Island hopping through magical El Nido

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Asia » Philippines » Palawan » El Nido
April 25th 2013
Published: May 1st 2013
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The small town of El Nido, famous for it's stunning surrounding islands and idyllic beaches, is a place we had been looking forward to seeing since we were last in the Philippines, and after the last week of trekking we couldn't wait to top up our tans and relax, but we had to get there first.

After over 24 hours without much sleep we were both looking forward to an early night in Puerto Princesa (PP) and as such had reserved a room at a decent sounding guesthouse in the city so we had somewhere to go to straight from the airport. Just what you want after an overnight bus, a hot day in busy Manila and then a flight is to arrive at said guesthouse only to discover it is in a sketchy area in the middle of nowhere…we quickly got our tricycle driver to take us somewhere else and after driving around for another 20 minutes we finally found somewhere to stay close to the main street. We were shattered by this point so gave in and grabbed some pizza for dinner before going back to our room, showering and passing out.

We had decided before we had gone to sleep that we wanted to get out of PP as soon as possible so we were up early the next morning and after a nice little free breakfast at the guesthouse we were on our way to El Nido. We had just missed the 8am minivan but our tricycle driver was so nice and arranged with the booking office to drive us to meet the van further down the road where it had waited for us. Luckily there were some spare seats so we jumped in, but this wouldn’t last for very long! We drove for about 20 minutes before the driver stopped for a local family to get in – Scott had managed to bag the front seat and I was in the row behind, there was one spare seat next to me but three people were all trying to squeeze into it, so I moved to the back of the van where there was another spare seat – it was cramped but at least I had a seat to myself for the 6 hour ride. We stopped again and two more people squeezed on, then at the rest stop they got off so we all breathed out but then another two got on. It was a cosy journey to say the least! But it was ok until we hit the last hour, where the road was unpaved so it was really bumpy – it’s so surprising considering how many people come to El Nido that this part of road isn’t as good as the rest, but maybe it will be one day. Anyway, we arrived to the bus station and took a trike to the town proper to look for some accommodation. By this point it was around 3pm so had a quick lunch, checked out the beach which wasn’t amazing, and made some plans for the next few days.

That evening after looking at the restaurants lining the beach, we were surprised to see how much they charged for simple food like chicken and rice or grilled fish and rice – some of them were charging as much as 350 Peso’s for such basic food, just because they were on the beach. I don’t think we have paid that much for any meal in the entire country and were not about to start now, so instead we found a small hot dog and burger stand which we frequented a lot during our stay here! It was good and very cheap, even though they called cheese ‘chiz’…but still it was nice and filled us up. We then went back down to the beach but instead of paying for pricey drinks we had bought some of our favourite Boracay coconut rum (less than £1.50 for the whole bottle) so enjoyed that with some pineapple juice and listened to the live music from the beach bars.

Electricity in El Nido is scarce and the place we were staying only had it between 3pm-6am, so at 6.02am when the fan in our room went off we woke up sweating and had to get up. We wouldn’t have been able to sleep much past then anyway due to the loud construction going on right outside which had also started at 6am…plus the noise of trike drivers either zooming past or stopping outside and playing music at full blast would have kept us awake if the other factors didn’t come into it! It just doesn’t seem like we are going to get a quiet place to stay in the Philippines this time around, but the people here were so nice and helpful we just stayed. Anyway, we had breakfast which was included in our room and pretty nice (pancakes with a banana, a fried egg and some ham) and decided to head over to a beach we had heard was really nice not too far away, as we didn’t fancy swimming in the water at El Nido beach due to all the boats that were lined up against the shore.

Las Cabanas is the sort of beach you see in holiday brochures or on postcards – white sand stretching for miles, clear turquoise waters and no people – it was bliss! We loved it the minute we got there and it is well worth the 15 minute tricycle ride to spend the day in paradise. We splashed around in the shallow waters all day and sunbathed in the heat, topping up our tans nicely. When we got hungry there was a lady selling rolls and drinks from a little shack so we had something to fill us up before napping in the shade in the afternoon. It was a lovely day and as we lay on the sand we knew we would be spending more time here. Scott realised he had left his kindle e-book on the minivan from PP annoyingly, so by chance we stopped at the bus station on the way back to ask if they had seen it. A few phone calls ensued to the driver and also the main van office, but no one could really help so he thought it was lost, until a van pulled in just as we were going and it happened to be the same driver as the day before – and he had found his kindle! He was so happy to have it back, we doubt we would have seen it again if it had happened in some other countries in Asia but the people here are so friendly and honest, and this just pushes them up further in our estimation.

