El Nido is located on Palawan Island in the Philippines and there are two ways to get there. You have to fly out from Vietnam to Manila, then get on board a domestic flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa. Even though I booked three months in advance, it cost around US$400 (VND9 million) for the round trip.
From Puerto Princesa, you either take a minivan (US$28 per person) or a bus to go 250km in five hours to get to El Nido. Another way is to fly direct to El Nido from Manila. There is a private airport in El Nido but it is mostly used by politicians, celebrities and the rich.
Whatever route you choose to take, it’s a long journey.
To make it there in one day, I left Saigon on a plane at 1am. After travelling for 15 hours, and awake for 35 hours without sleep, I was drained, passing out on my hotel bed.
El Nido has all range of hotels and resorts. I stayed at La Casa Teresa (VND1 million for a night for a standard room) located south of the town centre, close to Marimegmeg beach. To go to the centre, you can either rent a motorbike (US$12 per day) or hop into a tricycle (US$1 from the outskirts to the centre). It’s better to have a motorbike.
Sun, Beaches and Seafood
The first morning greeted me with blue skies. Silky golden sunlight pierced the clouds. El Nido looks like Halong Bay but with fewer islands scattered in the sea. It stretches for several kilometres from the edge of a mountain range to the sea.
There are many beaches. However, only two or three sections are wide enough for sunbathing with food and beverages served on the spot. Other smaller beaches are used as wharves, in particular the beaches in the centre of town. Due to the rocky shoreline and the abundance of coral, boats called outriggers, which have a steel balancing system on either side, are regularly seen.
If you want to get out of El Nido, you can drive 25km to the north to where Nacpan Beach is located. Here, two thick, white strips of sand draw curves into the coastline, meeting at a mound jutting out into the sea. When I visited there were few tourists, giving me more privacy and a sense of self-indulgence. I placed my towel on the sand and lay on it to get a tan. For those who love surfing, Duli beach, located next to Nacpan, is the local Mecca.
People in El Nido eat rice at every meal. Even street food including charcoal grilled chicken or pork intestine is served with rice. Don’t worry. There is also pork, chicken wings, fish and crab. Prices vary from place to place, but a cold San Miguel typically costs around US$1 and a cocktail US$1.50.
If you crave seafood, you can find it at international restaurants in the town centre or drop off at the local market, located opposite the two main gas stations of El Nido (US$3 for a full tank). Seafood here is abundant and affordable (US$2.50 for a 500-gram snapper or US$3 for a 700-gram crab). Nothing beats a seafood BBQ on the beach at sunset.
The centre is a small tourist town and unlike elsewhere in the Philippines, the majority of tourists here are westerners. Hotels, international restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops and tour agencies take up every inch of the streets. During the day, parking is free and you can leave your motorbike anywhere you wish. However, the area is pedestrianised after 5pm.
I didn’t exchange enough money at the airport and had to look for an ATM. According to Google Maps, there are four ATMs in El Nido. I parked my motorbike at the front of the El Nido Municipal Hall and headed straight up to the ATM.
“Ma’am, you have to go to the First Consolidated Bank to withdraw money,” a staff member sitting next to the ATM said. “I don’t know what happened to it.” I heard that some other tourists could not withdraw their money at other ATMs. So, I decided to have a simple dinner at the hotel.
El Nido is still developing. Although it has electricity, it has no street lights. If you stay in a hotel in the centre, it’s okay, with lights from shops guiding the way. But driving from the outskirts to the centre is dangerous after dark due to the winding mountain roads.
Yet at night, El Nido is full of tourists searching out nightlife. Electricity used to be cut off from 10pm until 6am, and all activities closed down. Some bars and restaurants still follow those hours, but Sava — a beach bar suggested by tricycle drivers for a late night out — is open until 3am.
Internet is also a problem in El Nido. In order to have a few minutes on Facebook to let family and friends know I was still fine, I had to leave my hotel and stop at La Salangane — a French restaurant-cum-hotel located on Serena Street to have a few bottles of San Miguel and access the Internet. It was a bit better here.
Two Scottish guys I met admitted that they could go scuba diving every day with different agencies providing trips to different dive sites. Depending on how many dives you want to do in a day, the price starts from US$40 per person. And if you haven’t got any diving certificates, snorkeling is another great way to view the corals and marine life.
Island hopping is also popular and travel agencies offer three tour options designed for different groups of islands. Snorkeling and kayaking are included as part of the deal. Depending on your choice of islands, the price starts from US$24 per person.
Another trip is to the local waterfalls, called Nagkalit-Kalit. Located on the way to Nacpan Beach, according to the man working in the parking lot, you may need a guide as it’s hard to find the falls. It’s also dangerous walking through the jungle. The cost for a guide is US$20.
Visit elnidopalawan.com for more info about flights, buses, hotels, restaurants and activities in El Nido
Photos by Vu Ha Kim Vy / February 2016