Walled by limestone columns, the bustling, cluttered beach town of El Nido, Palawan, The Philippines is the gateway to the spectacular Barcuit Archipelago. Most businesses here cater for tourists but there’s certainly still a friendly, local community atmosphere within its unpaved blocks and the outskirts of farm villages.
My travel partner and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in the carnival playground of El Nido, amused by colourful, grafittied triciycles, groovy beach bars and being sailed away to jaw-dropping lagoons and coves. I couldn’t get over the ocean water – was it just me? I’m sure, there’s something about its lustrous, inky blues that just felt divine to bathe in.
Here’s a quick guide on the best things to do, where to eat and stay, and must-know tips on travelling to El Nido!
How many days of exploring?
The Highlights: 3 days
Slow Travel (Recommended): 5 days
See + Do
Hike the rugged Taraw Peak for sweeping views of Bacuit Bay, especially beautiful during sunrise. Rent a motorbike or grab a cheap as chips tricycle to visit the Nagkalit-kalit Falls, a peaceful two-hour return trek followed by decompression at Nacpan Beach, dubbed one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Your road journeys through neverending palm trees to catch glimpses of raw local life is a treat. For more idyllic beach vibes, relax at Las Cabanas Beach then walk to Corong Corong for a memorable sundowner.
Around town, you’ll find many signs promoting full day island-hopping tours, Tours A, B, C and D (700-1200 PHP per person). Popular Tour A (Secret Lagoon, Small & Big Lagoon, 7 Commando Beach, Shimizu Island) and C (Matinloc Shrine, Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Helicopter Island, Star Beach) are crowded but you’ll tick off the highlights – hello crystalline waters and white sandy beaches of jagged limestone islands! For extra comfort, I recommend booking an easy-to-find private tour costing roughly 20,000 PHP per boat, which can be split between your friends. Skip Tour D and see it yourself with a rented kayak.
As much as El Nido is renowned for incredible snorkelling spots, why not go deeper and try scuba diving.
Each day must be ended with sunset happy hours. My favourite chic, upmarket beach bars that serve great cocktails are Mezzanine and Sava Beach Bar, which both overlook the anchored boats of Bacuit Bay.
Eat + Drink
Kalabar (or “The Bazaar”): A cool mixed concept boutique offering food, drinks, clothes and games. Do order the fresh stuffed squid, a much pleasant surprise.
Art Café: This gem sources ingredients from a local organic farm. Devour a big, healthy breakfast with homebaked bread. And yay, good coffee!
Odessa Mama Street Café: A new street café serving authentic homemade tapas-style Ukrainian food. Enjoy plentiful nalysnyky crepe rolls over San Miguels.
Mezzanine: Take your shoes off and journey up to a breezy, stylish lounge deck. Perhaps the best blended pina colada in town.
Sava Beach Bar: Sitting right on the beach with sandy toes, unwind over good tunes with good people at this beautifully appointed minimalist bar.
There are plenty of basic bungalow style accommodation and high-end options with unfortunately not much in-between. If you’re feeling spontaneous, on arrival you can find cheap, cosy homestays and small family-run hotels that aren’t listed online.
If you can splurge, choose your luxury eco-island getaway with the El Nido Resorts group, who impressively showcase how they promote sustainability. Their off-shore resorts on Apulit, Minaloc, Lagen and Pangulasian Islands scream tropical romantic charm.
Only 2km from El Nido town, the beautiful large bay of Corong Corong has just as much of a fun atmosphere, but more laidback. Much less luxurious than the aforementioned but with humble comforts, Greenviews Resort provides cute thatched cottages amidst the wilderness, added with lovely staff. A BBQ on the beach with your new friends here is a must.
Note: see “Beyond El Nido” below.
Beyond El Nido
Here’s my number one tip. If you like to gloriously sleep in like me without being woken by roosters and motorbikes in the early morning then consider getting out of town. An hour away from the craziness of El Nido, boutique Qi Palawan offers eco-friendly, mid-luxury (something the town is deprived of) bungalows with morning yoga classes in an undisturbed, unexploited part of Earth. Take it slow and explore unpopulated beaches on this less travelled part of Palawan. Here, you can still arrange island hopping tours, mountain biking, cultural tours and more. I could spend a week here!
3 Things You Must Know
1. Expect sporadic power cuts, even in upmarket venues and hotels. To gain reliable internet connection, purchase a local sim card with included data rather than rely on WiFi.
2. There are also very limited ATMs, which can lead to tricky situations in the case they’re unavailable when you need cash so have money prepared beforehand.
3. If you’re travelling during high season (December to April), it’s best to book accommodation online instead of showing up hoping for the best.
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Official Tourism Philippines website.