Guys, I do believe that I have just experienced my top holiday of all time – the island paradise of El Nido, Palawan, Philippines.
I find myself on a never-ending backpacker search for the ultimate island-style destination and each time I’m convinced that ‘this is the one’. Thailand’s Haad Yuan on Koh Phangan and Kantiang Bay in Koh Lanta, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville islands, Egypt’s Dahab, Australia’s Byron Bay and now the Philippines’ best kept Palawan secret:
Basic simplicity in tropical paradise of still relatively raw and untouched beauty.
My holidays tend to be simple and carefree: make-up, and pants for that matter, are long forgotten and soaking up the coastal vibes takes priority. This is what life is about.
I’ve travelled with friends, boyfriends and on my own and people often ask me about how to do it, where to go, what to do, what to book and what to just wing.
So here is my account of my trip with all the info that you need to do it yourself and know what you’re in for. If you can’t cope with all the writing, there are pretty pictures too.
Be prepared for a long haul – likely the longest that you’ve ever experienced. I sit here in Dubai airport, writing away a few hours of the 10 I have here to wait between flights. I’m feeling a little like Viktor Navorski in The Terminal. You’re looking at around 3 flights, at least, and some road time to get to this little island paradise. I kind of like that it’s a little more difficult to get to than other places – it makes it a little more exciting knowing that you’re going off the beaten track and the likelihood of bumping into someone you know is slim to none.
My journey was on Emirates from Johannesburg to Dubai and from Dubai to Manila, Philippine Airlines from Manila to Puerto Princesa, then a private van drive from Puerto Princesa (arranged by the hotel in Puerto) to El Nido. Don’t bother to spend any time in Manila – it’s a hole (I am not a fan of Asian cities at all, so nothing appealed to me here). The airport is a hole too, so try not to have too much of a layover there. In and out – that’s the key.
There is also a private charter airline ITI which flies direct between Manila and El Nido. It’s priority is the El Nido Resorts guests in the fancy Schmancy resorts on the Bacuit Archipelago, but you can get yourself onto a flight by booking directly with them or through the Art Cafe in El Nido.
After three days or so (lost count) of solid travel, arriving in El Nido is a quite a feeling to remember. There’s not much in life that is as sweet as the first glimpse of palm trees, white sand and bright turquoise sea through the gaps between the village huts. I’d later learn that Palawan was showing off its’Las Cabanas beach on the way into El Nido town.
The town itself is bustling. Through the haze of humidity, the streets are alive – street stores spilling their goods out onto the road, tricycles maneuvering through people and obstacles, motorbikes flying around corners. Hooting. Smiling. Hooting. Tricycle!
Electricity in El Nido only runs from 2pm until 6am, so be prepared to sweat it out for most of the day without fans if you stay in town during the day. The beach itself in Bacuit Bay is not fantastic, so you’ll be out each day to spend spend some time in paradise – it’s part of the adventure and SO worth it. Every day out holds something to top the day before.
El Nido town itself seems like merely a place to start your island hopping through the Bacuit Archipelago, but spend some time there and you’ll see how its’ own personality comes to the surface.
The Roof Over Your Head
El Nido town itself has plenty of basic accommodation available, but I would recommend staying a little out of the city, along Caalan Beach, where you wake up to a quieter, cleaner, breathtaking island home.
This is the view from the Main House at Makulay Lodge – a self-catering cottage with the BEST view in El Nido, I swear:
Copious amounts of gin and tonic were consumed while sitting on the deck and looking at this view – so much so that the town literally ran out of tonic water during our stay! Granted, there are 103 steps up to this hilltop paradise (which is also incredibly affordable), but you need them anyway to work off all the fresh seafood that you consume every day.
There are quite a few resorts along the coastal path of Caalan Beach as well as some incredibly cheap bungalows right on the beach, which require no prior booking – just rock up and make yourself at home.
The Stuff To Do
Spend your time in El Nido – there is so much to do and everything runs on island time so take it e-a-s-y…
Here’s some suggestions:
- Island hopping
This is a must on your to-do list. There are four standard island hopping tours offered by everyone in El Nido and is a great start to your adventures, without you having to anything much at all. Try and find someone who will source a smaller local operation – if you get shoved onto a boat with ten other tourists and forced to wear a dorky orange life jacket, you’re likely to be less than impressed. Makulay seems to have their own little local operation that they use and even only two people on a boat is the norm.
You’ll be boated off to five isalnds/lagoons throughout the day, dropped off on the small and breathtakingly beautiful beaches, be served the freshest seafood and fresh produce lunch and snorkel/laze away to your heart’s content. It doesn’t matter that you’re sharing it with a bunch of other dork tourists, it’s so unbelievably gorgeous that you just block them out.
