El Nido – the final frontier?
Something happens to a place after it’s been voted “the best” of anything, two years in a row. For tourism, it can be either a blessing or a curse. In countries with functioning infrastructure, laws and a long-standing tourism culture, this title often means an increase in service/quality (and prices of course) to satisfy the incoming flow of tourists. The Philippines is, however, neither of these. So after Palawan, Philippines, was voted the best island in the world, two years in a row by Conde Nast traveller, its crown jewel, the charming fishing village of El Nido was boosted into a whirlwind of one of the biggest tourism booms ever. The formerly quaint village that keeps the key to one of the most beautiful archipelagos in the world had is at the moment bursting at the seams – with tourists, wildly built hotels and guesthouses, a never ending offer of the same tours etc. There still is a way to enjoy El Nido and all its beauty, but nowadays you have to be well prepared for it. Here’s our scoop on the best (and worst) of this tropical paradise.
When to visit:
Both times we visited El Nido in January – in 2013 this meant a few tourists, the very start of the rainy season (which does come in handy after every few days of scorching heat) and in general a quite easy going vibe. In 2016 though, January became one of the peaks of the high season. With winter in Europe and North America and the Chinese New year at the beginning of February, the town was swarming with people. If this is not your scene and you like a quieter vibe, the locals suggested May and June. Prices drop by at least 30% and there is much more breathing space in general. If however, you’d like to escape the winter in Northern Hemisphere, you have to pay the price, which is about 40% higher than the rest of Palawan. Of course, for European/North American/Australian standards, these prices are still super affordable and the locals know it well.
Where to stay:
The best advice I can give you when picking a location for your El Nido stay is to stay wherever is convenient for one or two nights and then walk around town and pick a spot you like best for the rest of your stay. This of course means, you’ll be staying for more than two days :). You can book some places online in advance, through Agoda mostly, but the online prices are usually pretty inflated. You have to take into account that up until last year, El Nido didn’t have 24 hour electricity and very few people had access to the internet. Those who did, took advantage of the not so flexible tourists and charged a premium for having a place to stay upfront. Honestly however, there are so many factors to take into consideration – do you mind noise, do you want a beachfront bungalow, do you mind climbing 200 steps daily for the most amazing view of El Nido, do you prefer to stay at the beach or in town? So may options to consider and with new ones popping up daily here is the scoop on our favorites:
• El Nido Cliffside Cottages – one of definitely the best places to stay in El Nido. Yes, the whole complex is a bit run down, but for that price (700 php per double room) you can’t beat it. The cottages all share a communal, beautiful courtyard, as the name itself says, they are located next to the El Nido cliff which makes it cool at night and the friendly staff is happy to let you use the kitchen, which is one of the biggest bonuses. If you like to cook, you will certainly want to take advantage of the market in El Nido
• Sea and Jungle – here’s where the 200 steps come into play, but once you climb them, you will be grateful as one of the most spectacular vistas of El Nido bay opens up in front of your eyes. These cottages are new, spacious and well maintained, with warm showers (a bit of a luxury) and friendly owners (a Filipino-German couple who will most likely ask you to join them for a drink on their terrace as you walk in). Price: 1800 php for double room
• High Chaparral Cottages: brand new cottages in a super quiet setting, on the way to Calaan beach from El Nido main beach, run by a Swiss/Filipino couple who also like to hand out on the communal veranda and share stories
• Relucio traveller’s pension – this family run pension might be completely worn out, but it boasts one of the most central locations in El Nido. With a view from the terrace right out to the El Nido bay, you can easily forget about the little issues this pension is full of. The family that runs it is very friendly, will let you use their kitchen and they said they will renovate the place soon, so hopefully positive updates coming up!
Plus so many other options – almost every second house in El Nido is a hotel/bungalow/rooms offering, so there is plenty to choose from. From the high end options (the brand new El Nido beach hotel right on the beach) to the budget options of a few pensions, it really depends on what you’re looking for. I would personally recommend staying away from the El Nido beach – you won’t be able to escape the crowds and the noise during the night, and being so central is just not worth it.
Another option to consider is Corong Corong – a settlement a few kilometres south of town, which you will pass as you come up to town from Puerto Princessa. Back in the day Corong Corong was a few huts, now its a never ending construction site with beach view hotels and resorts popping up daily. The upside definitely is one of the most beautiful views in Palawan – the sunset over Las Cabanas beach is one of the best in the world (see above featured image). In Corong Corong, you’re close to the beach, which is a plus, but going into town would require a tuk tuk ride every time which is between 100-150 php per ride.
