Note: Travel writer Mark-Anthony Villaflor and his wife Camille, both travelers, moved to El Nido, Palawan to set up their glamping resort, The Birdhouse. Below, Mark-Anthony writes about his experiences and shares tips as a new resident of this island paradise.
After finishing up a 16-month honeymoon, Camille and I ended up settling down in El Nido on a whim after buying some property and deciding to build El Nido’s first glamping site, The Birdhouse. We wanted a unique experience and wanted to put our own touch to the island.
Since September 2015 when we first visited El Nido, we’ve seen a drastic uptick in the number of tourists. Island-hopping tours have become crowded and these days we’re seeking refuge from all the tourists. Below are some of our recommendations, based on our experiences, of what we’ve done both on the tourist trail and off the beaten path.
Note that this guide only scratches the surface of what’s out there. From town, there’s a circumferential road that leads you to popular beaches such as Nacpan Beach, loops up the north to the isolated beaches of San Fernando and then back down on the east side of the island for sunrise beaches around Sibaltan. Most people don’t make it further than Nacpan, and while the road is still in development, it is easy to navigate. For those willing to take the time to explore, El Nido has much to offer away from the crowds.
Of course, not every beach we’ve been to is noted – we’d like to keep some of those a secret even if just for a while. However, there are a few beaches that have been overlooked or aren’t gaining a lot of attention yet, but will likely catch on. Having said that, please note that El Nido’s drastic tourism boom has brought out a lot of unintended negative consequences on its environment.
GETTING TO EL NIDO
From Manila/Cebu To El Nido via Air-swift.com. This airline gives you a direct flight into El Nido (20 minutes outside of the El Nido’s town center). These flights are approximately P6000 to 8000 one way. While it’s a bit more expensive, you do avoid the 5-hour van ride from Puerto Princesa.
From Manila/Iloilo/Cebu to Puerto Princesa using Cebu Pacific, Air Asia, or Philippine Airlines.
Note for budget travelers: There is likely little to no savings between going by bus versus by van. In many instances, it may be more expensive and time-consuming to take the bus. The only time I recommend taking the bus is if you need the extra leg room.
From Coron (port) to El Nido
Insider tip: seats are limited for this ferry, book early.
GETTING AROUND EL NIDO
ISLAND HOPPING TOURS
El Nido currently has 4 different island hopping tours, listed as Tours A, B, C, and D.
If you’re looking for an in-depth guide there are plenty of articles and blog posts written on the Internet. Below is a general list of the places you’ll visit on each tour. Note that based on the advice of your tour guide you may have to visit alternative sites in place of others. Sometimes, due to weather conditions, some sites cannot be visited at all.
Tour A (P1200)
Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island, and Seven Commandoes Beach
Tour A is the most popular (crowded) tour but for good reason. It’s the quintessential El Nido tour with a focus on lagoons. There’s a mix of snorkeling and a couple of beaches.
Tour B (P1300)
Entalula Island, Snake Island, Cudugnon Cave, Cathedral Cave, and Pinagbuyutan Island
Tour B is the most diverse tour with a mix of caves, islands, beaches and a sandbank.
Tour C (P1400)
Helicopter/Dilumacad Island, Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Matinloc Shrine, and Star Beach
Tour C is the second most popular tour but sometimes gets cancelled due to bad weather conditions. Even when weather conditions are good, the waves can get strong, as much of the tour is situated in open water rather than inside the bay.
Note: Matinloc Shrine is sometimes not included as it’s become a private site and can only be visited after paying a fee of P100.
Tour D (P1200)
Cadlao Lagoon, Ipil Beach, Nat-Nat Beach, Bukal Island, Paradise Beach
Tour D is the least popular tour in El Nido. The highlight of this tour is Cadlao Lagoon which is one my personal favorites. The dramatic entrance, the snorkeling in the area, and the fact that there are few tourists makes this a gem. Tour D caters to those who would like to visit beaches for snorkeling and beat the crowds.
Tip: Bring water shoes as you may walk over some rough rocks. Use a water bag for your belongings especially if you have valuables and electronics.
The combination of two different tours can be done in one day. Typically, you’ll hit the highlights. For example, Tour A/D combo would take you to Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Cadlao Lagoon and a few beaches.
Tip: The advantages of doing a private combination tour is you can see the highlights of two tours, skip the fillers, and avoid the long lines of boats (assuming you plan your tour departure early). While the price is a bit higher it’s more than worth it to have some of the locations to yourselves before all the group tours come in.
* All prices quoted are per head on a group/shared tour unless noted and don’t include the one-time Eco-Tourism Development Fee (ETDF) of P200.
**Kayaks are almost never included in the price of island-hopping tours but can be rented at the lagoons for P300 (good for 2 people) .
Overnight camping can be arranged in combination with island-hopping tours. The typical set up is to start on Day 1 doing on of the island-hopping tours, overnight camping on an island, and then returning to the mainland the next morning. These trips can be customized.
Island excursions are the best way to experience the islands of El Nido, Linapacan, and Coron. There are a few companies that do 3 to 5 day excursions which take you from El Nido to Coron and some that cater solely to excursions around Bacuit Bay (El Nido). The most popular company is Tao Excursions which promises remote island experiences and gives you insight into the life of some rural island communities.
There are numerous island hopping tours and travel agencies in El Nido. This can be a make or break for most travelers’ trip as most visitors come for the island-hopping tours. Be careful of hidden costs such as use of snorkels (most tour services will charge you P100-200 for snorkel rental). Since September 2015 I’ve experience island-hopping with a number of companies and have had issues with many of them. After opening our own hotel The Birdhouse Glamping we’ve gone through several agencies but now our guests book solely through El Nido Tours:
The mainland tour of El Nido includes Nacpan and Calitang Twin Beach. While there aren’t any major resorts up yet there are tons of hotels being planned and it’s only a matter of time before this beach is packed with tourists.
