El Nido: A booming tropical paradise

Paradise in the Philippines

With El Nido topping most must-visit travel lists, we decided to catch the next flight to the Philippines. A remote town located on the island of Palawan, El Nido is a major tourist destination. It is renowned for its island hopping on the Bacuit Archipelago and beautiful beaches.

The only direct flight offered to El Nido is through AirSwift, a small operator with 3 to 4 flights daily. The tickets are pricey, but it is by far the quickest way to get to El Nido. The most popular way to reach El Nido is by flying to Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s main city. From there, you need to book a van ride to El Nido, which takes between 41/2 to 6 hours. We opted to fly and paid the equivalent of $500 USD for two round-trip tickets.

El Nido, meaning “nest”, comes from the region’s historical practice of harvesting edible-nest swiftlets. This was one of the main sources of income for locals before the boom of tourism reached their shores. With crowded streets and construction all around, the town’s namesake might take on new meaning. Don’t let the initial shock temper your expectations, as the paradise you seek is only a short ride away.

Island Hopping

Paradise in the PhilippinesLunch in El NidoIsland Hopping in the PhilippinesIsland hopping in Palawan

Island Hopping is by far the most popular activity in El Nido. There are four tours to choose from:

  • Tour A – Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island and 7 Commando Beach
  • Tour B – Snake Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Beach, Cudugnon Cave and Snorkeling
  • Tour C – Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Star Beach, and Hidden Beach
  • Tour D – Ipil Beach, Cadlao Lagoon, Paradise Beach, Pasandigan Beach, Natnat Beach and Bukal Beach

Since all tours are regulated by the government, prices are locked in and locations are set. You can shop around and see if certain providers are willing to throw in kayaks or have better quality gear, but in terms of pricing, they are non-negotiable. At the very least, you should be getting a mask with snorkel, a large lunch (consisting of seafood, meat, veggies, and fruit) as well as drinking water.

Tour A and C are the most popular, but I’d recommend taking a look at your entire time in El Nido and consider what other activities you will be doing. If you are going to scuba dive with one of the many dive centers, I’d recommend focusing on a tour that is less geared towards snorkeling. The outrigger boats, called a paraw, do not feature an area for sunbathing, so if that is important to you, consider Tour C or D, which feature multiple stops at beaches.

It is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that you wear water shoes. Some of the stops require you to climb over dead coral as waves hammer you. It can get a little scary. We saw many people stumble and cut themselves wading into shore in flip-flops (or no shoes at all). Some of the pickup locations also have sea urchins between the beach and the boat which can cause major discomfort if stepped on.

Alternative Tour Option

A few operators in town offer “party boat” tours for those looking to go wild while Island Hopping. Mellow Yellow’s “Tour Z” and Kraken El Nido’s “Tour K” are two popular choices. Pricing varies, as these tours are not regulated by the government, and each offers different services. For Mellow Yellow, all guests get access to stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, and free onboard messages. For an additional fee, you can purchase a package for unlimited alcoholic drinks. Boat beer pong, anyone?!

Scuba Diving

Snorkeling during our Island Hopping in El NidoIsland Hopping TourIsland Adventures in the PhilippinesRelaxing on our boat in El Nido

There are a dozen dive shops within El Nido proper and the nearby Corong-Corong beach. Most of the shops had somewhat similar prices, but it will definitely be worth your time to walk to a few while you are in town to look at the equipment and speak with the staff. Most of the shops we spoke with used a paraw tricked out for diving, but a few used speedboats for diving in more remote locations.

We went to Aquanauts Dive Center located in downtown El Nido, a few blocks from the main party strip. We found the staff friendly, informative, and the equipment well-maintained. If you’ve never dove in a tropical location before, you will really enjoy the colorful wildlife found in the area. For experienced divers who have visited other locations in Southeast Asia, you should expect a solid, albeit unspectacular day of diving.

Interested in another Island getaway? Check out our guide to Sri Lanka here


Coastal paradise in PalawanTropical ParadiseIsland Hopping and Coconut SippingPalawan Paradise

By far my favorite way to enjoy the beauty of El Nido was by plopping down at a beach and soaking in the beautiful views of the many nearby islands. The main beaches on our itinerary, excluding those we visited on Tour C, were Nacpan and Las Cabañas.

The main mode of transportation in El Nido is the tricycle, and from what we could decipher, the price is not determined by distance, but the destination. Heading to Las Cabañas from downtown or nearby Carong-Carong costs the same, which is about 150 pesos. The ride is short, and you can easily make a half day trip to Las Cabañas. The tricycle will drop you off on the side of the road with a short but fairly steep flight of stairs that leads down to the beach. There are drivers parked here before sunup, so don’t worry about arranging for a roundtrip ride, as they are never in short supply.

Nacpan is about an hour to 90 minutes on a tricycle, and you will have a little more leeway in negotiating price. Most drivers start at a roundtrip fare of 1,500 pesos, but it is possible to negotiate your way down to 1,000 pesos. Some drivers might even include the nearby waterfalls as part of a full day package to Nacpan. This is the crown jewel of El Nido beaches, the one you’ve seen all the amazing drone shots of. It’s a long, uninterrupted stretch of sandy beach that maintains its allure despite its popularity due to the distance needed to reach it. The road is underdeveloped so expect for a bumpy ride.

Many tourists opt to rent motorbikes, and you can get full day rentals for under 700 pesos. However, you might want to think twice before learning in El Nido. The nearest hospital is over 40 minutes away. Just saying.

Alternative route to Nacpan

For the more adventurous travelers looking for a fun alternative route to Nacpan, consider El Nido ATV Adventures. They offer a full day jungle trail, waterfalls and Nacpan beach trip that includes lunch for 2,799 pesos. They also offer a Surf & Turf option where you ATV to the beach and learn to surf.

Rainbow in El Nido

The hype surrounding El Nido made anything but perfection a disappointment. The town is clearly looking to capitalize on the tourism boom, which means mixed results for travelers. The restaurant and luxury hotel scene charges top dollar but delivers substandard results. However, if you approach your visit understanding that El Nido is a town in transition, you can leave feeling like you really did get to visit paradise. 

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