Who’s afraid of going to El Nido? I found out that many. Most people have the impression that El Nido is very expensive. This is far from true. This is a haven for backpackers, mostly foreign. Sad. Filipinos must experience why Palawan – mostly because of El Nido – has been topping the lists of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
El Nido’s origin was a small Tagbanwa village called Talindak. By 16th century, waves of migrants from Cuyo Islands came here and settled. When the Spaniards arrived during the 1800s, they moved to the present-day Poblacion and started building a new settlement they called Bacuit. The Chinese came to Bacuit at the same period, settling first in Langeblangeban. Bacuit was under the jurisdiction of Municipality of Taytay, which was the capital of the Province of Calamianes (Northern Palawan) from 1818. It became independent in 1916 and became the new Municipality of Bacuit.
It is the Chinese migrants who discovered Bacuit’s hidden treasure: the edible nests of the swiftlets (or Balisasayao in Tagalog), found in the crevices of its limestone cliffs. The bird’s nest, “nido” in Spanish, is the main ingredient in the gourmet nido soup in expensive Chinese restaurants. In 1954, under Republic Act No. 1140, the name of the town was changed from Bacuit to its present name El Nido.
El Nido’s pristine beauty was hidden from the rest of the world until 1979. According to the story, it was discovered by a group of divers by accident. The account goes: “a tuna line disabled a dive boat’s propeller in the middle of the night forcing it to drop anchor in an inlet. The following morning, the divers woke up to an amazing scenery of skyscraping dark cliffs, thick green forest, white sand beach, sparkling water and, rising above it, a series of magnificently sculpted jade islands.”
By 1980s, a Filipino-Japanese joint-venture company Ten Knots Development Corporation started developing some of the islands into dive resorts, and eventually, into high-end resorts. These are Miniloc, Pangulasian and Lagen islands. They were the first postcards of luxurious vacations in El Nido.
But they are just three out of the 45 islands and islets that remain somewhat exclusive. The rest – mostly made of the same Permian to Paleogene rocks and limestone cliffs – all situated in the blue waters of Bacuit Archipelago are available to be explored by visitors.
How to get there
During the 1980s, the only way to get to El Nido was to take the rickety wooden haul or “batel” from Manila to Liminancong and take the punishing bus ride to El Nido.
Nowadays, going to El Nido via Puerto Princesa is quite easy. There are many regular flights from Manila and Cebu to Puerto Princesa. From Puerto Princesa, there are regular vans-for-hire and buses that go directly to El Nido. From the airport, take a tricycle to the Central Terminal located near the public market. The 270-kilometer road from Puerto Princesa is now fully cemented. Travel time is around six hours.
It is also possible to fly from Manila to El Nido’s LIO Airport. One way airfare costs around P7,000. There are also boats that connect El Nido with Coron and Mindoro.
What to see, what to do
Most of the visitors in El Nido stay in Poblacion. It is here where one can make arrangements for island hopping tours, diving expeditions and inland adventures. All visitors are required to pay the environmental fee of P200.
Island hopping tours in El Nido are grouped as Tours A, B, C and D. Each tour is comprised of four to five islands and is grouped together based on locations. Price range is from P900 to P1,200. Each tour takes a whole day to finish, comes with a guide, life vests and good lunch. The most popular tours are A and C.
Tour A takes visitors to the stunning Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. Tour A also allows visitors to enjoy the kilometer-long white sand beach of 7 Commando. Under Tour C is Dilumacad Island or Helicopter Island (because its limestone cliffs resemble the shape of a helicopter when it is viewed from a considerable distance) where there is an underwater tunnel at its northern side. Under Tour B is Snake Island, so-called because of the fine natural sandspit (S-shaped sandbar) that snakes off its shores.
Visitors can also try renting a kayak to visit Cadlao Island. This is the big island fronting Poblacion. It is known for its white sand beaches, hidden lagoons and natural trails through its lush forest covers.
Inland, one can rent a bike or a tricycle to visit nearby attractions like Nagkalit-kalit Waterfalls, Makinit Hot Spring or Nacpan Beach. Guides can also be hired to climb the cliff face on the western side of Poblacion to the top of the “taraw” to get a breath-taking view of the whole of El Nido.
Where to stay, what to eat
Unless you are staying in Lagen, Miniloc or Pangaluisan, lodging in El Nido is relatively budget-friendly. Beach cottages like Marina Garden, El Nido Cove Resort, El Nido Beach Hote and Four Seasons offer accommodations from P1,500 to P3,000 per night.
Those looking for inexpensive accommodations can check the many homestays, bed and breakfasts and pension houses located in Calle Real, Rizal Street and Corong Corong where a room for two costs an average of P1,000, and it usually come with free breakfast.
But food is not a problem in El Nido, where there are dozens of restaurants to choose from. Among the favorites are Bacuit Grill where one can drink and dine while enjoying the sunset and the Trattoria Altrove where people line up to get a taste of their brick-oven pizza. Another popular restaurant is Squido’s Hilltop Bar where they offer a seafood buffet dinner for P250. The recently opened The Bazaar in Rizal Street has several hip bars where one can enjoy chill-out music and cocktails.
But most backpackers simply take their meals at the dozens of carinderias (local eateries) located all over town, where one can get a full meal of rice and seafood for P50 to P100. This has always been and will always be El Nido’s other hidden attraction.