We had an interesting trip in Palawan :
Puerto Princessa - El Nido - Cacnipa Island - Port Barton - Puerto Princessa
In short ...
Cacnipa island was the highlight of our trip and fantastic.
El Nido was interesting and had mixed reviews. Te views were stunningly great, but I disliked the crowds, cost and pretence.
The travel PP - El Nido was easy, but El Nido to Cacnipa (boat) was difficult and returning to PP was tougher than travelling to Banaue.
I am posting separate JBRs for each place we visited, and a few lessons we learnt -
EL NIDO :
Is it worth visiting ?
How to reach -
We took a flight to Puerto Princessa, thence a trike (airport stand, easy to get) to San Jose bus terminus (15 minutes, 110 pesos), thence bus operated by a company names Roro (air con, 480 pesos). There are only 4 air con services daily, and one service every 2 hours, hence it
is best to arrive early at the terminus. The terminus is large, has washrooms, but very few choices to eat.
The bus journey was okay - the views are nothing special if you have travelled in Phils by bus earlier. Our bus was new, comfortable, the road was mostly concrete, but the last one hour was a very bumpy road under construction.
There was one stop for CR and food at Roxas bus terminus - it is a large terminus, but with very few food options and pretty hurried. Costs here (and generally in El Nido) are higher than most of Philippines as nearly everything is "imported" from the rest of Philippines.
Lesson learnt -
Best to take an air con bus PP to El Nido
Best to arrive as early as possible at San Jose
is a small dusty town - a lot like Coron, which we had visited earlier. Just like Coron, in El Nido too, all the beauty is AWAY from the town, in the outlying islands and waters therein. (exceptions mentioned below). Unfortunately, unlike Coron, there are very few resorts where you can stay on the outlying islands, and these are exceptionally expensive. Stay options are Caalan beach (big resorts, quieter, nicer beach) - Town proper (mix of backpacker accommodations and nicer places, near restaurants, crowded, not much of a beach) and Corong Corong (nicer beach, trike away from town proper, quieter) -
WHERE TO STAY
We initially stayed at Lally and Abet cottages in the town center, did not like it much and shifted to Taiyo cottages which we liked more.
TA reviews -
Lally & Abet - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d478…
It is not difficult to go from the town proper to Caalan / back. You can either walk (take a rechargeable flashlight - the alley is unlit, but the walk is pleasurable as you walk next to fields. You also walk next to a cemetery but it is not spooky!) or a trike (keep their mobile numbers). Trikes are cheap and honest.
Some notes -
Town proper - is where you should stay if you like a little crowd / meeting fellow travellers. It has a Thai back packer destination vibe (think of Koh Phangan without drugs).
Caalan beach - is where you should stay if you like peace, greenery. The beach / sea views are nicer here.
Corong Corong - we only went there once. It seemed more peaceful.
1) Bring enough cash - there are NO ATMs in El Nido
2) Credit card acceptability is poor
3) Food tends to be more expensive than rest of Phils. Allow for this when budgeting
4) Electricity is poor (2 pm to 6 am) - be prepared for this. El Nido is a warm place and can get stuffy without a fan! Try to book into a resort with a generator or solar fans (ask them before booking). Very few have solar power. Check the ventilation (many in town proper get stuffy due to this).
Lesson learnt -
- Spend a bit more and stay at a more comfortable place.
- Be prepared to pay double of what you would pay in rest of Phils for a similar accommodation (starting from pensions)
We took different island hopping tours on two days. All tour companies offer the same tours A-B-C-D with the same itinerary. Hence these places get pretty crowded with tourists even in low season - be prepared for this. The above water views are stunningly beautiful. Big and Small lagoons and snake island were the best and unlike any places I have seen in rest of Philippines. 7 commandos beach is beautiful but crowded with tourists.
DO NOT expect solitary places except when having lunch (for us this was once in a crowded beach which has hidden lagoon and another nicer time in Pinagbuyutan island where we were the only people) . Else, in all tourist spots (except cathedral cave) we were surrounded by 30-50 tourists.
TA reviews -
1) Secret Lagoon - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d229…
2) Small lagoon - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d384…
3) 7 commandos beach - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d383…
4) Cudugnon cave - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d201…
6) Simizu island - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d383…
7) Big lagoon - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d384…
8) Cathedral caves - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294256-d383…
Sadly, it was not so good. The only 2 places that had good snorkeling was midway in water off 7 commandos and Simizu (but caution - the currents were VERY strong) and snake island (where we saw a feisty water snake). Everywhere else, it was bleached coral and very few fish. Do not expect much.
El Nido does not have a Chowking, Jollibee or Mang Inasal. Usually this is a good thing, but here it was bad, since we could see only one carinderia (local food eatery) (which served good wholesome food @ average 150 pesos per head) - all other restaurants were fancy, many interestingly run by French people or expats, and cost average 300-400 pesos per head for dinner. The only exception was snacks in the form of meat and fish balls from street vendors (cannot really call that food - right?)
Oddly, fish was not cheap despite it being a seaside community.
Expect to pay more. Expect most restaurants to charge high, but not have aircon or fans. Expect gourmet cuisine.
Only trikes. They seat 4 people easily. Inexpensive (in our case, it was free and provided by the friendly people of Taiyo resort!). Very honest. They understand English.
There are some hikes in the hills, but you must go with a local guide as they do not have steps and are a wee bit difficult Rainbow tours run by a local pastor called Ilde does these hikes well. Only recommended for experienced hikers. Expect a few slips and falls.
Is there much to explore other than islands?
There are a few places to explore, but they all need a trike and are at least 30 minutes away. We explored the town proper, the beach upto Hippocampe to the north (beautiful but secluded), El Nido overlooking resort (a fantastic place - this would be among my top 10 places to stay) and Corong Corong beach (ok beach, ok resorts. Each is different)
Can I camp overnight in one of the islands?
Yes you can, but this is a private trip arranged with boatmen by talking to them before you set out on island hopping. It usually consists of island hopping for 2 days and staying overnight for a night. It is not well organised, and many do not have a tent. It includes food, but will cost you about 8000 pesos.
My suggestion? If you wish to do overnight camping on a beach in a nice island, best do it at Hundred islands (Alaminos) - it is better, very well organised, the waters are equally beautiful and clean, and it is much cheaper (3500 pesos for 2 days + 600 pesos for all the food) - including tent / pillows / bedsheets
Final advice -
1) Bring enough cash - then bring some more
2) Keep at least 4-5 days to enjoy.
3) Go for private island hopping tours - they are better
4) If crunched for time, visit only one place in Palawan. The travel is back breaking and buses are very poor in frequency
5) El Nido is very beautiful. But it's (slightly hyped) reputation makes you expect more than you get. If you have been to Palawan before, keep your expectations realistic. If you have never been to Palawan before, be prepared to be swept off your feet.
6) Be prepared for crowds (we visited in low season and there still were crowds!)
7) Enjoy yourself
Coconut garden / Port Barton / Cacnipa island JBRs follow...