PALAWAN, The Philippines – It is quite easy to name Philippine beach destinations – Boracay, Moalboal, Panglao, Siargao – indeed, there are more. But one place always lands the top of the list: El Nido, Palawan.
This once sleepy town will blow your mind with its astonishing limestone cliffs, beautiful lagoons, colourful sea creatures, and probably the most amazing sunset. While El Nido was once known for luxurious, 5-star resorts that made it seem unreachable, it has now evolved into catering to mid and even low budget travellers.
Thanks to low-cost airlines, growing interest in backpacking, DIY traveling, and the wonders of crowdsourcing, there is really no reason not to visit this idyllic island.
The best time to visit
Summer typically runs from February to May so it is ideal to plan around those months. However, the region is also known for unpredictable rains so it is best to keep track. November can be a good alternative as you will be able to take advantage of low rates before peak season begins in December.
Getting to El Nido
El Nido is a small municipality in the northern tip of the province of Palawan. There is no international flight to El Nido so you have to fly to Manila and then jump on a domestic flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Flights from Southeast Asian capitals to Manila are readily available through budget carriers like Cebu Pacific and Air Asia. A plane ticket from Manila to Puerto Princesa can set you back around PHP3,600 (USD72.40).
From Puerto Princesa airport, you can ride a tricycle (Fiipino version of tuk-tuk) for PHP50 (USD1.01) to the terminal and take a seven-hour bus ride to El Nido for PHP380 (USD7.64). Alternatively, you can take a van from the airport for PHP500 (USD10.06) saving you one hour of travel time. The road is paved but the ride could be bumpy so bringing motion sickness pills is recommended.
Where to stay
Backpackers can check out hostels that range from PHP350 (USD7.04) to PHP2,600 (USD52.29) a night. If you feel like splurging, there are world-renowned, luxury island resorts like El Nido Resorts Lagen Island or Matinloc Resort with prices ranging from PHP20,000 (USD402.24) to Php100,000 (USD2011.21) per night.
Exploring the islands
If there is one reason to visit El Nido, it’s definitely to go island-hopping! Look for Emma’s Travel & Tours around the corner of Serena Street for the lowest prices.
Prices range from PHP1,200 (USD24) for one tour, or PHP1,500 (USD30) for a combination (plus PHP200/person or USD4 for an environmental fee). The price includes a buffet lunch, snorkel gear, and an English-speaking tour guide.
The combination tour lasts from 8am to 5pm and will bring you to a total of seven islands. You get a 20 to 30-minute stay at each; plus a good spread of rice, grilled fish, meat, and fruits for lunch.
Each of the islands and lagoons have their own charm, and are equally stunning. It is hard to choose one over the others, but highly favoured is the Small Lagoon. There you can rent a kayak for PHP300 (USD6) to explore the inner caves and magnificent limestone formations.
While you’re there, look out for the floating coconut vendor. Filipinos are truly hardworking, hence the fishermen normally moonlight as coconut, ice cream, or beer vendors at sea!
Lay on Las Cabanas beach All Day
A 15-20-minute tricycle ride from town, Las Cabanas beach is famous among tourists and is the perfect place to sunbathe and enjoy a lazy day. The beach is clean, and the water crystal clear. Don’t be in a hurry though, as you will be remiss not to stay until 6 pm for a spectacular sunset. The fare for the tricycle is PHP150 each way (USD3), and you can arrange for your driver to pick you up at the end of the day.
Take the Zip Line
Also located at Las Cabanas, the zip line is 750 meters long and connects to a nearby island. It is a great way to get a view of the sea and surrounding islands. You have to hike for 10 minutes, take the zip line and then walk along the coastline back to the beach. Two-way zip lines are also available, but you won’t regret walking along the scenic shores. The zip line is priced at PHP500 (USD10) for a one-way trip.
Go on a Road Trip to Nacpan Beach
If you’re looking for a bit of a land adventure, rent a motorbike for PHP400 (USD8) and drive for an hour to Nacpan Beach. The road is 80% paved and the rest is bumpy and muddy – but it’s all part of the fun! You’ll pass by long stretches of dense mountains and green fields littered with carabaos (water buffalos), cows, goats, and flocks of white birds. The ride itself is a treat.
Alternatively, you can rent a habal-habal (motorbike with a driver) or a tricycle to take you to Nacpan Beach for PHP 1,500/day (USD30).
Upon reaching Nacpan, you have to pay an environmental fee of PHP30 (USD0.60). The beach is pristine and there are a few huts that sell Filipino meals, fruit shakes, and fresh coconuts. There are no big resorts, but rooms are available for rent if you wish to stay the night.
Climb Taraw Cliff
About 230 meters above sea level, Taraw Cliff offers a panoramic view of Bacuit Bay. The hike takes around an hour depending on your pace, and is not for the fainthearted. The terrain is rocky, steep, and filled with sharp rocks. It is often hiked with no safety ropes, which makes it quite risky. However, once you reached the peak, the view will take your breath away. You will have to hire a guide for PHP500/person (USD10). Make sure to wear proper hiking shoes, and bring water. It’s also advisable to wear long pants.
Binge on Food
The range of cuisine on El Nido is considerable. Notable places are Mezzanine, which serves homemade pasta, Art Café, and Trattoria Altrove.
There are good seafood places along the bay where you can buy fresh fish, squid, prawns, and other types of shellfish – cooked the way you want. Garlic butter is also a must try!
Alcohol is pretty cheap, so don’t miss out on the local offering of San Miguel beer, one of the best in Asia. For a stronger kick, opt for Red Horse. Try Palawan’s Crocodile Sisig (minced crocodile meat cooked on a sizzling plate with onions and chilies) and fresh Tamilok (woodworm).
Go Bar Hopping
As El Nido becomes more touristy, bars and party places abound around town and along the bay. Hostels arrange pub crawl nights where you get to bar hop with other guests – a great way to meet new people. Check out Pukka Bar, which features live bands and daring fire dancers. Even if you’re not into drinking, you can still walk along the beach under the moonlight and enjoy the atmosphere.
Get a Massage
Don’t end your trip without getting a cheap, but really good massage. You can get one by Las Cabanas beach for PHP600/hour (USD12). For more privacy, choose among the many establishments in the town proper, where it’s even cheaper at PHP400/hour (USD8). Just be aware that these are just basic beds with curtain dividers. If you want the spa-like ambiance and experience, go to The Organic Spa but make sure to book in advance as the waiting time can be long.
While you’re at it, give the traditional Filipino massage called ‘Hilot’ a try. It’s a deep tissue massage with coconut oil and banana leaves, and is believed to have healing effects.
Mother nature has indeed outdone herself with El Nido, and you will find that every nook and cranny is postcard-worthy. Expect to be overwhelmed by the richness and diversity of marine life, the abundance of greenery, and be touched by the warmth of Palaweños. If you haven’t been to El Nido, do yourself a favour and book the next flight out. You’ll be surprised what this enchanting place can do for you.