El Nido, Palawan
This post goes into detail about travel in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. If you want a guide to the whole island of Palawan, see this post.
We walked along the beach, hand in hand, after months apart. We picked our way through the rocks and tried to get used to the sound of each other’s voices without the static from thousands of miles of distance and poor wifi connections. I glanced up from the smooth, wet sand and gasped.
“Babe!” My voice was a reverent whisper. “Look at that!”
We stopped, suspended in awe for one heartbeat, two heartbeats, three heartbeats.
What is it about a sunset that makes you feel like our world isn’t just an insignificant speck in the vastness of the cosmos, but the biggest, most beautiful canvas upon which master artisans work? Where daily they paint their beauty onto this land, and daily wipe it away to start fresh again?
The blend of oranges, pinks, yellows, and blue reflected off mirror-smooth water. Small islands jutted out of the water in the distance, a relief black shadow against the riot of color behind them. We were in El Nido.
El Nido: A Guide
I ping-ponged all over El Nido, but not on purpose. I arrived into this famous beach town as a solo traveler, but morphed to a couples’ traveler when my fiance (a.k.a. the English Muffin) joined me on my second day in town. For better or worse, this (coupled with my lack of planning) allowed me to get to know the area a little better than most vacationers. Here’s an overview.
El Nido Town is where the action happens. You can book your tours here, rent a motorbike, eat at a variety of restaurants, and stay at a range of hostel/guesthouse/hotels that line the beach. My advice? Don’t spend too much time here. There is so much beauty outside of town that it’d be a tragedy to miss it!
If you’re going budget, there are plenty of hostel options (and more opening every season). Check reviews on TripAdvisor AND at least one more site, like HostelWorld, to get true unbiased reviews on the best places to stay. When I was there, Spin Hostel was in the final stages of construction, and it looks like it’s lived up to it’s promise since opening. It’s not beachfront, but it’s an easy stroll to town.
If you can’t do a shared-sleeping thing, there are plenty of privates in the hostels, or budget guesthouses in the town. I stayed at Ogie’s Beach House, which was pretty basic for the price but bearable and right on the water.
To make the most of your money, I suggest getting out of town a little bit. There are two main beaches with a good swath of mid-range accommodation: Corong-Corong Beach and Marimegmeg Beach. A trike or motorbike can get you and your bag to either of these, though you will need to hike down to Marimegmeg over the unpaved trail on your own. In a battle between these two, Marimegmeg wins every time. Corong Corong’s beach disappears entirely at high tide, and isn’t the pristine white stretch of sand you see in the travel brochure.
Pro Tip: If you plan to splash out a little, book ahead. The English Muffin and I looked up tons of places to stay before our trip, but I was hesitant to book anything sight unseen. I didn’t know enough about the lay of the land to feel confident that we’d be on the best beach or in the most convenient spot. So when I arrived, most of the places were already booked up! Though I was glad I looked at the beaches before I went, so we could stay at the nicer one.
We spent one night at the Orange Pearl in Marimegmeg, a decent but not-too-special hotel that had the basics of a decent hotel room (air conditioning, hot water), but not much more. They didn’t have availability for another night, so the Muffin Man and I were on a motorbike the next day scouting our next location.
We lucked out when we stumbled across El Nido Cove Resort just north of town. This was what we were envisioning for our glorious reunion. A soaring ceiling, luxe bathroom, waterfront location, maintained grounds, beautiful swimming pool. We got it for a steal because it was a last-minute booking, too!
Honeymooners rejoice! El Nido Resorts have four five-star resorts on their own private islands (more or less). The English Muffin and I looked into these, but they were over our budget. Maybe next time!
I’m fairly certain you can’t go wrong with any of these. I checked around on the luxury travel blogs to see if any lucky mofos stayed in all four and wrote a pros/cons, but it I didn’t find anything. If you’ve written one, send it to me and I’ll link to it here! Or better yet, El Nido Resorts Group, hook a sister up and I’ll write it! Wink.
