Philippines has not exactly been on my list of countries to visit. Unlike Bali or Thailand, it hasn’t been wrapped in a nice Hollywood package of “Eat, Pray, Love” or “The Beach” and presented as a magical destination that it is. However, recently it has been suggested as an alternative destination to Bali. If you need more inspiration to see this country, you should follow Instagram accounts of comeseephilippines and warrencamitan. If it’s already on your list, here is everything you need to know about traveling to El Nido, Palawan.
We decided on Palawan because it’s touted as less touristy than Boracay and best positioned for island-hopping. Palawan is one main island, with an archipelago of smaller islands at the top – El Nido. If you read Lonely Planet and other books alike, they’ll direct you to fly to Porto Princessa – DON’T DO IT, especially if you don’t have too much time to spend. The island is long and Porto Princessa is in the middle of it. If you want to visit El Nido, which will be most likely, it will be a very long and bumpy ride. The roads are bad and there is no straight shot, so you’ll spend a whole day just on travel. What you should do instead is book a flight directly to El Nido. Those flights are less advertised and harder to find but they are definitely there.
But I get ahead of myself. Manila will most likely be your first stop. If you can skip it, you should or don’t spend more than a day. It’s one of the few (I’m being nice, because I can’t remember another one) unexciting capital cities I’ve ever been to. It suffered greatly during WWII when it was a battle ground between Japanese and Americans and have never really recovered since then. I was excited to visit their old town – Intramuros which sounded much like other colonial Spanish forts but what we found was barely there fort walls and not much behind them. The traffic is horrific so always give yourself more time than you think you’ll need.
The airport in Manilla has 4 main terminals; make sure you know which one you’re leaving from. The airport facilities are very basic, mostly it’s one big room, with a bunch of sad chairs and few snacks stands. Don’t expect any lounges.. This ain’t a lounging place where you wi-fi while sipping bubbly. This is hard core travel airport with bathrooms to fit the category. Category of “I’d rather hold it as long as I can with a hope to see a nicer bathroom in the near future.” Airswift seems like the only airlines that fly directly to El Nido, Palawan. Airswift is a Philipino version of Raynair.
I want to clear up something about El Nido because it was definitely not clear to me when planning this trip. We thought it was a town and it is, but when people here refer to “El Nido,” they are actually talking about a big area. Meaning you could be 45 min away from the port where all island-hopping trips depart from and it would still be considered “El Nido.” The town itself is a Mecca for young twenty-something backpackers, but from a forty year old’s point of view – quite a dump. My suggestion to stay further away from the actual town.
Our first stop in El Nido was Flowers Island. 45 min car ride from the airport and then 45 min ride via boat and you get yourself a Robinson Crusoe-type of experience. The island is tiny with a super cute beach, bamboo huts and huge verandas decked out with bamboo hammocks. If you ever want to “un-plug” – this is the place to be. Wi-fi is spotty and only available in the dinning room area and the tiki bar. You better come with a company you like and a stack of good books. You can also buy here an amazing bottle of wine for around $20. The actual owner of the island is French and he knows his wines.
Important note – if you are even at least prone to sea-sickness, Philippines might be not the best option for you. To see the exciting, Instagram-worthy places, you need to get on the boat. They have their traditional boats, busuangas, and smaller yachts to get around. The South China Sea can get rough and their coast guard grounds boat trips at the slightest hint of the upcoming storm or windy weather. Our trip from Flowers Island back to the main El Nido felt like a clip from the movie “Perfect Storm” minus the cold weather and George Clooney. The captain was a master in maneuvering the waves but it felt like our little tiny boat could have been swallowed up any minute. For the first time in my life I was really loving my neon orange vest.
The grounding of the boats happens often, because there are two main seasons in Palawan – windy and rainy, and the rain does come with the wind. Once the boats can go out again, it gets really crowded at the main attractions like Big Lagoon, Seven Mile Beach and others. It’s impossible to take a picture without another 100 of your “best friends” being in the frame. If you can afford it or are traveling with a group of 4-6 people, find smaller boats and ask them to take you really early before all the big boats depart.
Alternatively, you can stay at a resort like Qi Palawan which offers their own version of island hopping. It won’t be the famous attraction spots that you presumably came for to El Nido, but the experience of low key island hopping with a small boat, dedicated staff who knows all the best snorkeling places without a thousand people in it is one you will enjoy.
Coron is another island cluster at the very north of Palawan and you need to take a ferry from El Nido or fly directly from Manila to get there. And you should get there. Because it is so out of the way, it has fewer tourists but even more amazing sights than El Nido’s famous places. Ferry usually leaves at 6am from El Nido’s nondescript port and its schedule is highly dependent on weather and coast guard. Don’t expect any luxury, bring drinks and snacks for this 4 hour ride.
Coron’s downtown is similar to El Nido with couple shack bars, places to eat but no nice beach or nothing really worth staying there for. Just like in El Nido, you’ll most likely take a 45 min ride to a resort/hotel although the whole area is still called Coron.. as always confusing but that’s the adventure of it.
Coron area has amazing natural wonders to which you need to take a boat. It can take up to 2 hours to get to Twin Lagoon, Barracuda Lake and other famous places but it’s absolutely worth it and you should leave early to beat the crowds. It is a paradise for snorkeling and diving with unspoiled beauty and crystal waters. There are also around 20 sunken Japanese ships from WWII that adds to the diving experience. Couple of them are close enough to the shore so snorkelers can see them too.
We stayed at Busuanga Lodge at the bay with the same name. The resort is gorgeous and every room has a breathtaking view. However the bay is not really swimmable thanks to the box jelly fish whose sting can kill a human. To compensate for this unpleasant inconvenience, they can take you on a speed boat to a private island 15 min away. It’s your own island for a day, complete with impeccable white sand, bar with strong drinks, snorkeling and a private chef. They also organize their own trips to all the famous sightseeing spots so you don’t have to add another 45 min of getting to town and taking a boat from there.
Because water excursions got grounded after our first day in Coron, we took advantage of the diving shop and did PADI Discover Scuba Diving. It’s a 3 hour experience where you learn the basics and go out in open waters to test what you learned. Amazing experience and if full scuba certification is something you were thinking of doing, Philippines is probably the best place to do it.
For Adrian this was the best trip, for me – we were too dependent on the weather and too many boat rides with poor onboarding conditions (read: you take a kayak to the boat or just wade through the water up to your armpits while waves are splashing in your face). Also, if you were to compare Philippines to Bali or Thailand, it definitely has amazing nature spots, but does not have any interesting architecture. It’s perfect for water sports enthusiasts.
Fly to Manila. From there, fly directly either to Coron or to El Nido. Make sure not to fly to Porto Princesa. Take a ferry between Coron and El Nido. Most hotels arrange pick ups from the airport. Tickets from Manila to El Nido/Coron are about $100.
If you need to move from one hotel to another, your hotel will arrange the transportation. They usually have their reliable drivers and that would be your best choice. When we needed to get to the ferry in El Nido at 5 a.m. in the morning, the driver didn’t show up, so the owner, who is obviously super hands on, took us there herself. We saw “our ride” broken down on the side of the road..
The islands, thankfully, do not have the mega resorts. Their resorts are smaller, usually with less than 50 rooms. Most of them are small, villa-type. If you’re traveling on a budget, make sure to confirm that your rooms have air conditioning – that is not always a given. Like everywhere in Asia, you’ll get a lot for your money.
El Nido: Qi Palawan – an oasis with very involved owners. Great kitchen with a selection of vegetarian, western and Philippino cuisine. They also give great kite surfing lessons and island hopping trips with snorkeling and diving. The beach is just ok, but that’s why you get on the boat and go to explore other islands.
Coron: Busuanga Bay Lodge – beautiful resort with gorgeous pool to compensate for small, rocky beach. Restaurant food was the biggest disappointment. We took a kayak across the bay to Al Faro, which was this cute little place, on the top of the hill directly across the bay. They had delicious, traditional Philippino food, and happy hour you can’t beat – $1 rum and cokes.
Rum. As a former Spanish colony, Philippinos are big on rum. It’s strong and cheap. A drink of rum and coke will set you off $1-$2.
Beer. Local beer is a pilsner typical to all warm countries – light, refreshing and cheap. $1-$2.
Wine. They do have it and prices are comparable to those in the US.
One of my favorite cuisines ever. There will always be rice served with every meal, but their meats is what sets them apart from everyone else. Although their traditional meals always include some sort meat (pork is the favorite) and fish, there is always a good selection of vegetarian dishes.
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