El Nido sits in the northern tip of Palawan, Philippines, and is the gateway township to the towering islands the region is famed for worldwide. The Bacuit Archipelago lies off the coast and is dotted generously with phenomenal limestone islands, pure white beaches, and stretches of turquoise waters. Although the town itself is entertaining to explore, the main reason travellers are drawn here is for the El Nido Island Hopping experience.
There are various permutations and combinations of El Nido Island Hopping tours. Each tour can have varied itineraries, departure times, number of guests, and quality of guides. However something is certain: you will be experiencing a tropical paradise. Whether you choose a tour with heavenly warm lagoons, or prefer diving into aquarium-esque clusters of tropical fish, there is an option for you.
We arrived in El Nido not entirely sure what option we would choose. The two of us had thoroughly enjoyed snorkelling in Port Barton so wanted a tour which would include a hefty amount of that. The pressure to decide was complicated by the fact that Tropical Cyclone Samuel was making landfall so we had to depart on the tour almost immediately after arriving in El Nido.
We decided to ask around about the best available tours and settled on Tour A which featured snorkelling, lagoons, and dreamy beaches. All the tours, except for if you arrange a private one, leave the main beach in El Nido at 9:00am and arrive back around 4:00pm. We headed down to the beach after breakfast could see our bangka boat, the “John Peter” was being loaded up with lunchtime delicacies and drinking water. After wading through waist-deep water and a rousing introductory speech from our guide Franco, we were aboard and chugging our way towards Bacuit Bay.
WHAT WE SAW ON OUR EL NIDO ISLAND HOPPING TOUR
The day was simultaneously action-packed but relaxing, with a combination of water-related activities and lounging on the sand.
7 COMMANDOS BEACH
Our first stop was 7 Commandos Beach, it’s close to the El Nido township so is usually either the first or last destination visited on Tour A. It intrigued me to know how the beach had acquired such an interesting name. Asking Franco and searching the internet revealed several answers and nothing concrete, but a common theme was a shipwrecked boat called Seven Commandos. Maybe your guide will give you their version, too!
The beach was powdery white and lined by lanky swaying palm trees paired with wooden huts. The huts were freely available for use and a somewhat dilapidated volleyball net sat behind them if you had an urge to play. Along the shoreline several huts are occupied by vendors selling soft drinks, fresh coconuts, and alcoholic beverages. We were greeted at 9:00am by “Ma’am you want a beer?”, and despite being in fully-fledged holiday-mode, that was too early for us and we politely declined.
The water at 7 Commandos Beach was beautifully warm and clear, with a designated area for safe swimming. The snorkelling was not the most incredible you see on the tour, but there were several fish around to make it worthwhile.
After finishing up at 7 Commandos Beach, our El Nido island hopping adventure ventured into the first of the two main lagoons. The bangka was anchored and a man wielding several yellow kayaks emerged. We were hesitant at first to get a kayak, but the swim would’ve been quite lengthy and it would be a shame to miss out on the scenery.
We jumped in the kayak (our skills are rusty to say the least), and paddled towards the entrance to Small Lagoon. Although the lagoon is fairly tourist-laden, it is easy to see why it is popular. The tall, dark island cliff-faces drop dramatically into the azure waters, and greenery hugs for dear life on the sheer surfaces. After exiting the lagoon, we pulled the kayak up onto one of the tiny beaches dotted around and swam in the clear waters to cool down.
After burning some energy paddling, we headed to the beautifully secluded Matinloc Island to swim and eat lunch. As Franco and the team cooked a huge array of food on the grill at the back of the boat (we’re still so impressed), we walked around the island before the other boats arrived. There were so many hidden nooks and crannies with palm trees, silky sand, and interesting geology. We settled on a small stretch of beach to test out the snorkels and go in for a dip.
Lunch was served in beautiful fashion on the back of the bangka. Somehow the boys had managed to cook the most decadent feast and our eyes were definitely bigger than our stomachs. There was fish, grilled pork, squid, mussels, prawns, eggplant, and more. It was truly an unbelievable meal and replenished us beyond words. The meal was finished off with a platter of tropical fruits, and we stuck into mangoes and pineapple, as we stared into the clear ocean below hoping to spot fish.
The old wives’ tale of not swimming after stuffing your face with delicious Filipino food was thrown to the wayside as we arrived at the next destination. There was barely another soul around as we jumped off the back of the bangka and into the crystal clear waters. After adjusting the snorkels, we looked under the surface and it was like jumping into an aquarium. There were fish everywhere. As we went to swim off, Franco gleefully said “if you’re lucky you’ll see a nemo, if you’re very lucky you’ll see a sea turtle, if you’re unlucky you’ll see a shark”. So, now mildly concerned but still overwhelmingly excited, we swam off over the reef.
