The Philippines is a country made up of 7107 islands. Choosing which ones to visit is not easy, but if there is one you should not miss under any circumstances, it’s Palawan. If like me, you are searching for paradise, do yourself a favor and go to El Nido, on the north end of Palawan. I visited this place twice in 2015, and since then, not a single day goes by that I do not dream about coming back.
On February 2015, after quitting my job, I went traveling around Southeast Asia. I started in the Philippines and, after that, I visited Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. It goes without saying that I saw many, many wonders during my trips and had an incredible time in every place I visited. But the truth is, I will never get over the days I spent in El Nido (Palawan). This is, without any doubt, the most beautiful place I have ever been and the highlight of my 4 month solo trip in Southeast Asia. Read on to discover what to do, where to eat, where to sleep and everything else you need to know about El Nido (aka paradise on Earth).
Getting to El Nido
One of the reasons why El Nido is exceptionally beautiful is it remains relatively remote. It is true that getting to El Nido can be tricky, but totally worth the effort. There are three ways to get there:
- If money is not an issue, you can take one of the three daily direct flights from Manila to El Nido. At the time of writing, only Island Transvoyager Inc. (ITI) is covering this route at a price of 6750 php per person (around 130€, one way fare). For reservations, you can email: email@example.com
- A cheaper and the most popular way to get to El Nido is flying to Puerto Princesa in Central Palawan. From there, you can catch a van or a bus to the town of El Nido. The trip takes from 5 to 8 hours depending on how much of a kamikaze your driver is and how many stopovers he decides to take. If you prefer, you can also rent a motorbike and do the trip (more than 280km) at your own pace. Be prepared though, the road condition is not ideal and you will need to be extremely careful.
- If you are visiting Coron, you can fly to Busuanga airport from Manila and then take a boat from the town of Coron to El Nido. Boats run 4-5 times a week and take between 7 to 10 hours. Beware the journey can be tough and, as these shuttles are weather dependent, cancellations are quite common.
El Nido town
El Nido is a small and friendly town at the north end of Palawan. Surrounded by crystal clear waters and flanked by emerald green, jungle-filled limestone cliffs; it is the ideal base to explore the many remote beaches, islands, and hidden lagoons in the Bacuit Archipelago.
The best time to visit El Nido is between December and May, which is the hot, dry season; June to October is the rainy season, while accommodation prices drop, strong winds and flooding are commonly experienced during these months.
What to do in El Nido
01 | Island hopping in El Nido
Exploring the Bacuit Archipelago is the must-do in El Nido. For that, there are 4 different island hopping tours: tours A, B, C and D (being tours A and C the most popular). The secret lagoons, white sand beaches, and paradise islands you will find in these tours will take your breath away.
There are multiple operators offering island hopping tours and, at the time of writing (July 2015), they charge around 1200 and 1400 php (23€ to 28€). All island hopping tours bring you to 5-6 spots where you can swim and snorkel. They all include a picnic lunch in the beach and some also include snorkel gear and towels. They leave every morning at 9.00am from El Nido beach and get back around 5.00 pm. Here you have a little more information about each of the tours:
Tour A: is the most popular of the tours for a reason. It covers the Small and Big Lagoons of Miniloc Island, a couple of paradise beaches and snorkeling places.
Tour B: takes you to a few caves in El Nido, a couple of beaches and the beautiful Snake Island.
Tour C: takes you to the Hidden and Secret beaches, Helicopter Island and one of the most photographed places in El Nido: the Matinloc Shrine.
Tour D: Not always available, this tour brings you to Cadlao Island and is probably the most underrated among the four. I did not have the opportunity to do this tour, but I rented a kayak and explored a bit of Cadlao Island on my own (more on this below).
For island hopping, I tried two different operators: Tarawis and Boutique Art Cafe, but there are a lot more to choose from! If you want to save money on the tours, a good trick is not booking in advance and just going to El Nido beach at 8.45 am the day you want to do the island hopping tour. Right on the beach, you can talk on site with the different operators; if they are not fully booked and have spare space in their bangka boats, they might be willing to significantly lower their rates.
If you are traveling with friends, what I really recommend is hiring a private boat instead of doing the tours with any of the operators. This is not only cheaper, but also better because you will be able to choose the route you’d like to go (and you can combine places from different tours). You can also avoid the crowds doing the routes in reverse.
