El Nido, Palawan, Philippines – The holiday I’ve been dreaming about

It has been a month since I got back from my three-week trip to the Philippines. I’m finally getting around to writing more about El Nido, which was the main destination I wanted to see.

I first read about and saw pictures of El Nido when I lived in Davao City, Philippines in 1991. Ever since then it has been at the top of my list of places to visit. As I said in an earlier post, when my daughter, who partly grew up in the Philippines, suggested that we go back for a visit and see some places we missed, I couldn’t say no.

El Nido is a stunningly beautiful area at the northern end of Palawan Island, with tall limestone cliffs, crystal clear waters, small jungle-covered islands, powdery white beaches, and secluded lagoons.

The small islands around this part of Palawan are the most beautiful I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen the wild craggy islands off Baranof  and Chichagof Islands in Alaska, the splotches of green dotting Clew Bay in Ireland, the islands in Phang Nga Bay near Phuket in Thailand, the islands of Hawaii, numerous Greek islands, and more.

The islands off El Nido have hidden lagoons accessible only by kayak, or in one case, by crawling through a small hole in a rocky cliff. There are numerous powdery white sand beaches backed by ancient cliffs with crazy rock formations, and some of the clearest water I have ever seen. My photos really don’t do it justice.

Man tours operators take you out to these islands from both the waterfront in El Nido town and at Corong Corong Beach, not far from the El Nido Public Market. Most hotels and guest houses will help you organise a tour.  The tours are on the typical Philippine outrigger boats called bangkas. They usually last a full day and include an excellent lunch of seafood cooked on a barbecue on the boat and fresh fruit.

The tours are organised into 4 groups, A,B,C, and D, each with a different set of destinations. Destinations can vary depending on weather conditions and other factors. They all offer opportunities to swim and snorkel and kayak and lay around on the beaches. At a few of the stops, there are even vendors in very small bangkas offering cold soft drinks and beer for sale.

Tourism has increased a lot over the past number of years, and is putting pressure on everything around El Nido town. I saw more westerners, mostly young backpacking tourists, on one short street in the town than I saw in three days wandering around Manila. Haphazard tourism development, poor infrastructure including bad roads, an overtaxed electricity grid, as well as pockets of poverty and poor housing, are everywhere. Brownouts are frequent, causing many of the tourism-related businesses, hotels, guest houses, shops, restaurants and bars to rely on noisy generators.

Having said that, it is possible to find some very nice accomodation. And there are plenty of good restuarants serving a variety of cuisines. There is even a Ukrainian restaurant, run by a Ukrainian expat couple, that serves Ukrainian specialties, many of which have Hungarian equivalents. For myself, though, I was mostly interested in seafood on this trip. I tried a number of restaurants and I didn’t have one bad meal. The house we stayed in also had a basic kitchen, and my daughter spent a lot of time refreshing her skills cooking Filipino dishes; she is an excellent cook. She even impressed the Filipino staff of the nearby Outpost Hostel by sharing with them. In return, one morning they cooked us a traditional Filipino breakfast of garlic fried rice, tocino, longasina and eggs.

I like Filipino culture and people. English is almost universally spoken, though sometimes poorly. People are friendly, quick to smile and offer help. I had no trouble shopping in the public market, renting motorcyles, or doing almost anything I wanted to do. I also surprised myself about how many phrases of Tagalog and Cebuano came back to me from the years I lived in the Philippines. These were great icebreakers and conversation starters for me. 

I was impressed by how enviromentally conscious most people were. They know they have something special here and want to preserve it. There is a major “Say No to Plastic” campaign. Plastic cups, bags, straws, take-away eating utensils etc., are almost always replaced by paper or wood. Many places had free water dispensers where you were encouraged to refill your water bottle instead of buying bottled water.

If while you are in El Nido, you are looking to chill out on a beach, there are a couple of great options just a little way out of town. Vanilla Beach is south of El Nido, accessed by getting a lift to McDonalds (yes, every town in the Philippines seems to have one) and walking through a new shopping centre that was still being worked on. A few shops were open, and I finally found a swimming trunks I liked that fit me. And there is an excellent coffee shop. The beach itself is very scenic and good for swimming. And there is a superb cocktail bar.

In the other direction from town, near the airport, is Lio Beach. It is a long stretch of white sand with a long pier. It is uncrowded, and there is usually a little swell, so it is fun to play in the waves. Several restaurants and bars sit back from the beach.  I had only good meals everywhere I tried, but the best meal I had was at Punta Playa, a Spanish/Asian fusion restuarant at Lio Beach.

On your way to or from Lio Beach, be sure to stop at Kayle Artisano, a complex with a wonderful collection of handicraft shops and galleries, and a coffee shop with the best coffee I had in El Nido.

Everybody raves about Napcan beach, further north from the town, but I never made it there. Something for next time.

Getting there:

There are several airlines and multiple flights to El Nido Airport from Manila, Cebu and a few other cities. I didn’t fly to El Nido, but flew instead to Busuanga, stayed a couple of nights in Coron, (read about my misadventures there) and took the ferry from Coron to El Nido.

There are two ferry companies that run the route between El Nido and Coron, on alternate days, sea conditions permitting. It is best to find a ticket office and book a ticket a day or two ahead of time to make sure you get a seat. Many of the bangka tour operators in both Coron and El Nido can sell you a ticket.

I flew with AirSWIFT. I can highly recommend them. They have some of the best policies of any airline I know. You can change your flight time and date up to 5 times with no penalty other than fare difference. I had booked a ticket to return to Manila from El Nido, but then decided to do an island-hopping trip back to Coron. They freely cancelled my Manila flight, booked me from Coron on a different date, and because the flight from Coron was cheaper, they refunded me the difference! I was impressed.

Getting Around: The Philippine Tricycle

The most common way to get from place to place in El Nido, as in many parts of the Philippines, is by tricycle – essentially a motorcycle with a sidecar attached, usually with a roof or cover. If you get off the plane or ferry, don’t be shy or think about waiting for a taxi or bus (you’ll usually be waiting a long time) Just approach a tricycle driver, say where you want to go, and then say “Magkano?” (how much). Most drivers will give you a fair price based on the distance.  They will pile your luggage on somehow and get you inside and take you where you want to go. Not comfortable, but in many cases there is no other option.

Tricycles waiting for fares in El Nido

Getting Around: Renting a Motor-scooter

The other way to get around is to rent a motor-scooter. I went for this option most of the days. The cost was about the equivalent of about four tricycle trips to or from the town centre. I loved the freedom go where and when I wanted, and to explore out-of-the-way places. 

When it rains, it really rains. Stuck at the market trying to wait it out before riding motorscooter back to the house.

I have more that I should write about, including my motor-scooter explorations of some remote places, an amazing expedition island hopping for three days from El Nido to Coron, camping on beaches, and a few days in Manila’s madness. Hopefully I will get around to it.

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