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Your Guide to the World’s Most Beautiful Island: El Nido, Philippines

The Palawan island cluster of the Philippines is slowly gaining popularity as a must-see island paradise. ‘Palawan’ loosely translates to ‘Land of beautiful and Safe Harbor,’ a historical reference to old trading ships. But the name has taken on a new meaning over the years. Palawan enjoys a unique natural environment of lush jungles, powdery sand bars, and exotic marine life, and a community of native Palawenos committed to its preservation.

One of the draws of Palawan is how most of the island cluster has remained relatively uncommercialised. The best way to get around is by foot, by boat, or by tricycle so you can take all the time you need basking in the view. Here’s a guide with how to get to one of its main islands, El Nido.

Getting There: Straight to El Nido

The fastest (and also the most expensive) way to get to El Nido is by plane. You can catch a flight to and from El Nido with Air Swift airlines if you’re coming from Manila, Cebu, or Caticlan. There are several flights a day, and you can compare prices and book cheap flights to El Nido with Skyscanner, so as to get the best deal!

Flights to El Nido:

Average Travel Time 1.5 hours
Average Cost $265 to $400 SGD (roundtrip)

Getting There: Stop over at Puerto Princesa

The most popular route for both locals and foreigners is by making a stopover at Palawan’s major city, Puerto Princesa. The major carriers like Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, and Air Asia have daily flights from Manila and Cebu which you can monitor on Skyscanner with our Price Alert feature, and often have promotional fares.

Stopping over at Puerto Princesa extends your travel time to around 10 hours before actually arriving at El Nido. But it’s a charming town, and is worth spending at least a night here to explore the famed underground river. You can also book the tour with KKday.

Flights to Puerto Princesa:

Average Travel Time 1.5 to 2 hours
Average Cost $67 to $90 SGD (roundtrip flight). But tickets can go as low as $35 SGD, depending on when you book.

From Puerto Princesa, you have several options on how to get to El Nido. They vary in price, comfort, and duration.

Option 1: Shuttle Van (Fastest)

Take this if you want to spend as little time in transit as possible. You’ll find shuttle vans by the Airport Arrival Area that will take you to the edge of the El Nido town. From there, you can hail a tricycle that will take you to your hotel.

Vans are the most popular way to get to El Nido, so it’s advisable to call in advance and reserve a slot, although you can try your luck as a chance passenger. A van typically seats around 12 people.

Van to El Nido Town
Average Travel Time 6 to 7 hours, depending on traffic
Average Cost $14 to $20 SGD. For an additional fee, you may be able to arrange hotel pick-up
Schedule Vans depart almost every hour, starting from 5:00 am to 6:00 pm
Reserve with any of the popular franchises: Eulen Joy (+63 0915 829 3735)
Lexus (+63 0917 686 1118 or  48-433-9802)
Fortwally (+63 0917 276 2875)
Day Tripper  (+63 0917 848 8755)

Option 2: Bus (Cheapest)

A slightly more complicated and longer route is by bus. Unlike the shuttle van, the buses make several stops along the way before finally dropping you off at El Nido. But if you’re set to find the cheapest way to El Nido possible, this is it.

Puerto Princesa Airport to San Jose Bus Terminal

Option A: Trike to San Jose Bus Terminal
Average Travel Time 15 to 20 minutes
Average Cost: $2.50 to $4 SGD, depending on your haggling skills. This is the price per trike ride, and not per head.
Option B: Trike to Junction 1. Then hail a multi-cab, and stop to the San Jose Terminal
Average Travel Time 20 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic
Average Cost: $0.20 SGD (trike) plus $0.30 SGD (multi-cab)

The bus is a good option is you want more legroom, but not if you’re carrying a lot of baggage. The two major franchises are the Roro Bus and the Cherry Bus, and have both air conditioned and non-air conditioned buses.

San Jose Bus Terminal to El Nido Town
Average Travel Time 5 to 6 hours
Average Cost $7 to $10 SGD (regular, non-air conditioned bus) and $10 to $12 SGD (air-conditioned bus)
See the bus schedules and reserve a seat ahead RoRo Bus: Departs every two hours, starting from 4:00 am to 10:00 pm
Cherry Bus: Departs every two hours, starting from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm

The buses will drop you off 10 minutes away from the town proper. From there, you can hail a trike to downtown El Nido, straight to your hotel.

Must See and Must Do

As beautiful as El Nido is, it’s just impossible to see all the best sights in a single day. KKday brings you 4 popular tour routes that will give you a glimpse of the island’s best. Of course if you’ve got the time, nothing’s stopping you from taking all the tours! Here’s a simple run-down of them to help you choose what to book.