When I visited El Nido for my second time, my friends and I hired a boat with Sea Dog Diving (on Serena Street). We paid only 700php each (plus 150php for snorkel gear rental), with lunch included. It was a great experience; we were able to choose the route we wanted, which meant we avoided the crowds. If you have 5 or more people in your party, I highly recommend contacting these guys instead of booking with an operator.
02 | Diving
You caught me here. Diving is not my thing. For now, snorkeling is good enough! So, I cannot really give you personal advice about diving in El Nido. But if you dare, you should definitely give it a try! Check Palawan Divers, Submariner Diving Center, or Deep Blue Seafari for more information on this.
03 | Exploring the twin beaches of Nacpan and Calitang
Another must see in El Nido are the twin beaches of Nacpan and Calitang (above and below). These beautiful remote beaches are between 1 to 1.5′ hours tricycle ride from the town of El Nido. Since most tourists in El Nido prefer going island hopping and very few brave the bumpy tricycle ride to Nacpan, the twin beaches remain off the beaten path and generally almost empty, can you believe it?
Tip: upon arriving, look at the hill to your left. Go there and take the short hike up to reach stunning views of the two beaches sandwiching the area (pictures on the right and above).
In Nacpan, there are no restaurants, nor coffee shops, just a few simple beach shacks where you can buy drinks, shakes and some meals. As already happened with other paradise beach destinations in the Philippines, I am afraid it is just a matter of time before resorts are built in Nacpan. Don’t leave El Nido without visiting these beaches! Such a pristine and isolated beauty is rare to find these days.
Getting there: to get there you can either rent a motorbike or hire a tricycle (from 700 to 1000php for the round trip). Since the road condition is far from good, I don’t recommend renting a motorbike unless you are an experienced driver.
04 | Kayaking
Kayaking is another activity I highly recommend in El Nido. This is the best way to explore the isolated beaches and remote islands that make up the Bacuit Archipelago at your own pace. You can rent your kayak at Boutique Art Cafe (450php for half a day or 150php/hour). From El Nido beach, you can easily access Cadlao Island (around 45-55 minutes) or get to beaches like Ipil or 7 Commandos (1 to 1.5 hours from El Nido beach).
I rented my kayak for a half a day (from 12:00 until 17:00) in Boutique Art café, and within 45 minutes I had reached Paradise beach in Cadlao Island (part of the tour C) where I had this incredible beach all to myself (and some friendly stray dogs I shared my lunch with).
You don’t need much experience kayaking to access Cadlao Island, but make sure the sea is calm before attempting it. I recommend bringing a dry bag to keep all your beach essentials in (especially your electronic devices, cameras, etc.), or they will get wet.
05 | Hiking to the Nagkalit-Kalit Falls
If you feel like doing something other than relaxing on beaches in paradise, you can go hiking to Nagkalit-kalit Falls. The falls, themselves, are probably not the most impressive you can find, but the 45 minute hike to reach them is truly incredible and you will be rewarded with a cold and refreshing dip in the falls after the trek.
To reach the falls, you will need to cross 7 knee deep rivers and streams and face a few steep and muddy climbs… Don’t forget to bring appropriate shoes and a dry-bag for your belongings.
Getting there: the falls are around 40 minutes tricycle ride from El Nido town. While there is not an admission fee, I highly recommend hiring a local guide (200 php) as the falls are difficult to find otherwise.
06 | Watching a dramatic sunset in Marimegmeg beach (Las Cabañas)
Marimegmeg Beach (aka Las Cabañas or Sunset Beach) is the most beautiful mainland beach around El Nido town. Las Cabañas offers breathtaking views during the daytime and is, therefore, a wonderful place to chill out.
But, if you like how Marimegmeg Beach looks during the day, wait until you see the sunset! The views of the beach and the sky are absolutely stunning when the sun immerses itself slowly into the sea between the majestic limestone cliffs.
Getting there: from El Nido town you can walk in the direction of Corong-Corong (one hour more or less) or hire a tricycle (15 minutes). The tricycle ride should be between 100 and 200php depending on your negotiating skills.
Where to drink, eat and go out in El Nido
Being a vegetarian, I have to say the Philippines was not my favorite culinary destination. However, I did find several fantastic places to eat in El Nido. These were my favorites:
– Republica Sunset Bar – I can’t write about El Nido without mentioning my absolute favorite bar. In Republica Sunset Bar, you will get incredible sunset views, cold beer and cocktails, excellent music and the most delicious Spanish tapas I have found during my trips in Asia (trust me, being a Spaniard, I can tell if Spanish tapas are decent or not). Republica Sunset bar is located in Corong-Corong (a bit outside the town of El Nido); take a tricycle to get there (around 50php).
