EL NIDO PALAWAN ON A BUDGET 2018: Travel Guide & Itineraries

Here’s our latest budget travel blog about El Nido, Palawan! In this travel guide, you’ll find sample itineraries, breakdown of expenses, and recommendations on hotels and tours.

When I was a child and conjured up an image of a tropical paradise in a daydream, this looked exactly like this world.

When our boat glided through the waves, it was as though we sailed into a karst world straight from a fantasy film. As we moved closer, the cliffs appeared to magically part, as if ushering us in, inviting us to come in and see what the island had to offer. As we moved, these magnificent giant rocks slowly revealed white, sparkling beaches adorned with coconut trees. In this world, “ugly” is either banned or non-existent. (Then I thought, “Holy eff, what am I doing here?”)

“This is my Narnia,” I mumbled to myself, thinking that the many years I had spent in the closet finally paid off. I chuckled.

     

How I got here was a matter of fate. El Nido was nowhere under my radar at the time. I was under a foolish impression that only the filthy rich could afford it. But as I was simply browsing the web, I chanced upon a piso sale. I wasn’t enslaved by travel then. A full-time corporate job had the whip in a tight grip. But it was the perfect moment. A classic corporate-slave-meets-freedom moment. Every stress that work had brought me over the past few weeks was blown away by the wind, washed away by the waves of El Nido.

Back then, El Nido was a bit different. It wasn’t as crowded or as developed. I could walk down the length of the town’s main street without running into another tourist. Back then, it wasn’t easy to reach. There weren’t that many flights, and the ride from Puerto Princesa would eat up over seven hours on a half-unpaved road.

My friends enjoying the beach, the sea, and the view!

But as I stood in the middle of it, I knew this would be the first of my many affairs with El Nido. Over the next few years, El Nido would be my go-to place whenever I needed a little bit of uplifting, even despite not being easily accessible. I returned almost every year. That’s the thing about El Nido: it’s playing hard-to-get. But it’s the kind of destination you’d want to marry.

Understanding El Nido

The municipality of El Nido encompasses the northernmost tip of the main island of Palawan and the 45 rocky islands dotting Bacuit Bay. A protected area, El Nido is a treasure trove of marine life and spectacular seascape, earning it a consistent place among the best beach destinations in the world.

Although a first-class municipality, El Nido remains a quiet town. The town proper is tiny, with very few big establishments other than small travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, and stores. The nearest city is Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, which is five hours away.

Together with Coron and Puerto Princesa, El Nido is part of the popular tourism triumvirate in Palawan. These are the three most visited destinations in the province. El Nido sits in the middle, accessible from both Coron to its north and Puerto Princesa to its south.

More info you need to know:

  • Language: Tagalog is spoken by the majority. But English is widely understood and spoken. A significant fraction of the population also speaks Cuyonon and other Visayan languages.
  • Currency: Philippine peso (PHP, ₱). PHP100 is around USD1.92, EUR 1.56, SGD2.52 (as of April 2018).
  • Modes of payment: Cash! Most establishments prefer cash. Only a few resorts and restaurants accept credit card transactions. Many tour agencies are on cash-only basis.
  • Money Exchange. Some restaurants and pawnshops exchange major currencies to Philippine pesos. However, it is best practice to already have pesos before you arrive because they’re not always available. Exchange while you’re in Puerto Princesa or Manila.
  • ATM. There is only one ATM in El Nido (BPI), but don’t count on it. Withdraw cash while you’re in Puerto Princesa or Manila, before coming to El Nido.
  • Connectivity: Most hotels offer free wi-fi but they can be slow. Both Globe and Smart have good reception in main settlements like the town proper, so it’s better to just use cellular data.
  • Safety: El Nido has a very, very low crime rate. But please don’t leave your belongings just anywhere. There are also no hospitals here, so please be very careful. The nearest major medical center is in Puerto Princesa. Also, there are no terrorists in El Nido.
  • Electricity Info: 220V, 60Hz. Socket Type A, mostly. Electricity supply in El Nido can be erratic. Power outages are not uncommon. Ask your hotel if they have a backup generator so you’re not in the dark in case of blackout.

