Story: El Nido: What to Do in the Closest Thing to Paradise

Macy Anonuevo

By Macy Anonuevo
Written on 3 April 2008
10615 views

The best thing about El Nido is its awe-inspiring natural beauty. The next best thing is the variety of ways available for exploring. From cliff climbing and trekking to snorkeling and kayaking, there’s an activity to suit your interests and skill level.

Reflections

Reflections

This little speck of land is Pinagbuyutan, easily one of the most recognizable islands in Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan. It has a small beach on the east side, making it a great hiding place for outrigger boats when the southwest monsoon acts up.

In the 1970s, El Nido, in the Philippine province of Palawan, was a tiny speck on the map known primarily as a source of birds’ nests used by the Chinese in birds’ nest soup. Several decades later, El Nido has gained worldwide attention for its soaring limestone cliffs standing guard over crystal clear water, powdery white sand beaches tucked away amongst 45 islands and islets, and bustling coral reefs that are called home by schools of colorful fish.

Located at the northwestern end of Palawan, El Nido is located approximately 430 kilometers southwest of Manila and 238 kilometers northwest of Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan. The Municipality of El Nido is composed of 18 baranggays, covering a total land area of 50,000 hectares. The area started out as a Marine Turtle Sanctuary in 1984, expanded to a Marine Protected Area in 1991, and finally merged with Taytay to form the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area in 1998.

The best thing about El Nido is its awe-inspiring natural beauty. The next best thing is the variety of ways available for exploring. From cliff climbing and trekking to snorkeling and kayaking, there’s an activity to suit your interests and skill level.

FOR LANDLUBBERS

Those who prefer to keep their feet on terra firma can get to know El Nido’s limestone cliffs intimately by booking a trip to scale the cliffs surrounding El Nido Town. After sweating it out for three hours with no rope, your reward is seeing all of El Nido Town and the nearby islands spread out before you. As we’re talking about serious climbing here – think jagged limestone under your feet – the trip is recommended only for good hikers with sturdy shoes. Trips start at 8:00 am and 3:00 pm and cost PhP 200 per person, minimum of two persons.

Less physically challenging but just as rewarding is a trek through Cadlao Island, the largest island in Bacuit Bay. The trek is an easy two- to three-hour walk through dense forest along the coast that takes you to an inland lagoon, mangroves, and a small cove suitable for swimming and snorkeling. For this trek, expect to pay PhP 650 per person for a minimum of three persons, and PhP 750 per person if two persons only. The price includes lunch and the boat to and from Cadlao. Cliff climbing and Cadlao treks should be booked the day before with the El Nido Tour Guides Association (ENTGA) through the Municipal Tourism Office.

Want to see more of the mainland? Various places in town rent out mountain bikes and motorbikes to satisfy your wanderlust. Head on out to the northern baranggays and watch the sun set over Corong-corong. Mountain bikes go for PhP 350 half day, PhP 500 whole-day, while motorbikes are PhP 800 whole-day plus gas.

ISLAND-HOPPING AND WATERSPORTS

You can’t leave El Nido without exploring its islands. With 45 islands and islets that are home to over 100 species of birds (including 16 endemic to Palawan), over 800 species of fish, five species of endangered sea turtles, and five species of marine mammals, El Nido has been dubbed “Heaven on Earth” by stunned visitors. The islands are grouped into different tours depending on the distance from town: Tour A, Tour B, Tour C, and a half-day tour.

The standard Tour A package includes the Big and Small Lagoons of Miniloc, Shimizu, 7 Commandos beach, and Entalula. The Big Lagoon of Miniloc is one of the most photographed places in Palawan. The Lagoons are examples of what geologists call “sinkholes”--caves whose roofs eventually collapsed under their own weight. You usually take the boat itself around the Big Lagoon, while the Small Lagoon is explored via kayak or by snorkeling in through the narrow opening. Exploring the Big Lagoon via kayak is also possible, though be prepared for the hour-long paddling involved, not to mention more sweating. Shimizu, Entalula, and 7 Commandos beach are great places for swimming, snorkeling, and plain old lazing away in the sun. The sand in 7 Commandos is just as fine as the sand in Boracay’s famed White Beach but made even better by the lack of party animals.

Tour B takes you to Snake Island, Cudugnon Cave, Cathedral Cave , Lagen, and Pinagbuyutan. Snake Island, originally known as Vigan, gets its name from the S-shaped sandspit that snakes away from this tiny island. When the tide is low enough, you can cross the sandspit to the mainland. If you’re going swimming, be sure to keep to the sandy side of the sandspit, as the seagrass beds on the other side are favorite hiding places of stonefish and sea urchins. Shuffling your feet while wading in the sandy side also gives the stingrays time to swim away before you accidentally step on them.

Cudugnon Cave, located in mainland Palawan a few minutes away from Snake Island, has a storied history. Depending on whom you ask, the cave once served as a hiding place during the Japanese occupation, a burial chamber, and a quarantine area for the malaria-stricken. What’s certain is this: archaeologists did find bones and other artifacts in the cave and brought them back to the National Museum in Manila. However, there hasn’t been any official word on who left the bones and artifacts behind. Getting inside Cudugnon Cave requires a little maneuvering, as you’ll have to climb through a small hole. Once inside, shine your flashlight into the crevices of the cave roof to see barn swallows and insectivorous bats.

Cathedral Cave, the second cave on your Tour B itinerary, is carved out of a dot of a rock near Lagen called Pinasil. The entrance is too narrow for an outrigger boat, so kayaks are a must if you want to get inside. If you’re lucky, you might see busyadors, or birds’ nest gatherers, climbing up and down Pinasil’s craggy face.