Who knows how long we spent snorkelling, but we felt like we could keep going forever. The reef was extensive and full of interesting and vibrant corals. Teeming with sea life, we saw the most interesting creatures: fish, sea slugs, electric blue starfish, and clams. After an hour or so of hopeful search, the likelihood of seeing a clownfish was fading. Fraser looked disheartened as he agreed that we should go back to the boat. As we were swimming back to reach the ladder, we looked down and saw several large anemones teeming with clownfish. Big clownfish and even baby ones – you could see the smile on Fraser’s face from space, no doubt.
The final destination on the agenda was Big Lagoon, possibly the most famous location of all the El Nido island hopping tours. The expansive lagoon is both wide and deep. Again, to explore Big Lagoon, hiring a kayak is advisable.
We paddled through the crowds down a shallow strip, and then entered the proper lagoon. The lagoon is large so it’s easy to find a spot of peace and quiet to stop paddling and take it all in. Off the side of the main lagoon there are some more hidden areas which are beautiful with blue water and mangroves. Do take care when kayaking or swimming at Big Lagoon as many people there are inexperienced, so we saw several accidents happen with kayaks colliding and tipping, as well as kayakers paddling straight over a child causing him an injury. So, please be careful!
EL NIDO ISLAND HOPPING TOUR OPTIONS
|Tour||Cost of Tour||Best Known For||Destinations|
|Tour A||1200PHP/person||Lagoons and Beaches||Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Simizu Island, 7 Commandos|
|Tour B||1300PHP/person||Caves and Coves||Snake Island, Cathedral Cove, Cudugnon Cave, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Island|
|Tour C||1400PHP/person||Beaches and Shrines||Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Matinloc Shrine, Star Beach, Helicopter Island|
|Tour D||1200PHP/person||Snorkelling and Beaches||Nat Nat Beach, Paradise Beach, Cadlao Lagoon, Bukal Island, Ipil Beach|
Private tours are usually between 6000PHP – 8000PHP for the entire boat (which can usually fit 1-5 persons), so if there are a few of you, this option is worthwhile for flexibility, privacy, and avoiding crowds.
Tours usually include drinking water (you cannot bring plastic bottles into the archipelago), towels, and beautiful cooked lunch and fresh fruits.
As always, there are some costs which aren’t included in the original tour price, these include:
- El Nido Eco Pass 200PHP per person (valid for 10 days)
- Water Shoe Hire 150PHP per person
- Kayak Rental (Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon) 300PHP at each location
- Guide Tipping 10% of Tour Cost
There are so many El Nido island hopping companies that it is impossible to list them all here. The companies all offer the same basic services and the prices are capped by the government, so you can only pay a certain price no matter who you go with. Most hotels and restaurants have sections where you can book tours, and there are freestanding booking shops throughout El Nido.
We went with UMI Travel and Tours and they were pretty good. Other companies which have come at high regard from friends and other travellers are: El Nido Paradise, El Nido Boutique and Art Café, and Discover El Nido.
- Bring plenty of sunscreen — it’s a long day on the boat and often you aren’t in the shade
- Arrange to leave early if you can to avoid the crowds
- Kayaking is worth the money or you won’t see everything at the lagoons
- Bring extra cash for the added extra costs
- Hire water shoes for snorkelling or if visiting Hidden Beach
- Cancellations are very common due to weather, this is out of control of the companies and is determined by the Coast Guard, there were several days when we were in El Nido where all the tours were cancelled
- Buy a waterproof bag if you are bringing valuables (the boat itself gets wet, but also you are often required to wade through waist-shoulder depth water to reach the bangka), these are sold on the streets in El Nido town for around 200PHP
The Bacuit Archipelago is a national and global treasure, and it’s important that we keep it that way. Although the government and tour companies are cracking down on conservation, it all starts with you! I’m sure you guys already know this, but please make sure not to:
- Not bring plastics into the archipelago (particularly transparent plastics which can be especially dangerous to sealife)
- Don’t touch the coral reefs
- Do not touch the sea life or get too close
- Do not take anything from the area as a souvenir (sand, rocks, shells, etc.)
- Take any and all rubbish with you – do not litter
WHERE TO STAY IN EL NIDO
We were delighted to stay at Sea Cocoon Hotel in the centre of El Nido and recommend this hotel for other travellers. It is a great base to come back to after a full day of El Nido Island Hopping. You can read the full review for the hotel here.
We ventured through the Bacuit Archipelago with UMI Tours and their guide Franco. Umi Tours can be found on the beachfront in El Nido.