Out of all the places we visited while island hopping in El Nido, the Big Lagoon was the most stunning of them all. This beautiful lagoon is just 45 minutes away from the port at El Nido and when you get there you’ll see why it is such a popular spot.
Like everywhere in the Philippines, if you go at the wrong time of day you’ll be sharing it with literally hundreds of other people. So here’s why you should still go to the Big Lagoon and how to miss those crazy crowds.
The Big Lagoon, El Nido
The Big Lagoon is one of the major island hopping stops and the highlight of Tour A (you can read more specifics about island hopping on our blog here). The Big Lagoon is in the heart of Miniloc Island and looks deceptively small from where you anchor. One flight with the drone changed my mind about that - just look at the video below.
There are three sections to the Big Lagoon - the narrow inlet where you hire the kayaks, the main lagoon and a dazzling section to the left of the main lagoon. It goes a lot further back that it seems at first and is very deep (apart from the inlet at low tide).
Our favourite part was the left arm which has some sharp coral at the entry, but is characterised by dazzlingly bright blue water. It looks just as good close up as it is the colour normally reserved for a tropical beach! This section also has huge limestone cliffs in all directions which makes you feel like you’re in true wilderness.
We recommend giving yourself at least an hour and a half to truly explore and take it all in. Just getting to the main part of the Big Lagoon will take 15 minutes and even longer at low tide.
Read next: Siquijor - chilled island bliss
Kayaking the Big Lagoon
The easiest way to explore the Big Lagoon is by hiring one of the kayaks at the entrance, however they are a lot more expensive than anywhere else in El Nido. The upside of hiring a kayak will mean that you can cover more distance, take your valuables with you and also not have to worry if you’re not the strongest swimmer.
It also makes a drone shot even more interesting!
The only tricky part of having a kayak is if you arrive at low tide. This will mean you will have to hop out at the inlet and drag the kayak along the gravel but it isn’t too far.
You can rent a kayak at the entry way to the lagoon for 250 pesos (around US$5) for as long as you need.
Swimming in the Big Lagoon
Most people choose to visit the Big Lagoon by kayak due to its size but I actually chose to swim. It is one of the most magical places I have ever had the privilege of swimming in. It is however huge so you have to be prepared to be swimming for well over an hour to see a lot of it and apart from the entry way to the lagoon there is never any point where you can touch the bottom.
I didn’t have to wear a life jacket when visiting first thing in the morning but I have heard that later in the day you would have to.
If you don’t feel like such a long swim then you could hire a kayak and jump out at some point to give you the best of both worlds.
Best time to visit the Big Lagoon
Entry to the Big Lagoon has been limited to 400 visitors per day and all visitors are allocated a time slot. Whilst this limits the amount of people at each time, it also means that the slots in the middle of the day are even more competitive as the tour groups reserve them.
The benefit of this system is that few people want to visit in the 7 - 8.30 am slot, enabling the early birds to have this place pretty much to themselves! We turned up at 7.45 am (our boat crew were unsurprisingly late in leaving) and only saw five other people for the first half hour or so which later rose to around 20. With this amount of people it is still possible to feel like you are the only one in the lagoon as it is so big. We’ve heard later in the day you can hardly move for kayaks and that definitely wouldn’t make for a relaxing swim.
Here’s a detailed post on booking a private island El Nido island hopping tour.
It was only when we were leaving at 9am that suddenly things got incredibly busy. Like everywhere in the Philippines, getting up early has HUGE rewards.
Read next: Island hopping Coron - a trip to paradise
You may not have much choice, but if you can avoid low tide in the Big Lagoon. Things get a lot harder at low tide as the boats have to anchor further away and you will have to walk on broken coral and gravel to the entry of the Big Lagoon. This isn’t as bad as at other sites in El Nido, but it will make things a lot slower and more arduous as you drag your kayak along. Ideally you’d have flip flops or reef shoes, although we managed in bare feet.
In high tide you can simply glide into the Lagoon! However, we still believe that low tide in the early morning is better than high tide in the middle of the day.
Read next: All the best things to do in Coron
Getting to the Big Lagoon
The only way to get to the Big Lagoon is by boat. You can choose to go on a tour (eeek) or hire your own boat. We recommend going to the Big Lagoon as a whole day trip as the boat crews will charge you a fixed price no matter how many stops you make. You might as well make a whole day of it rather than paying 5,000 pesos to go to one place ($95 USD - told you it wasn’t cheap).
Group tours are significantly cheaper at 1200 pesos per person (just under US$23).
Big Lagoon Entry Fee
You must pay an entry fee of 200 pesos (US$4) per person to enter the lagoon as well as a 200 peso environmental fee per person. You must book your time slot in advance, we managed to get ours the day before but if you are visiting in peak season just book as early as you can.
If you are hiring a private boat the tour agent will book this for you after confirming your preferred time slot. Group tours will also book for you. The earliest time slot is 7.00am and you can stay for one and a half hours. In our experience they didn’t check how long you had been there and we arrived and left late but this could also be because we were there so early when it was quiet.
If you visit Big Lagoon, you can’t visit Small Lagoon
Well, at least on the same day. The new rules mean that visitors can only go to one of the Big Lagoon or Small Lagoon per day to limit the numbers (a max of 400 people per day in each lagoon). If you want to see both lagoons you will need to make two separate trips - even when you see the tour posters offering both lagoons this is no longer true.
We really wanted to see both but chose the Big Lagoon because we heard the small one had quite shallow water and you couldn’t swim there. We were really happy with our choice but would love to hear about the Small Lagoon - if you’ve been let us know how it was!
Where to stay in El Nido
In much the same way as Coron, El Nido town is not anything to write home about. In fact at the moment it is like one big construction site and boy is it noisy. Some hotels in town have started offering ear plugs! That’s why we chose and would recommend staying at least a couple of kilometres from the centre. As with Coron, the islands are where it’s at but staying on them will depend on your budget.
Budget - Ambiance Place
This is where we stayed and it has its good and bad points. Our biggest gripe is we found it terribly overpriced but it was still one of the cheapest options by the time we got round to making our booking.
Ambiance is out of the main town and tucked away down a path that is 80m from the road and right by the water (you can see it from the breakfast area and is magical at sunset). It is also next door to our favourite Indian restaurant in El Nido : Ghandhi’s Revenge - so good!
The rooms are clean and quiet (something which is very hard to find in the budget range in El Nido) and the view from the communal terrace is sublime. However the bathroom is a small wet room and the room itself is pretty small too.
The wifi was one of the few we had in the Philippines that actually worked (it was really fast most of the time) which was a major plus point for us. They also rented very reasonably priced kayaks.
Midrange - Frangipani El Nido
Anywhere else in the Philippines this would be considered a top end price but this is El Nido, and boy is it expensive.
Still the rooms do look terrific with many having magnificent views. It gets great reviews and is very near to where we stayed so we assume it will also be quiet.
Luxury - El Nido Resorts Lagen Island
This place looks pretty incredible. The bungalows have outstanding views and look really stylish and modern. It is currently getting excellent reviews and for the price looks the best of the lux options.
Note that it is on an island, around 45 minutes boat ride from the town so staying here will likely mean paying more for food and boat tours. Having said that if we were on holiday and not on a long term trip we would have headed here and not El Nido town!
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Are you planning a trip to Palawan? Where is top of your list of places to visit in the Philippines? Let us know in the comments below!