Island hopping El Nido: Everything you need to know for the perfect trip

White sand beaches, stunning lagoons and hundreds of islands all within a short distance: El Nido in Palawan is tropical paradise.

Island Hopping in El Nido Palawan was high on our list of things to do in the Philippines, having missed out on the opportunity to explore this beautiful place six years ago when we were last in the country. It’s no secret though so we’ll be using this guide to help you avoid the worst of the crowds.

Whilst we preferred the island hopping in Coron, you’ll still have a great time in El Nido.


Island Hopping in El Nido, Palawan

Organising your island hopping trip in El Nido can be confusing at first. There are a few different options to pick from and thousands of different companies to choose from.

The local government has recently brought in a lot more regulation which has brought a more uniform approach that all companies have to adhere to.

 
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The fixed itineraries

You’ll find that all tours - public and private - follow four intineraries: Tour A, B, C and D. Tour A is the most popular and is known as the tour for lagoons and beaches, Tour B is the least popular and known as caves and islands, Tour C is the second most popular focusing on hidden beaches and shrine and Tour D is somewhere in-between featuring island beaches.

All the old itineraries beyond these four have now been cancelled (unless you can find someone willing to bend the rules!). Alternatively, you can choose multi-day tours, but they go beyond El Nido’s islands. Companies like Tao Expeditions organise trips to islands between El Nido and Coron.

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New rules

The biggest change the government has made is that you can no longer do both the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon on the same trip. This is pretty sad as these are the two highlights of the area and unless you want to splash out on multiple trips, you’ll be forced to pick between the two.

As part of regulating these two lagoons, “only” 400 people a day are allowed in at specific time slots. Before you go, you will need to choose a time slot. This only really matters for private tours as you will probably have to get the slots that haven’t been taken by the tour groups (public tours will organise this for you).

Technically you are no longer allowed to do a combination of tours. However, some private boat crews will find a way if you want to mix and match!


Public tours

If you’ve read other blogs by us, you’ll know we really don’t like tours. However, some of the worst we’ve ever heard about are in El Nido. The tours here are packed and every company goes to the same place at the same time! This means small places become immensely crowded and then empty out again. Why are they all so unimaginative and can’t switch up the timing?!

We’ve heard horror stories of crowds at the lagoons and seen videos of queues to get into the Secret Lagoon (which is tiny). Every tour we saw had a lot of people tightly crushed onto a boat with not much space. Add in tight timetables where you’re herded back onto the boat and you get a not so relaxing experience in paradise.

The tours cost between 1,000 - 1,400 pesos ($20-30 USD) depending on which tour you do so they are by far the cheapest way to island hop in El Nido.

Read next: Why you should visit the epic Twin Lagoons early


Private tours

The depressing thing about island hopping in El Nido is that the private tours are phenomenally expensive. Going the same distance and to similar places as a tour in Coron is double the price in El Nido. This meant that we could only do one trip here as opposed to Coron and missed a few things we had been looking forward to seeing.

However, it is by far the best way to visit the islands off El Nido. You’ll be in full control of your itinerary: where you go, when and how long. We enjoyed one place so much that we stayed there for three hours!


How to organise a private tour

Organising a private tour in El Nido isn’t as simple as it is in Coron. Sadly we couldn’t find an area where the boat crews hung around like there was in Coron and the place is geared around the tour agents. We headed to the dock several times and never found anyone who could help.

We asked quite a few agents before finally booking our private tour with the one we trusted the most as a lot of them didn’t really understand what we wanted. We eventually found a tour agent who got it, but the lowest price we could get was 5,000 pesos ($100 USD) for the boat, almost double what we paid in Coron!

The cost didn’t include the environmental fee (200 pesos - $4 USD - per person), the entrance to Big Lagoon (also 200 pesos - $4 USD - per person) or Maniloc Shrine (100 pesos - $2 USD).

We’d spoken to other travellers who managed to get a much cheaper price in Port Barton (4.5 hours south on the way to Puerto Princesa). If you don’t mind where you island hop, you may be able to find a cheaper trip outside of El Nido. But assuming you didn’t come all the way to El Nido to miss out on the sights here’s how you do it!



Start early!

The islands around El Nido get REALLY busy, so you’ll be a lot better off with an early start. You can go as early as sunrise and this will pay off, particularly if you’re going to major attractions like the Big Lagoon or the Small Lagoon. Whereas going really early in Coron meant that we were alone in almost every site we visited in El Nido it simply meant less people. But we’ll take less people over heaving crowds any day of the year.


