El Nido: Island Hopping & Endless Adventure

El Nido translates to ‘The Nest’. It gets its name the edible nests of the Swiftlet which are plentiful amongst the limestone cliffs of Bacuit Bay. Harvesting these nests was originally one of the primary sources of revenue for the area, alongside fishing.

Things are obviously different now, as El Nido has become world-renowned for its incredible natural beauty. Tourism is now the major driving force behind the region’s economy, and the area boasts a huge amount of activities that will please any type of traveller.

From adventure to relaxation, El Nido ticks all the boxes. We spent 5 days here, but another week would have been very easy to do.

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Glamping on Marimegmeg Beach

The view from our tent at The Birdhouse

To get to El Nido, we had caught a shared van from Port Barton. A trip that has improved exponentially in the last few years thanks to a new road. The trip was a little under 3 hours long.

The towering limestone cliffs that surround the town are spectacular, and catching glimpses of the bay as we drove in built up our excitement to extreme levels!

From the bus station, we caught a tricycle to Marimegmeg Beach where our accommodation was.

We were staying in The Birdhouse, a boutique glamping resort that offered stunning views over the bay. The property also offers yoga classes each evening and has an incredible restaurant which served some of the best food we had whilst in El Nido.

Marimegmeg Beach

Sunset at Marimegmeg Beach

The beach has a few bars and restaurants along it, but not much else. The perfect place to relax and unwind. We got a Bali vibe from the bars that were pumping chill out house music and offering happy hour cocktail deals.

This beach is also known as Las Cabanas beach. This is due to one of the first high-end resorts to be opened in El Nido being named this, so the name stuck around.

What to know about Island Hopping in El Nido

Viewpoint on Matinloc Island

This is the reason you come to El Nido. Everything you see in the pictures is out in Bacuit Bay and you need a boat to reach them. The 4 most famous tours are named Tour A, B, C & D. They’re all offered as group tours and government regulation sets the prices that agencies offer.

There are also other tours available with unique offerings such as better boats or “secret” destinations but the original 4 are the classics that made the destination famous.

El Nido Paradise has excellent write-ups on each of the tours and offers services of their own. They also allow you to combine certain tours and can help organise private tours. We had no problem organising these through our guesthouses, however.

Private Tours

To put this in simple terms: If you can afford to pay for a private tour, go for it. Especially if you are travelling in a group. Aside from the obvious benefits of having the boat to yourself, you will also be able to:

  1. Start the tour at whatever time you wish.
  2. Be able to tailor the stops to your liking
  3. Ask your crew to avoid stops when they are most busy

We paid between 6000 and 7000 php for the two of us. If you shop around you can surely pay a bit less.

Tour C (and some stops from Tour A)

The shrine on Matinloc Island

A lot of guides we’d read online said Tour A and C are the best ones. Our idea was to combine the 2 and see if we came out winning.

We didn’t learn until a few days later that recent government restrictions had put a ban on combining tours. Tour agencies could face large fines if they were caught doing it. It wasn’t until we checked around town and online when we realised they weren’t allowed. There didn’t seem to be any issue when organising it through The Birdhouse.

What we managed to organise involved all the stops of Tour A and C, minus the Big and Small lagoons.

Our full write-up is coming soon.

A coconut stand on Papaya Island

The tours had a nice mix of relaxing beaches and more adventurous stops. The Secret Beach, Hidden Beach and Hidden Lagoon (I assure you that none of these are hidden or secret in the slightest) all involved careful manoeuvring through rocky waters and cave-like entrances to see.

Another interesting stop was Matinloc Island which has an eery shrine and a packed viewpoint. Be careful walking up to the viewpoint, it gets overcrowded and one misstep would lead to a very painful fall.

Taking a dip at ‘Hidden’ Beach

If you do decide on Tour C we recommend renting a pair of aqua shoes. We didn’t, and it made every stop much more difficult.

Despite being ahead of the main crowd, we found most sites to be crowded. Especially the Hidden Lagoon towards the end, where we waited over 15 minutes waiting for other tour groups to exit. The entrance and exit are the same. Just a small hole that you need to climb through

However, everything was still manageable and we had a great day. Hidden Beach was the highlight for us.