We found a restaurant that evening just set back from the beach called Squido’s which had a very diverse menu and was cheaper than the places on the front, so we tried it and from then on ate there almost every night! The food was great, we tried everything from the house special stuffed squid, to chicken curry to pasta dishes to crab and it was all very good, plus it was one of the few places here that had wi-fi. One evening we were in there we met the owner, an older French man, who was a bit moody at first but soon softened up, although the way he treated the Filipino staff was a bit harsh we thought – he would sort of ‘hiss’ at them when he wanted their attention and seemed to be complaining about something all the time, but he wasn’t there most of the time which I’m sure they were relieved about. The food was enough to keep us going back anyway and it deserves its good reputation.

Something worth mentioning that we have found elsewhere in the country is the lack of change in all the shops, even small change – at one point we owed about 4 different shops money as they just didn’t have change, even if we had a small note like 50 Peso’s (less than £1) and wanted to buy a bottle of water for 25 Peso’s, so they just kept telling us to bring it back later. The people are so trusting and kind here, this would never happen in other countries. Also, while El Nido is a popular tourist destination, it has kept its undeveloped local feel and not given in to commercialism, which is so refreshing, but this is also why we were surprised at the high prices for food, especially as it is on the mainland of Palawan and not a separate island.

One of the main activities and reasons why we came to El Nido , is the the many island hopping boat trips, so the next day we were booked onto one, but woke up to a small storm so quickly changed it for the day after which luckily was sunny again. We did trip 'A' which is the cheapest trip and sailed past some stunning scenery on the way out to the islands – the limestone karst cliffs rivalled the ones we love so much in Krabi, Thailand, and were very picturesque. Throughout the day we visited several idyllic islands, swam through hidden lagoons, snorkelled to our hearts content, had a delicious fresh lunch on the beach and paddled around in crystal clear blue water all day - it was awesome. As we were heading back to El Nido later on, Scott spotted something floating in the water and the boatmen pulled it out, which turned out to be a massive dead squid! It was huge and as they put it on the deck its black ink leaked everywhere – they thought maybe it had been attacked by a shark or got caught in a boat rudder, as it was intact except for its tentacles which had all been ripped off. They said they were going to cook it that night – it was so big it would have fed 10 people! After such an amazing day we booked onto trip 'C' for the next day as soon as we got back. This trip is more expensive as it goes to islands further away but we got a discount as we booked through the same place (and Scott has good negotiating skills)– basically there are 4 boat trips, A,B,C and D and they range from 700-900 Peso’s each, but we got trip A for 500Php and trip C for 700Php so it’s worth booking them at the same place and asking for a discount. Trip C was our favourite and some of the beaches we saw here were the best we have ever seen, especially the last stop at Helicopter island, named so because from a distance it is in the shape of a helicopter. It had a wide sandy beach and clear, deep water, great for swimming and snorkelling in, and as it was at the end of the day we had it almost all to ourselves. The snorkelling was really good at all the stops too, with near perfect visibility and so much marine life and coral to see, we just loved it. The lunch that is included in the trips is great, with more than enough food including fish, chicken or pork, rice, salad and lots of fresh fruit. Our boatmen pulled up to a deserted little beach where they prepared the lunch and it was such a paradise we didn’t want to leave! Another good thing about these trips was that we only shared the boat with 1-2 other people both times, so it was like we had done a private trip for a fraction of the cost, and we would really recommend Sea Breeze on the beach to book the trips through. If we had longer we would have done the other trips for sure, they are such good value and the best way of seeing the real beauty of this archipelago.

