I have been to El Nido many times over the last 10 years and each time I am again struck by the beauty of its seascapes and by the breathtaking sunsets over Bacuit Bay. This alone is enough reason for me to visit El Nido over and over again.
El Nido town has been able to maintain its character over the recent boom in tourism, and in some ways, I prefer it now more than I did 10 years ago. Although there are many more guest houses and restaurants than there were then, gone is much of its earlier beachfront chaos and squalor. There is a lovely ambience along the beach front around sunset and during your stroll, choose from a variety of restaurants for your sunset dinner. Some have candlelit tables on the beach - picture perfect for a romantic dinner or just a dinner in paradise. A few of the restaurants have live bands and all the music I heard was good.
I completely rewrote this article in September, 2009 after my 2 week stay in El Nido. There is a positive environmental angle in this rewrite because I was impressed with the way the El Nido community has become aligned to preserve and protect their environment. The local government and their officers, the NGO’s, tourist shops, guest houses and dive shops are all working together for the common goal of sustainable eco tourism. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be an environmentalist. The evening that I arrived on my August 2009 visit, a large group of local volunteer divers went out, as they have been doing regularly, to collect the crown of thorns starfish. This destructive nocturnal starfish feeds on coral polyps and has recently found its way into the local marine park. As of August 16, 2009, they had collected 12,000 of them, and I think about 800 on that night.
During my August 2009 stay, there was also a large community organized protest march to stop the building of the Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO) ferry port and the associated dredging of the El Nido town bay. This deepening of the bay is required to allow large ships to enter. I believe their protest was successful in suspending the near-future dredging but I am not sure whether they were able to get a government commitment for a different site to be chosen for the port.
The local environmental groups are also going beyond the Bacuit Bay to help save the corals and fishes further afield. Pleasing also is their “no plastic bags” campaign with some shops offering paper bags as an alternative.
If you are a tourist coming to El Nido, I have no doubt you are contributing to saving the local environment, as long as you don’t go out with irresponsible boatmen – more about that later.
Note that a P200 “Ecotourism development fee” is about to be introduced but was not yet in place as of August, 2009. The permit is valid for 10 days and you will be needing one to go on any tours.
Island hopping is one of the main reasons tourists go to El Nido. There are three signature tour packages and the major difference between them is that Tour B has no Snorkeling. Most operators offer the same packages at roughly the same price. The prices below are from Art Café and are per person as of August 2009. The three tours are from 9AM to 4PM with 4 persons per boat and BBQ lunch is provided.
1/2 day Tour - Cadlao Island, snorkeling, (no lunch) P300.
Sunset Cruise - 5PM until after sunset. 1 free beer (and ask them to bring extra) P250. On the right night the sunsets on this tour can be stunning (and romantic).
Other - Once you have done all the tours above, you can organize your own to 7 Commando Beach, Helicopter Island, Pasadingan Cove, Ubugon Cove, Paradise Beach, Ipil Beach, and others.
Choosing the Island Hopping Operator – A tourist couple I met in Puerto Princesa told me that it was worth shopping around for the island hopping as they were able find a lower price. This couple then went on to tell me how irresponsible the boatman was by dropping anchor in the corals. What they didn't know was that the discount operators are the ones most likely to act without regard for the environment. I discussed this with a number of people including some in the El Nido tourist office and they acknowledged that there was still a serious problem with irresponsible boatmen. The responsible operators have properly trained boatmen. I have here a short list of responsible operators but it is not complete. They are:-
El Nido Boutique Art Café
Rodrigo de Belen
Lagoon Tours Tommy Garcia
Sea Kayaking - I will definitely do this on my next visit. It should be beautiful cruising around the islands in total silence, as it was when I did it recently in Coron. The two person Kayaks are available from Art Café for P450 for half day, P700 for a full day and P1200 for 2 days.
Wind Surfing - I had was a keen windsurfer in my younger years and still enjoy it when the opportunity arises. I have windsurfed at El Nido and it was very pleasant zipping up and down the bay. Private lessons are available for those who wish to learn. Boards from Art café cost P500 per hour or P1500 for the day.
Touring by Rental Motor Bike or Car - Pitstop Bike and Car Rental - There are many areas outside of El Nido town to explore and either a 4x4 car or motorbike would be a good way of doing that. Arnaud, the owner of Pitstop Bike and Car Rental, is an ex motocross racer from France who spent years recovering from a broken neck injury from his racing days. He is still very enthusiastic about motorbikes and keeps the best fleet of motor bikes that you will find in Palawan. There are cheaper rental motor bikes in town and maybe good if you just want to putter around town. If you want to explore further, I suggest that you get a very well maintained motor bike.
