Lou and myself were both excited – Lou especially. After nearly a month in Davao we were bound for El Nido. The journey would take us from the south-east end of the Philippines to the island of Palawan on the west coast. We knew it was going to be a long day, two flights (via Manila) and a van ride from the airport in Palawan (Puerto Princesa) to El Nido which is located at the northern end of the island. Google El Nido and you will come up with any number of beautiful photos. El Nido combines some of the most spectacular coral and marine life with beautiful clear waters that lap onto idyllic beaches hidden amongst the towering limestone walls of the islands. Many people come here to enjoy excellent diving, perfect beaches and exclusive resorts that are generally at a fraction of the cost compared to somewhere like the Maldives. El Nido itself represents what was a small fishing village that has been transformed into a bustling area for people to access the nearby islands.
Once on the ground in Palawan we had to get a “Lexus” van to El Nido, a 6hr journey. I felt stupid for not spotting this one a mile off – the “Lexus” van is actually a Toyota van fitted with more seats than most trans atlantic airliners. Duped again by Asia, dammit Steve. A career as a contortionist could be beckoning was my next thought as Lou and myself crammed into the front seats. The journey to El Nido in the “Lexus” van was about as rallycross as it gets but without any of the safety concerns. Seatbelts are optional if the only option is “I don’t want a seatbelt”.
Some of the roads were dirt tracks and our driver paid very little attention to anything except taking a racing line as often as possible whilst chatting on his phone and burning the clutch out on the van. We did the journey at night so it was difficult to appreciate the beauty or danger we passed. Once you realise that these drivers do this journey almost daily you come to see why they drive the way they do – we were able to relax to some degree. During the drive it struck me that so many people were walking the streets at night in pitch black. Filipinos would walk between the small townships with no lights except for the startling glare of our vans headlights as it hurtled past them.
The following morning we awoke and strolled out onto the decking behind our room at Rico’s Cottages. The decking is built on the sand and we were within 20ft of the water. El Nido beach houses all the tour boats that take tourists out on trips. By about 9.30am most of the boats will be gone and you can enjoy some beautiful views. To get acclimated we decided to take a walk after breakfast and see what the town is like (referred to as El Nido town proper). To be honest, it’s disappointing. After the journey we had made to El Nido we expected a deserted paradise. It’s not. The town has a very backpacker feel to it with plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants serving international food. I didn’t plan to come all this way to eat a pizza next to some guy with braids who has just finished college, got a tattoo and thinks hard work is choosing what type of beans to have on toast that morning. I can choose my own beans. The town of El Nido didn’t really suit Lou or myself, we were expecting to feel more isolated in this area of very natural beauty.
Expect your accommodation in El Nido to be pretty basic. We paid approximately $50USD per night for a basic room on the beachfront. What you lose in amenities (cold water showers, basic bedding, ants etc) you will more than make up for with the location. There are more expensive options available should you wish to pay more and less expensive options if you get off of the beachfront. The food in El Nido is generally good, not spectacular although some of the seafood is nice. Many of the dishes available are western influenced so you’re unlikely to get a true taste of Filipino cuisine here.
On our first couple of days we ventured to some nearby beaches, with no motorbike experience we opted for a tricycle to take us around – a smart decision given the way the roads operate out here and their condition. Some of the roads were dirt tracks and even our skilled driver couldn’t avoid all the potholes. Add to that some dangerous looking wooden bridges and piles of stone everywhere and you can start to see why the further along we got, the more the tricycle decision paid off.
The beaches near El Nido are stunning. Quiet, untouched, crystal clear waters, soft sand – basically everything you could imagine with beautiful views as well. Our lives became a mix of sunbathing, swimming and exploring the views. This felt more like the untouched paradise we were expecting, especially Nacpan Beach which is one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. I hope it remains this way. The 45min journey over dirt tracks is hard work on your back, whether on a bike or tricycle, but the feeling you get when looking out across the beaches from the small headland is quite breathtaking. The water here is warmer than El Nido bay and the only company you might find are local children playing or jellyfish. We saw some children flipping jellyfish that had washed onto the shore so assumed they weren’t to be feared.