A note on low tide

Now this is very tricky. Technically speaking you want to be at the stops as early as possible to avoid crowds, however this means you will be at many during low tide. Some of these are incredibly difficult to access unless you have reef shoes, which we didn’t. Better boats will bring you a kayak on boat to help with this, ours didn’t so ask in advance for a better experience.

The worst are the Secret Lagoon and Hidden Beach, both of which reveal really sharp and slippery rocks in shallow water which you’ll have to walk over as the boats can’t get any closer. In high tide the boats can go right up to a lot of places and you won’t have this problem. We got quite a few cuts and bruises from this and to be honest it did spoil the experience a bit.

We actually wouldn’t do this trip again without a little kayak or good reef shoes.

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You can go to some places on the tours by kayak independently

Not all of the places on the tours are only accessible by boat tour. Places like Seven Commandos (Tour A) beach is accessible by hiring a kayak. Those who fancy an adventure could get as to several of the places on Cadlao Island, the nearest being Paradise Beach (Tour D).

You can hire a kayak for 500 pesos ($10 USD) for the day or 300 pesos ($6 USD) for the half day. You can also get a clear kayak, but this will cost more.

There are also a few beautiful beaches like Nacpan, Merimegmeg or Duli you can visit by motorbike, tricycle or van. Here’s a detailed post on exactly how to get to these beautiful beaches in El Nido independently.


What to expect from your El Nido island hopping trip

We arrived at 6.30am, hoping to beat the group tours and arrive at Big Lagoon early enough to beat the crowds and have the place to ourselves. As usual, things ran really late. We eventually left an hour late and were rushing to make our slot (7-8.30am). Another key learning - always add more time before going as the tours always start later than you ask.

We chose to do a combination of tour A and C, picking what we thought were the best of both. Some were hits, some were not. If the tour agent tells you that you cannot combine tours anymore just go to another travel agent (someone will be willing to bend the rules!).

Tour A: Big Lagoon

The Big Lagoon was stunning and the best place we visited in El Nido. This huge lagoon just seemed to keep going with a whole separate bright blue lagoon to explore entirely that we hadn’t been expecting! We were gutted to have to miss the Small Lagoon but we’d been told the water wasn’t deep enough to swim so we chose the Big Lagoon and weren’t disappointed.

The boats anchor a short distance in front of the narrow channel that leads to the middle of the lagoon. You can choose to swim (of course this is what Cat did) or hire a kayak for 250 pesos - $5 USD (that’s what Joe did!). You are meant to wear a life jacket at all times, but the rules aren’t too heavily enforced in the morning.

After anchoring in stunning sea water, the channel becomes really shallow and almost disappears at low tide. As a swimmer or kayaker you will have to walk over this shallow area.

It was quite hard on bare feet but doable. At the far end of the channel is the main event - the big lagoon! It is characterised by a deep azure blue water and huge limestone cliff walls, lined by trees and plants making the place feel pre-historic.

However, the most dazzling part is the section to the left which turns to a bright blue colour and covered in coral at the entrance! From above, this place looks unreal and it looks just as good while paddling around. Note that accessing the bright blue section of lagoon means navigating quite a bit of coral. As a swimmer I found this quite challenging and did get a few cuts.

We could have spent 2-3 hours here, but sadly our ticket only allowed 1.5 hours - a sad reality of the new rules.

However, by arriving at 8am, we were there with only six other people towards the end of our session there was around 20. At the peak of the day there can be over 100 people, making the Big Lagoon feel pretty small. We heard it described as a chore for kayakers to navigate without hitting swimmers, not pleasant for either party!

In terms of swimming versus kayaking I would say that the lagoon was so much bigger than I was expecting and swimming around it for an hour and a half was exhilarating but quite tiring. I’d say overall most people will prefer a kayak here or at least the option to jump in one if necessary. I was the only swimmer during our visit.

Big Lagoon in Palawan, Philippines
 


Tour A: Secret Lagoon

Our second stop was the secret lagoon which was a mixed bag. The lagoon itself was pretty cool: a small, intimate lagoon where you can feel miles away from the world. The beach outside of it feels really wild, with palm trees, cliffs and white sand.

The entrance to the Secret Lagoon - El Nido Palawan

The drawbacks were in the time we arrived. By arriving early we beat the crowds, but had to explore the place at low tide. This meant walking over 50 metres or sharp rocks in shallow water, meaning we were pretty beaten up before even getting there.

