It was our first time in El Nido, and it wouldn’t be our last — or so our guides assured us. According to both Jack, the tricycle driver we engaged on our arrival in town, and Sam, the boatman who led our island hopping tour the next day, most of the people who come to El Nido almost inevitably come back.
First, they go home. They tell everyone they found paradise out west, at the very edge of the Philippines. And then they return, many with a new batch of first-time visitors, fresh converts, in tow. If El Nido were a secret — and it isn’t, not anymore — it seems to be a secret no one can, in good conscience, keep to themselves.
And after going on the island hopping tour myself, I could definitely understand why.
The Philippines has more than 7,000 islands to its name, and island hopping tours here are a dime a dozen. The ones around El Nido, though, are special — even to those of us who’ve lived our entire lives in close proximity to swaying palms and white sand beaches.
For one, the seascape is different. Dozens of towering limestone cliffs dot the seas around El Nido. There are strips of white sand aplenty, but many of them are nestled between rocks of gray and clumps of green and glittering blue seas.
Another difference: a sense of space. The town of El Nido itself is cramped and necessarily busy, as one would expect of a place descended upon by busloads of tourists everyday. But out in the sea, there is an unfamiliar vastness. You feel like you’ve come to the edge of the known, that a Dawn Treader-type adventure was waiting just beyond the horizon, if you would only dare to go forward.
Don’t think for a minute, though, that you won’t see another soul when you go island hopping.
In El Nido, there are 4 standard island hopping tours, each of which take the whole day. The stops for each tour include the following:
- Tour A (standard price ₱1200 | $26): Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island, Seven Commando Beach
- Tour B (standard price ₱1300 | $28): Snake Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Beach, Cudugnon Cave, Snorkeling Site
- Tour C (standard price ₱1400 | $30): Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Star Beach, Hidden Beach
- Tour D (standard price ₱1200 | $26): Ipil Beach, Cadlao Lagoon, Paradise Beach, Pasandigan Beach, Natnat Beach, Bukal Beach
Out of these four, Tour C is probably the most popular, followed closely by Tour A. However, even if you choose B or D, because the stops for each tour are standard, you will most likely bump into at least one or two other boats full of passengers in each stop — and that’s in the low season. During peak season, it will be nearly impossible to get a photograph without a photobomber.
The only island we managed to have to ourselves during our tour — and only for around 15 minutes at that — was Helicopter Island:
This is what it was like at Hidden Beach — and it wasn’t even the most crowded spot in our itinerary.
Even before we arrived in El Nido, we’d already decided we would spend just one day island hopping (so that we could spend the other days just chilling — see: El Nido, Nice and Easy: A Stress-Free 6-Day Itinerary for Non-Backpackers).
Luckily, on the advice of a friend, we were able to do a “combo tour” that allowed us to visit most of the stops of Tours A and C in just one day. We booked it through El Nido Paradise, the same agency that helped us book our van transfer from Puerto Princesa to El Nido and back, and they were fantastic.
- El Nido Paradise also offers what they call a “counter the clock” itinerary for each of the standard tours. You will be visiting the same stops but in a different order, which will let you avoid most of the crowds doing the regular route.
There are pros and cons to doing a combo tour. The main disadvantage — the only one I can think of, really — is that you would have less time in each stop, roughly 30 minutes instead of an hour. However, since we were planning on beach bumming on our other days in El Nido anyway, we didn’t really feel the need to spend a lot of time in each stop. The advantage, of course, is that you get to see more in less time, and at a price (₱2,000 | $43) less than what two full-day tours would have cost.
Here are some other photos from our tour:
More about El Nido in the next few articles. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a place to stay in El Nido, check out: Where to Stay in El Nido: 15 Great Options. We stayed in and loved Spin Designer Hostel.