizard!
The Big Lagoon
Finally, we’re 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 creating awe-inspiring rock formations and these two incredible lagoons.
First up, the Big Lagoon.
At this stop, most visitors have the option to rent a kayak from a floating dock near the entrance to explore on their own. However, we are pressed for time and instead take a slow tour around the lagoon in the speedboat.
The lagoon is peaceful and serene with just 2 or 3 other boats inside. Unfortunately, the late afternoon hour meant it was mostly in the shade so my pictures don’t really do it justice.
The Small Lagoon
We arrive next at the Small Lagoon and this time we do have the option to rent a kayak and explore on our own.
Access to the Small Lagoon is through a small opening in the rock so only swimmers and kayaks can enter. Excited to hop in a kayak, we quickly make our way to the narrow entrance.
It is absolutely stunning inside, even more beautiful than the Big Lagoon. The water is a magical hue of emerald and the soaring limestone walls are lined with beautiful orchids.
Again, the only minor disappointment is the late afternoon shade for photos. We kayak around the perimeter and explore the small pools around the edges before rejoining our group on the boat.
Then, it’s a quick ride back to El Nido after a truly outstanding day.
El Nido Standard Tours 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 three 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 upgrade our accommodations to one of El Nido’s resort properties, the El Nido Cove Resort. Located just north of El Nido, near the airport, the resort opened in late 2014. Our garden bungalow is spacious and luxurious compared to our basic room at Pura Vida, but we do miss the ocean view.
Luckily, the resort has a restaurant located right on the water. So after cleaning up from our day on the water, we head there for dinner and a sunset.
It is the perfect way to spend our final night in beautiful El Nido.
Wrapping up 4 amazing days in El Nido
After stressing out over how much cash we needed to survive the week, we actually had plenty left over at the end of our stay (which we applied to our final night’s hotel dinner bill).
Things are pretty affordable in El Nido and we spent very little on food and drinks. Most of our cash went toward tours and airport transportation.
If you’re planning a trip to Palawan (and you should!) I hope you find our El Nido guide helpful. We really fell in love with Palawan and I look forward to returning one day. Next time, we’ll try out one of the incredible El Nido Resort properties (I’ve got my eye on Pangulasian Island!).
But for now, we’re off to Singapore for a few days before returning back home to the States. After three weeks in Thailand and the Philippines, this month’s adventure is sadly coming to a close.
But I have no doubt a new one is just around the corner.