Saturday, April 20, 2013

Guide to Traveling to El Nido, Philippines

UPDATED 22 November 2013—To say that the tropical paradise that is El Nido, Philippines is spectacularly beautiful would be scratching the surface. Characteristic of the country's final frontier Palawan, El Nido has numerous limestone karts islands with white, sandy beaches, surrounded by pristine turquoise waters and rich coral reefs. It is personally one of the most beautiful places I have seen, not just in the Philippines but in Asia. There were several travel highlights in my week-long trip to El Nido, Philippines, including seeing the iconic picture of paradise, the Big Lagoon, and climbing to a viewing deck above Matinloc Island to see the calm waters of Tapiutan Strait.

View from above Matinloc Shrine, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
View from above Matinloc Shrine, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

El Nido, Philippines is spectacularly beautiful largely because it remains remote. For most people, the only way to access it is via Palawan's capital Puerto Princesa, which has its own domestic airport. El Nido has an airport, too, but only (expensive) charter flights use it. The town of El Nido itself is small, comprised only by a few housing blocks on the shores of Bacuit Bay. Tourism here only caters to a small number of independent backpackers and an even smaller number of high-end luxury travelers.

All these make El Nido, Philippines a bit tricky to travel to. Thankfully, there are a number of great resources online, especially from Pinoy travel blogs, about traveling to El Nido. Here is a guide to traveling to El Nido, Philippines based on my own experience with links on the great online resources I found.


How to Get to El Nido, Philippines

This is the first thing to note if you are planning to travel to El Nido, Philippines. El Nido is a municipality in Northern Palawan. The town itself is part of mainland Palawan but note that Palawan is a large province. First thing you need to do is fly to Puerto Princesa Airport in Central Palawan. Its airport receives regular flights from Manila and Cebu via CebuPacific, PAL Express, and other local carriers. Upon landing, you still have to cover about 220 kilometers of highway. Unless you are flying direct to El Nido, in which case I want to be your friend because you are obviously loaded, you will have two options for getting to El Nido from Puerto Princesa.

Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines
RORO Buses now ply the Puerto Princesa to El Nido route.

Option 01: If you have more time than money, you can take the Roll On Roll Off (RORO) Buses plying the Puerto Princesa to El Nido route. A one-way ride in an AC RORO bus costs 483 PHP (11 USD) while a one-way ride in a non-AC bus costs 250 PHP (6 USD). It is about seven hours in either direction, including two 20-minute stops in a couple of towns and the numerous short stops picking up and dropping off passengers. Buses depart Puerto Princesa San Jose Terminal regularly from early in the morning to late at night. If you want the exact schedules of the RORO Buses and tips on how to get to Puerto Princesa San Jose Terminal, visit the brilliant post below by a Pinoy travel blogger and professional photographer.

Useful Link No. 1: Transit: Roro Bus to El Nido from Puerto Princesa by Ferdz Decena of Ironwulf.com

Option 02: If you have more money than time, then it will be an easy four to five-hour ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido via private vans. No stops along the way. You can sign-up for a private van via hotels and guesthouses in Puerto Princesa if you are staying a few nights in the capital. You can also sign-up for a van right upon your arrival at Puerto Princesa Airport as some companies have desks here. A one-way ride costs about 600 to 700 PHP (14 to 16 USD). Vans depart regularly, one to two-hour intervals, from morning to evening.


Best Time to Visit El Nido, Philippines

The best time to visit El Nido, Philippines is around December to March, which is the pleasant, dry season for much of the Philippines. Weather is just right—not too hot, not too cool. April and May are part of the dry season, too, but this is the warm, dry months of the Philippines. Aside from being a very uncomfortably scorching hot time of the year to travel anywhere, it is also high tourist "summer" season. Some hotels charge a bit more during these months. April (or late March) is also when Holy Week (Semana Santa or Easter) is observed. The Holy Week rivals Christmas as the longest holiday in the Philippines. Naturally, a huge number of Filipinos go on vacation or head back to their hometowns. Airports, sea ports, and bus terminals will be extra busy. Hotels will be fully booked. Plan ahead if traveling during this time.

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
A March visit to El Nido, Philippines is recommended. Waters are at its calmest and the weather perfectly warm.


Things to Bring in El Nido, Philippines

You do not really need to bring much as all things you will need to travel to El Nido, Philippines will be easily available in the shops, stores, and tour agencies in town. Comfortable clothes and decent swimwear are good. Though for when doing water activities, it's better to be wearing rash guards. It provides better protection against the sea waves and even the sharp rocks that you will find yourself surrounded by when exploring El Nido. If you have fins and goggles with breathing tube, bring them, too. You can rent these two from the tour agencies, but it's better to have your own. Needless to say, you need sunscreen and a camera (an underwater camera, if you have one).


