The Philippines are known to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world… and I can honestly say, it’s the truth! I had been wanting to visit the Philippines for the past few years, but the timing just never matched up, until this past March! El Nido is known for it’s Island Hopping. There isn’t much to do in the town itself, other than eat, shop, and lay on the beach… I know, sounds terrible. I was lucky enough to visit for four full days. Here are the tours I chose to do while I was there.
When To Visit
From November to early April it is considered “in season” for the Philippines. This just means it’s not typhoon season, so you can expect hot sunny days to get a tan on their beautiful sand beaches with some of the clearest water I have ever seen. This also means, there will be crowds of people visiting as El Nido, located on the island of Palawan, has become one of the top tourist stops in the Philippines.
How To Get There
Plane, Ferry, Van, Bus, Rental Car are all ways of getting to El Nido. If you are rich, I would suggest looking into taking a flight straight into El Nido, however, for me, I took the Van. When you fly into to Puerto Princessa, there will be many people offering van rides. It takes around 6 hours from the airport, however, the two drivers we had going there and coming back were speed racers and our rides were only around 4.5-5 hrs. The down side to the van is, you have to wait for it to become filled before it will leave, but it will only set you back about $10 usd one way. The vans can get a bit tight, so I suggest snagging the front seat for a little more room
The bus is an even cheaper alternative, but can take up to 12 hours to reach El Nido. There is one 15 minute stop for both bus and van to use the bathroom—bring toilet paper and lots of hand sanitizer– and grab a snack from this little shop. I honestly don’t know too much about the ferry option other than, it’s long, sort of expensive, and a lot of people were getting sea sick.
What To Pack/Bring On Tours
Other than the typical, bathing suit, light clothing, flip flops, sunglasses, etc. I wanted to touch on a few items that I didn’t think about:
- A Waterproof Bag— not to be mistaken with a water resistant. They are sold all over the town in little shops, and totally worth bringing one if you already have it. In order to get to the boats for the tours, you will have to walk into the water that goes up to your waist some days. On a windy day, the water will splash around and it will be helpful to have in order to keep your belongings dry
- Waterproof Camera— I personally bring my Go Pro Hero 6. You will be able to go snorkeling on some of these tours and see incredible coral, fish, and sea turtles!
- Snacks— Although you are fed lunch on the boat, the sun and swimming can really burn those calories, so having some crackers can hold you down until your next meal… this could also just be the fat girl in me talking, so you do you.
- Sunscreen— This is a no brainer right? Well with so many brands out there, it’s hard to choose, so we just grab a bottle off the shelf that looks powerful enough to save our skin from the harsh sun. But what about saving the water we are swimming in? Many of these sunscreens we use have preservatives which are ok for us, but harmful to our ecosystem. Beauty Counter offers a vegan organic ocean safe option for sunscreen that works! Consider checking this brand out. (Note: I do not sell Beauty Counter and do not gain anything by promoting this brand)
- Water Shoes— I always thought people who wore water shoes looked super nerdy… well they do, but I would have loved to look nerdy than gash my foot on the side of some coral. It took over a month to heal and was very painful. You can rent water shoes on the beach where the tours leave from for $2 usd/day.
El Nido Island Hopping Tours
There are four tours, excitedly named: Tour A, Tour B, Tour C, and Tour D. If you are planning on taking any tours or scuba diving, you are now required to pay an Eco-Tourism Development Fee. This is an issued ticket that is good for 7 days and costs 200php. You won’t be allowed on any boats without it, and if you are caught without one, you can face some pretty hefty fines. They can be bought at any tourism shop in the town when you book your tour.
In El Nido, there is one ATM, which runs out of money frequently and always has a super long line to gain access to it. I highly suggest you bring enough cash to pay for tours and food. My friend and I both tried to take cash out at the airport at multiple ATMs, but for some reason neither of our cards worked. Luckily there was ONE place that took credit cards for tours. However, they were a little more expensive and were booked up for one of the tours.
We booked Tours A and C with Art Boutique and Cafe since they accepted credit cards. A snorkel mask, fins, and lunch were all included with this purchase and our tours left at 8am. This was an earlier departure time than any of the other tour company, so when we arrived to our first stops, our group of 12 people were the only ones there for a short period of time and it was beautiful. We did Tour D with a different tour group that I won’t mention because it was very unorganized and since we left around 9am, all of the stops were very crowded. Note: There are no bathrooms on these boats, so I highly suggest getting your Number 2 out before arriving.
During Tour A, you get to choose between the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. We chose the Big Lagoon and started our tour off by kayaking from the open ocean into the lagoon. Being one of the first people into the big lagoon that day was incredible. Towering mountainous rock formations surrounding you in calm, clear, turquoise blue water. Absolutely breathtaking to say the least.
The second stop was called Secret Beach where you have to craw through a hole to enter this small tiny lagoon. The water was a little murky from the sand moving around and it only went up to my knees, but the surrounding rocks made it feel like I was in a dream. The third stop was to anchor the boat and go snorkeling. Small schools of fish and beautiful coral were perfection. Our last stop of the day was to Commando Beach, where I got a mango smoothie with the option to make it alcoholic, and sat in a shaded cabana while watching the ocean and letting the cool breeze take me away.
The start of Tour C was to two beaches. The first one was called Hidden beach and the Second was another Secret beach. While those were both cool to see, the highlight of this tour was the snorkeling. We dropped anchor and had the area to ourselves. I saw so many different types of coral, clown fish, starfish, anemone, etc. At one point there is a drop and you could see where a descending wall of coral had developed. While I didn’t see one, my friend saw a giant sea turtle and followed it for a while before it dove down deeper. Truly a beautiful experience.
Tours A and C are the two most popular tours out of the four available. Since we only had four full days, I wanted to go scuba diving one of the days. My Airbnb host recommended Tour B over Tour D. I thought it was pretty, but nothing really too different from the last two tours we did. But then we stopped at another “hidden” location. Just like the last two tours we climbed through a small hole in the side of this giant rock wall, but when I put my food down, it wasn’t in water. I stepped in and we were in a huge cave! As we walked further in, we could see bats flying high over our heads. The final stop was on one more island, probably the prettiest one we had stopped at in my opinion. It was recently used on Africa’s version of Survivor!
If you have never been scubadiving, but have always wanted to, keep reading! I randomly walked into Turtle Divers on the first day in El Nido. They were very welcoming and down to earth. While I am PADI certified, my friend had never been diving before. We decided to book our last day in El Nido, given we had more than 24 hrs before our flight left–You should never fly within 24 hours of scuba diving.
Turtle Divers are all PADI certified instructors. They offer a class to become PADI certified or if you just wanted to do a one day dive to see if it’s something you would want to work towards, that option is available too. To give an idea of how much diving costs in the US… I am going to be diving in Hawaii at the end of June, a one day two dive option costs about $285 usd. In El Nido, I did a one day three dive option for $89 usd and Turtle Divers accepted credit cards.
My friend and I were the only ones on this tour that day. I had my own dive master and Nichole had a dive master plus a dive master in training. We were separated for our first dive as Nichole started in the shallow water learning all about how to use the equipment, hand signals, and buoyancy. We felt super safe the entire time and saw some pretty cool ocean life. I was sad that I didn’t get to experience the sea turtle during Tour C, but on my way back to the boat after my last dive, my guide tapped his tank to get my attention and I was able to get up close to see a sea turtle grubbing on some ocean plants.
Overall, considering how busy El Nido was swarming with tourist, I would go back in a heartbeat. The beauty of the Philippines is to die for.
If you are looking for a good place to swim with whale sharks, check out my post on Donsol, Philippines.