Among the tourist destinations of Palawan, El Nido is perhaps the most well known. Many even say it is overdeveloped. We have to agree. But, to be fair, there is a distinction between the type of development in El Nido and that of say, Cancun. Sure, there are several shops in town selling Cadbury chocolate bars, sodas, and overpriced t-shirts and souvenirs, but they aren’t 7-11s. Sure, there are several bars and restaurants lining the beachfront, but they aren’t Señor Frog’s chains untz-ing untz-ing into the wee hours of the night, and I don’t think we saw a single building over five stories tall here.
But what left us in the slightly underwhelmed category with El Nido is the fact that for all its development, it’s still a remarkably inconvenient travel destination. Getting there is no easy journey. Granted, we chose to stop first at Sabang and then at the decidedly less developed and even more inconvenient location of Port Barton, which made our travels significantly more diverted, but even for a traveler looking to spend a week in El Nido alone, it’s most likely you’ll have to fly to Manila, then to Puerto Princesa, then take a six hour drive, then a tricycle to your destination and perhaps, if you’re foolish as we were in staying at Golden Monkey Cottages, you’ll then have to walk 15 minutes with your luggage down the beach and through an unpaved path in the village. In fairness, though, if your budget permits you could take private vehicles and there are charter flights from Manila to El Nido (more on this below in Practical Info).
From Port Barton we took an hour and a half jeepney ride. This is Asia, so of course it was packed to the brim, which means that the back is loaded, the roof is loaded with bags and people, and the driver even had a passenger to his left (in addition to the two on his right). And when it was time to pay, the conductor climbed down from the roof and reached in through the side to tap me on the back and ask for cash. The excitement did not end there, as we got dropped off at Roxas junction where we witnessed an animated arrest by some cops carrying humongous guns. Then we hopped on our bus to El Nido, which was surprisingly modern for a public bus (reclining seats and air con!). Though it still stopped many times to pick up people on the side of the street and wait for them to load bags of rice and other goods on board. Once we made it to El Nido we still had a tricycle ride to town and a 15 minute walk down a dirt path to get to our hotel.
As with Sabang and Port Barton, there is no ATM to be found throughout the entire town. In fact, if you want to get cash out you have a two-hour window and a roughly $200 equivalent maximum, charged against your credit card plus a 6% fee. And you still receive that Filipino level of service (meaning the worst of any country we’ve visited). These inconveniences are not fatal flaws, but for all the effort it takes to travel here you’d expect to find an untainted and remote-feeling island paradise, and El Nido is much less of that than Coron and especially Port Barton. To be sure, it is beautiful. But it is also fairly polluted, which really distracts from the enjoyment, at least for us. Stepping over pieces of trash and cigarette butts on the beach is far from ideal. It’s such a shame to see these beautiful places being destroyed by litter. Maybe we’re being a bit harsh here, and El Nido does have some amazing scenery. Perhaps if we lower your expectations then you’ll be even more impressed :).
The island hopping tour allowed us to see the highlights of El Nido, and it is most definitely worth it. Our tour took us to a white sand beach (fairly disappointing given that it was being built up and had construction and barbed wire fencing all along it), two lagoons (absolutely incredible), a smaller beach for lunch, and a snorkel stop at the coral reefs outside the “Big Lagoon” (really solid, not tons of fish but impressive variety and stunning iridescent almost kaleidoscopic looking giant clams).
While the sights are stunning, again it does not feel very remote. It reminded us a bit of Koh Phi Phi, with the masses of tourists. In fact, we sat idled for about 15 minutes waiting for boats to exit the “Big Lagoon” before our bangka could even fit in. But it was worth the wait, what a beautiful place. We’re told that El Nido Resorts holds wedding ceremonies inside this lagoon, on a big floating platform that they set up. Now that would be cool. Unmarried friends, please consider this option ;). I believe guests of the El Nido Resort (at least the Miniloc Island property) can also kayak here at times when it would be less crowded, which would be lovely. The “Small Lagoon” is only accessible by kayak or swimming in through a small opening so we unfortunately didn’t bring the camera, but what an incredible spot. The steep rock walls are beautiful to begin with, but then to realize you’re swimming through a gigantic saltwater pool, secluded from the outside world, ahh, just divine.
We also spotted some flying fish on the ride back. We’d never seen these fish in action before, it’s absolutely mind-blowing to watch them literally fly 50-100 yards across the water!
Alan bravely tried the Filipino delicacy, balut, a hard boiled fertilized duck egg. In other words, he ate duck fetus…with a bit of salt and vinegar sauce. Others had told us it tastes like a cross between a chicken egg and liver. Alan agreed. Jenni couldn’t be bothered to find out what baby duck feathers taste like.