Accommodations in El Nido, Philippines

Contrary to what most people believe, you do NOT need to spend 20,000 PHP (470 USD) per night to be able to travel to El Nido, Philippines. You can certainly do so in one of the exclusive resorts and if you do, message me. I want to be your friend. For the most part though, you have the option of staying in a hotel or guesthouse in town. Some are beachfront accommodations while some are located within town itself with only a few minutes' walk to the beach.
  • Accommodations in town costs around 300 to 1,500 PHP (7 to 35 USD) for a standard double room.
  • Beachfront accommodations tend to be more variable at around 500 to 3,000 PHP (12 to 70 USD).
That most people know of, La Banane Hostel is the only beachfront property in town that offers dorm accommodation. It's 300 PHP (7 USD) for a bed in a nine-bed dorm per night. I stayed here my first night in El Nido. It is a very backpacker joint but not a very good one in terms of facilities. There was beach sand on my bed and my bed is the top bunk in a three-bunk bed. The nine-bed dorm room was small, too, without enough ventilation. I guess the only great thing about it is that socializing can be easy here as there are many lounge areas within the hostel and by the beachfront. That's about it.

Cadlao Island, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Beachfront properties in El Nido, Philippines have this view: Bacuit Bay and Cadlao Island

The rest of the time I was in El Nido, Philippines, I stayed in a room in town located within a house where a local family lives. The property is not advertised anywhere and I only learned about it from Ferdz Decena who considers it his home in El Nido having lived there for a few months. The fan room was clean and spacious and it had its own bathroom and toilet, too. I paid around 10 USD per night. It's the perfect place for a digital nomad, barring the lack of WiFi which you can totally remedy by having your own (read more on Considerations for the Digital Nomad below).

If you want a comprehensive listing of the hotels in El Nido, Philippines, do head over to the brilliant listing compiled by another Pinoy travel blogger in October 2012. Properties are even grouped by where they are in El Nido: the beach, in town, and in a nearby village called Corong-Corong.

Useful Link No. 2: Cheap Accommodations in El Nido: Budget Hotels and Lodgings by Ada Lajara of Adaphobic.com


Island Tours in El Nido, Philippines

Island-hopping tours in El Nido, Philippines are all set and managed by the local tourism cooperative comprised by the different local businesses in town. There are currently three standard island-hopping tours (A, B, and C). Each covers four to five spots located within a certain area of the Bacuit Archipelago. Tour A explores the central areas covering Miniloc Island and Simisu Island. Tour B covers Lagen Island, Snake Island and other islands found in the southern part of Bacuit Bay. Meanwhile, Tour C covers Matinloc Island and Tapiutan Island located in the northwest area of the bay. There is an inland tour for spots reachable by overland transport. Cost of a full-day tour with a sumptuous lunch on the beach is 1,200 PHP for Tours A or D; 1,300 PHP for Tour B; and, 1,400 PHP for Tour C. That's anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 PHP (28 to 33 USD) to do an island tour in El Nido, Philippines.

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
A cozy cove right by Secret Lagoon in Miniloc Island (Tour A)

Booking any of these tours is as easy as heading to the numerous tour agencies in town the day before or even early in the morning before the tour commences. Though the latter is not recommended because it gives tour agencies less time to account you into the trip. Not all tours are available on any given day, however. It all depends if number of passengers in a tour group is sufficient. If it isn't, you can charter a boat yourself or ask around which tour agency is doing which tour that day. The tourism cooperative is a close-knit community. Someone knows someone who knows someone.

For all my tours in El Nido, Philippines, I signed up with Islanen Tours. The boat crew, which includes tour guide Von and his boatmen, is reliable and competent. Von can even pick you up from your place on his dirt bike (if you are a solo traveler, of course). The town office of Islanen Tours is located along the main street Calle Hama, a few steps from the street entrance of Entalula Beach Resort.


Food and Drink in El Nido, Philippines

There are many carinderias or turo-turo joints in town. These are places with trays of prepared meat and vegetable dishes which you eat with a plate of rice rice. A full meal here only costs a little more than 50 PHP (around 1 to 2 USD). Cheap-ish and decent meals can be had in Skyline Restaurant with food ranging from 80 to 200 PHP (2 to 5 USD). It is located along Rizal Street, close to Calle Real. A couple of steps from that resto is a bakery which sells all pastry goodies from morning to evening. Of course, you can go even cheaper with meat skewers costing just 10 PHP (0.25 USD) per stick. At the time of my visit, there was a nightly food fair along Calle Abdulla complete with tables, chairs and grills set up. Any other day, you will find the bars and watering holes along the town's beach and along Calle Hama.

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Nightly food market along Calle Abdulla in El Nido, Philippines


How to Get out of El Nido, Philippines

Puerto Princesa: Getting out of El Nido, Philippines is as simple as going back the way you came. You can catch any of the RORO Buses heading back to Puerto Princesa or get a seat at any of the private vans also bound for Puerto Princesa. For the RORO Bus schedules, again, please see this helpful post from Ferdz Decena of Ironwulf.com.

