Philippines

El Nido Island Hopping – One Word: EPIC

Grab Your Camera, Sunscreen & Swimsuit. Go Island Hopping In The Philippines. Discover Endless Paradise!

When a unbelievably cheap airfare dropped into my lap last year I jumped on the opportunity. The Philippines had been somewhere I’d been wanting to visit for quite some time. In the Philippines, El Nido island hopping tours are legendary! The images I’d seen from the area were one of the big reasons that I bought a last minute ticket that would leave only 48 hours later.

The Philippines is a country that sprawls across 7107 islands (7647 actually! I wrote about that here). And more than 1700 of those islands belong to Palawan province, a long, island-rich, archipelago sitting between the capital Manila, and Malaysia. And the main island of Palawan where I was headed? Voted one the top 5 islands in Asia!

Adventurous El Nido

Situated on the confluence of El Nido bay and Bacuit bay on Palawan island, the town of El Nido is literally a stones throw from more than 50 small islands. With such an abundance of islands, lagoons and beaches here island hopping is only second nature while visiting. 

There are other places to go island hopping in the Philippines none are so visually appealing as Palawan’s El Nido.

I had five precious, unplanned days on Palawan. After checking out Puerto Princesa I headed north to the once-sleepy tourist town turned Eco-Adventure hot spot, El Nido. This small town is absolutely booming with the influx of tourists.

It’s no wonder why! With islands, beaches and mountains galore it’s the perfect piece of paradise to enjoy.

Taraw Cliff in El Nido overlooking island hopping boats

After a day of climbing the local mountains, exploring the town and discovering the stunning Nacpan beach I decided to partake in the town’s booming trade of island hopping tours. And booming it was, I kidd you not, nearly every street corner in town has an agency trying to sell you Island hopping adventures, motorcycle rentals, trips to Coron or the like.

El Nido Island Hopping Tours

I learned that there are four standardized island hopping tours in El Nido, cleverly named Tour A, Tour B, Tour C and Tour D with each of these tours visiting different destinations around the bays. While there are slight variations in the destinations of each of the tours between the various operators, the main ‘postcard’ destinations and advertised prices seem to be standardized throughout town.

Haggling with the tour operators was only a partial success. Most tour operators refused to haggle secure in the knowledge that the prices would be the same down the street. A few however, mostly those on side streets, would move P150-200 on the price ($3-5USD).  It’s not a big difference in price, certainly not something that would make or break my budget. It’s simply something that I expect to do in south-east Asia.

In the end I settled with a reputable tour operator based on local & tourist feedback and chose to take part in two of the four standardized tours over the next couple days.

El Nido Island Hopping Map

As I mentioned above the island hopping tours in El Nido are fairly standardized. There may be slight changes to your itinerary based on weather and schedule but you should be expecting to see the main 5 destinations on your tour. I’ve pinpointed those main island hopping destinations on the map below:

Island Hopping Tour A

  Tour “A” Itinerary
  Cost: P1200

  • Small Lagoon
  • Big Lagoon
  • Shimzu Island
  • Secret Lagoon
  • 7 Commando’s Beach
I like to call Tour A the lagoons & lounging tour. You’ll visit some of the most famous sites around El Nido including the tremendously popular Big & Small Lagoons. \

If you only have time to take one island hopping tour in El Nido be sure it’s this one!

Small Lagoon

Small Lagoon El Nido Island Hopping
Small Lagoon while island hopping in El Nido – Image captured with my drone

The first stop on your tour, Small lagoon at Miniloc island is a breathtaking introduction the the jagged karst landscapes around El Nido. As our boat pulled into a small bay I recall wondering “that’s it? this isn’t so special”.  Finally we were directed to swim or kayak through a small cave in the rock wall at the edge of the bay. I’ll admit, my first impression was wrong.

Silently gliding below the overhanging rock small lagoon unfolded before my eyes. Its impressively sheer, jagged walls dotted with neon green vegetation loomed above me and the perfectly calm, crystal-clear water passed below. It was truly a postcard sight.

