Curious to know what is my all time favorite destination to date? The magical Island of El Nido on the island of Palawan in the Philippines takes the cake!
During the hot and muggy August summer, my parents and I set out for a two-week tour of Asia. It was our second time traveling in Asia (together) and we were really looking forward to the trip. We chose three locations, a short plane ride from Korea: Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
I had been to the Philippines once before, with my sister. For my first trip, we chose the small island of Boracay and fell in love with the pristine beaches, yummy seafood and friendly people. It was a vacation I will surely never forget. After hearing our travel stories my parents put the Philippines at the top of their list. My grandfather had been stationed there, in the Navy during World War II, and he often reminisced about the beautiful land throughout my childhood. My mom could not wait to explore the land her father always spoke about and her daughters quickly came to love!
I loved my trip to Boracay, but wanted to explore more of the country. After researching online I stumbled upon the beach destination of El Nido located on the island of Palawan. The small town is comprised of 45 islands and inlets with jetting mountains and limestone cliffs, fully protected to preserve its ecosystem.
My parents and I flew directly to Palawan from Hong Kong. The major airport on the island is Puerto Princesa. From there it can be possible to take a small puddle jumper to El Nido, but flight reservations are generally reserved for those staying at the resorts located outside of town. Other then flying there are two options to get to El Nido, which most tourists choose, a private van or public bus. The road to El Nido takes from 5 to 6 hours and is long and bumpy, several parts unpaved. It is a trip not for the faint hearted, however, once you arrive in town you will leave your car sickness behind as you stand in one of this worlds tropical paradises!
Friendly locals walk through the dusty dirt roads that lead to the main beach in town, with smiles on their faces, many happy to stop and chat. Looking upward you can marvel at the stunning limestone cliff face encasing the town. The year round warm weather is always accommodating for beach goers. The small town’s grocery stores, bakery and convenient store welcome both locals and tourists. This is a land free of commercial restaurants, chain stores and even ATMs! (With that said, make sure to withdraw your cash in Puerto Princesa). Life is simple, and power is turned off during most of the day to preserve energy, making this the perfect no frills backpackers paradise. The hustle and bustle of life at home can quickly be forgotten as you focus on the pure beauty of the nature in El Nido.
El Nido is known for their island hopping tours. They offer 3 major tours (A, B and C) that take you to destinations including lagoons, caves, shrines and stunning shallow reefs perfect for snorkeling. The tours are regulated by the government and only go out during appropriate weather conditions. There is also a life guard on most of the boats, making safety a priority. Prices for the tours cost generally the same price at most travel agents. It wasn’t necessary for us to book anything ahead of time for our trip, from the private van to and from El Nido to the tours we participated in. For those who are extra adventurous they also offer island camping.
During our time in El Nido we took two island hoping tours, costing the three of us under 100 dollars for both trips. Outrigger boats guide you to several of the islands that dot the sea just minutes from Palawan. It is the perfect place for snorkeling! Our first tour was tour C that took us to some extraordinary snorkeling spots including Matinloc Island, Tapiutan Island and the Secret Beach.
As we set off towards the islands the sun was high and the views stunning. We sat at the front of the boat taking in the limestone islands, jetting out from the turquoise waters in front of us. Our first stop was a small lagoon where we floated along the water through rock formations that created a shallow river like area. The view was beautiful, however, this island is home to territorial little fish that nibble at your feet if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time! I was quite surprised when a fish took a small bite at me! YIKES! They are harmless luckily!
Following the lagoon we headed to a wonderful snorkeling spot where we spent the next hour exploring bright and beautiful fish among the shallow reefs. The reefs in the area are home to beautiful blue star fish that can easily be seen when snorkeling, along with hundreds of species of under water life! I loved watching the clown fish hide in and out of the seaweed that swayed with the waters current! Our guide was wonderful at finding turtles. He swam with us and dove into the reefs where he would chase out the sea turtles! They were so fun to see.
Once we got our fill of snorkeling it was on to another island that housed Matinloc Shrine and an abandon mansion. On this island you can climb up the limestone cliffs and get stunning views of the surrounding area. It was a quick stop, but well worth the journey to take in the scenery.
From here we headed to another island for lunch, star beach. The beach was lovely and a great place to walk along the sandy beach. Our boat crew cooked lunch on the boat as we explored the island. Giant shells, lined the beach, and once again the backdrop was those beautiful limestone cliffs!
