El Nido Palawan is possibly the most hyped place to be on Instagram and I can’t argue with that.
But even still, we had our doubts about heading out to the island.
Our research had uncovered phrases describing this location as “Overcrowded at the big lagoon” and “sounds like tourist hell”. Not exactly reviews inspiring confidence.
But despite all of this we set out and lived to tell the tale, so here it goes!
How to get to El Nido Palawan
There are basically 2 ways to get to El Nido by air, and we opted to try both of them.
Option 1: Airswift.
We left from Manila Ninoy international airport with Air Swift. A Filipino owned boutique airline that has a private airport at El Nido, Palawan.
Turns out this airline is the only one that gets you to El Nido in an hour and a half.
Once we touched down in El Nido, the town was a 20 minute ride by tricycle, which ran us around 300php for the ride.
There are some places you can stay that will arrange to pick you up, but that’s up to you ultimately.
All things considered, if you choose Air Swift, know that it may be the fastest way to get to El Nido but not the cheapest.
If you are on a budget than there is a second option.
Option 2: Puerto Princessa
The second option was what we chose to get back to Manila.
We wound up driving five hours to Puerto Princessa in a crowded minivan with only 1 short break.
At the “end of the line” you’ll have to find a new ride to the airport, but flights out of here are much cheaper.
So much in fact, that if you calculate the price all together, The Minivan and flight tickets are still cheaper than a direct flight with Air Swift.
To top it all off, the driver drove like a bad out of hell.
Two of the girls had to puke so can you imagine how awesome that was.
Needless to say, the direct flight to EL Nido was sooo much more comfortable than that cramped five hour van ride.
If price is no option, youl’l be much happier going that route. We will certainly be using that option again.
Our First Impressions of El Nido
Once we were settled in our hotel, Sea Cocoon Hotel, we did a little exploring with what daylight we had left.
The hustle and bustle of El Nido seemed to basically be focused on one buzzing street loaded with restaurants and bars.
From fresh off the boat seafood to exotic smelling coffee cafes as well as pizza parlors.
The sights and smells envelop you.
At risk of being overwhelmed, we opted for the classic beach bars.
So obviously our first drinks were at the beach and what a view we had! Our cocktail looked out over a little bay with banca’s, a peaky, hill and a sunset peeping through the hills just like painting.
That was the moment I fell in love with El Nido. I finally understood why everybody wants to come here.
Maybe we got lucky during our time in here, but we didn’t feel like it was overrun with tourists. That’s not to say that it wasn’t crowded, it was. But it wasn’t overrun, the perfect ratio of vibrance and life while few enough people we didn’t feel claustrophobic.
Another thing I fell in love with was Palawan’s conscientious effort to try and be more ecologically responsible.
Even down to the little things drinks are served with paper, bamboo or tin straws and not in plastic. They also have caps on how many people are allowed to go on the aquamarine tours so the wildlife isn’t disturbed too much.
Most of the beaches strive to keep the beach clean and maintained, even going so far as to have designated smoking areas.
Food and Drink Tips
One restaurant that stayed with us was Angel Wish.
It’s a no-nonsense, back to basic kind of restaurant, but man the food is to die for.
The wait staff is friendly and they serve some of the freshest seafood in the Pacific.
Want to have a fancy drink and enjoy a beautiful sunset? Head over to Cuna Hotel for some drinks.
A new establishment in the El Nido scene, they serve a cocktail decent enough that people around us were recommending it to us on the street.
13 kilometers from El Nido you’ll find Lio beach, home of another of my favorites, Shaka.
Shaka is known for their vegan treats, but trust me on this one you don’t have to be vegan to enjoy a delicious lunch there.
They serve such pretty plates, they’re almost too pretty to eat.
But you’ll be thankful you did after the first bite
Getting around and things to do in El Nido
We rented a scooter for a day and did Island hopping tour.
Turns out renting a scooter is the cheapest way to get around.
For the reason that you’ll have the freedom to choose how long you want to stay at various places.
In addition, we highly recommend doing a tour.
Palawan is made for Island hopping so you should not miss out, each Island has something special to offer.
Some even say that it’s more beautiful than Halong bay in Vietnam, and I might have to agree with them there.
Our Day With the Scooter
Like always try to start your day as soon as you wake up, the days are shorter in Asia as the sun sets kinda early.
Our first stop was Bulalacao falls, a 30 minute drive from El Nido. And the phrase “A straight shot to Bulalacao falls” is more than just a saying. The road is literally straight the entire way.
At one point we got lost because the GPS told us we had to go further but there was no road. Soon we noticed that we had to drive a bit off-road.
Anyone who’s ever ridden a scooter can tell you going off-road isn’t a great way to spend a day.
Luckily we did enjoy a lovely scenery towards the falls to make up for it.
half hour hike
10 minutes off-road you’ll find a sign where you’ll have to pay a small entrance fee, about 25 pesos, you can get guide if you wish.
From there you’re looking at a half-hour hike to the falls, where you’ll have to walk true rivers and rocks so wear shoes, not slippers.
The breathtaking view was worth every bump and jostle.
The falls are beautiful and you can swim and relax a bit.
It’s not one of the Seven Wonders, mind you, but it’s a nice change of scenery if you hang out at the beach every day.
A Peaceful Afternoon at Lio beach
You’ll find Lio beach on the way back to El Nido 15 minutes from town, which is where Shaka
is located. This beach is so lovely and quiet, we wish we’d had more time to spend there!
