El Nido is a popular travel destination not only for its natural beauty but for the incredible array of marine life that can be found just off its shores. While the island of Palawan is frequently included in ‘top 10’ lists for its beaches, its dive sites are raved about in dive magazines just as frequently.
The majority of dive boats and island hopping tours head out west of El Nido into Bacuit Bay.
There are a number of reasons why El Nido is one of the top choices for divers anywhere in the Philippines. For starters, there’s an incredible diversity of marine life. There are over 30 dive sites, each with its own unique appeal. The waters are quite warm and reasonably calm, and the scenery from the dive boat as it passes from one location to the next is astounding. The limestone outcrops are reminiscent of Halong Bay and the beaches are undeniably better.
Some of the highlights of scuba diving in El Nido include barracudas, groupers and bumpheads, turtles, rays, huge cuttlefish, and massive shoals of yellow snapper. The following video was put together using short clips of GoPro footage taken on dives with Palawan Divers at Populkan Forest, Twin Rocks, South Miniloc, Entalula Island, Abdeen’s Reef and Helicopter Island.
Located towards the northern end of the beach, Palawan Divers is still very close to the centre of town. It has three large boats, which means it can cater to large groups or big numbers of guests, but despite it being busy, the staff all take the time to get to know everyone and introduce you to each other. By the end of the day, you’ll know everyone on your boat very well and will probably head out for drinks or dinner with them too.
Palawan Divers hires local guides with years of experience and hundreds of dives. They speak great English, provide in-depth briefings, have fantastic knowledge of the marine life and where to find it, and are really entertaining. The staff on board the boats also cook up a mean buffet lunch with barbecued fish, adobo, salad and veggies, as well as providing delicious cookies, tea and coffee for the morning break.
Typically you’ll do three dives per day, staying on the boat in between dives due to the large distance between locations. The boat is large and comfortable, and this is a good opportunity to relax on deck, especially as the water is usually very calm in Bacuit Bay.
WHERE TO STAY
The Sea Cocoon Hotel is located one block back from the beach and it’s definitely one of the best options in town. 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.
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN’T MISS
While you get to see a lot of the nearby islands from a distance on the dive boat, it’s a great idea to book an island hopping tour while you’re in El Nido too. Tours A and C seem to be the most popular, and some tour operators will combine the highlights in a one-day trip. It’s worth doing as you get to see some great spots, like hidden beaches, secluded lagoons, panoramic viewpoints, some pretty decent snorkelling locations, a shrine and an abandoned house.
If you haven’t had enough of the ocean yet and want to try something quite extreme, Palawan Divers have a branch for freediving in El Nido. You can take a one-day beginner’s course, progress through your AIDA training, or just join a boat trip out for some fun dives if you’re already certified.
There’s an unusually large number of Italian restaurants in town and the majority of them produce some of the best pizza and pasta dishes in Asia. A few choice options include Purno Bravo (one of the cheaper ones, where you can watch them make your pizza in a large woodfire oven), Little Italy (which often has great live music) and Mezzanine (a more upmarket restaurant with gorgeous views over the beach and ocean).
HOW TO GET TO EL NIDO
You can fly to El Nido directly from Manila, but flights are quite expensive by Filipino standards (about US$140, or £100). They also charge for every additional kilogram of luggage over 10 kg. From Puerto Princesa to El Nido, there are regular buses that take 6 to 8 hours, or, for 600 Php and a couple of hours’ less, a minibus will pick you up and drop you off directly at your accommodation. Coming from Coron, there’s a daily ferry for between 1200 and 1800 Php. Two companies take it in turns, but they’re both large outrigger boats, which means the ride can get quite choppy. Waves have been known to course through the passenger deck, benches are uncomfortable, the included meal is nothing more than undercooked rice and gristly chicken, and delays and cancellations are quite common due to the weather. An alternative to this journey is the highly acclaimed Tao Experience – a five-day tour of the islands between El Nido and Coron, including homestays with local villagers. Book at least one month in advance if you’re interested.