A six hour drive north of the Puerto Princesa Underground River, near the north tip of Palawan sits El Nido, a town lined with beaches and karst mountains. Our bus dropped us at the stop between El Nido Town and the more pleasant area, Corong-Corong. Tricycles, the flamboyant, compact Filipino version of a tuk tuk, line the streets and offer rides constantly.
When looking for accommodation in El Nido you’ll find the bulk of the options are on AirBnB and often not the traditional booking.com or agoda.com. El Nido is relatively expensive by southeast Asia’s standards, but your first glance of the bay as you come into town justifies the cost. Turquoise waters line the coast, running into powdery sand, and dramatic cliffs jut up out of the vibrant green jungle. The scenery, the friendliness of the locals, and the amazing Filipino food all make strong cases for why so many people come to El Nido. On the other hand, overcrowding in El Nido town and out on the boat tours, high prices, and a high likelihood of travelers sickness (we were warned by locals in Sabang, and most travelers we met in El Nido had experienced it, as did we) keep it just out of the Halong/Lan Ha Bay and Railay/Krabi/Koh Yao realm. To be fair, we did visit in high season, and have heard more favorable thoughts on the area from others who visited other times of the year.
Top Things to Do
- Go on a boat trip to fully take in the amazing scenery and explore the surrounding smaller islands.
- Visit Las Cabanas Beach just south of El Nido town for beautiful sunset views and a white sand beach.
- Hike up Mount Mansilawit as an alternative to the Canopy Walk in town and for great views over El Nido.
- Rent a kayak to explore nearby lonely beaches and escape the crowds.
- Take a trip to one of the waterfalls near El Nido for a refreshing swim, while bearing in mind that they can be dry outside of rain season.
The number one reason you visit El Nido is to get on a boat and explore the nearby islands, beaches, and lagoons. These karst cliffs have a dark grey color to them and have a distinct look in comparison with those in Thailand and Vietnam. Lagoons filled with the most vibrant turquoise water we’ve seen and secret passageways that you’ll need to crawl or swim through add to the draw of boating here. The easiest and most common way to get out onto the water is by a boat tour, which is offered at virtually every guesthouse and hotel, or at any of the tourist offices in town. These tours are lettered Tour A – D and follow the same route wherever you book them.
An alternative to taking one of these group trips is to get a private boat, which can often be negotiated down to the same price as a group tour if you can round up four or more people. If you head to the beach at the northern end of Corong-Corong you’ll come across a shantytown of sorts, where all of the houses are made of thatched roofs and woven walls. There are plenty of fishing boats and tour boats that sit in the water near the town, and if you ask around you can generally find a lower price than through a tour operator, and can tailor where you go and when.
We went on Tour A as a group trip, and paid 1,200 pesos ($24) per person. You’ll be asked to pay a 200 peso conservation fee on top of the tour price, however most places will drop that fee if you book more than one trip with them. We asked our boat driver if he would run the trip in reverse since all of the boats follow the same route, however we didn’t have any luck since we were only two of fourteen customers on the boat, meaning we didn’t have much leverage.
Shortly after leaving the beach at 9am, after an hour of getting people on the boat and situated, we stopped at Papaya Beach to explore and swim a bit. A few other boats joined, and then a few more, until over a dozen boats with more than ten people per boat were all at the same spot.
After we moved on from the crowded beach we visited a beautiful lagoon that was surrounded by jagged black rock on all sides, which is called the Big Lagoon. Our boat motored its way into and around the Big Lagoon while we admired the high rock walls and gorgeous water color. You can rent kayaks from a floating office just outside of the lagoon, however with so many boats coming and going, we saw the few kayakers being literally pushed aside by the crews of the boats as they passed. The Big Lagoon was as beautiful as we had heard, but with a half dozen boats inside at a time, it was far less tranquil than we had hoped.