Note: As of writing (March 2017), the area at the southern end of the beach where visitors use to hike up for spectacular views of the area has been closed off.
Nagkalit-Kalit waterfalls is El Nido's most popular waterfall though not necessarily it’s best. This is mainly because of its proximity to town and its location being on the way to Nacpan Beach providing an easy detour away from the beaches. One issue with these waterfalls is that during summer the water levels are quite low. If you go during rainy season you’ll cross 8 streams before arriving to the waterfalls.
Cost: Tour guide – P200 per person
Advice: bring water, snacks, a dry bag, and shoes you don’t mind getting wet.
While this group of waterfalls isn’t technically in El Nido, it’s starting to pick up on the tourist radar. The Kuyawyaw Falls are located about 40 minutes south of town at the boundary of El Nido and Taytay. It’s a short hike from the entrance to the series of 3 waterfalls. The waterfalls are about 10 minutes away from each other or a round trip journey of about an hour without many stops.
Surfing and Kite-surfing El Nido
Water sports are starting to catch on in Palawan and El Nido has its own spots for surfing and kite-surfing.
For surfing, head north 45 minutes to Duli Beach. This beautiful area has fewer visitors than Nacpan Beach and is just 10 to 15 minutes away from the Nacpan crowd. Options for sleeping are limited to the 3 to 4 bungalows of Duli Beach Resort.
Going further off-the-beaten path, the remote San Fernando Beach is home to Qi Palawan Resort, the only place kitesurfing is available in El Nido.
Both the surf and kitesurfing season are in line with the Amihan winds, which blow from November to April.
If you prefer to be underwater inquire with Palawan Divers. They offer both scuba diving and free-diving courses that will take you through beautiful coral gardens, wall dives, and shallow drifts exposing you to sea turtles, sharks, moray eels and other marine life.
Sibaltan Heritage Area
The Sibaltan Heritage Society provides traditional experiences with a focus on the Cuyunon ethnic group for those interested in the cultural side of El Nido and Palawan. In this small village, you’ll find the Pangko Maritime Museum and a variety of archaeological sites.
This cave is where archeologists discovered human bones and pottery pieces from over 10,000 years ago. This site can easily be combined with the Sibaltan Heritage Area.
IN AND AROUND TOWN
The Canopy Walk provides a safe alternative to the more dangerous Taraw Cliff, which has had a few fatalities over the past couple of years. This tour takes you over a hanging bridge that leads to your 10-minute hike up the limestone cliffs that tower over El Nido town. Once at the top, you are rewarded with spectacular views of Bacuit Bay and El Nido town.
Note: This can easily be combined with any of the tours.
This 700-meter zipline is located at the Las Cabanas Beach area. While there’s the option to do this zipline both ways, we recommend doing it one-way and then walking down to Depeldet Island. Plan this activity before sunset and watch the sun drop after.
South of town (a few minutes south of Las Cabanas) is a mangrove park. Visitors can walk into a mangrove forest on a long board that take you in 500 meters through the forest to a river. Once you reach the end it’s time to turn around and go back.
At the time of writing there was no admission. Theirs is also a restaurant there should you decide to have lunch there.
What to eat in town
There are tons of places to eat in El Nido. Cafes, restaurants and bars are starting to pop up in town, in Corong-Corong and on the outskirts of the town center. Below are a few of my recommendations.
Where to drink
Where to catch the sunset
When possible, try to bring enough cash to last you your entire trip and pre-pay as many services as you can such as hotel accommodations, van transfers, and tours. There are two ATMs at a BPI bank in town, as well as two RCBC ATMs at the Municipal Hall. Sometimes these run out of money.
Try carrying smaller bills when riding tricycles. Many places in town have difficulty breaking P1000 notes.
Our usual recommendation is to stop by MCA Pasalubong Market in Puerto Princesa on the way back to the airport for a wider range of options for souvenirs. This market will also be significantly cheaper than anything you will find in El Nido.
Water is a huge issue in El Nido and many establishments have issues with having enough water, especially during summer. Please conserve water when possible.
Also, don’t drink the tap water and be careful with drinking with ice. Always ask where the water came from. There have been recent issues with many tourists affected by food poisoning and diarrhea.
El Nido is a small town with no real hospital. Should you need any medical assistance there is a small Medical City clinic in town (closed on Sundays).
Many services in restaurants, on tours, and even with van transfers, are very much on island time. You’re on vacation, so you can wait the extra 10 or 15 minutes. People tend to be more relaxed and don’t move at the frantic pace that many city dwellers are used to.
Brownouts are frequent in El Nido town. Outside, in hotels away from the main electrical lines, generators are used. While there are tons of tourists present, the infrastructure is still very much behind.
Don’t expect to have the best Wi-Fi in El Nido. There are only a couple of telecommunication towers and the number of users is disproportionate to the internet infrastructure. – Rappler.com
Mark is a one-eyed Filipino-American that is the happy owner of Pepper, a French bulldog. He is married to his lovely wife Camille.
His heart beats to the pulse of the Philippines but he has lived in South Korea, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and China. He is a former international school educator and an entrepreneurial backpacker. He is 1/2 of 365traveldates.com.
After chasing the sun around the world for over 500 travel dates he and his wife have settled down in El Nido, Palawan and are the owners of a glamping hotel called The Birdhouse.