Last year, one of my to do travel lists was finally ticked off after visiting El Nido, in Palawan, voted as one of the top tourist destinations in the Philippines, and ranked as the world’s sixth destination on the rise by Trip Advisor’s Travellers’ choice award in 2016. Palawan is described as the ‘last frontier’ island paradise, a perfect gateway for pristine beaches, island hopping, scuba diving, snorkelling and nature.
Day 1: Our trip began with an early 1 hour and 15 mins flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa via Cebu Pacific. From the airport, we boarded a tricycle (Php 50 – $1.50) to Robinsons Place Mall for all the last minute necessities like cash withdrawal and a quick lunch.
From the mall, we hailed a public utility jeep from the main road, it cost (Php 25 – $.70 cents) to get to the bus terminal. When we arrived, the Cherry Bus, an air conditioned service, was almost ready to depart for its 1:00 pm schedule, the fare to El Nido, one way was (Php 500 – $13). The seats were comfy and the air conditioning worked well throughout the 6 hour journey. In between, the bus picked up and alighted passengers at major towns with a 30 minute break en-route, for a late lunch/snack, toilet and leg stretching. We arrived around 7 pm in El Nido, thankfully our accommodation was just a stone’s throw from the bus terminus.
Day 2: Island Hopping Tour:
Tour – A (Php 1,200 – $32) plus a one off Eco-Tourism Development Fee of (Php 200 – $5.40), non Palawan resident for 10 days. Tour inclusions were, licensed boat, snorkelling gear, life vest and water safety equipment, tour guide and buffet lunch.
After being briefed by the operator, we proceeded to the boat station at the main town beach and waited for our turn to board the boat.
Tour – A Highlights:
Small Lagoon – Dive into nature, this place is beyond picturesque! We kayaked to get through a narrow gap leading to the lagoon surrounded by amazing rock formations and forest. The water was so clear and gentle that we could see a school of colourful fish beneath us. This is a good spot for snorkeling and kayaking and further at the end, there’s a little chamber where you can have a dip into the cool water around it.
Big Lagoon – The entrance of this lagoon is awe-inspiring, probably one of the most photograph spots in El Nido. The water is dark blue, it’s so deep. If you are keen on going into the water, kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving are the main activities. Our boat didn’t anchor but rather it moved at a very slow pace so we didn’t miss any of the breathtaking scenery. Make sure your camera is ready when you reach this spot for the best photo ops.
Shimizu Island – The beach has a gorgeous white sand, turquoise water and rich with marine life to explore, perfect for snorkeling. This was also our pit stop for lunch which the crew had prepared on board. A lunch style buffet was offered with mixture of grilled meat, fish, vegetables, steamed rice and fruits.
Secret Lagoon – We swam and crawled into a tiny entrance and ended up in a pool of clear water surrounded by dark limestone rocks. It was a surreal experience, I was thinking it was more of a scene from a science fiction movie like the Planet of the Apes, a bit eerie. At the entrance leading to the lagoon there are lots of sharp rocks so an aqua shoes must be worn to avoid cuts and bruises.
7 Commandos Beach – This place was named after the 7 Japanese Commandos who lived on the island after the war and never tried to find out where they were. The beach has a long stretch of white sand and crystal clear water perfect for swimming or soaking up the sun. It has also a beach bar that sells coconut juice, beer and food.
Day 3 – Tour C – (Php 1,400 – $38) similar inclusions to Tour A but it was run by another tour operator.
Tour – C Highlights:
Hidden Beach – We swam instead of walking over the reefs from where our boat was anchored to get close to the tiny entrance of this beach. Once inside it felt like another world of its own. The tiny stretch of beach was surrounded by limestone but the swimming and snorkeling area was vast. A lot of colorful corals, marine life including territorial reef fish and Nemo can be found in this area.
Secret Beach – The only way to get into Secret Beach is by swimming. Our tour guides were on hand for all of us going through a keyhole-like entrance. There was a queue at the entrance as most tours have congregated when we got there. It paid off to wait, the beach had a different feel from the other spots that we’ve visited.
Talisay Beach – This place was our lunch pit stop of the day. Whilst the crew were busy preparing for our lunch, everyone was in the water just admiring the beauty. The snorkeling area was shallow with an abundance of coral, reef snakes, star fish, sea urchins, colourful fish and giant clams making this a perfect place for a close encounter with sea creatures.
Maniloc Shire – cancelled. Our boat suffered a mechanical problem and it took awhile for the crew to bring the engine back to life. It was then decided by the majority to cancel this spot and proceed to the next stop.
Helicopter Island or Dilumacad island– The name says it all, an island shaped like a helicopter when viewed from afar. We chilled out at this beach, and swam in the clear water. For me, this spot is perfect for sunning, swimming, snorkelling, and scuba diving for those who hold a license.
There are 4 Island Tours in El Nido and should we have more time, we would like to try them all. For us, tour A and C were spectacular and good value for money albeit it will cover your full day out in the sea.
Day 4 -Taraw Cliff Sunrise Climb (Php 500 – $13.50) We arrived around 4:00 am at our meeting place for a sunrise climb of Mt Taraw. This giant limestone karst is the highest peak that overlooks the town of El Nido. At first I wasn’t quite sure whether to proceed or just cancel this whole idea as there were no protective gear, torch or harness supplied. We will just be relying to the tour guide and believe me at 4 am, everything was in darkness, thankfully my iPhone has a built-in flashlight , and that provided my guidance.
I must say that our first obstacle would be walking through the narrow passages between houses to get to the base entrance. We arrived at the entrance around 5:00 and then the ordeal started. After over an hour of ouch, bumps and near misses, we made it up to the top and I think my mantra all the way up was, ‘I don’t want to die yet’., that serious. We conquered our fear, just in the nick of time as the sun started to appear over the horizon. The spectacular views of El Nido from the top was the perfect vantage point to view the town and its surroundings. I think this must be the most daring challenge I’ve ever done but at the end I was as happy as Larry. Going down on the other hand was a lot easier but longer.
After breakfast, we headed to Corong Corong Beach (Php 100 $2.70 by tricycle) for a quick swim then waited for our booked shuttle van to take us back to Puerto Princesa.
Accommodation in El Nido varies from high-end, moderate, budget, backpacker style, beach camping and Airbnb. It’s best to pre-book your accommodation through the recommended travel sites before hitting the town to avoid haggling once you get there.
The town comes to life at night, most restaurants and bars are nestled by the town’s main beach, too many to chose from. We like the Sava Bar, it’s a modern bar with an inviting vibe and they offer bespoke cocktails, good selection of wines, beers, foods and great music.
*Shuttle Vans are a quicker travel option, 5 hours travel time to and from El Nido and Puerto Princesa.
*Bring a pair of Aqua Shoes or Reefwalkers, you will be walking on sharp rocks, odd reefs and other things under the water.
*Underwater case or water bag for phones, camera and other gadgets. Believe me most of your belongings will get wet.
*Pre-book your accommodation.
*Haggle for tour prices if you think that the offer is expensive and/or shop around.
*Bring along extra water if you are planning to climb the Taraw cliff. Wear light clothing and comfy shoes. (I don’t personally recommend this activity to be included in your itinerary, unless you are prepared and experienced on this type of activity, there are recorded accidents while trying to climb this cliff).
All fees are per person and the rate was converted from Philippine peso to Australian Dollar.
Next destination: Coron, Palawan