After returning from a trip, a common question is, “What was your favorite place?”
I have trouble answering this kind of question. Just ask my favorite food, and you’ll get a list longer than you bargained for. Mangoes, shrimp, avocados, pho, dark chocolate, ice cream, sushi, salted caramel anything… I could keep going, but I think you get the picture.
I’m just not good at choosing favorites. But if you were going to force me to choose just one place in the Philippines – like, gun to my head force me – I would have to say the very last island we visited during our trip was my favorite.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Palawan. With jagged cliffs jutting out of sparkling turquoise waters, it is like something out of a movie.
The title of this blog post may imply that this island isn’t developed, and that’s not entirely true. In the past decade, Palawan has become more visited and the town of El Nido certainly has a big presence of tourists. But overall it still feels a bit undiscovered – especially when compared to world-famous Boracay.
Palawan is a bit isolated from the main clustering of islands that make up the Philippines. Being that it takes some time to get there, many travelers leave it off their itinerary. We almost made the same mistake. But after talking to a couple friends who had just ventured to the charming oceanside town of El Nido, we were convinced that it was worth 2 flights and a 6 hour van ride.
Although we were surprised by how long and bumpy the 230 km trip was up to El Nido, it seemed that this journey was considerably shorter than it used to be. We talked to one expat who said up until 5 years ago, the roads that lead from Puerto Princesa to El Nido did not exist. He had to get there by riding his motorbike through the jungle.
We were feeling lucky that we didn’t have to make our way through the road-less jungle on motorbikes (because I’m apparently not too skilled in that area), but it’s safe to say that we were thrilled to finally get to our destination after two early morning flights and 6 hours in a van.
El Nido is set in a boat-filled bay with cliffs looming in the background. Though the town is charming in itself, the beauty that we were seeking was just a boat ride away.
The Philippines is a country made up of 7,107 islands. and more than 1,700 of those belong to Palawan. And so it seems fitting that one activity everyone seems to do while in El Nido is to partake in the famous island hopping tours.
There are tons of tour operators in El Nido, and they all offer the same itineraries. Just do a simple Google search, and you’ll find that the best and most popular tours are undoubtedly A and C. Since we only had time for two, we trusted in the advice of others before us, and weren’t disappointed. We wrote up a complete description of both Tours A and C with all our pictures of this incredible place.
An Adventurous Ride to the Twin Beaches
Nearly every person we met in El Nido said we couldn’t miss a trip to Nacpan Beach. When we followed up by asking how they got there, each person laughed and replied with something like, “Oh, it was an adventure!” It was as if they were all in on the same inside joke.
But as soon as we made the journey ourselves, we understood.
We hired a tricycle for the day. Our driver, Edgar, agreed to drive us one hour to the beach, and wait until we were ready to return.
The road started out to be pretty normal – downhill and winding, but paved nonetheless. After about twenty minutes though, things changed. The road morphed into a gravel path with entire sections eaten away from heavy rains.
Edgar slowed as we came to a “bridge” (if you can call it that). There were a handful of logs strewn over a stream, and some boards thrown haphazardly on top. It seemed that this was the norm, so I braced myself as we crossed this bridge and several others like it further on.
The last 15 minutes of the journey were the craziest. My teeth clashed together as the tricycle bounced along the jagged road, and the sound of metal on metal filled my ears. I am honestly surprised we made it without the tricycle falling apart (or getting a flat tire at the least).
Well, we finally made it, and the beach before us was just as beautiful as described.
It was everything a beach should be – sand stretching in both directions with giant palms swaying in the warm breeze. There were far fewer people than the beaches in Boracay, and no souvenir stands in sight. The water was warm and clear. Small waves crashed in rhythmically, making conditions perfect for body surfing.
Ben and I walked twenty minutes to the end of the beach, where another bay connects, earning the nickname “Twin Beaches”. We climbed up a small hill to take in the view. Unlike many other tourist attractions, we were all alone up there. Well, except for two local boys who promptly said hello and introduced themselves as Cesar and Alfonso.
