With over 7,500 idyllic islands making up the tropical archipelago of the Philippines, you could island hop to a different island every day for 20 years. So with limited time and an overwhelming amount of islands to choose from, I narrowed my adventure down to Palawan Island with a specific destination in mind. El Nido.
I’ve travelled to a lot of beautiful tropical islands in South East Asia. I’ve sailed around the limestone cliffs in Thailand, hiked to the summit of an active volcano in Indonesia, swam in crystal clear water off Cambodia, and kayaked past floating villages in Vietnam, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the Philippines. And nothing prepared me for the effect that El Nido would have on me.
Located at the tip of Palawan Island, El Nido is the gateway to the spectacular 45 islands and inlets that make up the Bacuit archipelago. Huge limestone cliffs dominate the landscape with clear aqua water and coral reefs waiting below. There are hidden beaches, beautiful lagoons and moments in the sunset that you’ll never want to end.
Some say the islands of El Nido were the real paradise behind the famous novel and blockbuster movie ‘The Beach’, with author Alex Garland writing the novel while he was there. According to local legend, it was a secret beach on Matinloc Island that you can only access by swimming underwater through a narrow crevice in a rock wall that inspired the novel.
Spanish for ‘the nest’, El Nido is named after the edible nests of swiftlets found in the crevices of its limestone cliffs. The nests, which are actually made out of bird saliva that has dried and hardened, are the gourmet ingredient in bird’s nest soup – a very expensive dish that is a delicacy across Asia. Costing up to USD$3,000 per kilogram, edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. Every day Filipino climbers risk their lives to ascend up the sharp cliff sides to harvest the nests from the caves high above the ocean.
While El Nido has started to gain more attention over the last few years with publications like Condé Nast Traveller and National Geographic rating Palawan as the ‘Best Island in the World’ and El Nido as one of the best destinations on the planet, it still feels relatively untouched. Don’t get me wrong, the Bangka boats go out everyday with island hopping tourists and there are hotels and accommodation options all over El Nido. But unlike some of the busy island hopping in parts of Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam where it’s impossible to take in a view or snap a photo without someone in it, we were able to enjoy beaches, lagoons and sandbars all to ourselves – something I didn’t think was possible anymore in South East Asia.
There are incredible adventures to be had on the mainland (Palawan Island), but El Nido is famous for island hopping. When you get there you’ll soon see that while there are many different tour operators, they are all selling the same four island hopping tours creatively named, Tour A, B, C and D. Tours A and C are the most popular – Tour A takes you to the Small, Big and Secret Lagoon, and Tour C takes you to Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Hidden Beach and Helicopter Island. We only did Tour C (through El Nido Art Café), and did everything in Tour A ourselves as we were staying at a private island resort that was a short kayak from all three lagoons, as well as some of the other tour hotspots that were close by like Snake Island which is part of Tour B.
The archipelago of El Nido truly is paradise and is one of the hardest places I’ve ever had to leave. It’s a destination that will leave you feeling inspired, with every adventure and experience leaving its mark on you. So to help you experience this island paradise for yourself, here’s my island hopping guide to what to see, where to eat and where to stay in El Nido.
1. Small Lagoon
The Small Lagoon is one of the main attractions in El Nido that’s right near Miniloc Island where we were staying. You enter the picturesque lagoon by swimming or kayaking through a small opening in the rocks. These photos were taken just after we paddled through to the other side where we were greeted with incredible clear turquoise-coloured water that was lined with limestone cliffs.
2. Big Lagoon
Along with the Small Lagoon, the neighbouring Big Lagoon is one of El Nido’s must-see experiences. While staying on Miniloc Island, we got up at the crack of dawn and kayaked to The Big Lagoon as the sun was coming up. We had the lagoon to ourselves for a few hours before all the tour boats arrived. We then kayaked back to Miniloc Island and headed back for a second look on the resort boat. It’s just one of the benefits of staying a short kayak and boat ride away on the incredible Miniloc Island.
3. Nacpan Beach
Nacpan Beach is one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in the Philippines. With four kilometres of soft cream-coloured sand, swaying coconut palms, clear aqua water and small surfable waves, it’s the kind of place you’d see if you closed your eyes and imagined paradise. Nacpan Beach is one-half of the famous ‘Twin Beaches’ – walk to the southern end of the beach, past a tiny fishing village and you’ll reach the point where Nacpan Beach merges with the smaller Calitang Beach. There’s a lush green hill that you can walk up that will give you a spectacular view of both beaches. Read more.
4. Las Cabanas Beach
Las Cabanas Beach is a beautiful chilled out picturesque beach that’s a short 10-minute tricycle ride north from El Nido Town. Tiny bars, restaurants and bungalows line the beachfront, with palm trees overhanging the ocean where local kids can be found splashing in the warm tropical waters alongside the tourists. The beach is famous for its spectacular sunsets, so make sure you head down for sundowners at one of the bars and restaurants on the sand for the best show in town. Read more.
5. Island hopping by zipline
While I’ve ziplined in beautiful destinations like Hawaii and Thailand, this is zipline is hands down the most picturesque I’ve ever seen. Never before have I experienced island-to-island ziplining where you can fly superman-style across a spectacular coconut palm-fringed beach. This was my first time zipping in the superman position and I couldn’t think of a better location to do it in than soaring high above Las Cabanas Beach over the ocean to Depeldet Island. Read more.