Best Time to Visit El Nido

January to April. These dry months are the sunniest. However, this period is also the peak season, especially March and April, which are widely considered the “summer” months in the Philippines. For me, the most ideal time to visit El Nido is January-February. Weather’s still fine but the place isn’t crowded.

Source: World Bank Climate Portal

Thanks to its location (and isolation), mainland Palawan isn’t hit by typhoons as often as the other parts of the Philippines. It’s wired differently. November sees the start of the dry season for the rest of the country, but it’s still pretty damp in El Nido. Short and passing rain showers are also expected in the afternoon even on some “dry season” days.

How to Get to El Nido

Manila to El Nido (Direct Flight)

AirSwift is the only airline that flies from Manila directly to Lio Airport in El Nido. They operate up to four flights per day.

An off-peak one-way fare is at P5100 (including taxes, a meal in Manila, and welcome snacks El Nido). An additional P200 is collected for 10kg baggage allowance.

At the airport, you can travel by tricycle to the city center. Travel time: 30 minutes. Fare: 200.

Manila to Puerto Princesa

If Airswift’s rates are a bit taller than your budget, you can fly to Puerto Princesa instead. Then travel by land from there.

Puerto Princesa (PPS) has an international airport that is now much bigger and more equipped. Flights to PPS are generally cheaper than direct flights to El Nido. And they can go extremely low during seat sales.

Below is a quick random scan of flights on Traveloka.

AirAsia and Cebu Pacific Air offer the lowest fares but the published rates don’t include baggage allowance, seat selection, and meals. Philippine Airlines’ have all these add-ons included in their published rates.

Puerto Princesa Airport to El Nido

To reach El Nido from Puerto Princesa International Airport, you have two options: by van and by bus.

By Van

This is probably the most popular option among tourists because it’s slightly faster. If you book in advance, the van can pick you up at the airport and take you straight to El Nido in 5-6 hours.

Here are the companies offering this service:

  • Eulen Joy Express
    Contact No.: +63 915 829 3735
    Facebook page
  • Lexxuss Shuttle
    Contact No.: +63 917 686 1118
    Facebook page
  • Fort Wally Travel & Tours
    Contact No.: +63 917 276 2875
    Facebook page
  • DayTripper Palawan
    Contact Numbers: +63 917 8488755, +63 920 4966975
    Email: hello@daytripperpalawan.com
    Website: www.daytripperpalawan.com

There are a lot more van companies plying the Puerto Princesa-El Nido route, but the four above are the most prominent.

Travel time is usually 5-6 hours. Based on experience, these vans are fast. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. I sometimes find myself saying a silent prayer in the middle of the journey. And I’m not even religious!

Fare is usually between P550 and P600. However, Fort Wally sometimes brings the cost down to P450 when they have a promo. Locals usually get a discount.

Some of these vans don’t leave until they’re full. But it doesn’t take that long these days.

DayTripper charges more. At P875-P975 per trip, DayTripper goes the extra mile by picking up and dropping off passengers in front of their hotel, instead of the terminal. They are also known for their excellent service (with seatbelts!), and they only need 5 passengers to go.

All van journeys stop halfway for a quick restroom and snack break.

By Bus

The bus is another option. It’s my preferred option, actually. Buses are more comfortable now than before, more comfortable than the vans (at least in my opinion). Wider legroom, cooler temperature, and just bigger breathing space overall. Haha. The downside: it’s slower, taking 6-7 hours. And there are fewer journeys per day. But if you’re not in a big hurry, it’s a great option.

Here’s how to take the bus to El Nido.

  1. Walk to the gate of the airport.
  2. Hail a tricycle and ask to be taken to San Jose Terminal. Fare is P120 per ride. Split the cost if you’re a group. Alternatively, you can take a trike+jeepney combo, which is cheaper. But since I’m guessing you have heavy bags in tow, just go straight to the San Jose Terminal.
  3. Board a bus to El Nido.

