No Philippines vacation is complete without a trip to El Nido, Palawan. There are 7000+ islands that make up the Philippines, and if you had to choose just one, then it should be El Nido, Palawan.
Much has been said about the different islands and speaking from experience, the hype around many can’t be trusted. However, El Nido, Palawan doesn’t disappoint and lives up to all the blogger and drone hype you see online.
There are a couple of things you must do when in El Nido, Palawan such as check out the beachside restaurants, chill on the different beaches or hire a scooter and explore. However, if like me you are short on time and visiting for the first time, then you HAVE to:
Book A Private Boat For ‘Tour A’
As soon as you check yourself into your hotel, I highly recommend booking a tour for the next day. If your hotel doesn’t have a tour service, not to worry. There are tour guides or people connected to them everywhere on the island, so just ask.
Book ‘Tour A’ as it takes you to all the popular, must-see islands. The other tours are better for your second visit or if you’re staying in El Nido, Palawan for an extended time. Tour A includes – Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Shimizu Island, 7 commandos and Papaya Beach.
At the end of this blog, I’ve included some tips for less experienced travellers or Indians like myself, who may be interested in taking this tour. There are some things on there I wish I had known before booking – so scroll down for that. Not that any of it would deter me from doing the tour!
Why Go For A Private Tour?
The biggest advantage of booking a private tour is that El Nido, Palawan is getting more popular every passing year and that means more tourists want to see the sights.
If you’re a group of four or more people, like us, opt for a private boat and ask them to start the tour by 7 or 8 am. The group tours usually start at 9/9:30 so leaving early means you miss the major rush. Trust me when I say, leaving early is just like avoiding rush hour traffic in the city – you’ll be thankful!
We asked a local waiter, who knew a licensed boat captain to set us up with a private tour since we were four of us. After a bit of negotiation, we settled on 8000 PHP (Rs 10,000) for the whole day, which included the taxes, admission fees, island permit/passes, water, lunch at a private island and all five stops on Tour A. Our boat was named after the captain’s daughter, so, if you’re interested in hiring the same people (please do, they were awesome) ask for the Nina Crystal May tour boat.
In case you were wondering, other group tours cost about 1200 PHP (Rs 1800) per person, and can pack up to 10 or 12 people on a boat. Making it crowded and hard to fit in extra time if the whole group wants to leave a spot.
Island Hopping at El Nido, Palwan
As you can tell from the video above, it was a fabulous day, and the weather Gods were on our side. In my opinion, the best day to go for a tour is when the sky is clear, and the sun is beaming, as that’s when you truly get to see the unbelievably jewel-toned oceans.
Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Hidden Lagoon
The tour boats are no longer allowed to go right in, which is great as you’re not interrupted by them when experiencing the wonder of the lagoons. However, this means there is a fair bit of swimming against currents and walking through sharp coral and stones. Plus there are biting fish and jellyfish that you need to watch out for. So, make sure you’re a strong swimmer and up for playing a bit of dodge-fish.
Some suggestions, rent a kayak at the Big Lagoon (350-400 PHP), as there is a fair bit to swim and walk before you can actually see it. We didn’t take the kayak for the Big Lagoon, and by the time we got to it, we were pretty sunburned and had had enough of the biting fish! It’s just as majestic as you can imagine though, like a scene out of Avatar. However, if it was a little less crowded, I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it more.
I preferred the Small Lagoon, since we took the kayak, although there wasn’t much to travel and we could have swum the distance. The Small Lagoon feels more intimate and quiet, especially when there are only a few people around. It’s also the only lagoon I took my phone to – so, PICTURES! If you’ve never used a kayak before, like me, don’t worry, it’s not rocket science, you do get the hang of it after a while – the only tricky part is getting on or off it.
Another favourite of mine is the Hidden Lagoon, also called the secret lagoon. It does take an effort to fight the waves and the sharp rocky water bed, but it’s completely worth it. Once you pass the rocky structures, you could almost miss it heading towards the beach, however to the corner there is a keyhole that takes you to this quiet and serene paradise. You’re immediately surrounded by the grey limestone formations and milky turquoise blue waters, a highlight of the day for sure. Keep your eyes peeled for the ‘Last Supper’ formation on the limestone in the Hidden Lagoon.
Try and get to see the Hidden Lagoon earlier in the day to avoid the rush. We were lucky to have had a good 15 minutes in the Hidden Lagoon all to ourselves, an advantage of having a private boat. A great experience but sadly, I didn’t take my camera since there was a lot of swimming and rocks to pass to get to it. I do have the memories though!
Snorkelling near 7 Commandos and Shimizu Island
I thought the Hidden Lagoon would be hard to beat, but then our captain took us to this snorkelling spot right off 7 commandos and Shimizu island that took my breath away. I can’t even begin to describe how clear and blue the water was. From our vantage point on the boat, the ocean’s colours were mesmerising, in shades of Turquoise, Topaz and stormy Lapis Lazuli. As you can imagine, my Instagram brain was on fire, and I had to take a 100 pictures and videos to capture it. However as good as the video and pictures are, nothing compares to what it was like in reality.
This was also the spot where I got to see two sea turtles! While, everyone was snorkelling exploring the rich marine life, which I’m told was the best of our entire Philippines trip – I was taking a beat on the boat. That’s when the captain started whistling to everyone to look out for the sea turtles who were a few meters away from our boat. Unfortunately, they were too fast to capture on camera, but it was a fantastic sight. Nothing beats seeing creatures in their natural habitat.
