El Nido Travel Guide
I love it here in the Philippines. I knew it the moment I landed in Puerto Princesa. The people here are so friendly, the landscapes are absolutely beautiful, and I’ve reached that point of giving up trying to capture the beauty of this country because it is just impossible to put it into a picture frame.
I like to think I’m an avid traveler who knows the insider tips about how to travel cheap, good, and not like a tourist. Lifelong learning is also a key principle of mine, and so I want to share some of the things I picked up about how the tourism business works in El Nido, the principle destination of Palawan, the most beautiful island in the world.
I’ll start with some key points I learned while speaking with Angelic, a young local single mother who works at The Beach Shack on Las Cabanas Beach. She was on her break and saw me eating alone since Bettina had eaten earlier, and asked if she could join me. We ended up talking for two hours about anything and everything! A couple of her colleagues joined us towards the end, before the restaurant got busy and they had to get back to work. Some things I learned from Angelic:
- The staff works every day for nine hours and get two days off per month
- Breaks are not set and inconsistent, but it works out in their favour when it’s slow
- There are many people in the Filipino LGBTQ community
- The tricycle/jeepney (the Filipino version of a rickshaw — literally an attachment on a motorcycle) prices are the same for locals and tourists
- The Beach Shack used to be a sort of all-inclusive resort (there are none now) but they demolished it and are rebuilding to follow the business model of the other accommodations (possibly more profitable that way?)
I learned a lot about Angelic too, and I am so glad to have met her. The time passed more quickly than I could have imagined — I forgot to wake up Bettina from her nap!
Anyway, the chat with her inspired me to write today and share some insider tips for El Nido. Here we go!
Note: we are traveling in low season, when the prices tend to be generally 200–500 cheaper than high season. They will also often start the asking price at 200 or so more than their minimum. Bargain hard!
Town vs Beach
We had booked our first two nights in an Airbnb in El Nido. It was true Filipino style: bamboo walls, felt like a treehouse, and ended up giving us a rat and some worms for free. That story is for another time — all I’ll say here is that the owner and staff handled the situation very well, and we were happy. When we arrived in El Nido, however, we learned that there were two areas: town and Las Cabanas Beach area. The cost to get between the two in a tricycle was 150 pesos one way. We went there for the sunset and saw a few hotels up above the beach and two right on the beach. Since we hadn’t booked for our remaining nights in El Nido, we got some pricing for the two on the beach: 3000 pesos/night for Las Cabanas Resort and 2000 pesos/night for their neighbours, Orange Pearl.
At first, I thought that was pretty steep, but then the rat happened and I did some more math. The place in town was costing 1900/night, which was pretty average for other hotels with AC and breakfast in town. Town also had power cuts for most of the day, whereas the beach resorts had power all day. We decided to move to Orange Pearl, and it has been great. Melai, the manager, cut us that deal for 2000/night — originally, it was 2500. Jeng has been beyond helpful for everything, like booking our van to go back to Puerto Princesa, our boat to Coron, and Tour C. We have a sort of bungalow right on the beach and I can see the sunset from my bed. What’s not to like?! We found out from two French girls we met on Tour C today that they were paying 1600 in town with no AC and not even a fan!
The only downside about staying on the beach is that we are very limited for food options. The Beach Shack is the only place (including the hotels themselves) that accepts credit card anywhere I’ve seen, including in town. The other restaurants are owned by the two hotels. There is some sort of bar on the other end of the beach — we always see the lights at night but we have no reason to go all the way over there. In town, the food is a bit cheaper and there is a lot more variety. It’s also easier to access shops where you can buy little things like snacks and drinks — things that cost double or more at the hotels.
Luckily, the pier to go on the tours is in town so on our way back, before grabbing a tricycle, we do our shopping in town. We’ve learned to be efficient!
There are four types of tours available in El Nido, taking you to different islands and beaches. We did tours A and C, as recommended by some guests at our hostel in Puerto Princesa. I am still trying to decide which was better, but I will say that they were both amazing. We went to lagoons, hidden and secret beaches, and even a former Survivor site!
There are two ways to book the tours: your hotel and an agency. The agencies are all in town, and some of the hotels over there will still book them for you too. The actual travel company that we took is called Alexzus. Our Airbnb booked Tour A for us for 1000/person — the price with Orange Pearl was 1200. As you’ll see later in the Transportation section, we learned that the beach businesses take advantage of naïve tourists.
The Airbnb would have given us Tour C for 1200 but we had left them by that point. Orange Pearl did it for 1400, including the tricycle to go to the pier. So that wasn’t a bad deal. I checked some of the prices through the agencies in town and they were the same as the Airbnb. Town vs beach prices once again.
We found out after we took Tour A and had already booked Tour C, that an unadvertised option was a combo tour. Our neighbour took a combo of Tour A and C for 1500 — not bad! They had less time in each spot, but they got to see them all.
Cash vs ATMs
There was mixed information online about the availability of ATMs and acceptance of credit cards on the island. El Nido has an ATM but very few places that accept credit card. It’s best to keep at least a thousand in cash on you when you’re going out. If you’re a shopper, triple that.
Transportation in and out of El Nido
I’m a planner. It bites me in the ass sometimes but I get traveling anxiety if I don’t know how I’m getting somewhere, where that is, and when I’m getting there by at least a couple of days beforehand. That’s why we had the Airbnb booked — we would figure out the rest later by looking around.
That’s also why we booked a minivan with AC in advance online through Daytripper to go from Puerto Princesa to El Nido — a six-hour journey. We booked that for 850. Our minivan with AC back to Puerto Princesa is 500, booked through Orange Pearl and same price at the agencies. Enough said.
What really bothered me was when I found out the Town vs Beach market economics when it came to booking the boat to Coron (also a six-hour journey. We leave tomorrow morning and will stay there for three nights before returning). Orange Pearl told us 1500 each way, so we booked it. But then we checked with an agency and they said 1200 each way. Best part? There is only one boat that goes between El Nido and Coron. A total of 600 pesos in savings is totally worth a fight, in my eyes.
So when we got back to the hotel, I went looking for the staff and simply explained the situation and the guy immediately said, okay, we’ll do it for 1200 each way. No fight needed! Moral of the story: the beach businesses know their marketing strategy, and they also know how to handle it when the naïve tourist turns out to be not so naïve. They just minimize the damage and make sure no other guests heard!
That’s just business though, I understand.
There is also an airport in El Nido and for those who just want to experience the island life, I recommend flying into El Nido rather than going to Puerto Princesa first. The main thing to see in Puerto Princesa is the Underground River, though I have heard that that is magnificent. I may edit this suggestion after I visit there next week!
Originally published at www.gunjanmarwah.com.