Two bus companies to choose from: RoRo Bus and Cherry Bus.

RoRo Bus
Ordinary: P290
Airconditioned: P380
Operating hours: 5am-9pm
Frequency: Every 2 hours

Cherry Bus
Ordinary: P385
Airconditioned: P480
Operating hours: 4am-10pm
Frequency: Every 2 hours

Both buses will make several stops along the way to pick up more passengers, the longest will be in Roxas.

The bus will terminate at the station in El Nido. From there, you can take a tricycle to your hotel or resort. Fare is P50.

Coron to El Nido

Montenegro Fastcraft launched in September 2016 a new Coron-El Nido (and vice versa) route, which cuts the travel time to only 4 hours. Schedule and rates below.

Where to Stay in El Nido

El Nido’s poblacion is composed of four barangays (villages): Buena Suerte, Corong-Corong, Maligaya, and Masagana. Together, they occupy two small peninsulas that jut out into Bacuit Bay.

What most people refer to as the “Town Proper” is actually the settlement parallel to the beach in Brgy. Buena Suerte. Just next to it is Brgy. Masagana, best known for several more resorts and Calaan Beach. Corong-corong lies on the southern cape, with its nooks and crannies filled with fine sand.

There are four main areas where you can stay:

  • Town Proper (Buena Suerte). This is where most of the action is. Its streets are flanked with tour offices, small hotels, and restaurants. Of all these areas, it was the first to be developed. It also has a teensy bit of nightlife.
  • Corong-Corong. Tucked in the southern beaches of the poblacion, it has that isolated tropical paradise feel. It’s the area nearest the bus terminal.
  • Calaan Beach (Masagana). Resorts have also begun flourishing in the area, but just like Corong Corong, it doesn’t feel crowded either.
  • The Islands. Accommodations on the islands are mostly luxury resorts, which are totally expensive, so let’s pretend they don’t exist. LOL

If you’re in Boracay for some peace and quiet, stay in either Corong-Corong or Calaan. But if you just want convenience, the town proper is still the best choice.

Top Budget Hotels & Hostels in El Nido

My favorite place to stay in El Nido is SPIN DESIGNER HOSTEL. It’s clean and well-maintained, has friendly service, and an environment that is conducive to forging friendships with other travelers. Because it’s in the town proper, almost everything I need is within easy reach.

Coincidentally, SPIN HOSTEL is also the #1 top-rated property on Traveloka, so I guess I’m not the only fan. Here are the rest of the highest ranking budget accommodations as scored by online users.

Aside from these, you can find basic, no-frills dormitories that offer beds for P800 and below per night. One of these is At The Moment Hostel in the town proper and Dormitels.ph in Corong-corong (P800 per night), but I haven’t tried either.

Search for more: El Nido Hotels

El Nido Tours

One great thing about El Nido is that most key attractions, especially the islands and beaches, are grouped into tour packages. For example, the lagoons of Miniloc Island and Seven Commandos Beach are bundled together and marketed as Tour A.

The tours are also regulated and standardized. Boatmen and travel agencies must abide by the rules and guidelines that they set in order to provide a smoother and more consistent service to tourists. A price ceiling is in effect, which means tour operators cannot sell tours at rates higher than what has been set by the government.

If you’re alone or a small group, you will be merged with other smaller groups to fill a boat. If you want a private boat, you can charter one too.

These rules apply to group tours:

  • All group tours start at 9am and end between 4pm-5pm.
  • Lunch is included. The boatmen will prepare lunch on one of the stops during the tour. Lunch must be composed of the following: grilled fish, grilled pork or chicken, rice, vegetables, and fruits (usually bananas, watermelons, or pineapples). WATER is usually not included, so bring your own.

Here are the details of each tour. I’ve been fortunate enough to try all of these tours!

I also included Klook links for Tours A, B, and C below. Klook’s offers are lower than the standard rates and include hotel pickup and drop-off.

Tour A

If it’s your first time in El Nido, choose Tour A.

