Traveling in Palawan: What to do in El Nido

El Nido is located in the northern part of Palawan. To get there, you have three options depending on where you’re coming from: bus, van, ferry, or plane. I was coming from Puerto Princesa so I went ahead and took the most popular choice; the van. The buses are apparently OK as well, but can sometimes take a lot longer, have no air conditioning, and get pretty full. The other thing about buses is you have to go to the station at the airport or find a bus stop. Vans will come to get you from your hotel. El Nido does have an airport nearby (ENI) so you can take a plane if you book early enough. However, I had a lot of trouble finding flights or even flight information. A ferry seemed like a good choice, but they seemed very pricey, almost 2,000 pisos. So even though the overland journey sounded a bit extreme even for an experienced traveler like myself, I went for it. Also, money was kind of tight.

 

The Van

I opted for an evening/night van because I wanted to do some more sightseeing in Puerto Princesa. Knowing what I know now, I think I would recommend taking a van during the daytime. First, the road is a pitch-black, winding, two-lane street cutting through villages, jungles, and mountainous terrain. Second, the kind of people using that road are either van driving maniacs (like ours), massive local buses, or old farmers in slow moving carts that come out of nowhere. Third, I think all the bumping around and weaving might’ve been less unnerving if we could’ve seen what was coming (or flying past) and to make matters worse the driver seemed to have a habit of turning off the headlights to “intimidate” slower vehicles into letting him pass. At some points there were kids in the road and even a sort of “block party.” Honestly I started feeling less nervous for myself and more concerned for the people and animals along road. I don’t know. It was all very strange.

This ride took about 6 hours. The suggested time for a bus is anywhere from 6 to 9 hours, but I heard reports of some taking almost 11. We left around 5pm and we got to El Nido around 11pm, give or take an hour for other pickups and rest stops. I guess that whole tactic of flashing your lights at anyone going slower than you really did work! The breaks at the rest areas were about 20 minutes. Some were just a shack on the side of the road with a bathroom at which you pay 4 pisos and NO they won’t have change. Some were fancier stops with a buffet restaurant, a walking path, and shops to buy stuff. I would’ve taken more pictures, but I was feeling kind of queasy. Anyways, we got there in one piece! Shout out to our badass driver.

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one of the ‘fancier’ rest areas with a path for walking and an area to sit and eat cooked food

 

The Arrival

I don’t know if it was a typical stop, but the van dropped most of the people off at an area that had a few hotels and hostels. I was staying at one further away, but closer to downtown El Nido and the harbor so I was told to take a tricycle. The hostel had sent information earlier about what the costs would be and where they were located so that was convenient. The trike driver still charged 50 pisos more than the correct 150, but I was tired and didn’t care. Oddly enough, when we arrived at my hostel the driver claimed he was joking and it was actually 150, but I said it was cool and paid him the full amount at which point he acted really offended. Not sure if I made some kind of cultural faux pas or I happened to get a crazy trike driver.

El Nido 8
tricycles all lined up and ready to take you to wherever your heart desires

El Nido is like a smaller, much quieter Kuta Beach, Bali, but with more Europeans and less drunk Australians. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing considering I got along really well with the drunk Aussies, but hey that’s just me. Overall it felt safe, was easy to walk around, and had a lot of good dining options. In my opinion, there was more shopping in Kuta, but that’s what happens when a beach-city gets overrun by tourists for years and years like in Bali. I had heard rumors of food poisoning running through the small town, but I ate whatever; including raw salads and iced drinks and never got sick. I did brush my teeth with bottled water though so that could’ve been a factor.

Alright! You’re in the famous El Nido and ready for some of that picturesque blue water, colorful coral, and white sand beach. Unfortunately, El Nido town itself just has the harbor, which isn’t a place you would want to swim as you can see in one of the photos above. However, there are plenty of beautiful islands and beaches all around you!

 

Las Cabanas Beach

From El Nido proper, Las Cabanas Beach is only a 15 minute drive by tricycle. The cost should be around 150 pisos even for three people. It’s located to the south of El Nido and situated in a bay so the waves are small to non-existent. When you get there it’s a steep stairway down to the beach and there’s a small shack-like bar with what seems like a neverending happy hour.

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going down to Las Cabanas
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at the entrance there’s a small bar with great drinks and music

To be honest I think this is Marimegmeg Beach and Las Cabanas is actually further down, but Las Cabanas was the name everyone knew this location by so we’ll just call it that here. There’s a long, fairly broad stretch of clean sand and very little coral or rocks in the water so it’s great for wading or a little paddling around. It gets deeper further out and was perfect for a nice swim. As for sea life, I only saw one teeny tiny jellyfish, BUT one man said he was stung pretty badly by a larger one so swim at your own risk.

Further down there’s a couple restaurants and bars offering drinks and all kinds of foods from salads, to french fries, to seafood entrees. I was happy with a salad, a pina colada, AND a beautiful view.

Past the restaurants there’s a line of beach shacks, which I am guessing are the Cabanas? It’s a line of huts located right on the beach. So close that when the tide started coming in I was wondering how the guests could get out! Either way, it’s a spectacular view. The area behind the huts had a small village and surprisingly thick vegetation. I made a trip back there looking for the start of a zipline I had seen and heard while lounging near the huts. It’s known as the longest zipline in Palawan and it’s quite a hike up a mountain to get to the start. The zipline was only 500 pisos and you could pay to come back on a second line or… just wade your way back from the island. You definitely need to wear sandals, or even better, some wading shoes. Those rocks are sharp!