Arnaud also has 4 four-wheel-drive vehicles for rent and he is the only person renting cars in Palawan that I know of. There is one old short-wheel-based Toyota Land Cruiser and 3 Pajeros. I have included a picture of his vehicles below. The old Land Cruiser, on the left in the picture, gives a very rough ride. It is possible also possible to rent the Pajeros for one way to El Nido or visa versa.
A full coastal tour of the Municipality of El Nido would take you around the top of the island and circling back to El Nido town. Click here to see a scanned copy of the El Nido Tourist office brochure which shows the route that you would take. The graveled road is in good condition but you would only want to do it in a 4x4 vehicle or on motor bike. Arnaud will be able to fill you in on the places of interest.
Another interesting tour would be to go to Taytay for a days outing. There are some beautiful places to stop on the way. It is about 70km to Taytay and the road is mostly gravel and can be extremely dusty in the dry season.
I have scanned the rates for Pitstop Bike and Car Rental and you can see a copy of it by clicking here. I have also scanned their business card which has their contact details and it can be seen by clicking here.
Mountain Biking - rent a mountain bike from Art Café for P500 a day and explore out of town. Their mountain bikes look well maintained.
The Makinit hot spring and Makalit-Kalit waterfall - My son Daniel and I spent 4 days in El Nido in mid September 2003. As it was a bit cooler then than the rest of the year, we decided to do the trek to Makinit hot spring followed by the hike to the Makalit-Kalit waterfall (also known as the small waterfall). There is a larger one, but, because of the heavy rains the previous days, it was considered unsafe to go there. We organized the trek through Art Cafe. You will need a guide for these treks and they will organize the tricycle to take you there. It is about an hour by trike to the hot spring and 15 minutes back to the waterfall. The walk to the hot spring takes about 20 minutes and it's about a 45 minutes stroll to the waterfall.
The Makinit hot spring was rather disappointing, and, unless you are really interested in seeing a hot spring, don’t do it. It seems ridiculous to come to a tropical paradise and then go for a hot hike to a boring hot spring. As you get closer to the spring, the water can get quite hot so be careful not to lose your footing. It is easy to sink knee deep into the slimy black mud.
The Makalit-Kalit waterfall was very enjoyable. Note that we did it in September when the sky was overcast and there had been lots of rain. Don’t expect it to be enjoyable in May. It was more of a stroll than a trek and we crossed the river many times, which was pleasantly refreshing. We were certainly not disappointed with the waterfall and enjoyed the refreshing swim. Also enjoyable was the lunch of fish, rice and salad that came with the package. The price for the hot spring and waterfall, including lunch and transport was about P500 each for two. I believe that it is cheaper if there are more people. Again though, you have to ask yourself if it is worth coming all the way to El Nido just to go to a waterfall which is by world standards very ordinary.
General – There are many places to eat and, as most tourists spend at least 3 nights in El Nido, there is time to look around and discover the one you like best. In general though, there are lots of good cooks in town but no chefs, so you are not going to find any fine dining. Don’t get me wrong, the food is really good, especially the fresh fish if it’s around and there are always the superb continental sausages at Art Café’. Restaurant food prices vary between about P130 and P200, and you won’t find much difference amongst the many restaurants for the same meal. There is some cheaper food around the backstreets but I found it was not very good and foreigners are usually charged more than Filipinos.
There is lots of accommodation in El Nido, and more under construction or under renovation. Either do your homework on the internet and try and work out where you want to stay, or turn up at El Nido and look around. If you have not decided where to stay, I suggest you go to Art Café when you arrive and take a few moments to get your bearings, maybe have a coffee, meal, snack or whatever, before so set out for your accommodation hunting . Leave your bags with them at the upstairs restaurant where they will be safe, and then take a leisurely stroll around town and find your place to stay. Most people arrive in El Nido around midday when it can be very hot, so you don’t want to be lugging your heavy bags around while looking for accommodation.
The best places to stay are near the beach, but there are also some great places on the surrounding hills which have fantastic views. The nicest part of the beach for swimming is right in front of Rovic’s and Ogies.
It is wise to pre-book if you are going to El Nido around Christmas/New-year or holy week (Easter), otherwise you may have to sleep on the beach or on the floor of the municipal hall as others have had to do before you.
A disappointing aspect of El Nido is that there is no electricity between 6:30am and 2pm. The mind boggles at why the powers-to-be can’t or won’t supply 24 hour electricity for this major Philippines tourist destination. So at 6:30am the fan or air conditioner turns off and, if it is summer, you may wake up in a sweat. Some people need 24 hour power and this excludes those tourists from coming. Without even a fan to keep you cool, it could be tough on the elderly or those not acclimatized to Philippines weather.
