Often called the “Final Frontier”, Palawan is the long narrow island on the south-west edge of the Philippines. Forests cover much of the Island and there are only a few roads. Puerto Princesa is the only city on the island and the location of the main airport. Palawan is largely unspoilt and boasts forests, beautiful bays, sandy beaches, spectacular cliffs and coral reefs, many of which are protected.
El Nido is located in the northernmost tip of Palawan Island. It is famous for the stunningly beautiful Bacuit Bay and the surrounding archipelago. The archipelago is made up of 45 small limestone islands with sheer cliffs and deserted beaches.
How to get to El Nido
You can get to El Nido by air, boat, or overland. The most travelled route is to fly to Puerto Princesa and then by bus or car to El Nido, a journey of about 140 miles which takes a whopping 4 to 5 hours, even longer by bus. The scenery is very interesting and the road passes through endless villages and forest with some beautiful scenery, but no getting away from it – it’s a long drive. Flights with Air Asia or Cebu Pacific to Puerto Princesa are available from most major Philippines destinations and are relatively cheap. There are no direct flights to Palawan from Europe, so if that’s where you’re flying from, you have no option but to fly to Manila first.
There is a small airport at Lio which is about a 20-minute tricycle ride from El Nido town. You can get a flight here with Air Swift from Manila, Cebu and Coron. This obviously cuts out the long road journey from Puerto Princesa, but the flights are quite a bit more expensive and often full.
The final option is a boat from Manila to Coron and then a ferry boat from Coron to El Nido. This is the easiest and cheapest way to travel between the two Palawan islands. Total journey time from Manila is about 2 days.
Where to Stay in El Nido
If you have been elsewhere in the Philippines before coming to El Nido you’ll have got used to cheap prices for food and accommodation, you’ll not find these in El Nido. Accommodation is comparatively expensive, however, you can shop around, there are plenty of hotels and most can be booked online. If you prefer somewhere a bit quieter there are a number of beachfront resorts along the Taytay – El Nido National Highway to the south of the main town. I had a very enjoyable stay at the Telesfora Beach Cottages.
I managed to get a deal here which included breakfast and evening meal of traditional Filipino dishes with rice. Teleflora also organises daily boat trips with the boat collecting from the beachfront outside. This saves you having to travel into El Nido to board your boat.
El Nido town is only a short tricycle ride from this group of resorts. Most are right next to the beach and a lot have their own bar and restaurant. The beachfront here faces west, so the sunsets are amazing.
Things to buy or bring with you
Beach/Water shoes – Protect your feet, many places on the boat trips have sharp rocks to walk over.
Waterproof Bag – If you plan on going on any of the boat trips, you’ll definitely get wet several times, so a good bag is essential to protect your phone and camera.
Bottled Water – Remember to brush your teeth with bottled water, be careful with ice, make sure it’s been made with filtered water and avoid raw fruit that may have been washed with unfiltered water.
Cash – Not everywhere accepts cards and the only ATMs are in El Nido town.
Over the counter medicines – there is a pharmacy in El Nido if you need these. This could include sunscreen (definitely needed), mosquito spray, antiseptic and bandages, anti-diarrhoea medication and any prescription medicine you take.
WiFi – joking! be aware that not everywhere has WiFi and it is often weak and unreliable.
Diving in El Nido
El Nido has over 30 dive sites. Bacuit Bay is home to a wide and diverse range of marine life. Just over a mile offshore from Helicopter Island is a famous dive site called “The Tunnel“. 12 meters under the surface is a 40-meter tunnel that you can swim through. This is teeming with fish and other wildlife.
El Nido has a great choice of restaurants and bars and it is probably the liveliest place in Palawan. Consequently, prices are higher than elsewhere, but still quite affordable for Europeans. The restaurants are very varied with cuisines from all over the world, including vegetarian. The beach area has the most expensive restaurants. A lot of the beach bars in El Nido turn into musical bars after dark, with music provided by a variety of local bands. The atmosphere is laidback, making the evenings ideal for socialising and chatting with other travellers or simply relaxing and enjoying a beer or cocktail.