The beach comes to a point and at the end there’s a fancy resort called… you guessed it, Las Cabanas Resort. I didn’t go into the resort or even order anything because I was really trying hard to have a “sober vacation” and already had one pina colada, but it’s a great place to watch the sunset. They’ll even let you sit on the beach and use their tables and chairs if you don’t order anything, which is awesome. If only more of the world could practice this level of indifference. I’m looking at you, Italy.

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sunset on the point, Las Cabanas Resort

 

Nacpan Beach

So, you want an even more secluded beach? Are you starting to forget all about that horrible, rocky ride from Puerto Princesa? Do you want some bigger waves? Then off to Nacpan Beach you should go!

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Nacpan is much further north so the ride there is longer. It’s also in an isolated area and the rocky dirt roads can be quite rough. Overall, the ride could be anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes depending on the traffic or the driver. The ride can be arranged by a tour company or even by your hotel and the cost is low. They’ll ask you how long you want to stay and the shuttle comes by every hour. There’s not as much to do at Nacpan as at Las Cabanas, but the beach isn’t as sheltered so the waves are bigger and more fun to play in. In my opinion, the waves are perfect for beginners looking to learn some surfing.

If you get tired and hungry (and sunburned) there are a couple restaurants and bars. Also, just so you know, there is free shade and you can sit at some of the huts without ordering. There is an endless variety of different drinks, but only one restaurant seemed to be serving Western food. I, of course, was on a mission to try all the Filipino food I could so I had some amazing chicken adobo and the usual pina colada.

Also offered were some huts for massages, which I declined due to my sunburn. The women said they had a “special sunburn massage” so maybe next time I’ll give it a go. I spent about 5 hours here and it was just right. From others, I heard 5 hours was too much. I’m guessing it just depends on how much you like to play in the ocean.

 

Boat Tours: Tour A, B, C, and Z

One thing you’ll hear a lot about are Tours A, B, C, maybe a D, and nowadays a Tour Z. These are known as the “Island Hopping Tours” and will take you by boat to different beaches, islands, lagoons, caves, and coral reefs located around the area. Whatever you do, DO NOT MISS OUT ON ONE OF THESE TOURS.

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one of the beaches offered on Tour A

Everyone seemed to have a different recommendation or favorite, but the overall consensus was that Tour A was the best. It was known as the “tour with the best reefs and lagoons.” Another very popular one was Tour Z, which I hadn’t seen info about online, but in El Nido I saw it listed alongside the other packages. It was becoming popular because “it combined the best spots from the other tours.” Tour C was the other one people seemed to enjoy. It was known for having a lot of beaches. I didn’t hear much about Tour B, but apparently it had an amazing cave you could swim into. I never saw Tour D offered so maybe it’s been cancelled? Overall, it’s good to research before you go, but once in El Nido, there’s tons of information and it’s easy to book any tour the day before. Again, they’ll usually arrange some kind of pick-up. Unfortunately, the only thing that you can’t be sure of is cancellation due to the weather.

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getting picked up for a tour

So which tour did I go with? Tour A! This tour visits islands and beaches closer to El Nido, which meant not as much travel time on the boat. I once had a very messy bout of seasickness on a Cambodian island tour (after a night out) and I’ve been traumatized by boats ever since. IMPORTANT: Make sure you choose your tour company wisely. There are tons of tours to choose from and in my opinion I went with an unorganized one. It was still amazing and I had a great time, but there were a few problems.

Things that can mess up a tour

  • Is everything paid for? Some will claim everything is included, but then suddenly during the tour you have to pay for a random kayak or snorkeling gear.
  • Are they punctual? Mine was very late. We had to eat lunch shoulder-to-shoulder on an unsteady crowded boat instead of on a beach as planned.
  • Do you want a big party boat? Some tours are on larger nicer boats with a bar, lots of drinks, music, and a wilder crowd.
  • Will the boat sink? OK so you don’t really have to worry about this, but I will say our boat was a bit iffy. A piece of it fell off and there was some engine trouble.

All in all, it was a great experience and the crew was very accommodating and friendly. But the best part was the sights! There are around 5 to 6 stops depending on the time and the weather. Some aren’t accessible during certain times due to the tide or overcrowding. Also, the last places we went to were coves that got surprisingly chilly when the sun was lower in the sky.

 

Full Moon Party

If you’re lucky like I was then you can be here for the Full Moon Party! I’m not going to claim any kind of expertise here as I don’t think I’ve been to an actual Full Moon Party and if I have then I don’t remember it.

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outside the hostel watching the Lunar Eclipse

Las Cabanas was the most popular option according to locals. Another option is hitting the one or two bars or clubs in El Nido. Haha maybe there are more than that, but I didn’t think I should be at any bars or clubs if I was trying to curb the drinking.

In the end, I chose Las Cabanas and took a tricycle there with a few friends. It was crowded and the music was great, but the bars were packed so it was difficult to get a drink. We danced around and met some amazing people though! And they even lit some stuff on fire for us. Overall, a good time.

I had to be on an early boat to Coron the next day so I didn’t get to stay long. I was taking the fast ferry out at 8am, which meant I had to be at the waiting area at 6am, or so they claimed. Getting to Coron by ferry was pretty easy and is the subject of another post. And with that, goodbye El Nido! Till we meet again…

 

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