Here we go island hopping in El Nido, the northern most region on Palawan and probably the most known too.
Hitting the town in the morning we immediately understand that tourism is becoming well established here, way more than previous places we’ve been to in the Philippines such as Cebu and Bohol. El Nido is a simple village with a road on the beach side leading to the port that has become home to plenty of businesses: restaurants, hotels&hostels, dive centres, scooter rentals and travel agencies.
EL NIDO ISLAND HOPPING TOURS
The drill is pretty simple here: head to any agency or hotel and book one of the 4 available island hopping tours. Since tourism is quite strictly regulated, either you pay more for a private boat or you join a company for a single or multi-day tour. Anyway, each boat leaving the port must have a licence to sail around. For the same reason, besides the tour fee, every person must pay an environmental fee to visit the islands (200pp/head).
One can tell that to make it simple everybody agreed to the municipality program to offer 4 tours named A-B-C-D, all of them with fixed prices. Depending on high/low season, or large groups, everybody is then free to offer discounts.
Listed prices go from 1.200 to 1.400 pesos. Tour A is the most popular, offering visits to the Big and Small Lagoons which are often depicted on postcards. You can decide what’s best for yourself, having more “action” choosing tours that include snorkeling and kayaking, or preferring hidden beaches and islets.
We opted for tour A to begin with on our first available full day, and we found an agency that sold it for 900 pesos/each (early November). Tours leave at around 9 am and return before 5 pm.
Since we woke up late we decided to explore the inland, which is a valid alternative when you want to take a break from island hopping. The closest beaches are Corong Corong and Las Cabanas, less than 10 km far and reachable by cheap tricycle trip (100 pesos). Las Cabanas Beach has a cool zipline too. These beaches will obviously be the more crowded as resorts are closer.
We rented a scooter and decided to go farther to Nacpan Beach, about 30 km away (also reachable by tricycle if you don’t mind the 45min-trip). It wasn’t high season yet, actually rains were still hitting the area every few days, and the last couple of km were muddy dirt roads! It was a fun challenge to overcome them though, and the reward was absolutely stunning: the majestic Nacpan Beach was awaiting us in all its beauty. This beach is so large that even dozens of people won’t make it look busy.
It is situated in a wide bay with some islets in the middle, and the views are simply wonderful. Luckily the area isn’t much constructed, so its wildness is preserved. On the left side of the beach, a few meters from the water, there are few stilt houses where local fishermen families live.
As many places in Southeast Asia we’ve been to that are developing so fast, the contrast between contaminated and immaculate areas is enormous. As much as we want to see these beautiful areas, we are aware we are contributing to its inevitable western-style development, but we do our best to always respect local people and culture, try to connect with them in a human way and as a popular motto says “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints”.
We spend the whole day relaxing at the beach and swimming in the warm waters. As sunset is coming, we have to leave not to ride in the mud in complete darkness. We enjoy the way back to El Nido, riding through rice fields and green hills with a sense of freedom invading us. At night the choice for dinner is endless, actually it is not easy to find a local Filipino restaurant among the western businesses. We later return to our room and prepare the small waterproof bag we’ll need in the morning to go island hopping: sunglasses, a cap, and our go pro camera are more than enough!
The next day we get to the meeting point where all tours leave from, it’s a loud mess with guides shouting “Tour A here! Tour C that way!” and some vendors trying to sell the usual water-shoes, pearls, snorkels, etc.. It’s a lovely sunny day, one of the best we had in the Philippines so far, and when our boat gets going, we have in front of us all the amazing views we’ve been dreaming of: emerald waters, a hot sun, white bangka boats, mountainous limestone islands and sandy secluded beaches.
Each boat has a guide who will try their best to keep people happy while informing about the history of the archipelago (indigenous tribes still live on some islands on which it’s forbidden to go), and give everybody the experience they are looking for. Active people can rent kayaks (even if they tell you so, they aren’t included in any tour, you can bargain for the price when you get them), lazy ones can stay on the boat or on the beaches, making sure to respect the tour’s schedule. If one place looks too busy, they will suggest an alternative and come back later. The boat crew will also set up a lovely buffet lunch right on a beach! The kindness and willingness of the Filipino is truly the key to their success in tourism, they do know how to get the best from what they have.
It’s also a good season to be here, not so crowded as they told us, and once in a while we can enjoy views and places all for ourselves!
We get why Tour A is the best seller, the Small and Big Lagoons really look like they came out of a dream. Just get a kayak, escape the crowds and enjoy some peace in this gorgeous glass-like sea.
As our tour ends, we return to town much pleased and tanned!
Having just one week left before our return flight from Puerto Princesa to Manila, we decide to split the days between El Nido and Coron. We will go to Coron tomorrow, and then see whether to come back sooner or not to El Nido.
Due to a misunderstanding with the guy at the agency (Ambra was about to punch him in the face for his incompetence), he didn’t book the ferry tickets to Coron for us, ferry that goes sold out basically everyday.
There are 3 options to go from El Nido to Coron: the fast Montenegro ferry, (6.30am, 3hrs, 1.750pp), the passenger/cargo ship only on Wednesdays (7 am, 8hrs, 1100pp), and the Bunso ferry boats (8am, up to 8hrs 1.400pp).
We heard bad things about the Bunso boats, they say it’s 5 hours and then lasts 8 instead, endless journeys in rough sea, so this time we don’t mind spending a little bit more for the faster option. Asking around we are told to try and go at 6 am in the morning to see if they accept some extra passengers.
After being anxious all night and early morning, we finally get our desired tickets to embark the fast ferry (they will allow all of us who showed with no ticket, about 15 people… We were happy to leave to Coron that day, but the fact that safety measures were ignored that bad wasn’t very nice).
Unfortunately a typhoon kept us two days longer than expected on Coron island, so when we returned to El Nido we only had one day left. Our plans to try another island hopping tour, then go back to Nacpan or find some other remote beach went wasted. We just have the time to visit Las Cabanas Beach the very last morning, for a quick hour before it starts raining.
We leave El Nido unwillingly, we definitely would have stayed and explored it more, but at the same time we are glad we made it back in time (at one point when we couldn’t leave Coron due to the typhoon we were about to reschedule all our transfers and connections flights back to Manila).
What a blast Palawan has been to us! Undoubtedly on the list of places to recommend to anyone going to the Philippines and on our get-back-to-one-day personal list.