Big Lagoon

Big Lagoon & Small Lagoon from the Air.
Small Lagoon in the foreground, Big Lagoon in the back.

Rounding the corner to big lagoon it was as if the limestone cliffs parted to allow us entry into some supernatural world. Looking like something straight out of Avatar the jagged cliffs towered above us, we simply couldn’t believe our eyes!

Queen might have said it best “Is this real life or is this just fantasy?”

As the name suggests, Big Lagoon is a large lagoon… Who would have thought?! Here the corals and sea life flourish. the larger lagoon provides a sheltered retreat for all kinds of aquatic life when the winds and waves pick up. We even saw a couple of turtles enjoying the calm waters.

Shimzu Island

An island hopping style lunch on the beach
An island hopping style lunch on the beaches of Shimzu Island. Bring an appetite~!

From the Big Lagoon we made our way across the strait to the sandy beaches of Shimzu island. Shimzu island would be our lunch spot for the day and while we snorkeled or lazed on the beach our boat’s crew got to work grilling up a feast.

Grilled fish, pork & prawns accompanied steamed crab and an assortment of fresh fruits & vegetables. While the lunch was simple it hit the spot perfectly after an active morning of kayaking, snorkeling and swimming!

Secret Lagoon

Secret lagoon in El Nido is an island hopping staple.
Crawl through the beach cave to access Secret Lagoon – Image from my DJI Mavic Drone

Pulling up the the bay at secret lagoon halfway through our island hopping tour, I was once again confused. I couldn’t immediately figure out where the lagoon was or why it would be named secret lagoon.

Everything became clear as we were directed off the boat and towards the left side of the beach where we’d find a cave.

Crawling through the cave we emerged into a cathedral like lagoon where rock walls jutted skyward and only the sky was visible.

7 Commandos Beach

relaxing on 7 commandoes beach at the end of our island hopping tour.
Relax & enjoy a drink on 7 Commandos beach at the end of your day.

To end the day we made our way back across the bay. Seven commando’s beach was a little slice of paradise for us to wind down on. After swinging on the totally sketchy but fun rope swing, playing volleyball and swimming we were all ready to simply enjoy a drink and relax in the sunshine.

Make sure to try a fresh coconut with a shot of Boracay rum, it was the best $3 I spent all day!

Island Hopping Tour B

Tour B was described to me as the caves & coves tour. You’ll visit some epic cave locations, be given the opportunity to snorkel vibrant reefs and lounge on the sands of snake island.

I didn’t take tour B, but I spoke to a few people who had. Here’s what they said:

  Tour “B” Itinerary
  Cost: P1300

  • Cathedral Cave
  • Snake Island
  • Cadugnon Cave
  • Entalula Island
  • Pinagbuyutan Island

Cathedral Cave

This island has a cathedral-like cavern opening to the ocean. Accessible only by dinghy and kayak its cool interior is illuminated occasionally by sunlight shining through a small opening in the ceiling.

Snake Island

Snake Island El Nido
Snake Island has an amazing sandbar when stopping for an island hopping lunch!

Known as snake island because of its long s-shaped sandbar that ‘snakes’ off its shore.

Here if the tide is low you’ll enjoy some time playing on the white sand or swimming on either side. If the tide is high you’ll experience a lunch like no other sitting at tables on a slightly submerged sandbar that makes for a great photo!

Cadugnon Cave

Cadugnon cave is an important anthropological site. Here jewelry and pottery dating all the way back to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 BC) have been found. A small opening hidden among the rocks near the beach reveals a tall cave inhabited by sea sparrows.

Entalula Island

Known by some as a miniature Boracay it’s been said to be the best beach in the whole of Bacuit Bay if not El Nido.

Pinagbuyutan Island

This endless stretch of white powdery beach gives way to crystal clear waters. On calm days the reefs in front of Pinagbuyutan Island make for a perfect snorkel spot. Be on the look out for sea turtles and black tip sharks in the area as well as the standard tropical fish & urchins.