At another beautiful karst island, we hopped off at a beach and were told to follow the groups of people to the Hidden Lagoon. We found the back of a line of 30 or 40 people and waited for a half hour as people slid out of a small hole in the rock wall of the island and we started to slide in. Inside of the hole in the rock we splashed into a medium sized lagoon with 30+ meter high jagged walls. The water color left a bit to be desired, and as one of the three dozen visitors among us blew his nose into the lagoon we were all standing in, a guide explained that the water color is incredible each morning before it becomes muddied throughout the day. The theme of the trip so far seemed to be that the place and scenery were incredible, but the organization and amount of visitors left a lot to be desired.
Our last major stop was the highlight of our day, the Small Lagoon. Our boat stopped at an apparent dead end, with karst mountains on three sides of us. A kayaker pulled up alongside us, towing three kayaks, and rented them to us for 300 pesos per kayak. Paddling after the other small boats, we reached a tiny hole in the rock, where we had to pull our paddles into the kayak, lay back, and pull ourselves through the hole. Inside revealed a surprisingly big, Small Lagoon. Paddling around reminded us a bit of kayaking in Halong Bay, where towering vertical rock walls surround you on all sides, and here some crazy looking vegetation clung to the walls.
At the end of the day we were happy to have seen the incredible sights along the Tour A route, but sadly disappointed at the way we saw them. We did visit on a Sunday, which had us traveling with a lot of Filipinos who came into town for the weekend, but regardless the crowds would’ve been too great even if the number was cut in half. Our next trip we decided would have to be a private boat and working in the opposite direction of the standard route.
We had arranged for a private boat to take us on Tour C, one of the most popular trips from El Nido. At the last minute we were informed that the day before, a tourist had been injured due to the weather conditions at the Secret Beach, and Tour C was shut down by the Coast Guard for the time being. Secret Beach, a beach where you have to swim through an ocean cave to access it, was the entire reason we wanted to go on Tour C, but with it shut down we had to settle for Tour B. Sissy and I, plus another couple we had met split the 5,000 peso ($100) cost and headed out on Tour B.
We did our route in the reverse order, which meant that our first few stops along a beautiful beach at the base of a massive karst cliff, and a small sand bar were pretty deserted. The scenery seemed more beautiful than our last boat trip, although in hindsight it was more how we visited than where.
Coming up on Cathedral Cave, one of the stops on Tour B, we boated to the mouth of a medium sized hole in an island, but weren’t allowed to hop into the water to swim due to poisonous sea snakes in the area.
Our next stop was at Cadugnon Cave, where you again slide through a narrow hole and into a medium sized cavern. Holes in the cave roof allow light to spill in, and a little more exploring brought us to a larger chamber with beautiful walls. Being midday, things got a bit crowded in the cave, since running a route in reverse will cause both directions to intersect around halfway through the day. Since it was a weekday, things weren’t nearly as hectic as Tour A had been for us, but we still had a five minute wait at the hole to exit the cave.
Snake Island was our next stop, and over a dozen boats were parked along a thin, snaking sandbar. While we walked up the small hill on the island a large, dark brown macaque searched for anyone foolish enough to have food out for him to steal. Five minutes of walking led to a viewpoint, and shrieks from other visitors let us know that the macaque had found his target. A floating bar near the boats was a very cool touch to the island, and kept the patrons out of range of the roaming monkeys.
A snorkel stop with some decent corals was our last stop before heading back to town for the day. Tour B had been enjoyable and worth the price we paid, however given the option, Tour C would have been our choice.
Las Cabanas Beach
Grabbing a tricycle from Corong-Corong for the five minute ride to Las Cabanas Beach just south of town should cost 100 pesos. Haggling down the tricycle drivers from their lofty 300 pesos ($6 USD) per person to 100 total was pretty quick – they seemed to be testing their limits without much of an expectation of success. Las Cabanas is a nice, powdery sand beach with no entrance fee and a great westward view for sunsets.
A zipline runs from the beach to a small nearby island and back, and costs 400 pesos per person. Reasonably priced drinks were available at a small stand a short walk from the main entry to the beach. While Las Cabanas may have been slightly busy, it was still an enjoyable way to admire a beautiful sunset.
Our destination when we set out from Corong-Corong was Nagkalit-Kalit Waterfall, a 12km drive north. When we arrived, we were informed that the waterfall was completely dry and admission was closed – as with most natural attractions around El Nido, this was also regulated and has an entry fee. After a bit of talking with the lady working the entry booth, she suggested a half hour hike up a hill next to us, Mount Mansilawit. She sold tickets for that hike (150 pesos each), and set us up with a guide, which is unnecessary but required to enter.
We walked up the steep hill in our flip flops, clinging onto the shabby bamboo handrail wherever it was still standing. Avoiding the odd rusty nail sticking out of the railing, we made our way up to the top of Mount Mansilawit in the half hour quoted, pouring sweat from the heat and humidity. As we reached the top we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of El Nido below.
Secluded beaches, untouched forest, and the amazing blue water of El Nido was laid out before us, and the clutter of the towns was far from sight. Our guide pointed out a patch of missing trees and told us illegal logging had occurred in that spot, and he noted that some of the beaches in the area were private, hence the lack of people. Six kilometers north is Nacpan Beach, where he told us the sand was the finest in the area. The half hour walk back down Mount Mansilawit took us back through the dry rice terraces and past the cows we had seen on our way up.
On the beach between Corong-Corong and El Nido Town is a place to rent kayaks and explore on your own. For 600 pesos per day, which they were happy to lower to 500 on request, we were set up in a two person kayak. Paddling north we found a few secluded beaches, some with incredibly fine sand, and all surrounded by huge karst walls.
We paddled past one of the stops on Tour A, 7 Commando or Papaya Beach, and stopped just beyond it, out of reach of the hundred or more tourists on that patch of sand. It was easy to visit quieter beaches by kayak, and infinitely more enjoyable than a group tour. While you won’t be kayaking to the further islands and lagoons due to the strong currents and choppy water, seeing some beautiful beaches with amazing cliffs around them was much more enjoyable this way.
38 kilometers south of Corong-Corong sits Koyao-yao Waterfall, a three tiered falls that is less visited than the others near El Nido. A few locals had told us that Koyao-yao was their favorite falls, so off we went on the nearly hour long ride. Upon arrival we were told the entry fee was 200 pesos per person, plus 100 each for a guide. We insisted we didn’t want a guide since we didn’t find any of the ones we had so far to be particularly helpful or talkative, and we were told that was fine, but we couldn’t visit the top tier of the waterfall without one. Having been warned that the top tier wasn’t worth the long hike by a local, we agreed and paid our 200 pesos each to enter.
The first tier of the falls was a three meter high heavy trickle of water into a medium sized pool. We continued walking up the easy trail in our flip flops to the second tier, where a man was using a net to clean the natural pool of leaves. The 10 meter high fall barely had a trickle of water coming down to the larger pool. Making the best of the sad waterfall, I jumped off a spot that the man with the net pointed out, roughly a three meter jump into the pool below. While the jungle surrounding the falls was nice, and it is probably nice in rain season, we were disappointed in our visit. We had asked around about the water flow before visiting and were told it was full, so you may want to have locals specify exactly how full since you may be in for a let down otherwise.
Our final thoughts on El Nido are that the landscape is amazing, ranking up there with Halong Bay in Vietnam, or Railay in Thailand, however the way it’s run is a bit lacking. The cluttered towns with narrow, congested roads leave quite a bit to be desired. The vast majority of people we met, plus Sissy, had come down with travelers sickness, which others from Palawan seemed to be aware of as well. With the right expectations – prepare for possible sickness, get ready to haggle, and be prepared to spend a bit on food and accommodation – El Nido could become your new favorite destination due to the gorgeous scenery in every direction.