There she goes again making another big claim. Well this time it’s not me but Condé Nast Traveler, who voted Palawan the number 1 island in the world for the second year running. In fact, the Philippines have 3 islands in the Top 20. Now that’s something to boast about.
El Nido is located at the tip of Palawan and is the main tourist hot spot on the island. While the actual town of El Nido is nothing to write home about, it’s the Bacuit Archipelago off the coast that steals the show. It’s full of dramatic rock formations, limestone cliffs, secret beaches and hidden lagoons, oh so many lagoons. You’ve got Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon and Secret Lagoon (as you can tell they weren’t very creative when it came time to naming their lagoons).
You remember that Leonardo DiCaprio movie ‘The Beach’ that put Phi Phi Island on the map? Well that movie was actually based on a book, and that book was inspired by El Nido. Yes this place is that beautiful that it inspires books that inspire movies.
Things To Do in El Nido
- Do an island hopping tour
- Hit up Las Cabanas Beach
- Hike Taraw Peak
- Eat pizza at Altrove
1. Island Hopping Tours
If you want to see those famous lagoons you’ve seen from the postcards, then this is how you do it. There are 4 different island hopping tours to choose from, creatively named Tour A, B, C and D, all of which hit up different hot spots. A and C are the most popular and the 2 that I checked out. I personally found both tours blended into each other so it’s difficult to say whether I would recommend one over the other.
The Secret Lagoon was pretty memorable because you have to swim through a small dark hole in the rocks. Once you safely make it through and away from the waves that are trying to pummel you into the cliffs edge, you’ll find yourself swimming in a shallow lagoon enclosed by limestone walls. This combination of turquoise and emerald lagoons surrounded by jagged limestone cliffs is what El Nido is all about.
While the island hopping tours are a great way to see the area, there are dozens and dozens of other boats doing the exact same thing. So don’t expect to have these hidden beaches and secret lagoons to yourself, because the secret is well and truly out.
- Try and find a boat that will leave earlier than the rest so you can be ahead of the crowds, or visit the spots in reverse order to the other tour companies.
- Bring water shoes! Otherwise risk being like me and looking like an idiot as you contort your body and face in pain, because you will have to walk over sharp dead coral in some of the shallow waters.
- Or forget about booking one of these tours and get a group together and hire a private boat. You can be more flexible with the route and time and escape the other tour boats. This is exactly what I plan to do when I come back!
2. Las Cabanas Beach
I’m going to tell it how it is and the beach in El Nido town is kinda shit (for Filipino standards). So head about 15 minutes out of town to Las Cabanas Beach. You’ve got a few beach bars you can chill at and grab a mango shake, or walk to the end of the beach and turn the corner to find your own secluded spot.
Make sure you stay for sunset because:
A. You can’t see the sunset from El Nido town and
B. All those limestone rock formations along the horizon make for that perfect sunset capture.
3. Hike Taraw Peak
This was hands down the highlight of my time in El Nido. It’s about an hour up and to put it lightly, you are basically rock climbing. This is not your usual hiking trail up a mountain. You are literally climbing up sharp limestone rocks, and having sprained my ankle 2 weeks prior, it was scary as hell. But as a reminder that ‘this is Asia’, I did of course see a local climbing in flip-flops. I would strongly advise against going here on your own. Find a guide who’s familiar with the climb and have them test out the loose rocks before you climb up them. Once you reach the top, you will look like you just did a Bikram Hot Yoga class, but the scenery is pretty epic with a birds eye view over Bacuit Bay.
4. Dinner at Altrove
There’s always a line out the front of Italian pizza joint Altrove and with good reason. I went here for dinner 2 nights in a row with a Dutch girl I’d met at my hostel. At the time we joked about eating pizza together in Italy, and 4 weeks later we were eating pizza together in Rome.
They Finally Have an ATM
To give you an idea of how off the grid El Nido is, the first ATM only arrived in October 2015. Prior to that you basically had to leave town once you ran out of money, or get a cash advance from one of the stores and pay their 10% service fee. Electricity was also only available between the hours of 2pm and 6am, which meant you’d be up bright and early the second the A/C turned off. However, apparently there is now 24-hour electricity. See, El Nido is moving up in the world, so expect the tourists to start flocking.
I flew to the main airport on the island in Puerto Princesa and from there it was a 5-6 hour bus ride to El Nido. If you don’t mind flying in a tiny propeller plane and paying 4 times the price, then fly directly to El Nido and save yourself 2 days of travel. I of course didn’t do this because at the time I was a stingy backpacker taking the cheapest (longest) route.
Get To Palawan Now
Tourism on this island is going to grow dramatically over the next several years. Puerto Princesa will also have an international airport sometime in 2017, making it even easier for international tourists to experience Palawan. So do yourself a favour and get here now, or be prepared to share the number 1 island in the world with a hell of a lot more people and at a much higher price tag.
Have you been to Palawan? What’s the number 1 island you’ve been to?