Island Hopping Tour C

  Tour “C” Itinerary
  Cost: P1400

  • Helicopter Island
  • Tapiutan Island
  • Hidden Beach
  • Star Beach
  • Secret Beach
Known locally as the Hidden Beaches tour. The attractions of tour C are said to have been the inspiration for Alex Garland’s best selling novel turned motion picture “The Beach” while the writer was living in the area. 

After discovering the stunning sights for myself I have no doubt!

Helicopter Island

Our first stop after departing El Nido on Island hopping tour C was the ingeniously named ‘helicopter island’.  When viewed from a fair distance the island’s limestone silhouette resembles that of a helicopter. Upon closer inspection we were happy to find it sports a beautiful set of white sandy beaches.

Snorkeling near Star Beach & Maniloc Shrine while Island Hopping.
Snorkeling near Star Beach & Matinloc Shrine while Island Hopping in El Nido.

Tapiutan Island

Tapiutan Island seemed like a bit of an afterthought in hindsight. While it was a great spot for a swim or to wander the beach it just didn’t have the same WOW factor most of the other locations possessed. As someone who isn’t strictly beach focused this one wasn’t my Jam but it was still gorgeous and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

Hidden Beach

Hidden Beach was one location we almost missed out on. The surf was high as we set out across the bay and the entrances to hidden beach were taking the brunt of the waves efforts. Our guide was hesitant to take us in but persevered and we won because of it.

Snorkeling during island hopping tour C
Snorkeling while Island Hopping was amazing even with less than normal visibility due to rough sea’s.

Many of the other tours we found out, had skipped hidden beach because of the heavy surf. Their loss was our gain. Playing in the waves and relaxing on the sand without another boat in sight was absolutely what the doctor had ordered.

Star Beach

Star Beach and Matinloc Shrine were offered as choices to our group. We could either go snorkeling along Star Beach or visit the shrine. Overwhelmingly our group wanted to get back in the water and check out the amazing reefs we could see  passing below the boat.

Secret Beach

Secret beach was my favorite stop of the tour. Here, we pulled up to a sheer vertical cliff and anchored the boat, no beach in sight. It wasn’t long until we were in the water swimming to a small hole in the wall. The waves churned as we timed our swim. One has to take advantage of the currents and headroom provided by the waves to get through the cave.

Island Hopping in the Philippines at Secret Beach!
Secret Beach isn’t so secret from above 😉 El Nido Island Hopping – Shot with my DJI Drone

More than one visitor mistimed their initial attempt and had to take a second (or third) before making it through. A few even ending up with minor battle scars to mark the occasion.

Once inside you’re greeted with the most amazing hidden-from-sight beach. Fringed with jungle and ringed by jagged limestone cliffs I can only imagine a time when it was known by but a few locals and truly was a hidden paradise.

Our time in paradise came to a close all too soon. We timed our escape from the cave, jumping into the current as the wave retreated and popped out the other side like a cork from a shaken bottle. With that it was back onto the boat for a ride back to town.

Island Hopping Tour D

Tour D is the tour that seems to be booked by worn out travellers. Those who’ve partied too much, drank too much or simply been on the move too long.

If this hits close to home, Tour D is the fix for all that ails you.

  Tour “D” Itinerary
  Cost: P1200

  • Cadlao Lagoon
  • Pasandigan Beach
  • Paradise Beach
  • Bukal Island
  • Nat Nat Beach

Staying close to El Nido, a run around the beaches of Cadlao island lets you maximize your beach time soaking up the sun and recovering from the night before.  The relaxed atmosphere and calm waters of this tour seem to call to those needing a “me day” and by all accounts it’s the perfect fix.

