Practical Travel Tips: El Nido (Palawan), Philippines

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Palawan holds a special place for one of us on the team. It truly is truly an incredible place, so much so that the NY Times named it one of the 52 places to go visit last year. Definitely worth the trek.

Jefferson of the blog, Coffee Grounds & Latitude, who last wrote about Manila, recently went on a deal. Here are his practical travel tips.

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The Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands. That is a lot. You can go to a different island a day for a year and still have over 6,600 islands yet to be enjoyed. Fortunately, the islands of El Nido have yet to be fully commercialized so travelers of all kinds can enjoy this piece of heaven on Earth. The islands of El Nido are in the province of Palawan, which is about 260 miles southwest of Manila. White sand beaches, well-preserved coral reefs, and limestone cliffs make EL Nido one of the most beautiful destinations in the world to visit.

Secret Lagoon, El Nido, Philippines – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jefferson Co of Coffee Grounds & Latitude

How to get to El Nido

Getting to the islands of El Nido is an adventure on its own. Remember, sometimes it’s the journey and not the destination that makes the trip unforgettable. Buy yourself a plane ticket departing from Manila International Airport (NAIA) towards Puerto Princesa International Airport (PPS). This is about a 1.5 hour flight from the capital towards the province of Palawan. Once you land at the airport, head outside the airport towards your right while doing your best to ignore all the solicitors of overpriced taxis and timeshares. Be polite and firm. Once you are outside, there are tons of pop up travel agencies. Ask around for a bus shuttle going north towards to El Nido. The locals are friendly and I would confidently say that 90% of the Filipinos speak English. These shuttles are practical minivans that can shuttle up to 9 passengers for this 4 and half hour drive up north. The fair price of 650 pesos ($12 per passenger) should be your price target. Don’t be afraid to go to the next pop up travel agency for a better price. There are designated times for these vans to leave; however, it will only operate when the shuttle is full of passengers. Don’t worry, the shuttle does make multiple stops for bathroom breaks and coffee/snack fill-ups.

When to visit

The Philippines is just over 14 degrees north of the equator. It means it gets extremely hot and humid. As soon as you step outside the airport, you will feel the humidity of the country. Since you are visiting the islands of El Nido and your travels will primarily consist of boat tours and burying your toes in the sand, avoid the monsoon months of June thru August; where an average of three weeks per month are full of rain and thunderstorms. I highly suggest visiting the Philippines during the months of December to March as those months provide bearable humid weather to those who are not comfortable with temperate climates.

Another beautiful day to explore the islands – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jefferson Co of Coffee Grounds & Latitude

How to withdraw money

I’ve never been a huge fan of currency exchange booths as they tend to charge exuberant amounts for the local currency. What I suggest for a hassle-free and safer way is to withdraw money from the ATM. This gives you the best rates minus the middleman currency exchange booths. The current exchange rate is $1 = 50 peso. I suggest withdrawing Pesos in Manila. Yes, in Manila. Use this as our personal precautionary advice — when we arrived in El Nido, the main bank ATM ran out of cash and would not be replenished for about 2-3 days. El Nido is remote and slowly becoming commercialized. Bank ATMs are rare in El Nido and we only saw a couple of them inside the Municipal Hall. Power outages and cash shortages are common too so I suggest topping off your funds in Manila or when you land in Puerto Princesa Airport. Remember that in remote locations in this world, cash is king!

Accommodation

From the adventurous backpacker to the honeymooners, El Nido has everyone’s budget in mind. Hostels start at $10 a night. 3-star hotels priced at $79/night and 5-star hotels averaging $790 a night. For our backpacking trip, we stayed at Our Melting Pot. We paid a modest $10/day and it came with complimentary free rooftop breakfast.

Wi-Fi and Internet connection

Wi-Fi is slow in the Philippines. Your patience will be tested to the fullest as the islands of El Nido are no different from the rest of the country. Before our trip, we switched to T-Mobile as our phone service carrier because T-Mobile offered free unlimited international web data and text messaging. The speeds are a maximum 3G and the Wi-Fi connection on the islands are almost the same. The slow internet connection will force you to lay down your phone and enjoy the beaches instead. Not a bad trade, I would say.

