A 1 hour plane ride to the west of Cebu Island is Palawan Island. Palawan is just as rugged as Cebu Island with similarly stunning beaches, mountains, and ocean landscapes.
We flew on Cebu Pacific Air from Cebu to Puerto Princesa. After taking over 50 flights this year, we have mastered the method for “gypsy-ing” no checked bag fees by sneaking or “nicely
arguing disagreeing” our over-weight carry-on bags through the terminal. Most Asian airlines only allow 7 kilos (15 lbs) for bags. Cebu Pacific was one of the most strict. They pulled us out of the security line to weigh our bags and we politely “discussed” our 2 extra kilos. Eventually, we gave them such a hard time that they let us go scott free! We’re such gypsies! 😉
Puerto Princesa was a funky little town surrounded by water but oddly enough with ZERO access to the ocean. The only spot we found was an overpriced Disneyland looking resort that wanted $20 each just to enjoy their beach, even if we bought food. While it did look nice, it was not in our budget. So, we found a pool, ate some average food, and killed time before we took a 6 hour shuttle to El Nido the next day. For dinner, we did manage to find a hip little spot called Painted Table at the Canvas Boutique Hotel. The food was creative and good, not amazing, but good. The hotel however was wonderfully decorated. Had we found it before booking Palo Alto (which we did not care for), we certainly would have stayed here.
We would recommend ITI Air Swift Airlines for getting to/from El Nido, if feasible price wise. They have direct flights between Manila and Cebu. However, they are also a bit up tight about the baggage fees if you book the sale/cheapest flights.
The drive from Puerto Princesa to El Nido was successful only due to a little more gypsy swindling… We were picked up promptly at 9 am as promised and were allowed to sit in the front seat. We were pleasantly surprised about being picked up first and thought we had just scored (be in the front is like being first class when it comes to Asian travel). Little did we know, they usually pack minivans full of 12 people and they had only booked 2 people for this guy. We soon realized this after a French guy explained to us that something similar happened last time. So with some quick thinking and knowing that money is usually the answer… once we were 6 people full, we told the driver the 6 passengers (one french guy and 3 Filipinos) would split the full cost of the van – magic! (Only about 5 dollars extra each.) By 11, we were off, with a little extra leg room to spare – thank goodness! Asian travel definitely teaches you patience as well as popping your personal space bubble many many times.
After some naps, a pit stop at a pretty good local spot (yummy curry – prolly the best we had in Philippines) and pee breaks, we arrived in El Nido. As soon as we got there we knew the drive was worth it! Giant peaks towering over aqua colored water and colorful fishing and tour boats. Its like Rio meets Halong Bay meets Fiji – absolutely gorgeous! The actual town of El Nido, not so much though. In our opinion, it has some teenage grunge to it and has not quite yet blossomed into adulthood. What was once a sleepy fishing town of corrugated roofing and stilt houses is now being introduced to the big leagues of the backpacker scene and it is in that awkward phase of knowing who it will be. Granted there are loads of hotels springing up and there are plenty of options!
We prebooked the Spin designer hostel private rooms. Even though we were a little nervous as we hadnt hosteled in quite a while, we were both amazed by the hipness of this place. It was the candy store of hostels – awesome design, cool common area, AWESOME pancakes and chocolate syrup (complimentary), nice shower and bathroom. The only thing that may not be for all couples is bunk bed style sleeping. This worked totally fine for us though as the we just schnuggled with the yummy blankets instead of each other this time.
That first day as it was already around dinner time we scoped out the local beach which is where all the boats dock. The pro is that you can hop on tours easily from here. The con is it is not really a beach to swim at (lots of oil, trash, etc.) However, for a sunset it is awesome! They have live music going nightly and there are local and western options for food right along the water. None of the spots really stood out to us as far as foodie options but they did the job! If you walked in the main town though we liked the Italian options – Mezzanine and Altrove! We weren’t really fans of the more highly rated Arts Cafe though.
Once the sun goes down, this town comes to life! The catholic church singing local songs, reggae music for westerners, Crepe sellers (YUM), etc. After being in SE Asia though, not a lot stood out to us except for The Bazaar. It has more of a expat flair with a row of hip restaurants and stores and lounges +ping pong (and kittens) in the middle. It was Basaac Lane but beach style. Definitely recommended!
The next day we rented a moto ($8 a day) and made our way to Nacpan Beach. We had been warned about the bumpy ride and I would say if you aren’t experienced probably not the best one to start with…. But, this place is AMAZING and so worth the ride up. Here is where you will find open beaches with tons of crystal clear water, simple seafood, palm trees and the postcard worthy picture. It is becoming more known among the tourist circle so there were some westerners but if you prefer more quiet and seclusion you can just walk down the beach a half a mile or so.
At lunch (a few beach shacks strewn across the main beach entrance), we chatted with a retired couple from Costa Rica by way of Seattle and the Philippines. The husband had retired at Boeing at age 50. His father had also worked for Boeing. When he was about 5, Boeing hired his father as an engineer and relocated his family of 7 from the slums of Manila to California. Pretty cool story! We also met another family of 5 who lived in Washington and traveled over to see her parents. They were the most adorable curly haired cuties ever. The rest of the time we hung by the water and sometimes went in it. It was jellyfish season though so it was a bit intimidating swimming despite the locals saying they didn’t sting. The little kids would even pick them up fling them about. However there were some huge ones washed up on the shore the size of my HEAD!
Other highlight of the trip for us was the boat tour. We did trip C (as there are 4 tour options – ABCD or combinations) and for the money we felt like it was pretty worth it. The tough thing about them is that they are so popular that everyone else is on the route too. You end up stopping at snorkeling spots with about 40-50 other people at most of the stops. Nonetheless, the water was super clear and we saw some pretty cool underwater happenings. I would say for us it was way better than what we saw in Koh Lanta Thailand.
It is a pretty long day and the sun is INTENSE so be sure to bring tons of sunblock and this is coming from a person that gets pretty dark and does not burn too easily. They do serve you an wonderful lunch with lots of fish, fruits, yummy salads, etc. Impressive considering all on the boat… Def made me want to step my cooking skills!
Between this tour and Nacpan Beach we did not feel a huge pull towards going again. Although, many of the people we met and blogs we read did do at least two (A and C). Maybe it is because we are spoiled living in SE Asia this year, but the beaches on the outskirts seemed to be more our jam than the group tours.
The third and fourth night we stayed in Sea Cocoon which we booked last minute. It was one of the few new “nice mid-range” options right in the main town. It is worth noting that the first time we booked this trip we planned early and made a splurge reservation ($95-$120 depending on time of year) at El Nido Overlooking. This place looked gorgeous but once got a feel for El Nido we realized it was a bit outside the town and would require a tuk tuk to get to the main area at night. That being said there was a great beach out by the zip lining spot and we would recommend time outside of the main town if you want a chill beach vacay versus partying.
We did stop in a few other spots to see the prices and availability last minute. Las Cabanas Resort was one of the nicest ones but it seems like most of these type spots are overly priced compared to SE Asia prices.
As far foodie hip spots, we found one gem called La Plage. Good food, nice music vibes and cute decor. And the sunsets right near there are one of a kind!
Overall, our verdict of El Nido is that it is absolutely full of natural beauty. However, at this stage in our travels, we would have probably picked Boracay over this spot if we had to choose again. Just not quite as developed in the right ways yet but still too touristy with backpackers to have a real authentic essence.
Lesson #35: We are getting a little too old for the backpacker scene and we are okay with that!
“Maybe you had to leave in order to really miss a place; maybe you had to travel to figure out how beloved your starting point was.” – Jodi Picoult