– La Plage – Another great outdoor bar in Corong-Corong with sea views, nice food and a relaxed, laid-back energy.
– Pukka – Reggae bar – As their slogan says, this is the best and only reggae bar in El Nido and the place where everybody ends up, especially after midnight. Pukka has live reggae, tables on the beach, some decent food, beer and cocktails. What else could you ask for?
– Boutique Art Café – Apart from tours and souvenirs, Boutique Art cafe also offers good food, live music and WI-FI. It is one of the few places in El Nido where you can pay by credit card (since there are no ATMs in El Nido, these details matter!)
– El Nido Pizza (Real Street) – Big and delicious pizzas in-house made in a good wood fired oven.
– V & V Bagels – This place offers breakfasts, good coffee, nice bagels and delicious veggie (and non-veggie) burgers. Pleasant surprise, though pricey.
– Altrove Trattoria – Famed as the best Italian restaurant in El Nido.
– Habibi – I was disappointed to find out they did not have hummus as I had assumed this was a Lebanese restaurant. Sadly no falafel, but here you will find here nice salads, pizzas… and shisha.
– Marber’s – With one of the most extended menus in El Nido, this beachfront restaurant offers from Filipino to German food.
– Silog Republic – If you are on a budget, you will like Silog Republic where you can find Filipino dishes on the cheap. Vegetarians will need to stick to the only veggie dish they offer: sizzling tofu.
– Sizzling republic – If you fancy Filipino food, one of your best bets is Sizzling Republic in Corong-Corong.
Where to sleep in El Nido
I have compiled a list of cheap accommodations in El Nido to help you plan your stay. If you want to be in the heart of El Nido, you should look for accommodation around Real Street (Barangay Buena Suerte) or Rizal Street (Barangay Maligaya). If you prefer to be on the beachfront, Barangay Masagana is your best bet. Corong-Corong is nice but a bit outside the center of action. As peak season can be busy and the town of El Nido is small, I highly recommend booking in advance via Agoda (you will find the best deals on this site!).
ON A BUDGET
– Austria’s place (Real Street), Barangay Buena Suerte – I stayed in this place both times I went to El Nido. The truth is there are only two small shared bathrooms, the water is cold, the WI-FI slow and the rooms are off shapes. But anyway, who comes to El Nido to spend time in their room, on the Internet?! If you are on a budget, I highly recommend this place. Great location and the nicest staff!
– Our Melting Point (Real Street), Barangay Buena Suerte – I did not have the chance to stay here but, according to Tripadvisor, this is the best value in El Nido town.
– Hakuna Matata, Barangay Buena Suerte – Friendly hostel in the heart of El Nido. Beds at the dorm are 350php/night.
– El Taraw In (Real Street), Barangay Buena Suerte –Clean rooms at affordable prices.
– Rock View Lodge (Rizal Street), Barangay Maligaya – Simple hostel in the center of the town of El Nido.
– Swiflets In (Balinsasayaw Road), Barangay Maligaya – Very new and comfortable hotel in the center of El Nido.
– Joaquinn bed and breakfast (Real Street), Barangay Buena Suerte – Good location, clean rooms and very nice rooftop with nice views.
– Pura Vida Inn and Tours (Serena Street), Barangay Buena Suerte – Offers great views and fantastic breakfasts.
– Desert Rose Hotel (Sitio Lugadia), Corong-Corong – A good option if you prefer to stay a bit outside of the town.
– Las Cabañas Beach Resort (Marimegmeg beach), Corong-Corong – Cute cottages beachfront in the beautiful Marimegmeg beach.
There are a few things you really need to know before your adventure to El Nido:
– There are no international ATMs in El Nido, so make sure to bring along all the cash you may need! There are, however, a few pawnshops where you can exchange money. As a last resource, I heard it is possible to withdraw money at the local gas station in El Nido (with a 6% commission). Ask locals for more information about this.
– There are daily power outages, but some mid-range hotels have their own generators.
– Usually, there is only cold water in hostels, but your skin will be thankful after so much sun.
– WI-FI is terrible, but seriously, who comes to El Nido to spend time on the Internet? There are better things to do…
– Bring a dry bag for island hopping tours (if you don’t have one, you can find them in town).
– If you are still reading this post, I assume is because you are going to El Nido so, congratulations, excellent choice!
Have you been in El Nido? Do you have any more suggestions that should be included in this guide? I would love to hear from you. Thanks!
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