4 DAYS IN EL NIDO, PALAWAN, PHILIPPINES
Made up of over 4000 islands, the Philippines is a lush destination perfect for the perennially wanderlust. With numerous notable regions like Coron, Palawan, Boracay Siquijor, and Cebu, it was pretty hard to pick just one area but our hearts were set on the exotic islands of Palawan.
One of the largest regions of the Philippines, Palawan is a subset of islands most notably known for its serene views and spectacular geological limestone formations that are seemingly scattered as if by hand throughout the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly large, Palawan island itself is about 280 miles long and features the capital of Puerto Princesa, several UNESCO world heritage sites including the famed Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, and the notable municipality of El Nido.
Since we combined our visit with Bali, we spent 4 days in the Palawan region - 3 in El Nido and 1 in Sabang Beach near the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park.
A FEW THINGS WE NEVER KNEW ABOUT THE PHILIPPINES
There is a substantial Spanish influence in the Philippines. In fact on his expedition to find the Spice Islands of Maluku, Magellan stopped in the Philippines. He and his crew are credited with introducing Christianity to locals however some locals resisted conversion. Magellan passed away near the popular tourist destination of Cebu on Mactan Island during the Battle of Mactan at the hand of locals. In fact, the city of TayTay was where Magellan’s final crew sought refuge afterwards - holding the local king & queen hostage. Today, many natives have last names like Rodriguez, and Manuel.
We’ve been pronouncing it wrong the entire time. It’s puh-LAH-wan NOT PAH-lah-wan.
Many of the locals speak English, especially in El Nido.
A COUPLE TIPS WHEN TRAVELING TO THE PHILIPPINES
THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT PALAWAN
Much like any other tropical destination, the Philippines have a rainy season that usually coincides with a lower travel season. Often, this begins in June and continues through December. Knowing this, we chanced it by traveling in late May and definitely got some rain. The weather was quite unpredictable and the intermittent rain storms definitely hampered our boat tours and beach experiences. We were literally in the middle of a boat tour and had to go back because of a storm. In addition, boat tours are approved by the Coast Guard daily and can only be from 8:30 - 4:30 so if a rain storm happens mid day then you can’t go on a tour later that evening. That being said, we enjoyed visiting during low season because there were less crowds, and our excursions & lodging were more affordable.
CAN YOU USE CREDIT CARDS IN PALAWAN?
In our experience, pretty much everything in the Palawan was CASH ONLY. The only real exceptions to this rule were our first hotel/resort and the airport. Most, if not all excursions and restaurants are cash only. Additionally, sometimes the ATMs in El Nido can run out of cash. Thankfully, we were warned in advance and actually just got cash from our local Chase bank before we even left the States. Basically we calculated roughly how many Filipino Pesos we would need, requested it at our local bank, waited 2 days and then went back to pick it up. The exchange rate was pretty good and the entire process was very easy.
THE BEST VEGETARIAN FRIENDLY OPTIONS IN PALAWAN
I rarely travel for food. I think as a lifelong vegetarian that has been seriously spoiled by home-cooked Indian meals and the prevalence of Mexican food on every corner in the South, I have just learned that I often am unimpressed by vegetarian cuisine elsewhere. That being said I love being pleasantly surprised! I figured the Philippines had a seafood-rich diet so I wasn’t really expecting it to be super vegetarian friendly. I was definitely pleasantly surprised. Most restaurants in the main towns in Palawan had at least one vegetarian friendly option - in many cases this was a pizza or pasta dish. I think I ate more pizza and pasta in Palawan than I did when we went to Italy last year! Some notables were the restaurant in Daluyon Beach & Mountain Resort - several veggie entrees and high quality food. Also Taste El Nido (delicious açaí bowls - get the Cool Blue) and Bella Vita (Italian food). We tried Gusto for crepes and it was good but not revolutionary - just a heads up they do not offer gelato with the crepes for breakfast.
AIRPORTS IN THE PHILIPPINES
One of the most surprising aspects of traveling to and within the Philippines was how NOT intuitive the airports are. A couple things to be prepared for:
They always need your paper boarding pass. Even if you have a mobile boarding pass be prepared to have a printed ticket. Many, if not all of the domestic terminals do not have mobile scanners and if they do they might not be working.
You have to check-in at the desk unless you have a printed boarding pass. Checking in often involves long wait times (1 hour +) since there are usually only 2 queues.
They weigh your carry on AND personal item, and this cannot exceed 7kgs combined.
The domestic terminal in Manila airport is a drive from the international terminal. Although there is a free shuttle it only runs hourly so make sure you account for this when planning since this does add about 20 minutes to a layover if you end up taking a taxi.
They are very strict about spray bottles, hairsprays, dry shampoo, etc. If it says flammable on the back they will confiscate it and throw it away. Similarly, empty water bottles are not allowed. There was a woman on my flight that tried using hair spray in the bathroom and it set the alarms off on the play and all the stewardess came running. I had never seen anything like this lol.
Lastly, make sure you have at least 4 hour layovers for international flights. The domestic flights often get delayed 2-3 hours and the airlines will not refund you if you don’t have the proper time allotted. We learned this the hard way and had to book a last minute flight when our flight from Puerto Princesa got delayed 2 hours and then stuck on the tarmac for another hour. We missed our Bali flight and were scrambling because of their mistake but they had very little help to offer because apparently this is disclosed in the T&C when you purchase your tickets on Philippine airlines like Air Asia.