6. Matinloc Island
Matinloc Island is a beautiful island that’s famous for its unique Catholic shrine – a sacred monument built in 1982 to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s also home to the secret beach that inspired Alex Garland’s novel ‘The Beach’, as well as spectacular views of Tapiutan Strait and Tapiutan Island.
7. El Nido Town
While the super cute town of El Nido is the gateway for island hopping around the Bacuit Archipelago, the town itself is worth exploring and not just to use the ATMs or to book your tours. Walled by limestone cliffs the tiny bustling town is home beachfront restaurants, bars, and super cheap massages that are the cure for being on a scooter all day.
Where to eat:
Le Plage Sunset Bar & Restaurant
The food in the Philippines was a bit hit and miss, but we managed to find a few great places like Le Plage Sunset Bar & Restaurant – a French place on the beach in Corong-Corong that’s a 10 minute scooter or tricycle ride out of El Nido town. This ceviche and margarita were the perfect starter. Details here.
Built amongst a cashew nut plantation, Santeria Guesthouse is an oasis amongst the trees. We were riding our scooter around the island and were about to turn back when we saw a sign for a B&B that turned out was the number one on Trip Advisor. We made a pit stop for lunch and it ended up being the best meal we had in the Philippines. There are no photos because I basically inhaled it, but this entire property was something really special. Details here.
Before I went to El Nido, I hadn’t eaten pizza for about five years. But that all changed when we discovered Trattoria Altrove. With a street-level brick oven, this Slovenian-owned pizza joint is the place to go in El Nido town for authentic pizza and pasta. The restaurant gets super crowded so be prepared to wait at least 30 minutes for a table. Next door is a little takeaway bottle shop where you can grab an icy cold San Miguel while you wait. Details here.
Where we stayed:
Luxe: Miniloc Island by El Nido Resorts
If you’re heading to El Nido, you’re going to want to check out El Nido Resorts – a group of four sustainable island resorts in the El Nido that have been developed to sit in harmony with the beautiful natural landscapes. We stayed on Miniloc Island – one of their more rustic resorts in a dreamy overwater bungalow. While the island is incredibly beautiful and a destination in itself, the best thing about Miniloc is how close it is to some of El Nido’s most popular attractions like the Big and Small Lagoons. An overwater bungalow like the one we stayed in is around AUD$890 per night for two – but that’s all-inclusive, so all your meals and non-motorised water sports are included. Details here (full story coming soon).
Mid-range: Cadlao Resort
Cadlao Resort is a boutique resort in El Nido with beautiful tropical gardens in a unique hideaway location. The best thing about this resort is its incredible views of Cadlao Island – a mountainous island that looks like it’s been relocated from Tahiti. At a towering 640 metres above sea level, it’s the highest peak in El Nido. Located at the end of the main beach off a tiny street only accessible to tricycles and motorbikes, Cadlao Resort is quieter and more private than the hotels closer to El Nido town. The resort has a rocky beach, which is a little tricky to swim off. But where it lacks sand, it makes up for it with two impressive pools surrounded by palm trees. Bungalows start at around AUD$250 per night. Details here.
Budget: Las Cabanas Beach Resort
At AUD$175 per night for two, Las Cabanas Beach Resort isn’t exactly budget, but with no hot water, air-con or room wi-fi and limited electricity, it does have that vibe. Our beachfront cottage may not have had any mod cons, but it did have front row seats to the best sunsets in El Nido and the ocean right on our doorstep. There’s nothing better than falling asleep and waking up to the sound of waves gently lapping the beach. Details here.
- Bring as much cash as you will need to El Nido. When we were there (January-February 2016) the dual ATMs were super unreliable – most of the time they were either not working or had run out of money. Plus, the line up to use the ATMs was often hours long, wasting precious beach time. There are a few souvenir shops and restaurants in town where they will charge your credit card and give you cash back – expect to pay a 10% fee. The petrol station had a similar service, but it’s a bit more hit and miss – when we tried, they had run out of money and told us to come back the next day.
- Bring a GoPro or waterproof camera – some of the best beaches and lagoons in El Nido are only accessible by swimming or kayaking in and you’ll want to capture every moment of your island hopping adventures.
- Invest in a good dry bag to keep your things protected while you’re island hopping. You can pick up a cheap one in El Nido, but if you want to take your SLR camera island hopping with you, I recommend getting a waterproof camera bag. I use the Lowepro DryZone Duffle 20L – it basically folds flat in my suitcase and I couldn’t do without it on island life trips.
How to get there:
The best way to get to El Nido on Palawan Island in the Philippines is to fly to Manila. From Manila you can get a direct flight to El Nido that takes around one hour. The flights from Manila to El Nido are through AirSWIFT and they book out fast, so make sure you don’t leave it until the last minute or you could find yourself on a bus that takes up to 12 hours. Details here.
- Cameras: Canon EOS 5D Mark III (on loan from Canon Australia), Canon EOS 70D (my personal camera) and the GoPro HERO4 Silver Edition (on loan from GoPro Australia).
- Lenses: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM (on loan from Canon Australia) and Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM.