I’ll let you in to my little secret.
My trip to El Nido is a calculated and premeditated plan, not just an accidental side trip like I wanted to appear. When I was told we are going to Palawan, I employed all my convincing powers and deceiving but innocently suggest for us to make a side trip to El Nido, and I have very good reasons to do so. Just few weeks ago CNN listed El Nido as #14 of the best beaches in the world. Lonely Planet listed Palawan #8 in their top ten region that’s best for travel in 2013 citing he place as “The ultimate archipelago for adventurers“. I couldn’t agree more. It’s that great that even the writer Alex Garland, after when he went to the island was inspired and wrote the book “The Beach” (which was turned into a film starring DiCaprio). Sadly, the last Jason Bourne movie didn’t do much justice to this amazing place by giving it less than 5 minutes of screen time. I’m hoping my little blog about the place would do a bit better.
Situated in Bacuit Bay, El Nido, covering a land area of 465.1 square kilometres (179.6 sq mi) in the northernmost tip of mainland Palawan. Aside from the pristine and virgin beaches scattered within it’s 45 islands and islets, it is also dotted with Paleogene rocks and limestone cliffs very much similar to those that can be found in Coron which is also in Palawan, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Guilin in China, as well as Krabi in Thailand. These limestone cliffs dated to be as old as 250 million years old.
El Nido traces its name from the Spanish word for “nest”, which a lot of it can be found in the area. These nests are made by the edible swiftlet, which was locally called “balinsasayaw“. Tucked away in difficult-to-reach crevices of the limestone cliffs and caves, these nests (made from the bird’s saliva) are highly valued and prized by the Chinese medicine and an important ingredient in making bird’s nest soup. Nest collecting used to be the town’s main source of income until the tourism boom. Palawan is known as the world’s major source of these edible swiftlet’s bird nests and El Nido is the supply centre of the raw material for oriental delicacy birds’ nest soup in the Philippines.
The area’s first recorded name was “Talindak”, named after the Tagbanua tribe that first inhabit the area. The Spanish colonizers renamed the area “Bacuit” in 1890. This is how Bacuit Bay got its name, which it retains up until this day. Bacuit was formally renamed to “El Nido” in 1954 via Republic Act No. 1140.
The remoteness of El Nido from the capital Puerto Princesa makes the place hidden from both local and foreign tourist for quite a while until 1979. Story goes that a sea accident happened in Bacuit Bay. According to some locals I talked to, “a big school of tuna disabled a dive boat’s propeller in the middle of the night forcing it to drop anchor in an inlet. The following morning, the divers woke up to an amazing scenery of skyscraping dark cliffs, thick green forest, white sand beaches, sparkling water and, rising above it, a series of magnificently sculpted islands.” Good news spread and El Nido was drawing tourist since then.
I have heard so many great things about El Nido and was told that you should never leave the place without trying out one activity – island hoping. In fact, It is safe to claim that it is pointless to go to El Nido if you do not go island hoping. Unlike island hoping in Coron where you need to pay entrance fee on each spot that you’ll visit, here to make it easier and organised, island tour hoping is divided into 4 tours conveniently called tour A, B, C and D. Each tour is a whole day activity and you can actually do combination of two done within a day. TIP: If ever you only have a day to spare at El Nido, I highly recommend tour A.
The motorized boat would accommodate 10-15 people on tour. Smaller groups need not to worry because you will be teamed up with other smaller groups until the boat have enough number to start a tour. Be sure you are already at the beach by 9 am as that is the ideal time to start the day of island hoping and exploration. If you wanted to be alone or have the boat all yourself with your company that could be arranged as well. On our case we are joined by a family of 3 from the Middle East on a holiday, and 4 medical professionals from Ilo-ilo. Very nice crowd!
All of the tour packages have have five spots a piece to check and so for our trip, we checked out 7 Commando Beach, the Big and Small Lagoon, Shimizu Island and the Secret Lagoon.
7 COMMANDO BEACH
Usually, the tours have specific stopovers but since we saw that there’s a lot of boats that already left before us, our tour guide decided to check out first the 7 Commando Beach, which is usually the last spot to check because the other spots are already crowded. We excitedly jumped to the shore and have the beach completely to ourselves.
Seven Commandos Beach is named after the seven soldiers who were stranded and live there for a while. Local folks even told me that theres a rock somewhere in the island where their names are etched for posterity. It may not be the best beach amidst its perfectly white, pure sand, it can definitely hold its own. With it’s crystal clear cool waters, plenty of shade and fresh buko juice for sale (50php each) what more you can ask for?
after almost an hour of snorkelling, swimming and basking in the sun, we head to our next destination – Big Lagoon.
The big lagoon and it’s smaller brother is part of a majestic limestone walled island called Miniloc. Imagine a vast expanse of sharp, unforgiving, jagged limestone walls connected to the alternating turquoise and emerald green waters. You will be amazed and put into silent awe as you slowly pass on to the Big Lagoon. Lucky for us the waters is still high so our boat can still manoeuvre inside, otherwise the only way you could go inside and marvel it’s beauty is by kayak.
