For several years, Palawan has been crowned as the best beach destination in the Philippines. With over a thousand island to choose from, it is a place of natural wonders waiting to be discovered.
On this post, I want to share with you how to plan, budget and maximize your next Palawan trip considering the following:
Palawan has always been on our list and I think it's the same for a lot of Filipinos. The only thing preventing us from getting there is the budget required and accessibility of the place. We were torn between Coron and El Nido. Almost all the blogs would tell you that they are equally beautiful if you are considering the white sand beaches, rock formations, lagoons and marine life. The only difference is Coron is more laid-back compare to El Nido which is more commercialize.
When I was doing my research, Coron was my first choice because of its accessibility and the accommodation rate is within budget, however, the flights to get there from Manila on our preferred dates is ridiculously expensive. I wasn’t even considering El Nido because I felt it’s not ideal for families with kids because of the 6-7 hrs. land trip required. There I was ready to give up when I chance upon a blog showcasing this surreal camping resort atop the hill called The Birdhouse El Nido. It was love at first sight and my husband felt the same way! We know right away that we must be there and we're determined to make it happen. Narrowing our choices to one destination really helped a lot on our planning because there's already so many factors to consider when preparing for a trip and having to research two different destinations at once only adds up to the confusion and stress.
Since the accommodation has already been decided, I need to figure next the best way to reach El Nido. Almost all blogs would tell you to fly Puerto Prinsesa then take the 6-7 hours land trip to the island. I can't accept this because it'll literally waste 2 days of our vacation plus the fact that I am traveling with kids. I don't know how my 2-year-old baby will behave in a long drive with strangers around. I checked how much a private van cost and was shocked to see that it's 6K per way.
In my pursuit to find the best option, I read about Air-Swift which is a chartered plane flying on several provinces in the Philippines and one of them is El Nido. The blog already mentioned that it's pricey in comparison to flying with the known domestic couriers but then again, my other option (private van) is not cheap either. I checked their website and realized they weren't kidding, it was a whooping 54K (1.4K SGD) for the 4 of us to fly to El Nido from Manila. Imagine my disappointment. So, I parked it for a while and decided to look at it again next time. Maybe by some miracle the price would go down drastically. A few months after, out of curiosity, I check how much to fly from Clark instead of Manila, and I was surprise to see it's down to 34K! But still, it's too much. Though the regular fare from Mla - Puerto Prinsesa is close to this price, I still believe it can get lower. So, I check the fares regularly and 4 months before our flight, the price drop to 21K including taxes! I was so happy I immediately book! I still paid extra for the land trip from Manila to Clark and vice versa but 21K from 54K is definitely an improvement! And arriving at Lio Airport which is 25 mins away from El Nido Town is a breeze compared to 7 hours of drive!
I got every cent of what I paid for with Air-Swift. The aircraft is very new, the flight was relaxing and inside doesn't feel cramped. I also love the food they provided before the flights. I particularly love their lounge at Lio Airport, very classy and way better than some famous domestic airports in the country.
So once the flight is confirmed, I immediately booked The Birdhouse El Nido because I know they easily get full since they only have 5 tents. I paid 7K/night which you may think is expensive for a tent specially since there's no TV, Aircon, heater, light (just lamp) and other amenities. But if you did you research, you would know that this is a good deal for the unique and the memorable experience you are getting from staying there.
You see, there’s a lot of places to stay in El Nido but there’s always a compromise. If you want to be near the beach to truly feel that you’re in an island getaway, then the choices would only be cheap but crappy (sorry for the term) hostels or very expensive resorts (10-30K+/night). Which is why tourist prefers to stay at boutique hotels in town because the price is more reasonable. Only downside is, the town is really a town, you are surrounded by houses, buildings and shops. If you’re lucky, you can probably see a little bit of the sea across the houses and shops by your window.
In the end, we experienced both, because we want to be in the island but on the last day, we need to be closer to the airport. For 2 days, we stayed at The Birdhouse. When we reach the place, it was even better than what we imagined! It was breath taking. The picture cannot compare to the actual experience of feeling the breeze in your face, hearing the waves and waking up with the view of God's majestic creation. I will talk about this more in another post but below is a preview of the beauty of the place.
