El Nido is a major access point to unlocking the beauty of Palawan’s Bacuit Archipelago, which is known to have some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. There are remote, uninhabited islands across the entire stretch of northern Palawan, and travelers will have no trouble finding stunning beaches, private coves and untouched lagoons . The town of El Nido has hospitable residents that will cook you hearty meals (either on land or during your boat rides across the islands) and welcome you graciously to their humble town.
Palawan was my first destination in The Philippines and it set the bar very high for my future trips – the hues of the water against the karst backdrop, the people, the hidden lagoons, and the amazing diving experiences for scuba lovers. I joined a Filipino family of twelve to see Palawan’s Underground River on my way to El Nido, and took a seven-hour ferry ride from El Nido to Coron. It was a blissful meditation experience to converse with a Filipino navy officer on the deck of the ferry while taking in beautiful views.
When to Visit El Nido:
Always check for typhoons, as the country is unfortunately prone to them. For the best experience, I recommended going anytime in June-August, which is off-peak season. You are taking a risk with the weather, but you can island hop without excessive crowds. Even off peak, expect at least seven to ten other tourist boats while island hopping. If you like to go off the beaten track, look up TAO Adventures and sign up for their island hopping tours that range from three to five days. They operate closer to the peak season, and take travelers to private islands.
What you need in El Nido:
Bring cash! El Nido is a small town and credit cards are not accepted everywhere. Bring your bathing suit, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, clothes to keep you cool, and a book. Snorkeling and scuba gear can be rented but the quality is inconsistent. If you have dietary restrictions, keep those on your list of packing priorities. There aren’t too many healthy or eclectic packaged goods available at the tiny shacks here. Remember to hydrate and do not drink tap water.
How to get to El Nido:
Your options depend on your time and budget. Direct flights from Manila (MNL) to El Nido (ENI) are few and expensive for SE Asia standards (approx: $250-300). But if you are short on time, take a flight. If you have a relaxed schedule, then you have a few cool options:
1) Take a flight from Manila (MNL) to Puerto Princesa (PPS), a city at the center of Palawan. Not a whole lot to do here, but you can definitely spend a night and have a nice meal in the country’s cleanest city. You can then take a direct eight-hour road trip by minivan or bus all available at the city center or through your accommodation.
2) Travel 50 miles north of Puerto Princesa to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World: the Puerto Princesa Underground River. Explore the Underground River for a few days before you make your way up to El Nido.
3) Travel to El Nido by ferry from Manila. Ferries in The Philippines are quite comfortable (air conditioning, entertainment and food) but the rides are long and often delayed, so this is an option for the traveler with plenty of time.
Best things to see in El Nido:
Island hopping around El Nido is the number one attraction here. Rent a private boat through your hotel or private companies in town. Explore the 7 Commandos Island for snorkeling, the Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island, Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Talisay Island, Matinloc Shrine and Helicopter Island. El Nido itself also has some beautiful beaches accessible by foot or tricycle (their version of a tuk-tuk). These are Marimegmeg Beach/Las Cabanas Beach, 7 Commandos Beach (accessible by boat and part of one of the island hopping tours), and Corong Corong Beach. Matinloc Island now has a resort with facilities to ferry you to El Nido and back, about a 15 minute ride. This is a great stay option if you want to avoid crowds. More adventurous travelers can rent kayaks to go from El Nido to Matinloc. Scuba enthusiasts can use the company Palawan Divers to set up a dive. During my night dive, I saw a blue-spotted stingray, an egg cowry, three types of seahorses, and several nudibranchs – all quite rare. Coron is also a very popular dive spot with actual WWII wrecks to explore.
Getting around El Nido:
Transportation is easy, as El Nido is small and you can walk to most places. Additionally, most people speak English here. If you’re staying a bit further away from shore, there are tricycles (small tuk-tuks) everywhere always looking for your business. Also, this tiny town was hit badly by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, so a lot part of their economy still depends on you. Haggling with the tricycle driver is not needed, as unlike in Manila, they will quote you a fair price and will go out of their way to ensure you’re at the right destination.