By PJ Tan
Itinerary: Three days in El Nido
If you have visited any millennial travel blog in the last few years, you have almost certainly seen the Philippines emerge as a top destination as of late, specifically the island of Palawan. Palawan is the largest province in the entire country (in terms of total area) and two of the most popular places to visit are Puerto Princessa and El Nido. I’ve been to the Philippines over ten times in my life, but I have never visited Palawan, so planning this trip took some research.
El Nido is known for its lush, untouched islands and endless seascapes. Puerto Princessa is known for the underground river. Puerto Princessa is a six-hour drive from El Nido, so we decided to skip the underground river this time around. Most travelers opt to fly to Puerto Princessa and drive to El Nido since it is the easiest and most cost-effective route, especially for those wanting to explore both places. Since we decided not to go to Puerto Princessa, we could fly directly to El Nido for a bit more money.
El Nido Airport
When you arrive at El Nido airport you are greeted by a group of wonderful singers and Filipino treats. The flight from Manila to El Nido airport was only about an hour and ten minutes via Air Swift, and transport to our lodging was only 20 minutes by van (this ride will take double the time if you travel via tricycle, the main method of transport in El Nido). The airport is actually private and most flights are reserved for resort guests.
Lodging in El Nido
There are many lodging options in El Nido, from lavish resorts for those with money to burn, and guest houses and hostels for us lame regular folk who, you know, don’t. We stayed at the Periking, a no frills guest house with a bed, running water (note I said water, not hot water), and breakfast provided. If you know Amy at all you know she loves scalding hot showers, we’re talking painfully hot, so this was an adjustment for her. Most of the time you’re in El Nido you’ll be exploring the town or on a tour so our place was serviceable, although I was tempted to not shower the entire time there.
When in El Nido, there are four basic tours you can do: A, B, C, and D. Tours A and C are by far the most popular since they have everything people not from an island are looking for: jaw-dropping beaches, vast lagoons, and some of the best snorkeling and kayaking spots in the world.
Since Amy and I live on Oahu, you probably assume we opted for the less-island-y and more cave-y tours B and D, and you’d be wrong. Hawaii does have beaches just as beautiful, but hey we’re beach people, and nothing says vacation like beach time. We did tour A on our first day and tour C on our second.
Our tour-guide was outside our room at 8 am sharp, but unfortunately, we were not. We admittedly rushed our packing job and forgot our shades and sunscreen back in Manila, so we were out bright and early to buy those things in the small El Nido town.
Sunglasses will set you back $1 to $2, but don’t be surprised if they eventually disintegrate in your pocket. When we finally did get back to meet our tour guide at ten after 8, he took us in a tricycle ride to the tour headquarters where we rented snorkeling gear and bought a dry bag. You really need a dry bag because you will get wet and if you can’t take pictures because your phone broke and now have to I dunno live in the moment instead of in front of a screen then what’s the point of traveling am I right?
Anyway, get a dry bag.
The tour is about seven hours long but it can be longer if you’re on a group tour. We booked a private tour because it’s more romantic and such. If you are with the love of your life, I do suggest asking about a private tour, the experience is well worth it and you pretty much have free rein to spend as little or as much time at each stop as you want. This came in handy on our last day, since we had a flight to catch at 4 pm.
These tours operate on medium-sized boats and include lunch. If you have any sort of sea-sickness problem I’d suggest taking a crap ton of pills before getting on this boat, because it will be rough. Luckily Amy and I only get sick after drinking too much. The sea has no effect on us!
Tour A starts at Small Lagoon, and what a way to start. Turquoise blue water and large rock formations surround you. If you rent a kayak like we did, it’s even more fun trying to navigate the thing around all the European and Asian tourists also in their kayaks.
Two of the other lagoons on tour A are the Big Lagoon and Secret Lagoon. Both of these Lagoons have similar crystal clear water and large rocks, but the Big Lagoon is bigger (duh). It is so big you cannot help but be in awe the entire time you are there. What sets Secret Lagoon apart is you have to swim through a teeny tiny hole in the middle of a rock to get to it, but once you do you are surrounded by more turquoise water and large rock formations. It’s “amazeballs” as they say.
Lunch was prepared entirely on the boat and it was one of the best meals I had in all my years of going to the PI. Fresh grilled fish, chicken, shrimp, fruits and veggies, all on a boat in the middle of the lagoon. The food is plentiful too. In fact, I am pretty sure the two of us were served enough for eight people. Luckily I don’t get full. We even got a couple (inexpensive) beers from boats selling them on the water. A great way to relax with your loved one.
After lunch, we went to Shimizu island and Seven Commando Beach. If you’re looking for beach photo ops, both these places will not disappoint. Seven Commando Beach has pristine sand and water, endless beach chairs, a full bar, souvenir store, and swing for use for tourists who want that perfect airborne photo. A great place to relax and end your day. We were dropped off right outside Periking by 5, enough time for us to get a drink, dinner, and a cheap massage in town.
Tour C includes Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, and Star Beach. Since we had a plane to catch we decided to start the tour early, a very good decision. We got to Hidden Beach before anyone else, wading over rough rocks and falling on our asses consistently to get there, but when we did it was well worth it. You are going to want to rent some water shoes for this tour. My feet are disgustingly callused from growing up in Hawaii, so I can’t feel much when I walk on them (something Amy constantly makes fun of), and even I needed those damn shoes.
Hidden Beach is made for picture taking. You’re going to see these words often but the water was so clear and the surrounding limestone really is a sight to behold. I do not usually come up with cool picture ideas, but when we got here all this creativity came pouring out of me like an erupting volcano. Suddenly I found myself directing Amy (and our tour guide) to a variety of poses, one of which included me carrying her as I walked toward the water. It was almost like an out of body experience, so I warn anyone with a brain for picture taking (or not, like myself), you may find yourself taking quasi-engagement photos and not remember a thing. Thus the power of El Nido.
Anyway, after Hidden Beach, it was off to Secret Beach. To get to this beach you have to dive under a narrow crevice in a rock, then more wading and falling (thank God for water shoes). Once you make it to the sand, it is quite breathtaking. Take plenty of pictures because you’re going to want to pull them out the next time you’re sitting in traffic back home and want to shoot yourself. “I will return.”
Next we stopped at Star Beach and had lunch at around 11 am. Our early start once again benefited us as we had the beach all to ourselves, feasting on another amazing meal of fish, chicken, shrimp, and fruit. Grab a beer from the nice woman selling them on the beach, chill with your honey, and we are talking perfection. Fight off the kanak attack and head to our last stop, Helicopter Island.
This beach reminded me a lot of Waimanalo, pristine sand and super blue water. It was the perfect place to relax before heading back to town. Our tour guide decided to skip the shrine due to our time constraints, but I really could not ask for anything more from a five-hour tour.
If you decide to go to El Nido, definitely opt to do Tours A and C. If we had more time we would do Tours B and D, but if you have to choose, there is a reason A and C are the most popular.
The town of El Nido is great to explore, but your trip to El Nido is not complete without checking out their amazing islands and beaches. Some people call El Nido the most beautiful place on earth, and while I think Hawaii is just as amazing, I can’t argue that El Nido is a once in a lifetime place to visit. So go grab your honey and take some ridiculous and embarrassing couples shots in this Philippine paradise.