Last June, we went on a vacation to El Nido, Palawan. El Nido is one of the most famous attractions in the Philippines. Does it live up to expectation?
We’d already booked the tickets to Puerto Princesa a year before, so you can say that it was a year in the making. It also coincided with my birthday, so we decided to limit photo taking and just enjoy the moments. In case you were wondering why we didn’t have so much pictures here. 😉
5 Days in El Nido, Palawan
As you very well know, once again Palawan has been voted as the number 1 island in the world by readers of Condé Nast. When you say Palawan, three mainstream destinations come to mind — Puerto Princesa City (particularly the Puerto Princesa Underground River), Coron and El Nido.
Of these, El Nido stands as the premiere spot in Palawan and is considered a luxury destination, usually visited by ordinary folks for special occasions such as honeymoon. For us backpackers and budget vacationers, it’s more accessible compared to previous years thanks to competition and the growing number of affordable tours in El Nido to choose from.
Think of the best beach that can be offered in Asia, think huge karst structures surrounded by clear green water, think blue seas alive with so many fishes it’s like snorkeling in a giant aquarium.
Our trip fell on the second week of June, just after the high-peak months of summer. My weather app predicted thunderstorms, but thankfully it was mostly sunny during our trip. Our first day was easily spent on commuting from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. The morning after, we started our island hopping tour.
Tours A and C are the most recommended tours in El Nido, Palawan. A friend told me these two routes offer the best spots and are generally more sulit compared to the others where islands are more distant apart. Tour A includes beaches and lagoons, while tour C includes beaches with wonderful snorkeling spots.
We took tour A first. I remember what an acquaintance wrote about El Nido, Palawan: its spots are so beautiful you don’t need fancy names. Names such as Small Lagoon or Big Lagoon will do.
Later that night, we had dinner at Republic Sunset Bar to witness a nice view of the sunset. Afterwards, Hali and I discussed how the tour went. We normally do this assessment after a trip is over, but I wanted to know his opinion then. “Do you think El Nido deserves to be the frontier of Palawan or Palawan to be the best island in the world?” He said he wasn’t not sure, we’d only just been here a day.
There’s no question El Nido as we saw it that day was fine, but I’d been traveling only for a year around the Philippines and yet I’ve already seen so much beautiful beaches and rock formations that I wanted to know — or feel — what sets El Nido apart.
I wasn’t convinced after the first day.
The next day, we took the tour C package. Hali and I found it much better than tour A. There are more areas for snorkeling. Matinloc Shrine in particular stands out because it was like a giant aquarium, with all sorts of corals and hundreds of fishes, the kind I only saw in postcards and photos online.
Our guide took some leftover fish from our lunch and fed it to the fishes, so the fishes were literally surrounding us.
The next morning, we walked around and decided to rent a tricycle that would take us to Nacpan Beach and Marimegmeg Beach, often referred to as Las Cabanas (which is actually a resort in the area). In our overall trip, Nacpan Beach is the one that took my breath away.
It couldn’t have been later than 10AM, and we were the first ones in the whole beach area. Even after we’ve stayed for a few hours, there was only a small number of tourists who came after us.
We came across a sweet dog who guided us to the nearby hill that offers and overlooking view of the twin beach in Nacpan. Hali was enamored with the dog and insisted we used his almost-memory-full GoPro to have a “family shot.” We then went to splash in the water. The dog stayed at the shore, letting himself be wet from the waves coming from the open sea. The rest of the time, he sat beside our bags and guarded over them.
We had lunch consisting of fresh crabs cooked in garlic sauce and fresh coconuts. We splashed a little bit more in the beach, dried ourselves up with towels and then went back to our ride.
Our driver then took us to Marimegmeg Beach. It’s a quiet beach with deep green water, across rows of resort. There were also stands selling tropical drinks and beers. Compared to the beach that serves as the jump-off point of boats for tours in El Nido, Marimegmeg Beach is still comparatively less crowded. I didn’t mind the occasional seaweeds.
There were also couples nearby. Hali danced me around in the water, which made us both laugh. I felt relaxed and, yes, ready to go home.
El Nido, Palawan
El Nido is no doubt a paradise itself, we did enjoy our time here. I remember actress Margot Robbie saying, “I died and went to heaven” when she was on a trip here recently. As for us, what we enjoyed most in our visit are seeing the huge karst formations, kayaking in the Small Lagoon and then snorkeling in Star Island and Matinloc Shrine.
Is it the paradise expected?
I wouldn’t call El Nido the best.
As I said above I think I will need to see more of El Nido to understand why it’s the one carrying the flag of Palawan and regarded as one of the best beaches in the world. A friend says El Nido is overrated, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say that, I also would like to see what sets El Nido apart from the other places in Palawan or the whole Philippines, even.
For instance, the beaches in Balabac in the southern tip of Palawan may even be better than those in El Nido.
Some of the famous spots in El Nido, Palawan, aren’t exactly unique and can also be found in other provinces. The Secret Beach, for example, is similar to the lagoon in Matnog, Sorsogon. In fact, I was more awed in Sorsogon. I recognize that this is mostly subjective, and our expectations possibly played a big part on shaping our opinions of El Nido.
It seems we expected a lot.
Here’s what didn’t sit well with us
One thing that felt lacking is the freedom we usually have as backpackers. Oftentimes, during island hopping, we have the time in our hands. We swim and explore to our hearts’ content and then ask our boatmen to move on to another island when we feel like we’ve had enough.
In El Nido, tours are regulated. Now that’s a good thing considering it’s a world-famous destination and it receives perhaps hundred thousands of visitors yearly. But it also felt a little stifling. Tours normally start at 9AM and ends at about 3PM, which is short. We were given 30-45 minutes at each stop, after which the guide would call us back to the boat. Sometimes boats linger at the last location, but the usual procedure is to follow a strict departure schedule, especially if there are guests who have to travel back to Puerto Princesa City the same night.
There’s this another thing I’d like to point out. I’ve seen numerous online photos of tourists in the Big Lagoon. Normally, the person is standing or lying in front of the boat, looking at the clear green water and the limestone karsts, giving the impression of entering an exotic paradise. Well, in real life we found that it’s actually like this: once the boat approaches the Big Lagoon, all the guests will have to queue to have their picture taken. That’s literally it. In our boat in tour A, we were 14 guests in total, so you can imagine what happened.
There are many places in the Philippines that is better than El Nido
I hope this wouldn’t be taken as a slight to El Nido, Palawan, but rather a commentary on how there are so many diverse offerings in the whole of Philippines that are also of comparable, if not greater, beauty.
Hali says that even though we’ve touched on the most common tourist spots in El Nido, maybe we’ve only really seen a portion of it. Maybe we need to book into one of those high-end resorts with huts on stilts or do activities such as diving to see more of its wonderful sea life.
As for the whole of Palawan province, it is only my second time here, the first being in Balabac last summer. Hali has been to Coron about two years ago. Maybe we need to see other parts of Palawan and some off-the-radar beaches such as that in Sibaltan.
Until then, I’ll hold the belief that the Philippines is so diverse and unique and as of the moment not one specific island holds the top spot in my heart.
P.S. Looking for other resources about El Nido?
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