Coron: You have the option heading to yet another one of Palawan's beautiful island destinations—Coron, located about 120 kilometers north of El Nido. Coron is found in an island called Busuanga. To get there from El Nido, you can hop aboard any of the ferries departing the town once or twice a day. The boat ride is around eight hours and a one-way ride is about 2,200 PHP (52 USD). There may be some safety issues here given the size and capacity of the ferries which have to sail open waters between mainland Palawan and Busuanga. Unfortunately, I do not have much information with regard to this. Best to do your own research. Google is your friend.

Sights at Kayangan Lake
Equally beautiful Coron north of El Nido, Philippines


Budget for El Nido, Philippines

I stayed in El Nido for six days spending a night in transit in Puerto Princesa. When I travel, I set daily allowances and build budgets from there. So it is best, I think, to provide you with the daily allowances including transport and other fees. Agree? Agreed. Here is a suggested budget for El Nido, Philippines.

Item Cost in PHP Cost in USD
Bus between Puerto Princesa and El Nido (one-way) 483 PHP 11 USD
Accommodation Allowance per Night 400 PHP 10 USD
Food and Drinks Allowance per Meal 100 PHP 2.5 USD
Miscellaneous Costs per Day 100 PHP 2.5 USD
Island-hopping Tours Allowance per Tour 1,400 PHP 33 USD
El Nido Environment Fee (valid for seven days) 200 PHP 5 USD

Say, if you were doing a four-day trip to El Nido, then your total budget would be: Bus (round-trip) 966 + Hotel (three nights) 1,200 + Food (four days) 1,200 + Miscellaneous (four days) 400 + Tours (two days) 2,800 + Environment Fee 200 = 6,766 PHP (159 USD). Add airfare to that and you're done.

Here is a budget by another Pinoy travel blogger who traveled to El Nido, Philippines on a whirlwind two-day trip spending a total of 4,125 PHP (100 USD).

Useful Link No. 3: Traveling Cheap in El Nido, Palawan by Ryan Mach of Pinoy Wandering Boy


Considerations for the Digital Nomad

I traveled to El Nido, Philippines taking some of my work with me. This meant having to work in between days of frolicking in the beautiful islands and waters of this area. This also meant that I got to note a few things which fellow digital nomads might want to consider when planning to travel to El Nido, Philippines.

Electricity: Being the remote town that it is, El Nido, Philippines does NOT have 24-hour electricity. The town experiences roaming brownouts every day. The place I stayed in had power for only half the day: 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Schedules tend to vary for each area in town. If you need to be online 24 hours a day, you will need extra batteries for your devices and your own mobile WiFi source.

WiFi: Many of the hotels, cafes, and restaurants in El Nido, Philippines have WiFi, but only a few have generators or alternative power sources. So in most places, no electricity means no WiFi. It is best to have your own mobile WiFi source. In the Philippines, you can buy a USB WiFi dongle and a local SIM card. The network which works well in El Nido is Globe. I had my Globe 3G on my smart phone practically the entire time I was there. It can be slow at times, but then again, Globe 3G can be slow even in big city Manila. You can get a USB WiFi dongle at any gadget and electronics shop in Manila.

Working Space: There are a few cafes and restos in El Nido, Philippines which can be great working spaces as well. Beachfront joints have WiFi but they can be expensive what with their great location. Thus, I went with Centro Cafe located along Calle Lisang well inside town. WiFi is free here and your table is yours the whole day if you buy a drink. Ice tea (which they prepare well, by the way) costs 40 PHP (1 USD). Cola, beer, and cocktails are available, too. The best part is, they have an alternative power source so they always have electricity to charge your devices, and also, WiFi.

Centro Cafe, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
My working space in El Nido: Centro Cafe along Calle Lisang

Accommodation: You can find hotels and guesthouses in town which will take you in for more than a week to even a few months. If so, make sure to bargain down the costs. Again, I stayed in a room inside a local family's house recommended personally to me by Ferdz Decena. I had my own spacious fan room, complete with toilet and shower (no hot shower though). There was no WiFi, but that was fine with me. I worked in Centro Cafe instead. I paid around 10 USD a night. I am not sure if the family wants to advertise this place, or if the family leaves it free for guests at all times. If you are a digital nomad and you are interested in staying here, do send me a message. (Note that I will be very picky with whom I give the local family's contact to. I only share the number with people whom I already know outside of my travel blog, whether personally or through my other social media accounts.)

ATM: Being a digital nomad means that you will have to stay in town for longer than most people would. That's fine and all, but do note that El Nido does NOT have an ATM. The nearest one I was told was back in Puerto Princesa. So if you want to stay longer, you will have to bring all the money you need for the entire length of your stay. You can do an ATM run to Puerto Princesa, of course. Quite the inconvenience, but hey, we make do with what we have. You can pay via credit card but only the larger establishments accept them, which means, things can be more expensive for you.


Thus concludes this guide to traveling to El Nido, Philippines. I hope you find the information here useful. If you are looking for a specific piece of information, do comment below as I might have just forgotten to mention it.


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