Lagen and Pinagbuyutan offer sandy coves and snorkeling sites. Lagen’s Cove 2.5 and Pinagbuyutan’s south to southwest side are favorite spots. Take note that Lagen is home to one of the two island resorts in El Nido and access to Coves 0, 1, and 2 is restricted.

Tour C takes you the farthest, to include Matinloc and Tapiutan. If Tours A and B haven’t whetted your appetite, Matinloc and Tapiutan offer even more snorkeling sites. Secret Beach in Matinloc is a pocket white sand beach accessible only by snorkeling through a hole in the rock wall. Take care as the rocks around the entrance are sharp enough to cut flailing limbs. As Matinloc and Tapiutan are located in the outskirts of Bacuit Bay immediately facing the South China Sea, Tour C is only offered during calm seas.

Tours A, B, and C are whole-day tours, leaving town at 9:00 am and bringing you back at 4:00 pm. If you arrive in the morning or are departing in the afternoon, decompress via a half day tour to Cadlao and Dilumacad. Get your first (or last) taste of El Nido by absorbing some sun or trying to identify the flashes of color swimming past. The half-day tour runs from 8:00 am to 12:00 nn and 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm.

The standard rates per person for the tours are PhP 600 for Tour A, PhP 650 for Tour B, PhP 700 for Tour C, and PhP 350 for the half-day tour. All rates are for a minimum of four people, with lunch being included for all the whole-day tours. If you find yourself a bit short of the minimum, register with the boatman early on and he’ll try to find others to join you. For big groups, it may be possible to haggle for a lower per person rate. You can also consider hiring larger boat that charges a fixed daily rate instead of per person. Renting snorkeling gear is hardly a problem. Usual rates are PhP 100 each for the mask and a pair of fins (whole day), and PhP 75 for half-day rental. It’s best to look around first before deciding on where to rent your gear as the quality of the equipment varies between shops.

Kayaking is available as part of Tour A or separately off El Nido Town. If you’re adding kayaking to your Tour A itinerary, make sure to duck as you enter the Small Lagoon. Lie back, stretch your legs, and serenely float your way through a lagoon where the only sounds you’ll hear are the birds, monkeys, and paddles slicing through water. If you’re up for more exercise, try kayaking your way around the Big Lagoon. It’ll take some doing as the Big Lagoon is about eight times bigger than the Small Lagoon but the payoff is well worth it: you stand a greater chance of seeing and approaching wildlife like juvenile black tip reef sharks from a silent kayak rather than a noisy boat. For the ultimate El Nido kayaking challenge, rent a kayak in town and paddle your way to the different islands. Tour A with kayaking will set you back PhP 1350 per person, minimum of four persons. On the other hand, kayaks in town rent out for PhP 750 for whole-day, PhP 450 for half-day rental.

Want your watersports fast and furious? Rent a windsurf and catch a stiff breeze just off El Nido Town. Windsurfs for various skill levels are available for PhP 450 per hour. For beginners, one- to two-day lessons can be arranged. As El Nido is located inside a protected area, motorized watersports and the use of personal watercraft are highly discouraged.

Ready to blow some bubbles? El Nido boasts of over 20 dive sites, ranging from the ever-popular South Miniloc with its resident school of yellow-lined snapper, to North Rock with its soft coral forest. Sea Dog Divers, El Nido Marine Club, and Palawan Divers are more than ready to accommodate divers of all skill levels. Don’t dive? Don’t worry. Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) courses from “Discover Scuba Diving” all the way to Divemaster level are available. Rates vary between shops, though they usually include equipment rental, lunch, and the services of a PADI-certified divemaster.

A vacation is all about choices. With a place like El Nido, it’s just as easy to do everything as it is to do nothing. Can’t decide what to do? Take this article, close your eyes, and let your fingers take you to your next adventure. Whatever you do, wherever you go, you’ll still be in the closest thing to paradise.

HOW TO GET THERE

The quickest way to get to El Nido is by air. Island Transvoyager Inc. (ITI) flies directly from Manila to Lio Airport daily, with departures scheduled at 7:30 am and 3:00 pm. Midday flights leaving at 11:30 am are added as needed. However, flights may only be booked five days in advance unless you’re a guest of El Nido Resorts. The next best route is via South East Asian Airlines (SEAir), which flies to El Nido via Busuanga three times a week. Want to take your time? Fly to Puerto Princesa via any of the major airlines then take a passenger van or public bus. If you’re taking a passenger van, add six to seven hours. If you’re traveling via public bus, add eight to ten.

WHERE TO STAY

Where you stay largely depends on how much you’re willing to spend. For the ultimate experience, El Nido Resorts, located on Miniloc and Lagen Islands, is the only world-class property in the area. Their all-inclusive package gets you 19 activities, including snorkeling, introductory dive, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, hiking, bottom fishing, and island hopping. In addition, you can sip your mango shake with a clear conscience, knowing that your resort has environmentally friendly operations. Its own desalination plant, sewage treatment plant, and active participation in environmental conservation efforts have earned El Nido Resorts international recognition from Tourism for Tomorrow, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

El Nido Cove Resorts & Spa (formerly BM Lamuro Cottages), located 10 km away from El Nido Town and facing Cadlao, is definitely less luxurious than El Nido Resorts but is still serviceable. Their beachfront rooms come with 24-hour electricity, queen-sized beds, airconditioning, hot and cold running water, and cable television. They also offer all-inclusive packages.

For the budget-conscious but still craving for that room with a view, Og’s Pensionne is right in the middle of El Nido Town’s beach with a great view of Cadlao. There’s wide range of rooms available, including one with airconditioning and a private bath. Food is not an issue as Og’s Pensionne is next door to Sea Slugs, arguably the best restaurant in town.

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