Soon it’s lunch time and we head our way to Shimizu Island.
You will definitely wonder why they call this island after a Japanese name. According to our tour guide, the island was named after a Japanese scuba diver who died near the vicinity of the island because of insufficient oxygen in his SCUBA. The locals named the island in honour of him. Shimizu’s main attraction is the narrow stretch of powdery white sand and the beautiful marine life just a couple of meters from the shore. Clams and school upon school of colorful ornamental fishes are just around the waters of Shimizu that’s why the island is a great place for snorkelling and scuba diving. This is where we had our lunch which was prepared by our boatmen slash cooks and such a feast it was!
after a sumptuous lunch we head our way to the next lagoon that’s supposed to be secret.
Upon reaching the shore of our next stop, I realised why it was called thus. You need to crawl in a small hole in order for you to get to the small and enclosed lagoon on the other side. If you will happen to go there during high tide, the entire hole can be completely submerged under water and you have no other option but to swim to get in.
Last but not the least, is the smaller version of the big lagoon within Miniloc. The place is surrounded by tranquil, turquoise-green waters and orchid-lined limestone walls that showcases a kaleidoscope of marine life. Archeologists believe that these lagoons were actually caves which abound in these islands. The roofs of these caves must have collapsed millions of years ago, and these lagoons have emerged in their place.
The entrance to the small lagoon is too shallow even for the boat to come close to the entrance so I highly recommend island hoppers to rent a kayak to enjoy the lagoon specially if you do not know how to swim, otherwise just swim to get in and make yourself float in the lagoon and bask quietly in these fantastic wonder of nature.
Travel Tips, Info and Recommendation
prices of island hoping packages are pretty much the same across the board on all island hoping tour operators. Depending on which tour package you choose, it includes life jacket rental and buffet lunch in one of the islands. El Bacuit Travel and Tour offers 10% discount on group tour package when you tell them that you know them through me and my blog. They could be reached at +639213112940 and look for Ms. Rejane Meridor. You can also check their website at http://www.elbaquitphilippines.com
It is a common misconception that it is expensive to go and have a great time at El Nido. It’s not! You can stay, dine and enjoy the islands without digging too deep in your pockets. See my sample breakdown for a 3N/2D stay
Transportation (PP to El Nido VV) – 1,000 – 1,200php
Accommodation (3-day stay) – 3,000php
Food (3 dinner, 3 lunch, 2 bf) – 2,000 – 3,000php
Island Tour (2 days) – 1,600php
So for a 3N/2D stay, you need at least 7,600php – 8,800php (180-210 USD) not bad for a top notch island adventure!
Getting There and Away
There are few options to to reach El Nido depending on where you are at the moment. From Puerto Princesa, the major jump off point to El Nido, the most popular means is the the Roro Bus Transport. Puerto Princesa to El Nido (273kms travel time: 5-6hrs) Fare rate: (One way) is 483php for aircon trips (381php student/senior) and 367php for non aircon (294php student/senior) Schedules: ordinary buses leaves at 4:00am, 8:00am, 12:00nn, 4:00pm. Air conditioned buses leave at 6:00am, 10:00am, 2:00pm, 6:00pm, 10:00pm. For bookings and reservations: +639175971189, +639089202568, +639228901044. Other bus line is Cherry Transport, fare cost 330php ordinary one way with 3-4 trips a day
If you prefer an almost non stop and much shorter trip, and money if not an issue, I would recommend to go into those airconditioned executive vans instead. The best choice would be DayTripper Palawan (www.DaytripperPalawan.com) at 900php per head one way, one can be picked up any point in Puerto Princesa to any point in El Nido.
El Nido Can also be reached by ferry from Cuyo, Coron and Puerto Princesa.
There are also cargo ship operators that also ferry passengers from Manila to El Nido. Contact the shipping lines for schedule and fare information. Please note that these are smaller cargo ships/hauls that cater specially to cargo but also allow passengers.
Operator: San Nicholas Shipping Lines (M/B Andrea-1, M/V Catalyn-A, M/V Catalyn-C, M/V Catalyn-E, M/V Asuncion-IX, M/V Asuncion-XI)
Route: Manila-El Nido-Liminangcong and vice versa
Contact Info: (02)-243-4595
Operator: Atienza Shipping Lines (M/V Josilee-II, M/V April Rose, M/V Q-Carrelyn-III)
Route: Manila-Coron-El Nido-Liminangcong and vice versa
Website : http://www.atienzashippinglines.com
Telephone No. : (02)-986-3118 and (02)-536-8123
Puerto Princesa City is accessible by air from Manila via Philippine Airlines, AirphilExpress, Cebu Pacific Air and Zest Air; from Cebu via Cebu Pacific Air; and from Busuanga (Coron) via AirphilExpress.