Some say that the nine-hour ferry ride from Coron to El Nido is a hellish one. I’ve read stories of seasickness, overcrowded boats and even shipwrecks. But I experienced none of these things. Our ferry – which was actually more like a large boat – had only a handful of passengers. It was a flawless sunny day. And I spent the majority of the trip sitting with my legs dangling over the side of the boat enjoying the breeze and admiring the uninhabited islands that dot the waters of northern Palawan, Philippines.
As our boat crept toward the shore I knew that the long journey had been worth it. My first glimpse of El Nido revealed a small village nestled at the base of gigantic limestone cliffs. It was absolutely breathtaking and I was sure it was love at first sight. But I would soon find out that my relationship with El Nido was of the love-hate variety.
I’d only ever heard rave reviews of El Nido and I had incredibly high expectations. My goal was to find a quiet place to recover from my illness, find a beach where I could just soak in the sun and water, and spend as much time possible staring in awe at the natural beauty of the Bacuit Archipelago.
I ended up spending a week in the rural town. When it came to beauty El Nido did not disappoint. It was amazing. But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, there were a few unexpected things that made traveling to this secluded little hamlet a little bit challenging and slightly frustrating.
Here are a few things I wish I would have known before traveling to El Nido:
1. Electricity is limited on El Nido
Despite its booming popularity, El Nido is still located in a pretty hard-to-reach area. I mean, I did take a nine-hour boat ride just to get there. Given its isolation, the town doesn’t have a sufficient or stable power supply. As a rule, electricity is only available from 4pm to 6am. And although I was fully aware of this quirk before traveling to El Nido, it was still a bit frustrating to deal with.
One thing I hadn’t thought about was the fact that most tourist-oriented businesses don’t use generators during the day – including high-end restaurants and cafes. This meant there was no reprieve from El Nido’s brutal heat, not even if I wanted to buy an overpriced beverage just to mooch off of some establishment’s AC or fan. I even tried to order a smoothie for lunch one day, but since there was no electricity they couldn’t blend the fruit. It was kind of sad!
Having no power forces you to be outside all the time. El Nido is one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places I have ever been to. There’s not a whole lot to do in El Nido, and since hanging out at the hotel was not an option I ended up spending a lot of time walking around the surrounding neighborhoods, chatting with friendly residents and experiencing things I might not have if I’d had the option to escape to the cool chill of my hotel’s AC or watch a movie on my laptop. If you’re going to be without electricity anywhere in the world, this is probably the best place for it.
2. El Nido’s main beach was disappointing
El Nido has one of the most magical settings of any village I’ve ever been to. The tiny resort town is perched right on the shores of Bacuit Bay – it overlooks a perfect stretch of sand and a series of rugged isles. The mesmerizing landscape coupled with the calm waters makes it seem like a damn near perfect beach. And when I first stepped foot onto the sand I couldn’t have been more excited to go for a swim.
It’s important to note that the bay is used to dock tour and fishing boats and can get a little crowded, but that’s not actually what put me off. As I waded into the water I realized that there was tons of algae floating in the water, which made it really murky. Unfortunately El Nido’s main beach doesn’t make for the most refreshing of swims. Although it is possible to swim there, from what I saw most people don’t.
Las Cabanas is a gorgeous beach that’s located a short tuk tuk ride away from El Nido. With a wide swath of white sand and rolling waves it is a great beach. It costs around 300 pesos (roundtrip) to get a tuk tuk from the main road in El Nido to Las Cabanas. (I’m not a great haggler, so I’m sure it’s possible to get a ride for less.) But I enjoyed this beach so much I didn’t mind paying a little bit to get there. And although I was disappointed that I couldn’t walk to the beach, Las Cabanas was a wonderful alternative to El Nido’s main beach.
3. Accommodation was of poor value in El Nido
Because we arrived in El Nido directly from typhoon-damaged Coron, we hadn’t been able to research hotel rooms online. But because of El Nido’s popularity with backpackers I wasn’t concerned about finding a cheap place to stay.
The majority of budget-friendly hotels are clustered near the pier but there was so much construction going on in this area we decided to keep looking. We walked further up the main road, which runs along the beach, and found that rates were really high. A few places even exceeded $100 USD a night – the sort of price tag I didn’t expect to encounter in this isolated little village. It appeared that anything on the beach was going to be out of our price range so we kept walking. We finally came across Silverise Pension. The cost was 1400 pesos (about $32) per night for a double room with AC. It was more than I wanted to pay but we were exhausted so we decided to go for it.
Hotel prices were much higher than I thought they would be and a lot higher than my guidebook suggested. And the value was really poor. A lot of this has to do with how popular El Nido has become, even in the last few years. Prices are increasing, fast. But there’s always a way to do things on a budget. Had I done more research (and as I now know) it would have been better to stay in the areas surrounding El Nido. Even a five-minute stroll down the beach will reveal tons of budget-friendly bungalows that are a way better value. (These bloggers were able to find a great bungalow for only 600 pesos!)
4. Island hopping tours in El Nido were slightly pricey
When I was in El Nido, I was traveling on a fairly tight budget of $40 a day. My guidebook said that it should cost around 700-900 pesos ($15-20) for an island hopping tour. However, a few months before my trip there was an overall increase in the price and when I was there in November, 2013, the prices were 1200-1400 pesos (for tours A-C). There is also a 200 peso environmental fee that every tourist is required to pay.
Island hopping is the number one activity in El Nido and there was no way I was going to skip it. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was a little frustrated that this day trip ended up being twice as expensive as I’d anticipated. One day of island hopping cost nearly a full day’s budget.
Looking back it’s kind of silly that I got so frustrated about the $35 dollar price tag. The island hopping in El Nido is fantastic. As we floated from perfect beaches to hidden lagoons to rustic islands it was easy to see why the Bacuit Archipelago is rumored to be the location of the real beach that inspired Alex Garland’s famous novel. And I was lucky enough to see it for a mere $35 a day!
Overall, I absolutely loved El Nido. But sometimes travel can be challenging, especially when you’re working within a specific budget. Cost was a major source of frustration for me in El Nido. It would have been so much easier if I’d had unlimited funds and could stay in a hotel with a 24-hour-a-day generator or not stress about paying 300 pesos to go to the beach or be able to afford island hopping tours every day.
But, hey, that’s not the situation I was in. I relished my time in island-studded El Nido. And if there’s one thing I learned it’s that in the grand scheme of things this slice of paradise still comes pretty cheap.
Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with a destination everyone else raves about?