Tour A

Tour A takes you around the limestone paradise of Miniloc Island and its iconic lagoons. The sights at Miniloc are usually the ones perfectly captured in postcards. There are a couple of beach stops: one in Simizu Island and another at the 7 Commandos Beach in mainland El Nido.

Simizu Island is the usual lunch stop. But if it gets too crowded, the boatman picks an alternative, usually Payong-Payong Beach. But if you really want to see Simizu (or Payong Payong), just let the boatman know so he wouldn’t skip it.

You can go kayaking around Small Lagoon or Big Lagoon! Let the boatman know beforehand that you intend to kayak so they can prepare the units for you before you leave town.

Stops: Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon on Miniloc Island, Simizu Island, Entulala Island, Payong Payong Beach, and 7 Commando Beach.

Usual Price: P1200/person

BOOK THIS DISCOUNTED TOUR

Tour B

Although half of the stops of this tour are caves, its most well-known attraction is Snake Island, which is actually a narrow sandbar that connects mainland Palawan to neighboring Vigan Island.

Stops: Snake Island, Cudugnon Cave, Pinagbuyutan Island, Cathedral Cave,

Usual Price: P1300/person

BOOK THIS DISCOUNTED TOUR

Tour C

If you’re powder-chasing, sun-worshipping beach bum, Tour C might be a better bet. Its main attractions are its fine, white beaches that hug the jagged coastline of Matinloc Island and Helicopter Island.

Vins enjoying Tour C

The highlight of the trip is the Secret Beach, a hidden pocket of fine sand enclosed by towering karst cliffs, which is widely believed to have inspired author Alex Garland to write his novel The Beach, at least according to legend.. It is accessible only via a small opening that requires visitors to swim through it. Some of my friends got injured on the way.

Note, however, that Matinloc Island is a bit farther, which is why it costs more. Also, it faces the violent West Philippine Sea, exposing the passengers to bigger waves. If your time allows you to multiple tours, make sure to do Tour C first if the weather is pleasant. Boatmen are more likely to cancel Tour C during inclement weather. The waters circled by Tours A, B and D remain calm most of the time.

Stops: Matinloc Shrine, Matinloc Island, Secret Beach, Hidden Beach, Tapuitan Island, Helicopter Island

Usual Price: P1400/person

JOIN THIS DISCOUNTED TOUR

Tour D

Tour D was the last that I tried because I had always treated it as a last resort. Tour D explores the beaches of Cadlao Island and a few on mainland El Nido.

Stops: Nat Nat Beach, Pasandigan Cove, Paradise Beach, Ubugon Cave, Bukal Island, Cadlao Lagoon

Price: P1200/person

Tour E: Nacpan Beach & Nagkalit-kalit Falls

Nacpan Beach

Aside from the island attractions, El Nido has a lot of treasured hidden inland. This time, no need to hop onto a boat. You can simply hail a tricycle or rent a van. Here are the rates:

Tricycle tour: P1500, good for up to 4 pax
Van rental: P3000, good for up to 12 pax
Motorcycle rental: P500 per day

The rates above cover transportation only. Food is not included. Rates are PER TRIP, not per person. If you’re a group of four sharing a tricycle ride, each should only pay P375.

Stops: Nacpan and Calitang Twin Beach, Nagkalit-kalit Falls, Las Cabanas or Marimegmeg Beach

To book, contact Northern Hope Tours at +63 927-735-3221 (Globe) and +63 939-902-2216 (Smart).

Taraw Cliff

One of the things I haven’t done in any of my visits is to climb Taraw Cliff, famous for what many consider the most breathtaking view of El Nido. With steep and knife-like rocks, the original trail is also notorious for being dangerous. I have never mustered enough courage to do it. Maybe a few years ago, when I was young, nimble and healthy, I would do it without batting an eyelash, if I had the chance. But now that I’m a walking gelatin, maybe not. That’s not cowardice. That’s just being self-aware. Hahaha

Anyway, apparently, there exists a SAFER trail! If you approach the mountain through Ferrata Nature’s Canopy Walk. The jump off point is within the town proper so it shouldn’t be hard to find.

