As I couldn't find anywhere on the site to post a Traveler Review, I thought I'd post my article here. I hope it's helpful - it has the sort of information I was looking for when planning my trip.
We were delayed in HK, the baggage took forever to arrive in Manila, and then the taxi ride to the domestic terminal for the Coron flight took a lot longer than expected (it’s not far, but the traffic is horrendous, so allow at least 15 minutes).
All this meant we almost missed our 1215 flight. Cebu Pacific kindly rushed us through check-in. For peace of mind, you might like to book the 1515.
We had booked a week at La Natura Resort in Coron – absolutely brilliant hotel. We had emailed them, requesting a pick-up from the airport, and it worked like clockwork. They sent a comfortable van. The airport appears to be in the middle of nowhere, and the journey to El Nido took 30 minutes.
Getting to EL NIDO is not easy. It’s bonkers that there’s not a direct flight between these two popular tourist destinations in Palawan, but there isn’t. These are the alternatives:
a) A boat trip, taking about 8 hours, from Coron directly to El Nido. I’m hopelessly seasick, and we were worried about maritime safety, so ruled this one out
b) Fly from Coron to Manila, Manila to Puerto Princesa (with PAL Express) and take the six-hour road trip to El Nido. The road isn’t finished, so some parts of it are a dirt track. But it’s very scenic. We booked with www.daytripperpalawan.com and very efficient they were, too. Except that they told us the van would arrive at our hotel at 10, and it was there at 0920! The van was air-conditioned and very comfortable – and we were given a free bottle of water and a snack. It stopped at a little restaurant for lunch and again during the afternoon for a leg-stretch. However, it doesn’t drop off at hotels in El Nido – it stops at a terminal and piles you onto trikes to take you onward.
c) ITI (Island Transvoyager Inc) runs direct flights from Manila to El Nido, but it’s a relatively small plane, and theoretically reserved for people flying into the big expensive resorts. But we booked through the El Nido Art Café (elnidoboutiqueandartcafe.com) and got confirmed seats some weeks in advance.
The departure lounge at Coron has a little gift shop and café. They did a mean latte!
The ITI airport at El Nido is a 10-15 trike ride from town … there’s a security man at the gate, checking flight bookings, so it’s worth checking your trike has permission to take you to the terminal. The terminal itself is tiny, but beautifully maintained, with what might be the best loos in the Philippines.
It’s a bit of palaver getting through check-in … they hand-search the baggage, and then both you, your luggage and hand luggage get weighed. If the baggage comes in over 10kg, you have to pay the excess immediately. Ours was 1,500 pesos (for two of us) – and I thought we were travelling light.
The airport provides a small drink and a bun while you wait for the flight. And as you depart you’re serenaded by a group of ladies in costume, attractively posing in front of a cart attached to a zebu bull. No, really …
CAUTION – MANILA AIRPORT TAXIS
To get from the domestic terminal in Manila to the private ITI terminal means taking a taxi. By the doors of the domestic terminal, arrivals floor, are a number of representatives, looking most official with clipboards, shouting “taxi, taxi”. But they quote astronomical high prices, maintaining they have a monopoly. Instead, go to the departures level, and hire a cheap cab from there.
Is a small but very busy and polluted little town. The streets are crowded with people, vans, dogs and trikes (or tuk-tuks), which are basically motorbikes with a metal “sidecar” attached. They are everywhere, and (for Westerners) ridiculously cheap.
Everything is within easy walking distance, apart from the excellent restaurant at the Grand Asia View Hotel – you need a trike to get there.
Our favourite restaurants were the Asia View (lovely terrace, great service, fabulous views and amazing chocolate shakes) and La Sirenetta on the waterfront – the service at the latter is horrendously slow (we played I Spy to pass the time) but the sunset views are tremendous, and the food, when it eventually arrives, is excellent.
We also tried the Sinugba sa Balay – friendly, with a lovely puppy dog, but with an extremely limited choice for vegetarians. Lolo Nonoy’s had the best mango shake ever.
The tourist boats all leave from the somewhat scruffy waterfront.
Right by the waterfront is Coron market – here you can hire masks and fins, and buy anything from bling necklaces to pineapples to fish to high quality leather belts.
Some drivers have “Tourist Friendly” signs, which we assumed meant they could speak some English. Our favourites were Richard, and especially Eduardo … he was courteous and punctual, highly recommended (his mobile is 09488386567). He was happy for his mobile to be posted here.
We booked Eduarto’s trike for the evening to visit the Hot Springs, and he charged 500 pesos … that’s for getting all the way to the springs, waiting while we had a dip, and then taking us the way back to La Natura.
ISLAND HOPPING TOURS
We booked all ours through La Natura and were very happy with them. The hotel also provided the guide and made everything easy for us. We simply said, yes, tomorrow tour A, starting at 8, and it all magically happened. They also provided beach towels.
The first day we hired a private boat just for the two of us, and got hopelessly spoilt. After that, we couldn’t bear the thought of a group tour, so simply splashed the cash … you pay about 4,500-5,000 pesos, while the group tours can be as low as 650. On the private tours you really get treated like royalty … the lunches are also exceptional – fish freshly cooked on a charcoal BBQ on the boat, shrimps, salads, rice and delicious fruit.