If you are traveling to El Nido by road, you will pass through Corong Corong about 2km before El Nido town. It is on a bay with some beautiful views but the water is shallow and not good for swimming. It has some good valued accommodation and may suite if you prefer the quiet. Tricycles travel constantly between Corong Corong and El Nido town at a cost of about P10 per person.
Makulay Lodge and Villas – My favorite place to stay in El Nido would be in one of Makulay Lodge and Villas’ two cottages which are on a hill overlooking Bacuit Bay. There are 111 steps to the first cottage and another 100 to the second. The panorama is spectacular and covers some 270 degrees of stunning sea and landscapes. I watched a magnificent sunset from the 111 steps cottage and have included some of the my pictures. I really loved this place.
The proprietors are Rose and Del and their son Likha. Del, an Englishman, is a trained horticulturalist and he has created beautiful gardens all around the property. Makulay Lodge and Villas is a labor of love. The jungle is the backdrop and often monkeys can be heard calling from there. The two self contained cottages would be perfect for a couple but can accommodate a family of up to 5 people. They each have a fully equipped kitchen and the rate is P2,500 a night.
There is also a villa at beach level which has three nice rooms and a shared kitchen for those who want to cook. The rate is P1200 a room during the peak season and P900 during the low season. I have scanned their business card and their contact details can be found by clicking here. Makulay Lodge and Villas is located right on the northern tip of the Bay, a few hundred meters past the El Nido Beach Hotel.
El Nido Beach Hotel – This hotel is on the beach front and some of its rooms have great views over Bacuit Bay. The room rates are P3,000 for the 12 ground floor standard rooms, P3,500 for the 13 Deluxe rooms on the second floor where there are better views, P5,000 for the 2 family rooms with no sea view, and P5,500 for the family room with a sea view. The family rooms are good for 3 people. The rates include breakfast and all rooms have aircon, safe, TV, Free Wi-Fi, hot and cold showers and mini-fridge. Note that all the electronic appliances will not work between the hours of 6:30am and 2pm when there is no electricity supply.
El Nido Beach Hotel does not have a swimming pool and the beach in front the Hotel is shallow and not particularly good for swimming, but you only need to go about 300 meters down the beach where you can swim. The owner of the hotel is Korean and it is therefore also very popular with Korean tourists. A German man who I met in El Nido stayed at this hotel for several weeks and spoke very well of the accommodation and service.
Flights - Island Transvoyager Inc (ITI) has three flights a day from Manila to El Nido and back. Their main function is to transport guests to and from the exclusive resorts of Lagen and Miniloc, but they will carry general passengers to fill up the seats. It costs an extravagant P6,750 for a one way ticket and the check-in baggage limit is 10kg, so you have to pay excess after that. Seats for flights out of El Nido will not be confirmed more than five days before your departure date because they want to leave the seats open to the Lagen and Miniloc passengers for as long as possible. El Nido Boutique and Art Café is the only agent for ITI in El Nido and they have a well staffed travel center. Their website is up-to-date about other methods of travel to and from El Nido and you can find their site by clicking here.
Flights - SEAIR - They had suspended their flights to El Nido during the low season due to insufficient passenger numbers but are now servicing the rout again. I have heard numerous stories about how they left passengers stranded by canceling flights at the last moment because there weren’t enough passengers to make it profitable - so be wary of that when flying with them. During the peak season they have 2 flights a week. The fares are also extravagant like ITI's. A one way ticket is P6,710 (multiply by 2 for return) and the check-in baggage limit is to 10kg and you pay for excess after that.
Other Flights - there are no other airlines flying to El Nido. It was previously possible to fly into the nearby Sandoval Airport but that ended when the famous Club Noah Isabelle resort near Taytay ceased operations.
By Boat from Port Barton or Sabang - My favorite way to get to El Nido is by boat (bangka) from Sabang or Port Barton. The coastline leading up to El Nido is beautiful. The limestone islands rise out of the water all around. I have seen sea turtles come up for air and often see schools of flying fish. As the bangka rounds the last limestone headland - there is El Nido. The setting is fantastic – rugged limestone outcrops crowned with dense jungle foliage form the backdrop, the beach gently curving around the bay provides the foreground.
There are daily boat schedules during the months from November to May. Outside of that, a boat will only leave if there are enough passengers. The cost per passenger is P2000 to go all the way to Underground River town of Sabang, or P1500 to go only as far as Port Barton. The boat carries about 10 to 15 passengers. Smaller boats that take 2 to 4 people can be hired to take you to Port Barton for about P3,500, but you could get a bit wet. Travel time is about 5 hours to Port Barton and 2 hours to Sabang. Boats will usually leave very early in the morning when the ocean is most calm.