They also provide guides and helmets to guests. The viewpoint isn’t as high as the one at the end of the other trail, but it is said to be close enough. But it’s far safer. Yeah, I said that before. Just reiterating.

Hours open: Daily, 8am-5pm
Price: P500

Where to Eat in El Nido

El Nido seems to not have a distinct, world-famous cuisine, but it has an emerging food scene, led by boutique restaurants. I can’t count the number of food places that I have tried here over the past several years. Those fostering a unique vibe win in El Nido. Whether it’s a spectacular view or the character-filled interiors, the most popular dining places in El Nido are those that go beyond food and adds a little something to the experience. Sadly, however, most of them are overpriced, charging P350-P450 for a meal that is forgettable at best.

Two restaurants stand out in my memory: Trattoria Altrove and Artcafe.

  • Trattoria Altrove is an Italian restaurant in the town proper (a short walk from Spin Hostel, but they have another branch in Corong-corong). I was with a group of friends when I dined here. Everyone on our group ordered something different and we loved every single dish served to us, from the wood-fired oven pizza to the risotto. A pizza costs somewhere between P320 (margherita) and P650 (with truffles), while pasta between P300 and P350.
  • Artcafe is one of the oldest restaurants (and shops) in town, best known for their view of Cadlao Mountain and the beach. I’ve only dined here once and when I did, I got drunk. I don’t remember what I ordered anymore or whether it was good or not. But I remember the beer. Artcafe serves local craft beers from Palaweno Brewery. I tried all the varieties available that night, which explains why I don’t remember anything. Sorry about that. Haha

Not all restaurants in El Nido cater to the aspirational Instagram-influencer in you. Your practical side would be glad to know that there are cheaper options too. Typical carinderias serve dishes for less than P100. Places like IBR Fast Food may not be IG-worthy (LOL) but they serve a filling meal for P90-P150. Tapsilog and pansit, anyone?

Sample El Nido Itineraries

Below are two sample El Nido itineraries, which you can use as basis for your own. Just make the necessary adjustments to match your preferences. Also included is the breakdown of expenses.

This itinerary assumes the following:

  • You’re a party of 2, splitting some expenses.
  • You’ll be staying at SPIN HOSTEL dorm or any room in the town proper for P1000 per night.
  • You’re coming from Puerto Princesa Airport and traveling by bus to El Nido on your first day. This means that much of your Day 1 will be spent in transit. You’ll arrive in El Nido in the early afternoon and give you plenty of free time after that. Use this time to scan, compare, and book tours.
  • You’re taking the overnight bus to Puerto Princesa on your journey back. This way, you get to maximize your last day and save one hotel night. Your flight should be in the early morning of the next day.
  • You’ll be paying the standard rates of tours. You can haggle for much lower rates especially if you’re a big group. But for this itinerary, I decided to just use the standard rates so you have extra budget allowance.

4-Day Itinerary

For me, this is an ideal itinerary. Given everything that I know now, if I would be visiting El Nido for the first time, this is how I would do it. This itinerary won’t give you the cheapest trip, but it will allow you to experience the best of El Nido at a relaxing pace.

Day 1: PUERTO PRINCESA TO EL NIDO
07:20 am – Arrival at Puerto Princesa Airport
08:00 am – Ride tricycle to San Jose Terminal, P60 (P120/2pax)
08:30 am – Buy food for the road, P120
09:00 am – Board Bus to El Nido, P480
03:00 pm – Arrival at El Nido Terminal
03:10 pm – Trike to Hostel, P25 (P50/2pax)
03:30 pm – Hostel check-in
04:30 pm – Pay environmental fee at tourism office, P200
05:00 pm – Walk around town, book tours
06:30 pm – Dinner at Altrove, P400
07:30 pm – Back to Hostel, chill
09:00 pm – Good night!