There are endless options for lodging so I highly recommend doing some thorough research before committing. We planned our lodging last minute and went with a place that seemed fine at face value but there were some issues. We decided to stay at Sophia’s Guest House in El Nido which had good reviews on AirBnB. The good: pretty reliable WiFi, beach front (the ocean is 5 feet away), its very affordable and breakfast is included (the pineapple pancakes were delicious). The bad: not the most conversational staff, there are lots of flys, knats, spiders, ants and the occasional gecko, the bathrooms smell rancid, the hot water is unreliable and although the staff tries to keep the lobby clean there is a lot of sand and water trekked throughout that invariably gets into your room. This place sounds like a charming Airbnb that’s beachfront but it feels much like an unkempt hostel. I just felt unclean the entire time. My recommendation is stay elsewhere.
THE BEST SIGHTS & BEACHES TO SEE IN PALAWAN
About 5 miles long, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean Underground River is a cave system that flows directly into the sea. Its home to a very diverse ecosystem including the prominent - bats. As soon as we knew we were traveling to Palawan, the HUBS jumped at the idea to visit this UNESCO world heritage site. It sounded pretty neat if just a tad terrifying lol, but I was game…as long as a bat did not hit me in the directly in the face 😂. I think I honestly got pretty worked up about this in my head and the actual experience was pretty serene. I’d equate it to visiting cenotes in Mexico! Lots of really spectacular geological formations (stalagmites & stalactites) some of which the locals have quaintly named “giant garlic bulb” and “the nativity scene”. Lets just say the garlic bulb one gives elephant garlic a new meaning (sorry for the dad joke lol)! But more than the formations, I think the most unique part of this excursion was the fact that we have never explored something like it. It was pretty hard to photograph considering the pitch darkness with the exception of tour guide flashlights, but we managed to capture some of our favorite moments.
Even though we only spent 3 days in El Nido, we really maximized our sightseeing which worked out well since our plans had to be flexible with the rain. We really love sightseeing before all the crowds arrive so we knew we had to do a private tour of the area. We managed to do two private boat tours through Maambeng Travel & Tour Company and had an incredible experience with a solid lunch spread and very knowledgable guides - ask for George he was amazing! We saw 7 beaches/islands over the course of two days: Helicopter Island, Hidden Beach, Shimizu Island, Entalula Island, Cadlao Lagoon, Cadlao Beach and Seven Commandos Beach. Omg y’all, we already thought Palawan was stunning - this just reaffirmed our beliefs.
This quaint little island is generally known for its snorkeling (although we thought some other spots were better), but also features a small white sand beach with striking limestone rocks. The water was pretty much clear at the shore. We really loved how quietly nestled this little beach is and how private it feels. Also there is a little lady who sells really delicious young coconuts here and man are they sweet! Overall we would say this was cute but not a must see.
When we were planning on traveling to Palawan we kept seeing this Island pop up on various sites - it definitely was our most anticipated destination and it did not disappoint. The water is almost like a royal blue and the island just looks like a bonsai garden on a beach in the pacific. It’s so charming in its own right and definitely a great spot to snorkel! Plus it seemed to be a little less traveled so those looking for a quieter experience would definitely enjoy this little spot!
Fondly named after its helicopter silhouette, this small island features a tan sand beach with lots of trees and a couple diving spots. It’s somewhat rocky at the shore with larger waves but it’s still pretty. If you are planning on laying out - this is not your spot.
Definitely our favorite spot, we just absolutely fell in love with this quaint beach quietly tucked away behind a striking limestone cove. When we first arrived, honestly we didn’t know what to expect. We were staring at some rock thinking “where’s the beach??” We were absolutely delighted to find out that you had to wade through a small cave to get to this beach! Honestly this beach is up there with the Maldives in its splendor! It’s a must see!
This beach is a small cove on the mainland that is accessible by boat. It is pretty big relative to the other beaches we visited and seemed to be a popular spot. For us it was not really memorable, but it definitely has some amenities and was a good spot to just hang out for the day.
This long, tan sand beach is also pretty sizable and features some pretty soft sand. It seemed to be more of a locals spot with several groups visiting simply to snorkel. Personally, we thought Cadlao Lagoon was a much better snorkel spot, but this was definitely a great spot for those looking to relax on a quieter beach.
There are three main lagoons in Palawan: Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon and Cadlao Lagoon. Both the Big and a Small Lagoon require a permit to visit which we didn’t have due to weather complications so we decided to visit Cadlao Lagoon instead. Our guide assured us that all three were pretty spectacular and he was definitely right. This Lagoon is situated in a small cove off Cadlao Island. When you first get to the cove, the water is this rich royal blue and is pretty deep. You can either swim into the Lagoon or kayak into it - we swam so we could snorkel. Y’all: this was one of the best snorkeling experiences we have had (second really to the Maldives)! The Lagoon itself features crystal clear turquoise waters full of all sorts of underwater wildlife and pretty large coral. Caution though: there are small jellyfish and plankton that may bite (like mosquitos). We didn’t know this going into the Lagoon and ended up with what we thought were mosquito bites - turned out it was a local type of plankton. The jellyfish definitely surprised us too since neither of us have seen them before. These honestly looked like Saran Wrap floating in the water so I was a little startled when I realized it was a creature lol.