My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines

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.

My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush

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:

1. Limited electricity

The Downside:

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, 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!

The Upside:

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. The main beach was disappointing

The Downside:

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.

My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush
While there are areas to swim at El Nido’s main beach, it isn’t a great swimming beach.

The Upside:

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.

My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush

Accommodation was of poor value:

The Downside:

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.

The Upside:

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!)

Island hopping tours were slightly pricey:

My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush
Chilling on a picture-perfect island in El Nido

The Downside:

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.

My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush
Island hopping in El Nido – Seven Commandos Beach.
My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush
The snorkeling here is incredible. Just look at that visibility!

The Upside:

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!

My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush
The palm fringed Seven Commandos Beach.
My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines - The Travel Lush
Aside from the boats, Seven Commandos Beach is pretty freaking perfect.

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?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

18 thoughts on “My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines

  1. I’ve been wanting to visit El Nido for quite some time now, but this is making me think twice. I’m okay with being uncomfortable, lack of 24 hour electricity etc… but I don’t like it when places are expensive relative to what they’re offering. There has to be value there for me to enjoy it properly. I’m curious to know what your favourite spot is in Philippines (other than Boracay since I’ve already been there). The country is largely unexplored for us and we definitely want to head back…
    Shelley recently posted…Weekly Photo Challenge: Endurance

    1. I didn’t mean to turn you off of going! These were just things that irked me. Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t like El Nido. I did love it but things did seem a bit pricey in terms of what you get. In my experience, the Philippines doesn’t offer the value that other SE Asian countries do. For example, I paid $35 for a hotel room in El Nido, but it was just a room in a guesthouse. If I would have paid that in Thailand I would have been living it up! But I also think I could have done better. I’ve been browsing through other blogs and I totally think it’s possible to get nicer, significantly cheaper bungalows that are a 5-10 minute walk from the main town.

      I was also really surprised about the prices for the island hopping tours because they literally had a unionized price increase right before my trip. So every guidebook and blog I read was quoting the old prices. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that they went a little overboard with how much they increased the prices. I did a similar island hopping tour in Coron for 650 pesos versus 1400 in El Nido. Overall El Nido is incredible and I don’t regret going at all. I would actually love to go back to El Nido and Palawan in general. Out of curiosity, how long are you going and what’s your budget?

      Other places I liked:

      Bohol – I was not a huge fan of Alona beach, but I had a blast motorbiking to the Chocolate Hills.
      Camiguin – It doesn’t have wonderful beaches but I loved this island. There are waterfalls, hot and cold springs, White Beach. It’s a great place to just motorbike around and explore. And people are so friendly!
      Siquijor – I didn’t make it there but I really wanted to go.
      Bantayan – When I went it was still hurting from the typhoon but I still really loved it. It has stunning beaches.
      Coron – Coron rivals El Nido. I would love to go back now that it’s had a chance to recover from the typhoon. Have you looked into going there?

      1. Haha, actually there’s no set plan to visit, but we’re always planning our potential future trips. I guess we’d have a week or 2 to spend when we go though… hmm, budget is not so much of an issue, but I always like to do things as frugally as possible. We won’t do dirty bungalows anymore, but budget guesthouse, or hotel is good, as long as it’s clean and has wifi and AC! Hmm…it looks like I’ll have to to look in Coron or Bantayan…sounds less stressful than El Nido… I also really wanna head to Siquijor one day (those fireflies sound so amazing!) Thanks for the tips!! :)
        Shelley recently posted…Perspective in a Paris Line-Up (Weekly Photo Challenge: Nighttime)

        1. Coron and Bantayan are both great. I would love to revisit both now that they’ve had a chance to recover from the typhoon. I really wish I’d made it to Siquijor. Everything about it sounds amazing, including the fireflies!!