Sunset at Vanilla Beach
Only 5 km from town you’ll find Vanilla Beach, this was recommended by our hotel to see the sunset here.
One bummer we noticed was that they were doing construction work as we walked towards the beach.
Luckily, they were almost finished and was going to be an open mall.
This reminded me so much of Borocay (we’ve been here before the rehabilitation), Borocay’s D mall that is.
I kind of understand why they built it but for us this was not necessary because we like the tranquilly place that it once used to be.
We were at the beach a full two hours before sunset but it wasn’t super crowded. Yet as the time passed a lot of tourist popped out of nowhere.
Our guess is that many locals recommend this place for some reason.
One of those reasons must be the sunset because it was amazing.
However, we highly recommend leaving the beach as soon the sun has set. Due to the fact that it can get dark really quick and not a lot of the roads have street lights so they can be dangerous.
Island hopping tour A
I cannot say it enough but if you go on a tour, try to get the first one in the morning.
Tour A consist of:
- Big Lagoon
- Secret Lagoon
- Simezu Island
- Entalula Island
- 7 Commando Beach
The Big lagoon
We were the first to arrive at the lagoon, we were sooo happy about that.
From the boat you hop on to a kayak which is a little bit extra but worth every peso.
Keep in mind you will be asked to paddle a certain way because some areas of the lagoon are closed off due to the rehabilitation of Coral reef.
In the lagoon the water is not so deep and you can walk a bit if your up to it, but at that time there were a lot of jellyfish and we’re no heroes.
Even still the water is crystal clear and the rainbows of multiple colored fish are blinding, it truly is a spectacle to behold.
I’ll be honest, Secret lagoon wasn’t one of our favorites.
As the boat slowly pulls in to the cave, you’ll be amazed by the towering karst cliffs that keep the lagoon a ‘secret’.
In fact you have to swim to shore, from the boat you can’t even see the lagoon.
But to be real with you, entering the lagoon is maybe the only thing that makes the secret lagoon a secret. It has become so popular that there is a line to get inside and outside.
It’s basically a small pool surrounded by cliffs, there isn’t much to see and it’s only knee deep.
Get in, have a look to say you did, then get to the beach as soon as possible.
The beach is pretty awesome with coconut trees and that are just perfect for that paradise picture.
We’ve spent more time at the beach at Secret Lagoon than in the Secret lagoon making the most of our time at what is one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen.
Simezu Island is named after a Japanese diver who died in an underwater tunnel on this island. Yet somehow the island has long been considered as one of the nicest snorkeling sites in our tour.
Our boat didn’t dock near the shore but parked in the area in front of the island where most of the fish are.
While snorkeling you’re not allowed to step on the coral as these are being protected.
This is hardly a handicap though, there were fish of different colors and sizes all over the place. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to check out that much due jelly fish once again ruining our tour plans. But the ones that were brave enough in our group took their chances any way and they didn’t regret it at all.
While hopping to the next island the crew prepared our lunch.
Entalula Island is one of the popular spots to eat because the beach looks soft white with clear water. To be honest we didn’t spend a lot of time ‘exploring’ because we were too busy getting to know the group and enjoying our meal.
A large buffet was spread for us with rice, adobo, shrimp, veggies, chicken wings and much more. Honestly it was the best lunch I’ve ever had in the Philippines, which explains the lack of exploring.
7 Commando beach
From far away we could see the coconut tree line in the white sand with the dramatic limestone cliffs that El Nido is famous for.
While we got closer, it seemed like the leaves were welcoming us with a gust of wind.
7 Commando is usually the last stop of the tour.
There are huts, snack and beverage stands, so we chilled and enjoyed a beer. What surprised me the most is that there were monkeys here, but unlike most monkeys these ones were shy and don’t come to close.
After a much needed powernap, we headed back to the boat but apparently we had a fast group. For the reason that our captain decided to take a quick surprise stop at a beach since we had so much extra time. I didn’t catch the name of the beach as this was a surprise, but it was a welcome one.
Sadly, once again we were nearly thwarted by more jellyfish, but apparently they don’t sting. We even had the guts to ‘hold’ one just briefly which only made us feel worse that we didn’t go snorkeling on Simezu Island.
Some Pro Tips:
We got fresh water from the boat crew. Don’t worry, once you reach an island salesmen in kayaks pop out of nowhere to sell fresh soda’s or beers all over the place.
We do recommend informing yourself if there is water available.
The local government standardizes the tour rates, which is my opinion good for competitors.
Eco-Tourism development fee is 200Php and is good for 10 days.
Once you have that ticket your good for more tours, but if you lose this you’ll have to pay a ticket again.
Why El Nido
We only had 3 nights in this lovely place, and even saying that is a stretch since we decided to stay a night in Puerto Princessa because of our flight hour.
After some research, it looked like there was a lot more to see and do in El Nido than in Puerto Princessa but I could be wrong. We’ll have to check that out when we visit Palawan again.
Our tip is that it’s best to stay a bit longer in Palawan because there is so much we didn’t see yet and we regret it so much.
Even with all the fuss about Palawan being so touristic we fell in love with El Nido.
However, to be completely honest Palawan is not a cheap Island.
I think it’s one of the more expensive islands in the Philippines. On the other hand, if you do your research you can control your budget.