For lunch, we sat at one of the two local restaurants on the beach and ordered seafood and fruit shakes. You can’t quite top that.
When we were ready to head back (well, we didn’t actually want to leave, but we thought it best to make the journey while there was still daylight), Edgar was waiting with a mischievous grin. And we made that ridiculously bumpy ride back to El Nido.
Freediving with Palawan Divers
Truthfully, neither Ben nor I knew much about freediving before signing up. We are always up for trying something new and challenging, so it seemed to be the perfect way to spend our last day in El Nido.
We embarked on this adventure with a highly regarded company called Palawan Freedivers. It is run by Florent, a Frenchman who recently made the Philippines home. He opened this freediving school to share his passion with others.
I imagined freediving to be a sort of a cross between Scuba diving and snorkeling – but I found it to be quite different. Interested? Check out our full review.
Where to Stay
Our Melting Pot (OMP) Hostel
This is far from the best hostel we’ve stayed in, but it wasn’t the worst either. The dorm room was three bunks high, and kind of felt like a chicken coop. The wifi was next to nonexistent, and in the off-chance that you could connect, it was terribly slow. Now for the good parts: The hostel was kept relatively clean, and there was a free breakfast that included oatmeal, fruit, bread and spreads. Although it was pretty simple, we left the hostel each morning with a full stomach. Overall, as one of the only hostels in El Nido, OMP is a good value for budget travelers, but anyone who wants a bit more than bare bones should look elsewhere.
550 PHP ($13 USD) per person each night in a 10 bed dorm
Where to Eat
Each evening in El Nido, we ended up gathering quite the group for dinner. We’d invite one person, who invited a few more, and before we knew it we were a group of eight. This happened every night, and it was wonderful.
One night, we had a lovely meal served on the sand and ate while waves lapped up near our feet. The only light came from a single candle on our table and the stars above.
Another evening, we ate at a local restaurant that also doubled as the family’s home. They pushed some tables together for us in a garden outside, and we chose the meat and vegetables we wanted grilled. We ate delicious food and enjoyed conversation with people from all over the world – Germany, the Netherlands, England, Latvia, and Bulgaria. This is the epitome of a perfect evening in my book.
Most restaurants around the beach will be quite similar and on the more expensive side (the fresh seafood is worth it though!).
If you are looking for some cheap and local food, check out IBR Fast Food. It's not too far from from OMP Hostel. The food is reasonably priced and it's open 24 hours. Tip: We’d recommend the beef stir-fry.
Where to get Internet
Art Café: We didn’t have anything here besides a mediocre smoothie and coffee drink, but the food menu looked delicious and featured fresh food from a local organic farm. The Internet isn’t actually all that good, but it was the strongest signal we found in El Nido.
Where to Drink
Reggae Bar: This bar is packed every night with locals and travelers from around the world. As the name suggests, they usually have a reggae band playing until midnight, when a DJ takes over. The party trickles out onto the beach in front of the establishment. Be prepared to get wet during high tide when the waves come crashing right up to the bar. Tip: Cocktails are a bit pricey here, and can take a while to be prepared. Order a Red Horse instead.
The journey back to Puerto Princesa was ridiculous. The van was so packed that the driver sent a teenage kid to the roof. Not joking. The van whipped around bends on the gravel road so fast that I don’t know how he managed not to get flung off. Then at the rest stop, the same kid who had ridden atop the van switched into the driver’s seat. Like I said, ridiculous.
We finally made it to our hotel, and could not have been more impressed.
Palo Alto Bed & Breakfast
This family-run eco-lodge, set in a tropical forest, is the stuff of dreams.
For starters, the construction of the entire property is gorgeous. The buildings are made of sustainably-sourced and recycled wood and were built around the existing trees. The rooms are comfortable and let it lots of natural sunlight. We loved this place so much we had to make a separate post for it.
Sadly, our time in the Philippines had to come to an end. Saying goodbye is never fun, but we have a feeling we'll be back someday.