In our last couple of days we went back to Las Cabanas beach again, this time taking a packed lunch of ‘chiz’ rolls, fruit and snacks, and one day we managed to sleep in until almost 8.30am which was a real treat! At night after dinner at Squido’s we would take to the beach with our rum and enjoy the live music whilst playing cards and chatting to other travellers, but El Nido is not a party place so I don’t think we went to bed past midnight once. We were really loving just chilling out and relaxing here, there was such a nice beach vibe and the people were very friendly, but we had to make the decision to leave eventually, something which was pretty hard for us to do as this has definately been one of our favourite places so far.

We wanted to go to Coron, an island 8 hours north, for a few days, before flying onto Manila from there, so booked both the ferry and the flight (which was hard as the internet connection was quite poor so websites kept crashing, it took us over 3 hours in the end!) , but as soon as we had done this we weren’t sure if we had made the right choice. Should we just have stayed in El Nido for another few days and gone back to Manila via Puerto Princesa, missing out on Coron? The problem was the boat to Coron is only every few days so in order to make our time there worthwhile and justify the cost of getting there and then going on to Manila, we would be spending 5 days there, which after doing a bit more research seemed too long, especially for me who doesn’t dive, as diving is one of the main reasons people go to Coron.

At the last minute, literally as we were boarding the ferry, we decided to change our plans and stay in El Nido longer, so tried to book onto the ferry going 3 days later instead which the lady on the front desk said would be fine. We thought we would just double check with the boat manager that this was ok, but he said due to low tide over the weekend the ferry wouldn’t be going for 5 days – today was Thursday and the next ferry to Coron wouldn’t be until Tuesday! So it would only give us 1 day and night in Coron which seemed pointless. We were pretty gutted at this point as we thought we could stay in El Nido a few extra days and visit some beaches we hadn’t had the chance to (we heard Macpan was incredible) and we really weren’t feeling Coron at all and thought we had made a bad decision, but what could we do.

It was with a heavy heart that we got on the ferry and set sail, leaving lovely El Nido behind and headed over to a place we didn’t really want to go to anymore, but we could not imagine what surprises would lay in store for us ahead…let’s just say that fate has a way of showing itself at the right time!

S&V's Travel Info & Tips:

General Info: Approx 62 Peso's to £1.

Transportation: A tricycle from Puerto Princesa airport into town costs 50 Peso's. The 6 hour minivan to El Nido was 550 Peso's pp, booked through Fort Wally transport. A tricycle from El Nido town to Las Cabanas beach cost 50 Peso's pp each way, so 200 Peso's return for 2 people.

Food: As we said we loved Squido's restaurant in El Nido for its delicious home cooked food at reasonable prices. Most dishes were between 180-220 Peso's, much cheaper than the food on the beach and better in our opinion, plus the portions were big. A tasty 'chiz' burger from the burger stall near the beach was just 35 Peso's and a foot long hot dog was 50 Peso's.

Accomodation: In Puerto we got a room at J'Lais Tourist Inn just off the main road for 800P Peso's a night inc breakfast, it was a good place to stay. In El Nido we got a room at Austria's Place for 800 Peso's per night. It was probably too pricey for a fan room with shared bathroom but immaculately clean and the staff were lovely, plus it included breakfast and had a family of cute kittens. Accom in El Nido was more than expected, with the cheapest room we saw being 700 Peso's - all with cold water and a fan.

Other observations:

x) You could hire a private boat for the day to go to other islands at a cost of around 1500-2000 Peso's for the boat, max of 4 people, plus lunch.

xx) You are supposed to pay a one-off 200 Peso PP national park fee when doing the boat trips, but no one asked us for this while we were there, maybe we got lucky.

Additional photos below
Photos: 52, Displayed: 33


1st May 2013
Classic Banka boat shot

Lovely Palawan
This may be the classic shot but it is a lovely one!
2nd May 2013

Wonderful blog
I was in the Philippines three years ago, but I wasn't able to visit this island. Thank you for your blog. I will surely go back there next year. I can't wait to read your next blog. Just a tiny question, have you been to Caramoan Island? I heard it's also a wonderful place to visit.
3rd May 2013

El Nido
Thanks for blogging about El Nido. It really helps me to think about going there.
3rd May 2013

Amazing photos! wow wow, I'm from Singapore, have never been to Philippines but your photos are making me think twice! thanks for sharing :)

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