We did not expect too much for lunch, but when we sat down we were trilled with a huge spread of fresh seafood, meat, and fruit. Not only was there a lot of food, but it was plated lovely. Our guide had taken the time to cut the fruits and vegetables into flowers and birds. I asked him how he had learned to do this, seeing that my husband struggles with a frozen pizza, and he replied that he learned his craft on Youtube!
After having our delicious lunch we headed to our final island of the day, helicopter island. This was another spot for snorkeling. We put on our masks and hit the water. I swam ahead of the group taking in the fish and suddenly found myself surrounded by 4 medium sized fish with fins on the top of them, SHARKS! I checked them out for a minute before swimming over to our guide and asking about them. He assured me there were no sharks in El Nido until I convinced him I had just seen some. He finally admitted with a chuckle that yes, I had just seen reef sharks, but they were generally harmless. My dad was really excited about the sharks and swam on over to check them out. It isn’t often that you get to swim with sharks and live to tell about it. As we checked out the sharks a girl came up to me and told me to follow her. She brought me to a huge neon blue sea snake! (These animals are poisonous but they generally will not bother you if you keep your distance.) It was amazing seeing all these incredible fish! We couldn’t get enough of it. Finally as the sun began to set we made our way back into town just as the power came on for the evening.
Our other island hoping tour was equally as amazing! The second tour consisted of lagoons and beaches. The cliffs again created tiny inlets that allowed us to swim along a river like area. The first lagoon housed a small cave you could swim into. It was pretty neat place! The second lagoon was called the secret lagoon. A narrow inlet in the rock face opened up. You had to slide your body through to enter into a giant pool of water on the other side. I lay in the pool and floated looking up at the massived cliffs all around me yelling hellooooo and hearing my voice echo all around me. I couldn’t help wondering…was I dreaming? The remainder of the our again was filled with delicious food, fabulous snorkeling and clean beaches. We could not have enjoyed these two fun filled days in the sun more!
Each night, back in town we wandered around the winding roads, exploring the several shops and looking over menus at the few dozen restaurants that are located here. Most restaurants offer a large variety of seafood, and Filipino dishes. There are several places that offer western dishes like pizza and pasta as well!
On the nights of our boat trip we’d arrive just when children were getting out of school. They happily waved and stopped to say hello as we met them along the way. There were only about a hundred tourists staying in town (if that) during our time in El Nido.
Before dinner, each night, we headed to the beach to see the last of the setting sun and enjoy happy hour drinks, while listening to some of the beach bars live music. Food and drink is extremely affordable with meals ranging from 5-10 dollars. A beer will cost 1 to 2 dollars at most bars.
One of the day trips we did on the main island is explore El Nido’s small waterfalls that are located about a 40 minute tuck tuck drive from the main land. The town does not have transportation other then tuck tucks and motorcycles when traveling from place to place. We piled into the tuck tuck, my parents in the side car and I sitting behind the driver on the motor cycle. The road was a bit bumpy in places, and several areas were washed away from the heavy summer rain fall. At times we all had to hop out of the tuck tuck and push the cart out of a ditch. When we got to the forest that housed the waterfall a family sat collecting a very small fee to go in. Their baby danced naked on the table they all lounged around, dancing to an older sister singing. It was simply adorable.
Our tuk tuck driver lead us through the forest for a 25 minute hike through shallow river beds where a few cows grazed and up a very gradual hill. When we arrived at the water fall there were several straw tiki huts set up and hammocks to relax at. The water fall was small but had a road to walk along the water to the other side. We had a lot of
fun balancing on the road and trying to get across without falling!
After enjoying a morning out of the strong sun we made our way to Napcan Beach. This beach is located about 30 minutes from El Nido town and houses another small town and several hotels. The beach is absolutely stunning! It stretches for about a mile with white sand and rolling waves. Two modest huts are set along the tree line of the beach offering meals and beverages at very reasonable prices. This beach is easily on my top 5 list of best beaches I have ever been to, and with that said I’ve been to some amazing beaches! If you are in El Nido, do not miss a trip to the beach!
Besides Napcan El Nido town also has a small beach and there is three commandos beach only a 5 minute tuck tuck ride from town.
We stayed at a guesthouse called Marikit Pensionne just a few hundred meters from the beach. Our accommodations were modest, but suited us well, with clean rooms, comfy beds, and air conditioning and warm showers. The guest house is away from the nightlife which allows for quiet accommodations still close to the restaurants and bars. The owner of the guest house was rather quiet, but happy to help us with any questions we had and arrange tours for us.
If you ever find yourself with some time to get off the beaten path and explore the Philippines, without a doubt head to El Nido! The trip was one I will never forget, with memories that are sure to last a lifetime.