Lou had researched the beaches she wanted us to visit in El Nido and I was quite happy to go with the flow given she likes the beach as much as I do. Having said that she is more of a fidget and won’t lie out in the sun for as long as I do. Often I’d open my eyes only to see her in the water exploring with a snorkel mask or tiptoeing along the edge of the water to look for shells. In addition to Nacpan we also had an enjoyable afternoon at Marimegmeg Beach. The sand is lined with palm trees and there’s a small bar serving coconut cocktails.
As we ventured along the beach we spotted people zip lining from the trees to our left behind the beach across the water to a small island just a stones throw away. We ventured around to the headland there and found some warm rock pools to relax in. Lou was armed with three different cameras (life with a photographer) – iPhone, DSLR and underwater camera. Carrying a bag of cameras sometimes makes me feel like a crew member for the BBC but I shouldn’t complain as it’s the equipment that helps capture some of the amazing shots used in this blog. Working back along the beach at sunset was also a treat as the sky turned into a beautiful shade of red and pink as it settled down behind the islands in the distance. Times like this truly felt like an escape to tropical paradise.
Day three in El Nido was our first boat tour around the islands here, something both Lou and myself were really looking forward to. It turned out it was Valentines Day as well which made the day extra special.
The upside of our hotel was that the boat tour departed about 50ft from where we ate breakfast each morning. All the boats are a similar build – wooden vessels with bamboo struts to support and balance on the water. Watching the Filipino boat crew traverse amongst all the other boats was fun and we enjoyed a great day on the water. The tour stopped at five spots around the islands for a combination of beach time, snorkeling and secret lagoons. Some of the snorkeling was comparable to the Great Barrier Reef although perhaps not with the complete abundance of fish and marine life that we saw on parts of the reef. There are four standard tours available in El Nido.
With my somewhat limited vocabulary it’s difficult to describe the incredible scenery amongst the many islands around El Nido, the header image to this post is the view from our boat at one lagoon where we were able to snorkel in behind the rocks to a small beach (the most recent Bourne movie was partly filmed in El Nido if you want a video comparison). The tours do include a real sense of adventure because the boats often anchor away from the rocks and shallow water so you get to pop on a snorkel mask and swim into shore. For me, the clarity of the water really makes the beaches and islands of the Philippines something special. Even when swimming through currents we had excellent visibility and, as I’m not a diver, I felt able to explore and enjoy the water that much more. With the help of the underwater camera we were able to snap away and experiment getting some great photos in the water – see the pic of yours truly below!
Travel aspects of El Nido:
- Boat tours – choice A,B,C,D. It is widely regarded that A and C are the better tours, we managed to do both. Expect to pay around 1,200 Pesos per person ($25USD) for a full day inc. lunch and the tourism levy. You can book anywhere but I’d recommend going through your hotel
- Prices – food and accommodation is cheaper here by most standards, expect to pay around $8USD for a meal (most hotels inc. a breakfast within their cost)
- Airport transfers – the basic “Lexus” (Toyota) van transfers are fine, it can be uncomfortable if you are tall like myself but on the 5hr trip they stop quite frequently. I would recommend trying to make the journey early morning or late night (last departure is around 5pm) to avoid traffic and be closer to 5hrs than 6hrs in transfer time from Puerto Princesa airport. Cost is usually 600Pesos / $13USD per person
- Internet connection – don’t bother, the internet here is always slow (less than 1.5mbps if you can find it). We gave up on trying to work which was fine with me given what El Nido has to offer
- Booking accommodation – this is difficult. With such a bad internet connection on the island booking via Facebook or websites is tough. Be patient and have conversations going with 4/5 different places to ensure you can get a booking during the busy season. Many places will keep rooms off of the usual booking websites so you may want to get a cheap place for a few days to explore in person and find better accommodation.