El Nido has been described as a Philippine heaven on earth, and it’s one of the most talked about beach destinations in the country. Bacuit Bay is made up from many islands with hidden lagoons and secluded strips of sand. The huge limestone formations provide opportunities to climb for a panoramic view of the bay, and the sheltered waters are perfect for a relaxing boat cruise.
Not many visitors come to El Nido without doing an island hopping tour. A lot of companies offer similar cruises and the itineraries are labelled A, B, C and D – each with about five popular locations. A and C are the most popular and, while it’s possible to combine them in one packed day trip, it’s best to take them a day at a time and to soak up the serenity at each point of interest. A highly recommended tour operator is Northern Hope Tours.
TOUR A (1200 Php)
The main focus of Tour A is its lagoons. Most boats take a trip to 7 Commandos Beach first, where you can relax on the sand or buy yourself a drink at one of the small beach bars. Next, it’s on to the Secret Lagoon, where the boats are moored in deeper water and you have to swim to an opening in the rocks that leads to a small enclosed lagoon. Its main appeal is the fact that its so well concealed, but you may well find that the nearby beach offers more in the way of scenery.
Simizu Island is usually the chosen lunch spot, where, after a beautifully presented barbecue buffet, you have time for some snorkelling. You may even spot a monitor lizard here if you’re lucky! Watch out for jellyfish in the ocean though.
In the afternoon, the hugely popular Big and Small Lagoons are your final stops. At Small Lagoon, they suggest you rent a kayak (700 Php), but you can also explore by swimming if you’re fit enough. Keep your life vest on and take your snorkel equipment so you can watch out for sharp corals in the shallow areas, and you shouldn’t have any problems. If the tide is high enough at the Big Lagoon, your boat may be able to navigate through, saving you the trouble!
Listen out for the ice-cream boat and keep an eye out for the coconut stalls too. Depending on the crowds, your guides may suggest you take in the sights in a different order.
TOUR C (1400 Php)
Tour C is arguably even better than tour A, as it offers more variety, including panoramic views, a shrine, some beautiful hidden beaches and a relaxing final stop at the beach on Helicopter Island.
Hidden Beach is usually the first stop, and it’s quite a stunning location. It’s a great photo opportunity, but you can also play around climbing through small tunnels. The fun continues at Secret Beach, where you have to swim through a tunnel to find a small stretch of sand.
Matinloc Shrine is an interesting stop off, where you can explore an abandoned building or climb up jagged rocks for great views of the bay. If you have a head for heights, ask your guide to climb up one peak while you summit another. It makes for some fantastic photos.
Lunch is usually served on Star Beach, where there’s some pretty decent snorkelling. As with tour A you will have some free time to explore while they prepare the spread of barbecued delicacies.
WHY NORTHERN HOPE?
Northern Hope has an office in the centre of El Nido on the main street that runs parallel to the beach. It’s easy to find, but if you ask you can be picked up by motorbike from your accommodation.
They provide life vests, snorkels and masks. You can also rent divers boots for 100 Php, which is a really good idea considering the number of times you’ll be getting on and off the boat – sometimes over rocky or slippery ground. It’s also a good idea to take a dry bag, but your guides will be happy to carry your valuables in theirs if required.
The food is some of the most delicious and best presented of any tour in the Philippines. There’s a lot to go around too. Notify the staff in advance if you’re vegetarian or else you’ll be joining the rest of the group in a feast of locally caught seafood. Water and soft drinks are provided.
Another great advantage of Northern Hope is their knowledgeable and entertaining guides who go out of their way to take photos of you so you can share your experience with friends back home. If you don’t have your own waterproof camera, you can rent one at the office for 700 Php per day.
OTHER TOURS OFFERED BY NORTHERN HOPE
TOURS B AND D
Tour B costs 1300 Php and visits Entalula Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Snake Island, Cudugnon Cave and Cathedral Cave. Tour D costs 1200 Php and stops at Bukal Island, Ipil Beach, Nat-Nat Beach, Cadlao Lagoon and Paradise Beach. Which tour you choose will depend on whether you’re generally a beach person or more into exploring. While tours A and C are more popular due to the picturesque destinations and variety of sites, it’s worth considering that tours B and D are likely to be far less crowded and therefore potentially much more idyllic.
LAND TOURS OF EL NIDO
Nacpan and Calitang Twin Beaches are reminiscent of Phi Phi Don in Thailand due to the fact that they are separated only by a thin stretch of land. It’s also a great spot for swimming because the waters are so sheltered. Day tours here cost 1500 to 3000 Php depending on the group size.
For an incredible sunset, head to Maremegmeg Beach. A four-person tricycle costs 300 Php for two hours’ rental.
It’s also possible to go rock climbing on Taraw Cliff behind the main beach in El Nido. This costs 350 Php per person. It’s more of a rock scramble than full-on climbing, although some of the cliff faces are pretty steep. The views of Bacuit Bay from the top are astounding.
As well as El Nido, Northern Hope Tours operate in Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, and they cover the whole gamut of available activities, including the Underground River, Tabon Caves, firefly watching tours, city sightseeing, Honda Bay and Dos Palmas.
The rate for a van transfer between Puerto Princesa and El Nido is 600 Php per person. They pick up from your accommodation or the airport and drop you wherever you request. You can also buy your boat ticket to Coron at their main office. This costs 1500 Php.
Northern Palawan is a fantastic location for activities on or near the water. In addition to island hopping, which is an absolute must, you should also seriously consider scuba diving in El Nido. Or, if you’re especially adventurous, why not give freediving lessons a go. Both are offered by the fantastic Palawan Divers towards the northern end of the main beach. The conditions are perfect for first timers. They also offer some great advice on getting to El Nido on their site.
Note that in order to partake in any tours of the bay, including scuba diving, you’ll need to pay a 200 Php ecotourism development fee. This is valid for 10 days so hold onto your voucher for the duration of your stay.
By far and away one of the best accommodation options in El Nido is the Sea Cocoon Hotel. Its rooms are ridiculously comfortable, clean and incredibly spacious, with powerful hot showers, huge flat-screen TVs, air conditioning, good WiFi and ice-cold water refills. A buffet-style breakfast is included, and there’s a good-sized pool with loungers – a rare commodity in El Nido. If you’re thinking about staying there, pop in and ask to speak to Eric. He’s the life and soul of the property and he’ll go out of his way to make sure you have an enjoyable stay. You’ll also love the resident dogs! Rooms start at 3800 Php.