There is a “hike” in town that allegedly affords great views of the El Nido Bay. I say hike in quotation marks, because it is more of a climb than a hike. While most attempt this with a guide, he offers no advice other than to wear sneakers, and he comes without any equipment. The very first ten feet up were almost enough to make Jenni bow out. The rocks are sharp and you must use both hands and feet to scale up these formations. After a mild panic, Jenni was able to brave it and we ventured on for a while, climbing up pointy limestone boulders. At one difficult spot that had a large and deep crevice Jenni started to panic again. “Is this the worst?” we asked our guide. “No, this part is easy. The top is like that,” he says as he points to a vertical wall of rock. “For about ten or fifteen meters.” That was my cue to go. I’m not sure I could make that climb without a fear of heights, let alone without a helmet, ropes or spotter. Alan and guide briefly considered going on without me before we realized that it would mean I’d have to sit there and wait for around an hour where the mosquitos were literally swarming. One malaria scare was enough for me, thank you. We admitted defeat and headed for flatter land.
The rational man’s take, revisited: I agree with Jenni. She bears no blame for calling it off. We did a bunch of class 3 scrambling, and based on what we saw and our guide said, the trail was turning into class 4 climbing, too. I have minimal experience, and Jenni has none. Class 4 climbing for the inexperienced with no ropes or helmets and no decent access to medical care seems kind of foolish. The ability to distinguish between rational and irrational fear is essential to living an adventure-filled life without being reckless. While I am highly confident we could have made it to the top without injury, that does not mean we should have tried.
On our last day in town we hired a tricycle for the ride over to Corong Corong to visit the beach at Las Cabañas. We kicked ourselves for not choosing a hotel over on this side of town. While there is little going on here (we only saw one bar/restaurant plus a couple small resorts), the beach is great for swimming (unlike the beach in the town of El Nido or near where we stayed further northeast from El Nido town), the views are great, and the sunsets are superior (no west-facing open ocean views in El Nido Bay). We joined up with some friends we’d met on our boat tour and grabbed piña coladas to watch the sun sink, and then we all shared a “you-point-we-cook” seafood dinner and lots of San Mig Lights back in town. It was a solid close to our time in El Nido, and we even enjoyed a romantic walk back (with great stars!) when the power in the entire town went out.
“El Nido” refers to an area far larger than the main town and immediate surroundings. We considered staying one place in El Nido that is about an hour drive from the town, so be careful when you book. The main town has lots of smallish hotels, bars and restaurants on the beach and a block or two off the beach. In general, it seemed more crowded and developed towards the southwest part of the beach (nearer the dock) and less crowded towards the northeast (say, past Marina Garden Beach Resort). The town beach is not great for swimming (though it is swimmable).
Further to the northeast is the Caalan Beach area, though we didn’t really see any beach here. There are several accommodations here, and we stayed at Golden Monkey Cottages (more below). We would advise against staying in this area because it is less convenient but without the benefit of peace and quiet (given the roosters, dogs, lizards and neighbors). It took us about 25 minutes to walk to the far end of town.
To the southwest of town is the Corong Corong area. As noted above, the beach and views are nice here. Note, though, that you can walk between town and Caalan Beach but you need to take a tricycle to get between town and Corong Corong. We would either stay in town if you want some nightlife and proximity to F&B options plus tour operators, or stay in Corong Corong if you want a prettier setting and a nicer beach. Or stay at one of the El Nido Resorts offshore islands, if that is in your budget. To visit Corong Corong for the day, ask a tricycle to take you to Las Cabañas. They will drop you off a few km from town and then it’s a five-minute walk to the beach.
There are no ATMs in El Nido but you can swipe a credit card (with a 6% fee) from 2-4 pm at the Petron petrol station near the dock. Art Cafe no longer offers this service, but they will change foreign cash and were offering a decent rate. Art Cafe also accepts credit cards for no extra fee, as does their downstairs shop, which carries all sorts of odds and ends you might need.
Transportation: We came from Port Barton on a jeepney/bus combo. We described this a bit above, but here are some additional details. The jeepney left at 8 am (sort of). We sat near the front of the jeepney and the windshield was open, making sunglasses very helpful. And you might want a handkerchief for the dust. It arrived to Roxas terminal a little before 10 am, and there we transferred to a RORO public bus, which left several minutes later. This but stopped in Taytay at 11:30 am for ~20 minutes where food and toilets were available. The bus arrived in El Nido at 1:30 pm. The El Nido terminal is 1-2km from town (I think), and several tricycles are there waiting with a pretty standard fare of 50PHP to town. The jeepney cost 150PHP each and the bus cost 200PHP each. Overall, the journey was fairly painless if windy and a little bumpy.