What to bring:
Money. Cash is scarce in El Nido, still. even though there is one ATM in town, it is very often out of order, doesn’t cater to your credit card or there is some other issue with it. Definitely bring cash – philippine pesos preferably, as the exchange rates in El Nido are the least favourable compared to for example Puerto Princesa or the airport in Manila.
Another option you have is to pay stuff, like for example your accommodation, via sites such as World Remit. It’s a pretty easy and straightforward option that takes only minutes, you can pay online by credit card and the recipient can pick up the cash almost instantly in any of the two Palawan Pawnshop offices in El Nido. It’s also a pretty handy tool to have in case you run out of cash and have acquired Filipino friends – simply wire the cash to their name – costs less than taking it out of the ATM that almost never works.
Internet – if you can’t live without your connection or its crucial for your globe-trotting job, get a portable modem and a Globe sim card. If you don’t need fairly reliable internet for your laptop, you can simply get a Globe sim card with data and user your smartphone for your surfing needs. Be aware though that, even though the modems work pretty well, there is a general issue of connectivity during peak hours, which are 8 am – 11 am and 5 pm – 10 pm. These are the times when everyone is waking up and get online before hitting the beach/going for an tour and after they come back from their beach fun. So basically, don’t expect to get any constructive work done during these hours.
Repellent. Mosquito/bug/whatever bugs you repellent. You can buy it of course in El Nido but the choice is not so vast so if you’re addicted to your DEET, bring it with you.
Headlamps, or small portable lamps of any kind. Electricity is still scarce in El Nido so it might run out while you’re staggering home after you’ve had one too much of the tastiest rum and coke.
Where to eat/drink:
Honestly, El Nido is not the gourmet heaven you would expect it to be. Yes, there are some places that serve great food, there’s even more that serve good food, but if you’re a foodie you’ll have much better luck and experience in Puerto Princesa. Having said that, here are my top picks for food in El Nido:
• Make it yourself! As mentioned already, the market in El Nido is just spectacular, if you are a seafood lover. So don’t be lazy, wake up early and go get your lunch. You won’t regret it and you’ll probably have one of the best and cheapest meals you’ve ever cooked. For recipe inspiration, check out our cooking section
• Calaan GK restaurant – definitely one of the tastiest foods in El Nido! We loved it so much we came back over and over and over. Their menu is small but super tasty – I would definitely recommend the fish soup and the fish in sweet and sour sauce. Plus, this is a local community enterprise, meaning they involve women from the neighboring village who prepare the food, tend to their garden (yes, the veggies come from their very own garden) and they even have a movie night every night so you can order your meal, sit down on the grass and enjoy your dinner + a movie. Absolutely recommended
• Marbers aka our second home in El Nido. Or maybe our first home – who can tell when we’ve spent countless hours there. There is a specific charm about it which might not be noticeable at first – the place is constantly under some reconstruction, the bathrooms are terrible and the food is good, depending on what you eat and what mood the chef is in. Sometimes it was some of the best food we had in El Nido (for example, the “lechon” aka roasted suckling pig), most of the time good, standard food. One thing about Marbers is that you can be certain they take good care of their ingredients – i.e. properly chill the fish and meat when they store it etc. The menu is huge and varied, with a lot of German dishes as one half of the owner couple if German (Bernie). The other half, the Filipina Marylou is one of the chattiest people out there but also has some of the best insider info in town. Plus, this is the place where most of the local expats come to hang out at the bar, so if you are looking to get a glimpse of what the “local” life in El Nido might be, have a seat at the bar in Marbers for at least one night and let Bernie serve you the strongest and best Rum and Coke you’ve had in your life
• Altrove – it might seem funny that I’m suggesting a pizzeria at the end of the world, but sometimes you just feel like a good old pizza. If you crave some carbs after days upon days of enjoying the freshest and yummiest fish out there, head over to Altrove. Yes, it is pricey, but their ingredients are high quality and their staff knows what they’re doing.
• The Bazaar – definitely one of the more interesting spots in El Nido. The first time I stepped foot inside i told Kruno “Hey, we’re in Friedrichshain!” And Bazaar retained feels like you’ve stepped through a portal and found yourself in the middle of Berlin. Run by mostly a French crew, this commune-like setup of shops/bars/restaurants offers good food in its three restaurants and some of THE BEST MOJITOS in the world in Kalabar. With interesting things happening most nights of the week, this is also a cool place to come and chill with a drink and a bite to eat after you’ve come back from the beach
• Angle Bar – one of the places we managed to not get around to but that everyone in El Nido recommends, so we’ll just have to go back and check it out!