Tour D: The Unpopular One

Tour D’s Cadlao Lagoon

Tour D, the next tour we went on, seems to be well and truly flying under the radar. It has sites that are just as impressive as A and C with a fraction of the crowds. It focuses on Cadlao Island which is the closest island to the main town of El Nido. It’s possible to kayak here from the town, but it’s quite far.

Our full write-up is coming soon.

The main draw of Tour D is Cadlao Lagoon. We’d read a few sources that suggested it was the most stunning of all the famous lagoons around El Nido. Big Lagoon and Small lagoon, both stops on Tour A, are the most famous. We wanted to see them, but on the day before our tour we had heard that all Tour A’s were only going to stop at one of the lagoons due to congestion.

Generally, no matter how beautiful a piece of natural scenery may be, being surrounded by loud groups and selfie sticks will severely reduce the experience.

So from that, the choice to do Tour D was sealed. The only caveat was that we had to go private. We shopped around but no agencies were offering Tour D as a group tour.

Early morning at Cadlao Lagoon

Cadlao Lagoon, our first stop, was truly beautiful. We spent an hour here swimming and exploring and enjoying the early morning peace and quiet.

Natnat Beach

The rest of the tour consisted off hidden away beaches with perfect sand. This tour is perfect for chilling out and soaking in the sun. The beaches we stopped at here were our favourite of the Philippines.

Exploring the Mainland

The port at El Nido Town

There is still plenty to do in El Nido apart from Island Hopping tours such as cooking classes, day trips to other beaches on the mainland and relaxing activities.

El Nido Town

School children on their break with limestone karsts towering above them

The main town of El Nido boasts plenty of restaurants, bars and travel agencies. In terms of convenience and cost, it’s the best place to stay. We spent our last couple of nights in El Nido here and enjoyed having all these options, but did miss the calming sunsets and evenings at Marimegmeg Beach.

As far as food goes, Altrove serves up some of the finest pizza’s we’ve ever had. We shamefully came here more than once thanks to its central location and delicious food. Unfortunately, we found the quality of food in El Nido to be lacking, not to mention overpriced, so we tended to stick with what we knew.

Tamboks is another excellent restaurant offering Filipino dishes. Its a few kilometres outside of town so you need to rent a scooter or get a tricycle, but it’s worth it. By far the best Filipino food you will find near El Nido town.

The beach near town itself is fun for a quick stroll. We wouldn’t recommend swimming in it though. In the evenings it’s full of boats, so we don’t think the water is the cleanest.

Nacpan Beach

An idle boat at Nacpan Beach

An extremely popular day trip is to head out to Nacpan Beach. It’s about a 1-hour ride from town or you can get a shuttle bus. We’ve heard that it’s a bumpy and uncomfortable ride on a bike, so best to take the shuttle if you can. If you take the shuttle, you will be dropped off at Sunmai Bar which is just near the “I Love Nacpan” sign on the beach.

The beach itself has become much more touristy these days as opposed to when we first heard about it. But being voted in top-beach-in-the-world lists will do that.

Despite that, walk away from Sunmai Bar, past the Mad Monkey Hostel and you’ll easily be able to find a stretch of sand you can have all to yourself.

A boat ashore at Nacpan Beach

For the more adventurous (or for those with more time), Duli Beach is meant to be excellent and possibly what Nacpan Beach was like a few years ago.

Red Horse and sunsets on Nacpan Beach

Last Thoughts

Assuming the weather holds up and you aren’t expecting world-class cuisine, El Nido will give you an unforgettable, magical experience as you look upon some of the most spectacular natural scenery the world has to offer.

On each of our island-hopping days, we were constantly in amazement of the pure beauty on display.

5 days was a good amount of time to spend here. A few more certainly wouldn’t be wasted. There is so much to discover here, and once you move away from the popular sights you will start to truly feel lost amongst an island paradise.

What we would have done differently

  • Planned our island tours more efficiently and tried to take better advantage of early starts and beating the crowds
  • Sought out more Filipino cuisine, even if it meant going out of the main towns more often. The options in town were generally disappointing
  • Worn aqua shoes for Tour C. The stress of walking along the rocky shores in bare feet or thongs would have been relieved with a pair of these