Details of the tours (A, B, C and D) are all online, so I won’t go into details. Our favourite locations were Barracuda Lake, Bulog Dos-Banana Island- Malcapuya Island, Pass Island and Coron Yacht Club Island.
If you have a private boat, try to start early (leaving the dock at 8), do the tours in reverse, or in a different order from the group tours. Otherwise all your photos will be full of oriental tourists covered in strange bright pink anoraks and strapped into orange life-jackets.
For example, go first to Malcapuya, then Bulog Dos for lunch, and finally Banana Island. You might well have all of them to yourself. At lunchtime, there might be up to eight tour boats pulled up at Banana Island.
It’s not possible to change all itineraries, as the boats can only approach some attractions when the tide is low or high.
Pass Island was the best place for snorkelling, with a good 50% of the corals still alive, and in glorious colour. Siete Pecados was also good, with many bright pink corals underneath the rock overhang. There were lots of fish at Banana Island, Bulog Dos, and giant clams at Malcapuya.
It’s a smaller town than Coron, basically two roads running parallel to the seafront as it sweeps around the bay. It’s a 20-25 minute walk from one end to the other, or pay 10 or 20 pesos for a trike.
The main street, running along the coast, is lined with cafes, restaurants, shops and companies touting all the island-hopping tours.
The Art Café is at the far end of the town – it has good shakes and food, but avoid the red wine … it arrived chilled and undrinkable. Downstairs is a good shop (the best in town), with souvenirs, books, cameras, clothing and a good array of essentials ... including things like anti-bite remedies.
We stayed in the Cadlao Resort, which was expensive but extremely nice. Like La Natura in Coron, it was a green oasis amid the madness. But it’s not on a main road.
As we’d had to take the Puerto-Princesa road route, we were deposited at an out-of-town terminal and had to take an onward trike. The normal town trikes won’t go off-road, so we were dumped by an alleyway, with an onward 10-15 minute trek to the hotel, across a beach and round the bay, with all our luggage.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to have the hotel phone number handy, and either text or call the hotel to send a trike to meet you in town. The resort trike will negotiate the route. Indeed, the hotel has two trikes which ferry guests in and out of town for free.
We had good meals at the El Nido Corner restaurant, the ArtCafe, and a French restaurant called La Salangane. The Cadlao resort has its own restaurant, with a beautiful position right on the seafront, by the infinity pool. The salads were good, but other dishes were bland.
Again the tours are ranked A, B, C and D. We again treated ourselves to private tours (more expensive than in Coron, up to $5,500 pesos), and managed to amalgamate tours C and D into one day. Our favourite locations were:
1. Snake Island – absolutely stunning. As the group tours leave at 9, try to get a private boat to leave at 8, as this place is at its best without the tourists! If you get there late, you’ll find up to 15 tour boats already anchored, and the place swarming with people. The “snake” is a narrow sandbar between two islands, and the colour of the water is unbelievable. There are also good views from a short walk up the hill. One of the few places with Restrooms.
2. Big Lagoon. Again the water colours were amazing. Great place for lunch.
3. Hidden beach.
4. Matinloc Island. It does have a strange shrine on it, but also great views from the top of the hill (steep steps) and a beautiful swimming spot at the back … if you get there before the group tour boats anchor in the same spot.
5. Entalula Island – the corals weren’t great, but there were lots of fish. And the beach was wonderful.
6. Helicopter Island – often the last stop on the group tours, but there’s enough white sand for everyone. Interesting snorkelling.
Seven Commando beach was nice, but the corals were all dead and it’s therefore somewhere you can easily miss out to get ahead of the crowds.
The WiFi in Coron is bad, and in El Nido it’s dreadful. If you wake in the early hours, that’s the time to log on and download emails or check your Facebook page. As soon as two or three other people start up their smart phones, the WiFi drains away.
In El Nido, the ArtCafe had a reasonable signal. My friend’s Nook worked well in there, but my iPhone still struggled.
My advice would be to log off when you arrive, and log on again when you’re back in Manila.
There are a couple in Coron, near the Post Office. But there are none in El Nido. However, in some places you can pay through PayPal, and others (especially the hotels) accept credit cards. It’s still prudent to take a reasonable amount of currency though.
Dogs are everywhere, almost all running free, but none we encountered was aggressive. They’re mostly curs, the end product of several centuries of canine interbreeding. Almost every home compound has one, and there are dozens of additional strays. The dogs have an uncanny knack of jumping out of the way a split second before getting run over by trikes, and have a scary habit of falling asleep with their hind quarters sticking out into the road.
Most look okay, but there are some seriously skinny ones, so if you’re a dog lover, carry a tin of dog food with you. A canine or two will be extremely grateful.
I came to the conclusion that most of the Coron and El Nido dogs were happier than their British counterparts. While many British dogs are locked away on their own for hours of end, the Filipino dogs are always outside, surrounded by humans, with other dogs to run around and play with. Most of them were friendly – a few were skittish, others very waggy indeed.