Day 2: TOUR A
06:00 am – Wake up call
07:00 am – Breakfast, FREE
09:00 am – Start TOUR A, P1200
05:00 pm – Change clothes, rest
06:00 pm – Dinner at IBR Fast Food, P150
08:00 pm – Back to hotel
09:00 pm – Good night!

Day 3: TOUR C
06:00 am – Wake up call
07:00 am – Breakfast
09:00 am – TOUR C, P1400
05:00 pm – Change clothes, rest
06:00 pm – Dinner and booze at Artcafe, P500
09:00 pm – Good night!

Day 4: TOUR E, DEPARTURE
06:00 am – Wake up call, early check out
07:30 am – TOUR E, P750 (P1500/2pax)
11:00 am – Early lunch, P250
12:00 pm – Continue Tour E
04:30 pm – Freshen up, pick up bags
07:00 pm – Dinner, P150
09:00 pm – Trike to Bus Terminal, P25 (P50/2pax)
10:00 pm – Bus to Puerto Princesa, P480
04:00 am – Trike to Airport, P60 (P120/2pax)
05:00 am – Check in, Airport Terminal Fee: P200
07:20 am – Flight out

If you follow this itinerary, prepare to shell out P9500 (USD183, EUR149, SGD240) excluding airfare and kayak rental.

Much of the budget is eaten up by the tours and the food. You can still bring the total cost down by limiting your meal budget.

3-Day Itinerary

This is a budget itinerary. In this case, you’ll be spending only 3 days in El Nido and limiting your food expenses to only P150 per meal.

This also combines Tours A and C in one day. This is a great way to save money and make the most out of your short stay, but I personally don’t like this because it feels rushed and you don’t get to spend much time per stop.

Day 1: PUERTO PRINCESA TO EL NIDO
07:20 am – Arrival at Puerto Princesa Airport
08:00 am – Ride tricycle to San Jose Terminal, P60 (P120/2pax)
08:30 am – Buy food for the road, P120
09:00 am – Board Bus to El Nido, P480
03:00 pm – Arrival at El Nido Terminal
03:10 pm – Trike to Hostel, P25 (P50/2pax)
03:30 pm – Hostel check-in
04:30 pm – Pay environmental fee at tourism office, P200
05:00 pm – Walk around town, book tours
06:30 pm – Dinner, P150
07:30 pm – Back to Hostel, chill
09:00 pm – Good night!

Day 2: TOURS A & C
06:00 am – Wake up call
07:00 am – Breakfast, FREE
09:00 am – Start COMBO TOUR, P2000
05:00 pm – Change clothes, rest
06:00 pm – Dinner, P150
08:00 pm – Back to hotel
09:00 pm – Good night!

Day 4: TOUR E, DEPARTURE
06:00 am – Wake up call, early check out
07:30 am – TOUR E, P750 (P1500/2pax)
11:00 am – Early lunch, P250
12:00 pm – Continue Tour E
04:30 pm – Freshen up, pick up bags
07:00 pm – Dinner, P150
09:00 pm – Trike to Bus Terminal, P25 (P50/2pax)
10:00 pm – Bus to Puerto Princesa, P480
04:00 am – Trike to Airport, P60 (P120/2pax)
05:00 am – Check in, Airport Terminal Fee: P200
07:20 am – Flight out

This itinerary will set you back around P7100 (USD137, EUR111, SGD179) excluding airfare and kayak rental.

You can even reduce the total cost by taking an ordinary bus instead of an air-conditioned one, or by staying at a much cheaper dorm.

Other Tips for the Poor Traveler

  • Pay the P200 environmental fee and keep the receipt. You only need to settle this once so don’t lose the receipt. Someone sometimes checks if visitors have paid for this before boarding the boat for the tour. If you can’t prove it, you might be asked to pay again.
  • Puerto Princesa Airport collects a P200 terminal fee. Make sure you don’t spend every single peso you have in El Nido.
  • Tip your boatmen. What they do isn’t easy. If you enjoyed their service, show your appreciation. When I have successfully negotiated down the cost of tours, I usually just give the amount that I saved to the boatmen as tip.

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