If you want those insta-worthy pictures on the boat, this is the place to take them. Get there just before noon, so the light isn’t too harsh and reflects the jewel blues of the ocean.
Lunch in Paradise
All the boats are equipped with a small BBQ grill where the crew prepares the fish, pork and chicken to perfection. Mostly all the boats head to Shimizu island for lunch since they can anchor on the beach. That’s when the boatmen become waiters and chefs!
They set up an incredible table of food with table clothes, cutlery and all. Who knew they carried all that with them! Our island lunch consisted of grilled meat and fish, rice, soy sauce with chopped chilli, a fresh cut green salad and some fruits – a feast after all our activities. Again, the views are perfection, no one can ask for more. Plus, Shimizu Island is another great place to take those envious Instagram pictures.
While not openly announced, smoking and drinking alcohol is not allowed at most of these spots – rightly so. The last thing I want ruining those views is the sight of beer bottles and cigarette buds. Having said that, you can carry your alcohol on the boat and with the permission of the captain, smoke on board too. They have a trash can on board, so all trash can go there and not into our oceans!
Don’t miss out on the small sales boats that offer up fresh coconut and some rum to accompany it. You can catch these guys at all the spots, so if you’d like a coconut rum, then you know where to get one on the open seas.
Chill On Papaya Beach
After lunch all you want is to do is relax and enjoy the view and that’s why most tours will head to the 7 Commandos beach. However, our captain knew the owner of Papaya beach, which is right next to the 7 Commandos beach. We were lucky enough to set anchor on that side of the private island and avoid the post-lunch crowds.
I’ve never really understood the charm of a tyre swing until I found one on a cool shady spot of the beach. In all honesty, after the magical day at sea and the lagoons, this little tyre swing was the perfect calm moment before we ended our day trip.
Papaya beach has a small convenience store, with your basics such as snacks, drinks and coconuts – so if you’re there for a long time you can get refreshments. As with many beaches in the Philippines, this one in El Nido, Palawan was just as magical in its own way. Also because it’s a private beach, there wasn’t a huge tourist crowd to dampen the experience.
Tips For Indians on Tour A in El Nido, Palawan
- Vegetarians and vegans, please inform your tour guide the day before about your eating restrictions, as lunch on the island is mainly non-vegetarian.
- If you’re not a strong swimmer, I would highly suggest learning to swim before doing any of these tours. The guides are great at helping you through the lagoons, but it’s better if you are confident as there are some places like the Big Lagoon and Hidden Lagoon where you have to swim a fair bit in choppy waters.
- Watch out for the fish holes! The water here is so clear that you can see the fish holes in the sand. I was bitten a few times for walking near the holes and boy do those bites sting in the water. The nips are tiny but if you don’t move fast enough they can keep biting, which is annoying and a little hurtful.
- There are also jellyfish in the water; they are harder to spot – not all are poisonous though. Well, thankfully the one that stung me wasn’t! Luckily all the boat captains carry vinegar on the boat which helps with the sting. The actual bite felt like electricity all through the body but the initial shock lasted a few mins. There was a mild swelling and pain thereafter. However, in a couple of hours you’re back to normal. The jellyfish tentacles do leave scars and many weeks later the scar still hasn’t gone!
- Carry a portable speaker which has a carabiner attached so you can hook it up to one of the lines on the boat and listen to your tunes. Another great reason to book a private boat.
- Keep an eye out for the turtles. They are the cutest things by far, whether you’re snorkelling or just sitting on the boat, look out for their tiny little heads, they are seriously cute!
- Don’t bring kids who are too young, unless they are used to oceans and you can handle taking them through stoney areas/beaches, biting fish, strong waves and immense heat.
- Be respectful and positive. Your tour guides do these trips every day, interact with them and be respectful and positive, this affects your overall interaction and experience. Your guides are there to help you but not to serve you, so keep that in mind! Also personally, I like to change the mindset of many people who believe that Indians are arrogant and rude. Let’s be good role models!
- Wear appropriate clothing and swimwear. Shorts and a tee or a simple cover-up over swimwear would suffice. Since you will be wading through water to get to your boat from the get-go, anything long will get wet in minutes. When it comes to swimwear – firstly, be confident in your body, but secondly, secure swimwear like swimming trunks, swimsuits or bikini are a must. You’re going to do all sorts of activities and you need to feel secure in what you’re wearing.
- Clean up after yourself, carry one bag to put all the trash that you collect throughout the day. Keep in mind the many tourists coming after you, they want the same pristine experience you’ve had.
- Lastly, things you need to carry are – sunscreen, waterproof camera, a cotton sarong (available at any beach shack), small snack, a towel or two, a set of dry clothes, sunglasses, alcohol (optional) and a good attitude.
A very lengthy blog indeed, but that is expected when you have a magical day in El Nido, Palawan. Tour A was fabulous and the next time I go back, I shall try the tour that goes to Matinloc Shrine – wouldn’t mind some blessings from above, especially while on holiday!
Hope you found this blog on Tour A in El Nido, Palawan useful. I will be doing a round up of the best places to eat at and visit in El Nido, Palawan soon. Make sure you check back, I’ll be giving my honest review of the places I visited!
Till then, be kind.