How to book your island tour

This is a fun one. Those Instagram pictures you are dreaming of are almost becoming a reality. I mean, this is the reason why you are in El Nido, right? There are probably around 30 pop-up travel agencies that offer various kinds of island tours. These tours range from Tour A to Tour D. Each tour has different routes showcasing the natural beauty of the islands. These tours are an all-day type of event so wearing a lot of sunscreen helps! Talk to the travel agents about each tour and what they include. Honestly, there is no wrong answer on which tour to take. The price ranges from 1200 to 1800 pesos, which is around $25-35. The tour guides double up as your chefs as they cook your buffet lunch on the boat. Grilling fish with veggies and serving sodas/water will fill you up throughout the day.

Our tour guides preparing our lunch for the day – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jefferson Co of Coffee Grounds & Latitude

 

Diving

If you are interested in receiving your PADI or already certified, El Nido is a prime place for diving for all levels. Scuba diving shops have you covered when it comes to rentals or taking diving classes. And for the non-English proficient, some instructors speak Italian, French, Dutch or Spanish.

Another rough day at the islands – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jefferson Co of Coffee Grounds & Latitude

Beachside restaurants

One of the beautiful advantages of El Nido is the beachside restaurants. Have no fear when it comes to your budget, as most restaurants are affordable and boast amazing views of the beaches. There is something refreshing and relaxing about eating freshly caught prawns while enjoying a cold beer. Fish is cheaper here and comes fresh considering the province of Palawan’s number one export are, you guessed it, fish.

Beachside table with a view please – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jefferson Co of Coffee Grounds & Latitude

 

Cliff Hiking

We decided to embark on this one-hour cliff hiking that was offered at the front desk. Wherever you stay, just ask the front desk about Taraw Cliff hiking. We hired a tour guide to take us to the top and it cost around 250 pesos ($5). Heads up, the climbs are tough so wear closed toe shoes for protection. DO NOT wear flip-flops. The climb is challenging but doable. Going up was easier to navigate using the three-point climbing system where your extremities are always set on a firm point. Once you get to the top and see the views, you’ll realize how it was all worth it. Heading down from the top is another story.

The top of Taraw Cliff after the hike – Photo: (c) 2017 – Jefferson Co of Coffee Grounds & Latitude

Tourism in El Nido has not completely exploded over the years in my opinion. It maintains a rare balance of eco-tourism and a small-size party scene. Even though tourism is the town’s main source of income, it did not feel like tourists completely took over it. I hope it stays like this for a long time.

About the Author:

Jefferson first started on his love of travel by taking minor trips exploring the Western side of the United States. He decided to embark on the Fifty-state tour only to realize that his passion could not be limited inside the United States. Forty-Two countries later, he is just getting started. He currently resides and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on his blog, Coffee Grounds and Latitude. and instagram at 34diamonds.

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2 Responses to "Practical Travel Tips: El Nido (Palawan), Philippines"

  1. Tausha @ The Globe Getter says:

    I loved El Nido when I visited a few years ago! It’s worth noting that if you’re short on time or don’t want to do the long bus ride from Puerto Princesa, you can take a small plane directly from Manila to El Nido. Availability is more limited and it’s more expensive (not outrageous, though), but a very good option as well.

    Reply
  2. Brett says:

    Unless you’re ONLY staying in Manila (or maybe Cebu) buy sim card when you arrive in the Philippines. MNL has the booths right outside intl arrivals. It’s easy and it’ll save you from the horrible wifi in many places. While it doesn’t suffice for streaming a movie, I just like to have google maps/facebook/whatsapp wherever I am, in case I need it, or just want to talk to some people back home.

    I second what Tausha said.

    I flew to PPS and spent a night there. Pretty miserable, I’m sure there’s nice parts of Puerto Princesa, but for me it was just sweaty, dirty and with poor wifi. It’s really not worth it. The bus ride to El Nido sucks too, the ride I had was fairly nice, I think it was only 500 pesos, they picked me up right where I stayed, service was good etc. But the sheer time it takes is a colossal waste of time. Some of the scenery is cool, going through little towns, but honestly…just fly. Fly to El Nido. The airport there is great, it’s brand new, it’s a little out of town but trikes are there to take you into town. Air Swift is a great little operation, my one bag was checked free, my flight was on what looked like a brand new ATR-42. They fly to a couple places including Cebu, Manila, Clark and Caticlan (so you can hit Boracay). I can’t remember what I paid for my Air Swift flight, but it was only maybe $30 more than flying from PPS, without the 7 hour bus ride in the heat, and spending a night in PPS etc. Even if you don’t value your time at all, Air Swift is a wonderful operation, great views on takeoff (so landing is likely the same) and they’ll get you there much faster, just spend the extra money, it’s well worth it.

    Reply

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