Lonesome Carabao – Oh. My. Gahhhhh. At first I thought I was shoveling this delicious Mexican food into my mouth so quickly because I hadn’t had good Mexican in months. Then I glanced up and noticed the English Muffin was doing the same thing, and he’d only been in Asia for a couple of days! These guys have the Mexican food game nailed, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you left El Nido without one meal here.
Art Cafe – This is the spot for most things in El Nido. It has a tourism office, a cafe (obvs), a boutique, and a shop where you can purchase all sorts of things before you depart on one of the Letter Tours (see below for explanation). Their breakfast is Western-Style, but sometimes it’s nice to take a break from pork and rice and hoe into some bacon and eggs. It’s not the best breakfast I’ve ever had, but it’ll do.
Trattoria Altrove – Obviously pizza in the Philippines won’t pack the same punch as pizza in Italy, but this place does a pretty good job of coming close. I was happy to sip a couple of glasses of white wine and take a break from all the San Miguel while crunching into a yummy thin-crust pizza.
For more recommendations in El Nido, check out Lonely Planet!
The Letter Tours
Every tourism center in town sells the Letter Tours: A, B, C, D. These are run by various banca owners and the level of service is the same no matter where you book (at least I’m told). Here’s an overview of the available tours, but pre-booking is not necessary. We booked in-person at Art Cafe the day before we took Tour A, and there was no concern about availability.
Pros: It’s easy! If you’re a solo traveler, you’re guaranteed some company and you know exactly what you’re getting for your money.
Cons: It’s busy! With so many operators running the same schedule, you definitely don’t feel the peace of the Big Lagoon, and there can be a logjam to get through the narrow passageway at the Small Lagoon.
The Alternative: Book a private banca by going down to the water where they dock and asking someone. You will have to pay a hefty fee, but if you can get enough people together the cost might be the same as an organized tour. Be sure to leave early. Try to catch Big Lagoon at sunrise, and you’ll be ahead of the pack.
The area north of El Nido is home to some stunning and truly peaceful stretches of sand and surf. In fact, Nacpan Beach was recently featured in CNN Travel’s Best Beaches in the World article. My suggestion? Rent a motorbike in town and drive yourself up to these beaches. Getting there is half the fun, and seeing it through the window of a crowded van dampens the experience.
The road up to this beach is fun… in the beginning. The last couple of kilometers are a rough trail through the trees and small villages, and you will end up with some sore buns if you aren’t careful! But you will be rewarded with a three-mile stretch of mostly-uninhabited sand and warm, stunning water.
There is a hostel/campground at the south end of Nacpan if staying way off the grid is your gig: Where2Next Hostel.
Duli & Mariposa Beach
If you really want to get off the beaten track, make your way to Duli Beach. It’s a little further north than Nacpan, but just as adventurous to get in and out. We got lost on our way up and found ourselves in a tiny village just in time for lunch. There were only two options: Chicken or Pork. We opted for the chicken and it was pretty damn good! A group of local boys eyed us curiously while they drank a bottle of whiskey in the corner, and local kids waved at us as we drove past. Sometimes getting lost is the best thing that can happen to you!
When we arrived at the beach, the only other person was a local man who would climb up a tree, hack down a coconut, and pop a straw into it for $1USD. Perfection.
If you want to have a fully maritime adventure in Northern Palawan, consider Tao Philippines sailing adventures. Launching from El Nido and traveling to Coron (or vice-versa), it’s a 5-day trek through the lesser-known islands in Bacuit Bay and comes highly recommended by many major travel sites as well as the New York Times, The Guardian, and more.
To truly get the spirit of these cruises check out my friend & super-talented travel photog/videographer Scott Sporleder‘s video that he created for Tao Philippines. And no, I’m being compensated for this shout-out. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do since I saw Scott’s video years ago!
There it is, my guide to El Nido after several days of swimming, exploring, and motoring off to as many far-flung corners as time and budget would allow. Fellow travelers, comment with anything I missed! I’ll be sure to check it out on my next visit.