What’s that you say? I was in the Philippines last year? That’s true. But since it’s been one of my fave places so far, I felt like I needed to wrap it up properly. And everybody visits the island of Palawan when they go to the Philippines…
El Nido is the shockingly beautiful, shockingly fun spot in the Philippines that backpackers flock to. Of course, like everywhere in the Philippines, it ain’t THAT easy to get to. From Cebu it’s a short flight to Puerto Princesa, a bit of haggling for a 5 or 6 hour sweaty van ride (though they promise “It’s 4 hours only!”), and you’re there!
After spending a little too much time in other island destinations like Boracay and Malapascua, I didn’t have many of my 30 days in the ‘Peens left for anywhere else except El Nido and Coron. If I could do it again (and I MIGHT!) I’d try to hit up Port Barton. It’s a little paradise-like place on Palawan that folks say resembles El Nido ten years ago.
El Nido isn’t much upon first glance. It’s a dusty, colorful, slightly rundown beach town. Okay, so it was dark when I finally got there, because I told you, travel in the Philippines takes all day no matter what. It’s got bars and restaurants along a not-so-amazing main beach that serves as its harbor.
But head off to some of its farther out beaches, bays, and lagoons, and you’re like “Ohhhh, I get it. I really f’n get it. Can I stay longer? Wait, why am I only staying four days?!”
Don’t expect air conditioning or hot water if you’re on a budget. And for that matter, expect slightly higher prices than other Southeast Asian countries. And wifi, ha, don’t make me laugh! My SIM card didn’t even work half the time I was in El Nido. But that doesn’t matter, because I lived in my bathing suit, joined all the beach-based activities possible, and had an absolute ball.
Booze Cruising… Again
Most people come to El Nido to do one of the island-hopping tours. These are the scenic cruises creatively named A, B, C, and D, and they visit some of the best nearby beaches and tiny islands.
But not me. Seeing as I’d run into a few friends from earlier destinations in the ‘Peens, a couple of Irish guys who had a booze cruise in the works, I decided my money was better spent with theirs. Remember my rule about always going on the booze cruise? It held true in El Nido more than ever… despite the hangover with which that day began.
The El Nido Party Boat’s selling point is that it takes you to some of the same “beautiful places” as the A, B, C, and D boats, but also provides a ramshackle cast of backpackers onboard, all-you-can drink booze, and a buffet spread of local fare for lunch. SIGN. ME. UP. (Okay, I was hesitant at first. And I was like, “But it costs $40 USD… ehhh that’s really not in the budget, I dunno.”) I only headed to the beach feeling nauseated and headache-y at the last minute because I’d actually ALREADY been signed up by my party-loving friends.
Totally worth it. One of the most fun days ever.
We did, in fact, go to some very beautiful places. We were taken around to swim, float at our leisure, or kayak to the beach it if we pleased. We ate, we drank, we danced (cringe), we depleted the supply of COLD beers within 20 minutes of being on board, and then we embraced the rum. We took in a sloppy fun sunset and were deposited on the beach from whence we came… to go eat burritos that we would not remember. It was an amazing time.
Beaches Around El Nido
Aside from that fab day in El Nido, we also took motorbikes out to explore some of the more beautiful mainland beaches that aren’t right in the center of town.
Nacpan Beach was as pristine and clear-watered as any. However, we made the mistake of staying on the lagoon side. There were little kids playing, a couple of boats anchored, and a few beachfront cafes. But like, we should’ve walked across to the waves and white sand. (Idiots.)
That same day, we ventured a bit farther out to a huge, wide beach which was deserted, save the man in the parking lot collecting money for “parking” your motorbike. There are apparently a few of these beaches – like Duli and Mariposa – out past Nacpan if you want something more secluded.
On our final full day, we took a tricycle out to Las Cabanas, a long beautiful beach with tall palm trees and several stands and restaurants selling cocktails and beers. The crowds were bigger here for sure, but there was still plenty of room to lounge and swim without any waves. (Ya just need to buy a drink if you want a seat!) There were even a few cabanas where you could stay if you didn’t want to be in the center of town.
It was a relaxing place to float around, play cards, sneak some rum in a mango smoothie, and stay till sunset…
Why “sneak” rum you ask? Well, similar to Colombia, when the Philippines holds elections, they ban alcohol for a couple days. Lots of people just stock up on booze before those days (like when a hurricane is about to hit North Carolina, ha). However, some establishments managed to skirt the law by banning alcohol only for locals. Or just slipping it into your drink for a few extra pesos, as with this place on the beach. (And my god, it was the two days just before my birthday.)
Luckily, El Nido is so touristy that many of the beach bars stayed open and in full swing, hanging up signs that said alcohol would only be served to tourists. I managed to celebrate my birthday on the beach – well, the strike of midnight on May 10th anyway – with my new booze cruise buds. It was the kind of fun you can only have with perfect strangers-turned-best-friends that you have to say goodbye to the next day. We spent the evening at Pukka Bar, the most crowded and popular (and loud) of all the beach bars near El Nido’s town center.
There are no breaks in El Nido. There are no “off” nights.
We had so much fun in fact, that I almost missed my ferry to Coron the next day. It was a struggle and a race to the docks that morning after. Oh, and then I got to spend the next seven hours on the open ocean in a wooden ship with a ton of other people.
Still worth it.
Did I survive? That’s to be continued…
Where to Stay in El Nido: According to everyone backpacking, stay at OMP Hostel. Definitely book ahead in high or shoulder season. I partied there, but it was full when I arrived, so the very nice man at reception walked me over to Zaniya’s Pension around the corner, where I got one of the cheaper, non AC rooms for 900 pesos.
Where to Eat and Drink in El Nido: Everyone heads to the main beach to drink in the evenings, for sunset beers and late night Red Horses and dancing. There will be tables on the beach, bands, and live music, but everyone eventually seemed to end up at Pukka Bar for reggae and the DJ tunes. For food, there’s great pizza at Altrove and the really good Chipotle-esque food I’d been looking for at LC’s Burrito Bar. Get sandwiches and fresh stuff for your body at Artcafe.