On our last day, we stayed at Country Inn El Nido. It's right in the main road which makes it very accessible. The hotel is very new, the room was clean and spacious. They also have the typical amenities of a hotel like heater, aircon and television. It also comes with made to order breakfast and unlimited coffee. I paid 4.5K for a quadruple room which for me is not bad considering the newness and accessibility of the place. We also book the van from them that took us to the airport the next morning
Palawan is famous for its beautiful islands so the first thing anyone should do there is to island hop. Rates vary depending if you will take a speed boat or normal banca. The difference is obviously the speed of the boats and the amount of people you are sharing the boat with. Speed boat only sits a max of 8 people and does combination tours of A,B, C and D (how they call the different grouping of island tours) because they can get faster to the island than regular bancas. However, they charged 3.2K per person inclusive of buffet lunch, beverage and snorkeling device. The other option which is more well known is the Banca island hopping which is priced at 1.2K per person which has the same inclusion as above. But for this, you need to choose from Tours A, B, C and D. You also need to share the boat to at least 10-15 people I heard, meaning you also need to wait for everyone to be back on the boat in order to move to the next island. The recommended tours are Tour A which will bring you to the Small, big and secret Lagoon and also 7 commando and Shimizu beach. Tour C, which is the other famous tour brings you to Helicopter island, Matinloc Shrine, Hidden, Secret and Star Beach,
I already booked Skipper Charters which is the speedboat option and paid the down payment, but we learned theee that Island hopping is not always available. There is what you call 'weather forecast' that kind of dictates if boats can sail. Unfortunately, during our entire stay, all tours were cancelled even though it's bright and sunny. The strong winds and waves makes it’s dangerous for boats to sail. We were heartbroken. To this day, I'm still sad by the fact that we traveled all the way to El Nido and was not able to do the one thing we want to do.
But that's life, you can't always get what you want. BUT... you can control how you respond to the situation. We could have just sulk in with our misery and stayed on our tent (you should have seen other tourist on our way back, very depressed) OR explore what other things we can do since we are already there. It wasn't easy at first because almost everything requires boat ride but we managed to find exciting activities like Zip line (500/person) and beach hopping
I think everyone would agree that El Nido offers the best view for zip lining. Imagine gliding in the air, with the pristine beach below you while the mountains and hills surrounds you? Yeah, it's unbelievable! Even those who are afraid of heights would forget about their fears when hanging with this magical view.
I also read that Nacpan beach (50/person @Nacpan + tricycle) is a 'must visit' place to enjoy crystal clear beach and powdery sand and it didn't disappoint. My kids love it! My boy was busy building sand castle while my little one enjoyed herself soaking in the water. We also went to Lio beach which is an upgrade from Nacpan as far as the facilities and amenities is concern. But the beach in Nacpan is way beautiful.
Las Cabanas beach where The Birdhouse sits is another jewel. Foreigners are all lined up getting their skin tanned while some are enjoying the waters despite the strong waves. The kids had so much fun they didn’t even realize we missed the island hopping which for us grownups is the highlight of the trip. They were just happy to be on the beach every day. I don't think it even matters if it's a new beach or not. For them, the ocean just offers full bliss and happiness.
There are plenty of food options in El Nido but depending on where you are, the choices maybe limited. I realized cake should be ordered in advanced if you're at Las Cabanas beach because you only get it from town. You will find a lot of 'western options' in the menu but most of the time, it's not close to what foreigners were expecting (e.g. Cheeseburger) specially if you ordered it from shops along the beach.
In general, I wasn't impressed by the food we ate while we were there. I may be wrong because we only went to several places. But only The Birdhouse served restaurant quality dishes, the rest taste like ordinary home cook meals. Even the seafood barbecue we had was average. I read from several blog posts that there were some good restaurants in town but we did not go there, so I can't really tell whether El Nido is a food haven or not.
There are only 2 ways to travel around El Nido (not counting the boats of course), by tricycle and van. Make that 3, if you are more adventurous, there's lot of motorcycles you can rent that will allow you to explore the island on your own. Typical rates for Tricycles is between 200-500 on nearby areas and 1000-1500 on farther places like from Las Cabanas to Nacpan Beach. You can also rent a van which would cost almost the same as tricycles if you're traveling as a group and you divide the cost among you. However, getting a private van is way pricier. We rode tricycles to get from one beach to the next and rented a van for our airport transfers
Just like any of our trips! We enjoyed Palawan because it's beautiful but also because we chose to make the most of it despite the hiccups along the way. But you can already expect that we will come back to fulfill our unfinished business of island hopping.
I would mark this trip as an adventure. We went out of our comfort zone and chose to be closer to nature instead. Even though we didn’t experience island hopping, staying at The Bird house was the highlight of our trip. I wasn’t easy but all beautiful things require sacrifice. Thank you El Nido for the unique experience.
Veronica, also known as Gene is a passionate mother, wife, career woman, event planner, artist, adventurer, fashionista, and many more.