To one of the world’s best islands: El Nido, Palawan

Snorkeling in El Nido
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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.

Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan
Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan. (Photo by Hali)

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.

El Nido couple shot
During one of the tours. (Photo by Hali)
El Nido, Palawan, in the Philippines
Welcome to El Nido, Palawan. (Photo by Hali)
Hidden beach in El Nido, Palawan
Hidden beach in El Nido, Palawan. (Photo by Hali)

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.

Hidden beach in El Nido, Palawan
Hidden Beach. (Photo by Hali)

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.

Snorkeling in El Nido
Snorkeling spots in El Nido features various corals and hundreds of fishes. (Photo by Hali)

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.

Nacpan Beach in El Nido, Palawan
Nacpan beach with this lovely dog. (Photo by Hali)

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.

Nacpan Beach in El Nido, Palawan
An island across Nacpan Beach. (Photo by Hali)
Nacpan Beach in El Nido, Palawan
At past 9AM, we were the only tourists in Nacpan Beach. (Photo by Hali)

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.

Marimegmeg beach in El Nido
Marimegmeg beach is for those looking for a quiet swim. (Photo by Hali)
Marimegmeg Beach in El Nido
At the far-end of Marimegmeg beach, where the cocktail stalls stop. (Photo by Hali)
Marimegmeg beach in El Nido, Palawan
(Photo by Hali)

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.

Candaraman Island in Balabac, Palawan
Floating in clear heaven. Sand bar in Candaraman Island during high tide. (Photo by Hali)

For instance, the beaches in Balabac in the southern tip of Palawan may even be better than those in El Nido.

Islet in Matnog, Sorsogon
An islet in Matnog, Sorsogon. (Photo by Hali)

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.


Next up: The backpacker’s guide to El Nido in Palawan in a P7000 budget

P.S. Looking for other resources about El Nido?

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  1. Try going to Bucas Grande, Sohoton Cove. it’s really far, but it’s my favorite so far (not that I’ve been to oh so many places lol) 🙂

  2. Lovely. After going to Coron unexpectedly, I’m now looking forward to go to PPS and El Nido. The seclusion at El Nido might just be what I need!

    1. Hi Sam! El Nido is great but isn’t secluded. Even in lean season there’s still a number of visiting tourists. In fact, one of our boatmen said, “There’s no off-peak season in El Nido.” But yeah, hope you have a great time when you visit. 🙂

  3. Those beaches are so beautiful! It does look like a special luxury destination. I would want to try all the islands in Palawan and see which I prefer! Maybe I’d like El Nido the best but maybe not! 😉

  4. This makes me sad actually. I’m planning to visit el nido but I don’t intend to stay in a luxurious hotel and I really want to control my time during island hopping and not follow strict schedules. I hope I can enjoy my stay in this place.

  5. Your photos are beautiful. I’m always told to visit Palawan but now I want to see the beaches in Balabac as well to compare. I don’t like the idea of having limited to explore the islands so I’m glad you mentioned that, was my first time hearing it!

  6. I agree. There are so many places and for me nothing is the best because every places is unique on its own. I loved shores, beaches, waves and mountains. It makes me calm and at peace whenever I am in a place like this. By the way, I am also thinking to lessen taking pictures whenever I am on a trip and enjoy the memories instead but I can’t just help it especially in places that deserves to be captured for keeps. Great photos!

  7. Great trip you did, Kat. One thing I can say about Palawan is that the northern tip, El Nido, that has been explored pretty much by a lot of people already. There are no more secrets when it comes to the beaches. You are absolutely right about the southern Palawan beaches though, they are way less popular and from what I have seen, stunning!

  8. You’re right in saying that there might be even better beaches in the Philippines compared to El Nido. The beaches in Matnog and the Cuatro Islas in Leyte have even clearer waters. I’ve heard the beaches in Tawi-Tawi are even more pristine. El Nido’s advantage is that it has so many islands. beaches and lagoons in one place, jsut like Coron up north.

    What we do plan to visit sometime next year are the Linapacan Islands just north of El Nido. It’s been voted as one of the “35 Clearest Waters In The World To Swim In Before You Die” at Apparently you can stay at El Nido and get a boat to the southernmost islands of Linapacan or get there via Coron (about 4 hours travel time though).

    1. Thank you for this very informative take anonymous person. 🙂 This made me excited to visit Tawi-Tawi and other places down south.

      We also plan to visit Linapacan as well as Dumaran. I already have an itinerary and all that haha. But we don’t have a concrete schedule yet. I haven’t been to Coron yet so I’ll probably go there first before exploring other places in Palawan.

  9. Aww! The photos really show how amazing El Nido is. It’s sad because I never got the chance to visit El Nido the last time we went to Palawan, but looking forward to experiencing this paradise. Thank you so much for sharing it! I’m happy you got to enjoy this kind of paradise!

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