To and From Coron by Boat - I have yet to do this trip but I would definitely not do it in bad weather as I have heard too many stories about people being terrified in high seas. There are usually boats leaving daily unless there are not enough passengers or weather does not permit. There are two different boat sizes. The large boat carried 40m people and the small boat carries 20. The small boat leaves on Mondays and Thursdays and the large boat on the other days. I would go with the large boat. The regular passenger services take about 6 to 8 hours depending on weather and the cost is P2,200 for one way. For more information, check out the Artcafé travel page by clicking here.
To and From Coron or Manila by Ship - Atienza Shipping Lines have a passenger/cargo ship that leaves El Nido every Friday night just near midnight and goes on to Manila via Coron. It is 8 hours to Coron and 22 hours from Coron to Manila. There are folding type beds to sleep on and simple meals are provided for free. The ship can take up to 110 passengers. Be warned that this ship is also dropping off cargo and it may not proceed directly to its destination and your trip may take several days to complete. Unless you are a backpacker with no time constraints, it is not recommended you travel this way. The Coron to El Nido fare is P950 and the Coron to Manila fare is P750. Going to El Nido via Coron, the ship departs from Manila on Tuesday at Pier 2. To contact Atienza Shilling Lines in El Nido, call 09185666786.
To and From Puerto Princesa by Bus or Van - By bus costs P350 and by van is P500. The bus will take about 8 hours while a van will take about seven hours. The van is air-conditioned and the bus is not. You will be squashed in like a sardine in the van and also in the bus, but the bus will feel less claustrophobic. The windows of the bus will be open and you may eat a lot of dust if the road is dry. All vehicles traveling to El Nido from Puerto Princesa will leave from the San Jose bus terminal, about 7km from the airport. Vans and buses leave about the same time. The Eulen Joy Liner bus leaves both Puerto and El Nido at 5am, 7am and 8:54am daily. For more information and contact details, I have a taken a picture of their poster which can be seen by clicking here.
The road journey will take you through two major towns, Roxas and Taytay. The road from Puerto Princesa to Roxas is very good by Philippine standards, and the first leg of the journey, which is about 145km, will take about 2hours. Roxas is a town of no consequence.
The road between Roxas and Taytay is about 80km long and there is a lot of road construction at the moment. Much of this road is in very bad condition and during the wet season, vans and buses regularly get stuck. I have heard many stories of passengers having to pull the van through mud or sometimes having to walk long distances through the mud when the van can't carry the weight while driving through the mud. This only happens during very heavy rains in the wet season though. This leg is definitely the worst stretch of road of the journey. The approach to Taytay is very picturesque.
The road from Taytay to El Nido is mostly gravel but it is in fair condition. The distance is about 70km and should take one and a half to two hours. When the road is dry the dust is truly horrid. There are some beautiful views over the ocean as you get closer to El Nido but they will be difficult to appreciate when you are in a vehicle that is not going to stop. These views are only visible over short stretches of the road. I have included two pictures here. About 2km before El Nido you will pass through Corong Corong where the views fantastic. The final decent into El Nido is a treat.
Taytay is also a great holiday destination within easy reach from El Nido. Consider spending some time there as part of your Palawan or El Nido holiday. Few tourist seem to know about it because it is barely mentioned in the travel guide books. It is only about one and a half hours' drive from from El Nido and you will pass through it if you are traveling by road back to Puerto Princesa. Have a look at my Taytay Travel Guide and see what is on offer there.
I have mentioned Art Café often because I admire the way the proprietors Judith and Tani run their business and get involved in community activities. They look after their staff as well as the best I have seen in the Philippines’ tourist trade.
Tani is Commander of the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary, a supplementary arm of the Philippine Coast Guard. Its primary mission is assisting in sea rescue and in the protection of the marine environment, including the guarding against illegal fishing. You can rest assured that Art Café’s boatmen would never be allowed to drop anchor amongst corals or harm the environment in any way. Tani is also active in the removal of the Crown of Thorns starfish from the local reefs.
Disturbed by the routine killing of dogs and cats as a control measure for their ever increasing numbers, Judith’s has led a program for free dog and cat sterilization as a countermeasure. On August 30, 2009 sixty two dogs and cats were sterilizes under the free program.
They also run an informative website about El Nido and you will find them on my El Nido links
Sunburn - I have seen many tourists with terrible sunburn. Remember that you can get burnt from the sun's reflection off the water, so wear protection even if you'll be under cover. If you do get burnt, apply calamine lotion to relieve the pain and itching. The local brand is Caladryl and I saw it on sale in Art Café and it's probably also available elsewhere.
Sandflies - Although there are no sandflies on the beach in El Nido town, they do exist on some of the island beaches and on the beaches further out of town. See my Sandfly article for more information.
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