Another option for some island time is to pack your own food and drinks and organise a private boat drop-off and pick-up on an island for the day.
Sea kayak rentals are in abundance. Rent one of these for the day and choose your own islands to kayak to (if you’re feeling particularly energetic).
I’m a diving person, when I’m in some sort of tropical paradise and craving some boat time. There are loads of dive shops in El Nido to choose from and plenty of good dive sites. A day out on a dive boat always soothes a stressed soul.
I chose El Dive, a very new dive shop run by Yoshi Ohtshuka, who has 20 years of diving experience under his (weight) belt already. All his equipment is brand new and good quality, clean and comfortable.
You can also book in on one of the dive days as a snorkeller and enjoy the best snorkel spots with the best snorkel gear in town.
- Nacpan Beach
Rent a scooter/motorbike and take a scenic drive up to Nacpan Beach. When I say ‘scenic drive’ I mean ‘motor cross adventure’. If it’s been raining, you’re in for some extra mud fun 😉
Nacpan beach is beautiful and quiet. There are one or two little restaurants on the beach that you can grab some fresh seafood (seeing the pattern here?) or a coconut. There are also some incredibly cheap bungalows on the beach that you could stay at for some SERIOUS time-out. No pre-booking is required, or even possible, just rock up and chill out.
- Las Cabanas
Las Cabanas is a GORGEOUS beach just a short tricycle/motorbike ride from El Nido. Hang out there all day, swim in the perfect sea and sip on cocktails while you wait for the sunset that happiness is made of. You should definitely NOT fill your coconut up with rum and take cheesy silhouette sunset photos. Just kidding. You should definitely do that.
- Quiet beach time
If you walk along the beach/coastal path on the Caalan beach side of El Nido, there are two rather secluded and beautiful beaches for lazy days of nothingness and the occasional dip in the sea. You’ll catch a pretty mean sunset from there too.
Massages are on offer on almost every corner. My recommendation is most definitely the spa bungalow at Cadlao Resort – it’s outside in the shade by the resort poolside. Book your massage just before sunset and catch the pink skies as you fall into a relaxation coma. Then slip on up to the deck for cocktails and dinner. Epic.
- The Other Stuff
There’s loads more – treks, mountain biking, rock climbing, overnight island camping, hikes to waterfalls… I couldn’t do it all – I became too relaxed and ‘island made’ prevented me from doing much more than walking to a beach or climbing on a boat. Life sucked!
The Food Stuff
You’ll find some lovely eating spots in El Nido. Fresh, grilled seafood is easiest to find and some speciality spots in between.
La Bodega – This stylish French spot is a few weeks old and offers some beautiful French and Western meals. The decor and ambience is by far the best in town. If you have some cash to splash, they have champagne and some good wines!
Lonesome Carabou Lounge – This Mexican spot serves decent tacos, burritos, quesadillas and fajitas. They also have speciality wiskey! Do it.
Altrove – These guys have a wood-fired pizza oven. Enough said. The only place worth eating pizza. They have a queue every night of people waiting to get in. They also do take-aways.
GK Restaurant – A tiny little local kitchen on Caalan beach makes the most delicious sandwiches, with a view to die for.
El Nido Corner – They have great Arabic coffee and homemade bread.
Advice and Tips
- You will spend copious amounts of time in the water and on the water, so have a waterproof bag
- Bring waterproof shoes/booties. Getting in and out of boats if often rocky and you will cut your feet.
That being said, pack bandages, antibacterial cream and antibacterial tablets. If you cut yourself, it will not heal in the wet and humidity and is almost certain to get infected, no matter how well you look after your wounds.
- If you need an automatic scooter, book the night before to ensure that you get what you want
- It can rain a lot in tropical paradise, be flexible enough to cater for this
- There are no ATMs in El Nido, you need to take cash with you
- Wearing a bikini in the town is illegal – I kid you not
- If you’ve booked an ITI flight out of El Nido, be aware that the luggage restriction is 10kg, including hand luggage (you can pay 100PHP per extra kg of luggage). Your bags will be thoroughly searched. Your flight time is also not actually your flight time. It is really the time that the priority passengers (El Nido resorts guests) arrive at the airport to check in and eat their cucumber sandwiches.
- Be prepared for humidity and heat! Temp: 30’C, real feel: 74’C. Don’t bother packing any creams or make-up. Or anything with a sleeve or a leg.
The Round Up
So there it is, folks, all you need to have an epic island holiday. Get in there before it becomes another commercialised Thailand. And don’t be a douche – leave nothing but memories in the wake of your travels – respect the untouched beauty that you explore.