When I think of the Philippines, I think of beautiful beaches fringed with coconut trees, dense jungles, colorful coral reefs, and tiny little islands scattered across a vibrant blue sea. While there are many places throughout this island nation that may fit that description, it couldn’t have been more so than in El Nido on the island of Palawan. Going to El Nido was actually one of the main reasons why I decided to go to the Philippines. A few years ago I was watching an episode of the Amazing Race and they went to what was then a tiny little fishing village nestled between towering limestone cliffs. They then had to sailed out to the stunning Bacuit Archipelago just off the coast, and I was instantly enamoured with the place–I knew I wanted to go there one day!
So now that I’ve been there and seen it first-hand, I can tell you it was the most beautiful place I went to in the Philippines. In fact, I’d say it is a pretty good contender for one of the most beautiful places in world. While it’s obvious that the town has seen some growth in the past few years due to increased tourism, it’s natural beauty still remains mostly unspoiled. The islands here are spectacular and are riddled with thousands of dramatic limestone formations, hidden coves, and secret beaches. Island hopping is biggest activity to do here and can easily be arranged at any of the numerous tour operators in town. Day trips are generally around 1200 php (about $27 USD) and include lunch. Depending on the operator, you may or may not have to rent out snorkel gear (fortunately I had my own as our boat didn’t include it). The tours are simply named Tour A, B, C, and D, with A and C being the most popular as they take you to some of the archipelago’s best spots and highlights.
The boats generally leave around 9 am and come back late in the afternoon, so there is plenty of time out on the water. If that’s not enough, some operators also offer overnight tours, which I wish I had known about as spending a night on one of the islands sounds amazing! I ended up doing Tour A with a friend I met on the ride up to El Nido. Since it was the middle of the high season a lot of the boats were full of people, with 15-20 pax in each boat. We got lucky with ours somehow as it was just us and only two other people. It might as well been a private trip!
We made several stops throughout the day to explore a beach or go swimming, but my favorites by far were the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon is shallow passage between tall limestone cliffs that guard a large sheltered lagoon. Since the water is shallow inside the passageway, boats can only really enter at high tide. Small Lagoon is similar in that it’s surrounded by beautiful cliffs, but can only be accessed by a small hole in the rock that you have to swim or kayak through. Both were stunning and I couldn’t believe that places like this actually exist.
For snorkeling-lovers like myself, El Nido was heaven. While the snorkeling in the beautiful lagoons themselves were so-so, there are plenty of reefs around the islands you could spend a lifetime exploring. The coral gardens around are so colorful and abundant with life. We saw a sea turtle, barracudas, and a even a sea snake! When the boat wasn’t moving, we were snorkeling–we spent so much time in the water swimming with the fish. I think the snorkeling was actually the best part of the tour.
Back in El Nido, when we weren’t sailing around the islands, we simply spent our days on the beach. The town beach in El Nido proper is okay, but the water is mildly murky and the bay is crowded with boats. A better place is Las Cabanas Beach just a few kilometers south of town and easily accessible by tricycle for about 50 php. It’s much more relaxed here compared to the town beach and there are some good places to get good food and drinks right on the sand. It’s also one of the best places to watch sunsets!
Compared to the famous islands in Thailand or places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, El Nido is still relatively undiscovered and may as well be one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Only until recently, in November 2014, the town itself only had electricity for a few hours a day. There’s not even an ATM machine, so travelers must stock up on cash before arrival. Getting there is an adventure in itself–it’s 5-6 hours by van or 6-7 hours bus, all along curvy rural roads that are still unpaved in areas. However, the region has attracted lots of attention in recent years thanks to a growing tourism industry and I can imagine in a few years El Nido will be the next big tourist destination for travelers in Southeast Asia. So get there while you still can!