When inquiring in Port Barton we were told of a few other options. Subject to weather, you can take a bangka. I think it costs ~6000PHP for the boat or 1500PHP each if you can find some others. We did not try to bargain, but the private van quotes we got were 6000PHP. If you can find other passengers and bargain you could probably pay <1000PHP each. We also heard that sometimes after the jeepney drops you at Roxas terminal, you can catch a van that is more comfortable and goes straight to El Nido for 350PHP each.
From Puerto Princesa or Sabang you could take the Lexus van straight to El Nido. Part of the difficulty of getting around Palawan is the main road runs up the east coast but there is nothing along the west coast, so getting to Sabang or Port Barton and sort of El Nido requires you to turn off the main road for a while. And then for onward travel, you usually need to get back on that track for a transfer.
There is a small airport in El Nido that accommodates charter flights on ITI. If you were to come here to stay at one of the El Nido Resorts properties, there is a good chance you’d arrive by plane. Art Cafe was advertising one-way flights between Manila and El Nido for ~5000PHP. I would guess that in the coming years there will be regular commercial flights into El Nido.
For onward travel to Coron, we took a bangka that actually left from San Fernando, about an hour and a quarter drive from El Nido town (the trip cost 1800PHP each). Different boats make the trip on different days and often these leave from El Nido town. The trip is weather dependent. We will provide some more detail on this trip in our upcoming Coron post.
Accommodation: We stayed at Golden Monkey Cottages but do not recommend it. The place itself was decent but not great value, and the location (Caalan Beach) is undesirable. It has nice views of Cadlao Island, but otherwise offers little vs. El Nido town or Corong Corong. Cadlao Resort is a nicer property with a pool in the same area, but we probably wouldn’t stay there for $150+ with no beach. If you decide anyway to stay in the Caalan section, bring a headlamp for walking home at night. As we wrote above, we would stay in town or Corong Corong, or on an offshore island.
We had looked to stay at Marina Garden in town but it was booked. Our friends liked Rico’s Cottages. On the beach in Corong Corong, Orange Pearl seems well located and Las Cabañas even more so. The latter is on a point, so maybe a touch farther from the best part of the beach but quieter and with better views. If you stay in Corong Corong, you might inquire e.g. whether your hotel can arrange island-hopping tours that begin and end there so you don’t have to make the return trip into town.
El Nido Resorts owns (or operates?) a few offshore island properties. I haven’t done full research, but I think we saw Miniloc Island (on our island hopping tour), which looked nice, but maybe a little dated. But as mentioned above it may offer the best access to spectacular sites at times when few other tourists are around. I think Pangalusian Island may be their nicest property.
Food and Drinks: Options are abundant, and many places offer some kind of happy hour in the afternoon. We had drinks at Sea Slugs (no happy hour, but stiff drinks) and dinner at Atmosphere one night. It was decent. Happy hour drinks at Mezzanine were pretty good. Dinner at Doy’s was enjoyable for fresh seafood. Plus the table next to us shared their lanzones, a small fruit that tastes (and looks) kind of like a cross between a lychee and an orange. We dined at Blue Azul a couple blocks off the beach. They advertise chicken shawarma, which is just grilled chicken and there is no tahini, and atmosphere is lacking. But the falafel sandwich was large and tasty. Our lunch at Art Cafe was pretty good and our breakfast there was excellent, and they take credit cards. It is off the beach but some tables have pretty good views. There was a nice little beach bar scene at Corong Corong (near the end of the path from the road to the beach when you ask to be taken to Las Cabañas).
And of course, there is balut. Vendors were walking around the town and beach selling these scrumptious fertilized duck eggs for 20PHP. Man up.
Activities: Island hopping seems to be the primary activity. Countless operators in town offer the same four choices, labeled A-D and priced from 1200PHP to ~1600PHP including lunch. I’m not sure whether all include mask and snorkel, so check on that. We booked Tour A through the tour desk located at Aplaya (on the beach, nearer the dock). The scenery was amazing, though it was fairly crowded out there. While at the lagoons we saw some folks kayaking and then saw that Art Cafe was advertising tour options that included kayaks for a bit more money. Some people do multiple island hopping tours over multiple days.
Another activity is to “hike” Taraw Mountain. We discussed this above. The views of the bay and islands from the top are likely wonderful, so you might try it if you have any climbing experience or just a different risk tolerance. You need a guide to find the trail. Art Cafe was offering a guide for 350PHP each (for two), we found someone for 500PHP total.
You can rent a kayak and paddle out to Cadlao Island or beyond, but be careful out on the ocean if you’re not very experienced. There are also day trips to farther away beaches (Nacpan seems most popular) and hikes to waterfalls. There are many dive shops here, and my dive master in Port Barton said the diving is good once you get outside the bay. I’m not sure how narrowly she is defining “the bay.”
March 18-21, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)