The Philippines has a tropical climate with both a winter and summer monsoon. However, El Nido does not often experience typhoons like the rest of the Philippines. It has two very distinct seasons: the dry season lasts from December to May and the rainy season from June to November. Temperatures range from a minimum of 22°C in January to a maximum of 33°C in April and May.
Places to visit around El Nido
There are plenty of things to do in El Nido and you can easily spend a week there exploring everything it has to offer. Boat trips are strictly controlled and they follow set routes. There are four tours to choose from in El Nido; Tour A, B, C and D. Each tour offers different destinations but all of the tour boats follow roughly the same schedule. For example, if you sign up for Tour A, you’ll leave at around 9:00 am and head straight to the Big Lagoon or Small Lagoon. Arriving at roughly the same time as you will be around 20 or so other boats. There are a few private tours offering different timings and routes but these tend to be much more expensive.
A – Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island, Commando Island.
B – Snake Island, Entalula Beach, Pinagbuyutan Island, Cudugnon Cave, Cathedral Cave.
C – Helicopter Island, Secret Beach, Hidden Beach, Tapiutan Strait, Matinloc Shrine.
D – Cadlao Lagoon, Nat-Nat Beach, Paradise Beach, Bukal Beach, Pasandigan Beach.
All island hopping tours leave the main beach of El Nido around 9:00 am and return between 16:00 to 17:00. If you book your tour with your hotel, the departure time may be different.
Most island hopping tours generally include lunch (beach barbeque usually) and lifejackets. You might need to rent snorkelling equipment. Most of the crews understand English.
Secret Lagoon – This is hidden behind a large rock wall with the only entrance being a small hole which you can swim through.
Large Lagoon – The water here is an amazing turquoise colour. Traditional boats are not allowed inside the lagoon so you’ll need to hire a kayak if you want to go inside. It’s good fun getting into a kayak from your boat! I would have liked this to have a been a bit less busy, but it’s great paddling around the lagoon surrounded by tall rock cliffs.
Snake Island – This is a beautiful island with a strip of sand leading up to it. When the tide is right the Island has a thin sandbar making its way through the bay. You can walk out onto the sandbar.
Simizu Island – This island has some remarkable stone structures, large cliffs of limestone rising out of the sea forming thin curtains of rock. Simizu Island is a popular lunch stop on the trip A tour.
Small Lagoon – This is only a short ride from El Nido. Sitting on the northern end of Miniloc Island, the lagoon is surrounded by a circle of limestone cliffs.
Matinloc Shrine – This abandoned shrine to the Virgin Mary seems a bit out of place in the middle of the island. As well as the shrine there are some amazing lookouts. A quick scramble up the rocks brings you to a viewpoint where you can look out over the Tapiutan Straits running between the islands.
Helicopter Island – looks a bit like a giant helicopter when seen from a boat. The island has some very nice beaches.
Marimegmeg / Las Cabanas Beach – This is a short tricycle ride from El Nido. It a great place to take a break from island hopping. Las Cabanas is one of the best beaches reachable by land from El Nido town. The beach seems to go on forever and is largely empty. There are a few places where you get something to eat or a drink. It’s a great place to go in an evening to watch one of the best sunsets in the Philippines.
Nacpan and Calitang Beaches – White sand beaches about an hours journey from El Nido town. These are without a doubt the most beautiful beaches in Palawan. You can hire a tricycle or rent a motorbike to take you there. The waves can get a little strong here, so be careful if you plan on going swimming. There are restaurants and bars on the beach that sell snacks and beer. Calitang Beach is right next to Nacpan Beach but is much smaller. In between the two beaches, there is a viewpoint that you can climb up to get a nice view.
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