Although we did have the lagoon to ourselves for 15 minutes, it wasn’t long before the tour groups turned up, making it quite claustrophobic. In fact we felt the need to leave as soon as they arrived, it was just too much! We’ve seen videos of queues forming to enter, making it a not so secret lagoon.

Its worth visiting, just don’t expect perfection!

 

Tour C: Secret Beach

The first stop on Tour C wasn’t great and shouldn’t be attempted unless you’re a confident swimmer. The entry to the beach is through a tiny gap at the bottom of a cliff.

This would be fine except the waves and currents here are really strong, making it easy to be flung on the rocks unless you’re careful.

Once under the cliff you’ll see a rocky patch (which slightly disappears at hide tide) and a small patch of sand. It is cool that there’s a tiny beach hidden by a cliff, but it isn’t the best of beaches and you can’t do anything other than spend a while looking around and thinking about how you get out! In a place famous for stunning beaches, Secret Beach is unique, but not a patch on the likes of Papaya or Nacpan. Don’t go here expecting a paradise beach, just a hidden spot (which all of tour C go on!).

Getting out is also difficult as you’ll be swimming against the waves!

 

Tour C: Matinloc Shrine

Matinloc Shrine is a waste of time really. On a small rocky ledge there’s a white pavilion like structure and a derelict building.

We were told there was a walk to a viewpoint, but it was essentially 10 paces up a nearby rock to see where you had just been. You might as well have stayed on the boat. Whilst the entrance fee isn’t much - 100 pesos ($2 USD) - it just felt like a pointless stop to pad out a tour.

 

Tour C: Helicopter Island

We really liked Helicopter Island and not because it is shaped like a helicopter! As soon as you arrive you’ll see beautiful light blue water lap against a huge stretch of beach.

Most other tour groups turn up, have a five minute look, maybe snorkel a bit and then leave. We decided to chill at the far end of the beach, taking in the stunning views of the cliffs round El Nido and Cadlao Island.

We didn’t expect to stay there for 3.5 hours, but we just enjoyed taking in a beautiful place where no one else was!

 

Final thoughts on El Nido island hopping

Overall it didn’t live up to our expectations but note that we had been via Coron, had we just have been to El Nido I think we would have enjoyed it a lot more. We’re glad we took the private option as though it wasn’t perfect it did allow us to avoid the worst of the crowds. We definitely wouldn’t say to miss the island hopping entirely but plan carefully. Don’t miss the Big Lagoon and Helicopter Island.


Food for your El Nido Island hopping trip

It is definitely worth noting that you should bring all your food and drink with you for the day. We didn’t see anywhere selling drinks or snacks (crisps) like they did in Coron. If you want to buy food at the market in El Nido town the crew should cook it for you at no extra cost (specify this is the case when booking just in case different operators have different rules).

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What you need to organise before you private trip

Big Lagoon or Small Lagoon Entrance Ticket

You cannot access either of these sites without a ticket and you must get that at least the day before as it is a specified time slot. Your tour agent will organise this for you just confirm the time slot you are after. Tickets for both are 200 pesos per person (just under $4 USD) and you must also pay a 200 peso per person environmental fee. You cannot visit both on the same day.

Snorkelling gear

Some trips include snorkelling gear, others don’t. Check in advance, but they may charge quite a lot for a naff mask! We brought our own but some hotels or tour operators will hire them to you or you can buy one in town. If you are on a group tour this will almost certainly be included. Note that we didn’t choose any dedicated snorkelling spots on our trip as we had snorkelled a fair bit in Coron, there are many recommended spots though.

Sunscreen

 

It is really important to bring reef safe suncream as the Filipino sun is relentless and the reflection off the sea makes it even more intense.

Dry Bag

 

A dry bag is also useful as most things on deck get wet from the spray of the waves! Disembarking from the boat in all places we visited meant wading through the water, sometimes it was above our hips which is another good reason to bring a dry bag.

Reef shoes

 

You’ll also want to bring flip flops or some reef shoes for low tide access.

GoPro

 

A GoPro is a great option for the snorkelling and the lakes, especially if you don’t want to risk getting your camera wet.

Then you’ll need obvious stuff like swimwear, towel and extra money for entrance fees, food or anything else you want to buy along the way.


Where to stay in El Nido, Palawan

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 if 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.

Booking.com

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.

Booking.com

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!

Booking.com
Booking.com

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Are you planning an island hopping trip to El Nido? Have you done a similar trip anywhere else in the world? Let us know in the comments below!


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