Things to Remember When Island Hopping In the Philippines

Before you run off and book your trip the Philippines so you can experience Island hopping in El Nido for yourself there are a few things you should know! These range from basic to brilliant but need to be said. These points in a nutshell:

Before Your Island Hopping Tour in El Nido remember:

  • Pay the Eco-Toruism Development Fee & keep the receipt. This fund helps keep El-Nido green.
  • Apply sun block well before your tour and remember to reapply often. Lobster just isn’t your color!
  • Use biodegradable sunscreen to protect the aquatic ecosystem & corals.
  • Bring water shoes or sandals. Many points of interest may be rocky or full of coral. Your feet will thank me!
  • Protect your gadgets by putting them in waterproof cases or bags. Drybags can be bought in town. I nearly lost $5000 in camera equipment when a rouge wave soaked the boat!
  • When in doubt take the life jacket. No pride, just do it.
  • Book in person so you have a chance to haggle. Online = Overpaying
  • Bring Water There’s now a ban on single use plastic containers, bring a water bottle!
  • Tours include a buffet lunch. No need to bring food unless you’ll be looking for a snack before lunchtime.
  • If you’ve got the $$ rent a private boat and leave town EARLY, you’ll get to enjoy all the sights to yourself!

With those tips in mind, go out & find some cheap airfare, pack your backpack and enjoy the epic adventure that island hopping in El Nido can be!

El Nido Island Hopping in Video

Photos alone cant convey the epic sights around El Nido. Island hopping here is something best experienced first hand, but if thats not possible video takes a close second!

 

Thoughts & Takeaways

All in all, Island hopping in El Nido was an epic experience. Yes, you’ll be dealing with other tourists and no, you wont be strolling along deserted beaches. However, if you manage your expectations you can enjoy island hopping in El Nido for what it is! 

Get there soon–The road is almost paved all the way to town. Who knows what a further influx of tourists  will turn the area into. Green initiatives and sustainable practices are being implemented by local governments I can only hope that when I return to the area it’s as good or better than I remember!

If this article helped you plan your Island hopping trip around El Nido or even if you simply liked looking at the photos and have added the Philippines to your bucket list drop a comment down below or give it a share on your favorite social media channel. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

Patrick Horsfield

I’m Patrick, traveller, explorer, writer and photographer in chief here at Adventographer. Growing up with a healthy appetite for adventure on the west coast of Canada helped me shake the mindset that I needed material things and encouraged me to make travel a priority in my life. I write from a wealth of travel experiences both good and bad and endeavor to create & share amazing, inspiring content from around the world as a catalyst for change. Come along with me as I Explore/Create/Educate!

9 Comments

  1. This is amazing Patrick! Your Photos make me want to visit the Philippines right now, that azure water and white sandy beaches… It just calls to me! If I go I’ll definitely need to go island hopping… Did you check out Nacpan beach? My girlfriend went and stayed there, she absolutely loved it.

    1. Hi Tracey! I’m glad you liked the post, I’m very happy with the way the images from my drone worked out here too! I did have a chance to rent a motorcycle and go explore Nacpan beach. I’ve got a blog post about it in the works, you’ll have to check back 😉

  2. This post couldn’t have come at a better time Patrick! I’m planning to visit…next week! I really appreciate your tips, especially about a dry bag; I may try and buy one before I leave. I absolutely cannot wait! El Nido looks incredible.

  3. 50 small islands?! That sounds amazing! The small and big lagoon looks beautiful! The water is soooo blue, would love to go for a swim. Thanks for sharing the different tour options. Really helpful!

  4. I haven’t yet visited the Philippines and would love to! Thank you for all the great information, an island hopping trip like this sounds perfect. I cant wait to see those stunning views for myself 🙂

  5. Love the in depth info that you gave and can’t help but be tempted by the hidden nature of Secret Beach. Can’t help but think that a wedding in Cathedral Cave would be mindblowing too, from your description.

  6. Oh my gawwwwwwd is this place from my dreams?! I have always wanted to go to The Phillipines and i don’t blame you one bit for jumping on that cheap airfare. I think the Big and Small Lagoons would be my favorite, but let’s be real I would want to do ALL FOUR tours to see all these dreamlike places! Thanks for the inspo!

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