Tour A: Lagoons

1. Big and Small Lagoon

El Nido, Palawan: Big Lagoon

El Nido’s lagoons often make their way to tourist postcards for good reason. Kayak through the calm, emerald waters snaking through the limestone cliffs, where you’ll find yourself waiting to get lost with no plans of returning.

Shimizu Island

Here’s where you’ll typically dock for lunch. Work up an appetite by snorkelling out to see the exotic marine life, and then enjoy the powdery sand beach as you feast on fresh fish, crab, and fruit.

2. 7 Commandos

The local urban legend goes that 7 Japanese soldiers got stranded on the island during the War. The locals you meet will quickly quash that story. Nonetheless, it’s easy to picture yourself staying on the 7 Commandos island forever. Enjoy a drink at the bar, and while it’s not an eternity, you can rent a room at the small resort here.

Tour B: Cathedral Caves

1. Cathedral and Cudugnon Caves

This is the highlight of Tour B, and your best chance to see some of El Nido’s underrated gems—and we mean that quite literally. Cudugnon Cave became an important archeological site when early researchers found ceramics and jewelry dating back to China’s Sung dynasty.

Your kayak or pump boat will take you to the outside of the caves. From there, you’ll have to crawl through the water yourself. The extra effort is well worth it, and you’ll see huge stone chambers with cathedral-high ceilings. Just don’t get too distracted looking up that you step on a jellyfish!

2. Snake Island

Thankfully, the name is a reference to the shape of the sand bar and not the island residents. You can take it easy and laze around the sandy beach, or challenge yourself to trek to the top for a stunning view of the Bacuit Bay.

Tour C: El Nido’s Best Kept Secrets

If you can only choose one tour package, choose this one. El Nido is full of diverse and magnificent sights, and this tour route gives you a glimpse of some of the best of them.

1. Helicopter Island

You’ll spot the island almost immediately from the El Nido town, as its unique shape beckons you to hop on a boat and explore it yourself. Up close, the island is calm, cool, and cinematic — in fact, The Bourne Legacy was filmed here. Traditionally, the name is ‘Dilumacad Island,’ but ‘Helicopter Island’ has become the more popular moniker, thanks to its unique rock formations and lush forests. Whether or not it’s an accurate one, that’s for you to decide.

2. Matinloc Shrine

An abandoned shrine to the Virgin Mary seems out of place in the middle of this tropical haunt. But the Matinloc Shrine is its own spiritual oasis. You’ll have to climb a set of dingy stairs before reaching the shrine, but the leg work is well worth it. From here, you’ll be treated with incredible views of the entire El Nido cluster and crystal blue waters dissolving into the sky.

3. Secret Beach

Without the local knowledge of the boatmen, you’d miss out on El Nido’s best kept secret. Well hidden beneath the limestone cliffs, you’ll have to swim underwater through a narrow rock tunnel. Be careful; the waves can get quite strong. But once you finally break the surface, you’ll find yourself in a secluded haven with Palawan’s most exotic marine life.

Tour D: Slow and Steady

Cadlao Lagoon

This tour route is perfect if you want to avoid the crowds, and really want to take your time basking in the beauty of El Nido. Enjoy the slow boat ride to Cadlao Island, El Nido’s largest island and see the towering limestone cliffs that keep the Cadlao Lagoon hidden. Paddle your way to lagoon, where the waters are so clear you can see the coral reefs and fish swimming beneath you.

Paradise Beach

The name is no exaggeration: with infinitely-long stretches of sand lined by coconut trees, you’ll spend the moments in between your delicious barbeque lunch taking photos.  

Pasandigan Beach, Ipil Beach, and Bucal Beach

Accommodations

Accommodations in El Nido are plenty, with something to fit each kind of traveller or budget range. For the backpacking budget traveller, check out OMP Hostel, El Taraw Inn, or the Outpost Beach Hostel. If you want the full blown luxury island getaway experience, then look into El Nido Overlooking and the Cauayan Island Resort. Or, check out Airbnb to filter exactly what you’re looking for.

Food

Each of the Boat Tours mentioned above includes a fresh seafood lunch. There are a number of eateries restaurants in El Nido serving some of the freshest seafood in the country—which is saying a lot. Budget around 150 PHP for each meal and you might want to try out local delicacies, such as the Crocodile Sisig.

Things to Take Note of:

  1. Nearly every commercial outfit only accepts cash, so be sure to withdraw all the money you need before the trip. There are very few ATMs and during peak season, they tend to run out of cash.
  2. You’ll pay a 200 PHP Eco Tourism Development Fee (ETDF) when you take any of the boat tours. This goes to the local El Nido communities and conserving the area.
  3. Bring water shoes. You’ll definitely be swimming in the lovely waters, but you’ll want to avoid any wounds and injuries.

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This article is readapted from KKday, Asia’s leading e-commerce travel platform


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