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.
After a few days 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
- Small Lagoon
- Big Lagoon
- Shimzu Island
- Secret Lagoon
- 7 Commando’s Beach
If you only have time to take one island hopping tour in El Nido be sure it’s this one!
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.
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.
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!
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
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
I didn’t take tour B, but I spoke to a few people who had. Here’s what they said:
Tour “B” Itinerary
- Cathedral Cave
- Snake Island
- Cadugnon Cave
- Entalula Island
- Pinagbuyutan Island
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.
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 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.
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.
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
- Helicopter Island
- Tapiutan Island
- Hidden Beach
- Star Beach
- Secret Beach
After discovering the stunning sights for myself I have no doubt!
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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
If this hits close to home, Tour D is the fix for all that ails you.
Tour “D” Itinerary
- 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.
Where To Stay In El Nido
Most visitors to Palawan and El Nido end up staying out of town along the Carong Carong or Las Cabanas beach areas but El Nido proper has a few hidden gems you should consider before spending more for less…
Just around the point on the right side of El Nido bay, a 5 minute walk or quick tricycle ride from the town center, but well removed from the tourist craziness is the Cadlao Resort & resturant. The view from the glistening, ocean-front pool is just what the doctor ordered after long days exploring in the sun and the cocktails are cheap and plentiful! Rooms here are clean, well appointed, and relaxing with views across the bay and the resort’s masseuse is a miracle worker for only pennies!
Closer to town and a few $$$ cheaper than the resorts above or south of town you’ll find the Sea Cocoon Hotel. It sits a block inland from the beach but upper floor rooms have a nice view over town to the bay. The rooms are comfortable if somewhat smaller than I’m used to but the hotel staff’s attentiveness & helpfulness make up for that and more!
For backpackers visiting El Nido on the cheap check out the Happiness Hostel which we were told good things about. It’s right on the beach which is great for meeting your island hopping tour, but at night you’ll either need earplugs or to simply join the party that starts up every evening beach-side. If you’re looking for somewhere off the party path where you can get some rest we also heard good things about the Spin Designer Hostel.
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 I head back I’ll pack a better drybag with me!
- 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 WaterThere’s now a ban on single use plastic containers, bring a water bottle! There’s nothing like my Lifestraw bottle’s ability to filter out anything and everything!
- 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!
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!