  2. I’ve heard of El Nido from others and have seen their photos too but didn’t realise their beach is not really that good for swimming. Sometimes, the best places for the beach is usually found when you island hop your way around. Surprisingly, one of the places that I love and hate is Bali itself. I love that there are so many diverse activities available there but I don’t really like how tourist driven the island is. :)
    sha recently posted…Snow is No Fun Alone

    1. I was surprised about El Nido’s main beach too. I read quite a few travel blogs and guidebooks before I went there I but no one ever mentioned that the beach wasn’t all that suitable for swimming. However, the beaches around El Nido are AMAZING! Although you do have to take a boat to get to most of them. I can see why you’d say that about Bali. I’d heard mixed reviews about Bali before I traveled there, so I went in with really low expectations. And while I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it I agree that the amount of tourism there is a big turnoff!

  3. Seeing how you presented things, I definitely see how you would feel ambivalent about El Nido. We really enjoyed our time there (back in October 2012) and really didn’t have any complaints, but I guess it just depends on your expectations. We were able to find a place just one block back from the beach that cost less than 600PHP, but we did have to search for a while to find that. And while island hopping is not as cheap as being to walk to the beach, the beaches in El Nido were some of the nicest we have seen anywhere and were well worth the trip. I’m glad to hear that as much as there were things about El Nido that were frustrating, you did ultimately enjoy your time there!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…A Tale of Two London Markets

    1. Wow, 600 pesos? What a deal! Why couldn’t I have found that place? I had a feeling we were overpaying. It’s good to know it’s possible to find budget-friendly places there. I definitely liked El Nido. I mean it’s hard not to like a place that looks like that. But I was really surprised by some of the costs, especially the newly increased rates for island hopping tours. That being said, the island hopping was incredible and some of those beaches were spectacular. I think you two stayed overnight on an island…looking back I wish I would have done that. I think that would have been amazing!

    1. Yes, the upside definitely made up for it. And I think I could have found a cheaper hotel if I would have looked harder, which would have alleviated my frustration. After spending two months living in Jakarta I could totally go for a beach vacation too!!

    1. Yeah, El Nido felt a little bit pricey compared to other destinations in the Philippines. And it can totally be a bummer to be on a strict budget and not feel you can do everything you want to do. Oh well, it’s still a stunning place!

  4. Awesome pictures! I love your honesty about the pros and cons of El Nido. The beach does at least look lovely… but not being able to swim or snorkel is a deal breaker for me. I kind of stopped using guidebooks because I never found them that accurate either. I do a lot of googling and reading fellow bloggers, much more accurate (and up to date)! haha. I also imagine there are other places that have more value for your money and are just as gorgeous in the Philippines.
    Katie recently posted…How to Make Fresh Tomato Salsa in 15 Minutes (plus a giveaway!)

    1. Thanks Katie. I definitely give El Nido a 10 for beauty! Yeah, I have the same issue with guidebooks. I started relying on travel blogs for everything when I was traveling around last year. I love how they offer up-to-date information versus guidebooks which are at least a couple years old.

    1. The island hopping was incredible. I’m sure you would absolutely love it Tammy! I wish I’d had an underwater camera on that trip. There were a couple beautiful hidden lagoons that I don’t have pictures of since I had to swim to get to them. Despite the bump in price I would do it again :)

  5. Me and my girlfriend went in Feb 2015 and had an amazing time. Spent about a week total and just found everything to be great. The weather was perfect and around 80 degrees the whole week, and just a few drops of rain.

    The boat tours were amazing and were about 1300/1400.

    We stayed at a place called Biolina for 30 USD a night with AC.

    And did a two day island tour with overnight on an island for like $60 each ( 4 meals/ a nights stay/bottle of whisky)

    I will say the price total was higher than any other island, except Bohol. But it was still very cheap and we spent about $38 USD a day per person and had an amazing time.

    1. I’m glad you guys have such a great time! It really is an amazing place. We did it on about $40 a day too. The place we stayed wasn’t super nice but if I were to go back I realize that there are tons of great options down the beach a little bit. I complained about the island hopping prices when I was there (since they had just been raised right before my trip) but in hindsight it was an incredible tour. And the price really wasn’t that bad!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge