EL NIDO ISLAND HOPPING
The one thing that is synonymous with El Nido (and which should really be right at the top of any must-do list) is Island Hopping! The biggest challenge would end up being which tour to pick!
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN EL NIDO PALAWAN
You will find that most tour operators all offer the same standard set of Island Hopping Packages:
El Nido Tour A - is the most popular tour including Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island and Seven Commando Beach;
El Nido Tour B - is known as the Cave Tour as it includes Cudugnon Cave, Cathedral Cave, Entalula Beach, Snake Island and Pinagbuyutan Island;
El Nido Tour C - includes Secret Beach, Matinloc Shrine, Hidden Beach, Star Beach and Helicopter Island;
El Nido Tour D - includes Small Lagoon, Cadlao Lagoon, Pasandingan, Paradise, Natnat Beach and Bukal Beach;
The prices are pretty much fixed and there is very little room for negotiating better prices between various operators. The tours are also all very similarly priced currently varying from 1200-1400 PHP; so the price will most likely not be the deciding factor. If you ask the locals, they will tell you that if you can only do one tour, then you should choose El Nido Tour A to be able to see Big Lagoon, and in this case, we don’t disagree with them!
Be sure to clarify whether the following are included or excluded from your tour price so as not to have any surprise costs after the fact:
Collection from your accommodation in the morning
Entrance Fees to the Lagoons (Environmental User Fee for Big Lagoon PHP200)
El Nido Eco-Tourism Development Fee (usually excluded PHP200 valid for 10 days)
Mask and snorkel (if you don’t have your own you can usually also rent for PHP150)
Water shoes (if you don’t have your own you can usually also rent for PHP150)
Kayak rental (usually excluded)
EL NIDO ISLAND HOPPING TOUR A
We ended up doing Tour A and really enjoyed it. We could probably have skipped the first stop at Seven Commandos Beach, as this was quite busy already (I think many tour operators now do this first). But there is a cool hammock swing from a tall tree which is good fun and also makes for a great photo. From here we made our way to Miniloc Island. As we arrived at Big Lagoon, it started pouring with rain. Here you have the option to rent a kayak to paddle into the lagoon or you can simply swim in as we did. Even though the lagoon can get rather busy, it is still a really incredible beauty of nature and well worth seeing. We were so excited when the sun came out again while we were in the middle of the lagoon as this really changes the atmosphere. From what we have heard, Small Lagoon is similar, so if you want to try and escape the crowds, this may be a good alternative.
Secret Lagoon, on the other hand, is completely different. It really is well hidden and you will need to climb through a small tunnel opening in the cliff face to reach it. Once inside, although the water is not nearly as clear or blue as any of the other lakes, it has its own charm and is definitely unique. We got lucky to be almost alone inside the lagoon, but by the time our boat was leaving, there was a long line of tourists waiting to get into the lagoon - I guess timing is everything.
Our last stop for the day was Shimizu Island which was just too stunning for words! If you do choose El Nido Tour A, remember to also keep an eye out for Helicopter Island as you will pass it both on your way to Miniloc Island and again on the way back. We found El Nido Tour A to be a great variety of seeing a beach, two main attractions and a great snorkelling spot.
If you are less interested in the main attractions of Miniloc Island (Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Secret Lagoon) and would prefer to explore some natural caves, then you should choose El Nido Tour B. If you just want to laze around going from one beach to the next, or particularly want to see the Shrine, then choose El Nido Tour C. And if you want to make the visit to Small Lagoon, then El Nido Tour D is for you. Some operators may also offer an El Nido Tour A alternative, including Small Lagoon in place of Big Lagoon.
El Nido Island Hopping Tour - What To Expect
No matter which tour you choose, you can expect a fantastic, fun day in the absolutely stunning scenery of El Nido and a delicious freshly cooked buffet lunch. It doesn’t really matter which agency you booked with, everybody is grouped together at the beach and ushered into the appropriate boat depending on the tour choice you made.
Do not expect to be alone! Even in low season, there will be plenty of other boats following a similar route and particularly at the main attractions. Note that even if you have a private boat, unless you manage to reach a location really early or very late afternoon, you will still find the crowds. If you prefer to be alone, then you will need to arrange a private boat and go in search of a private beach (of which there are many) for the day.
An alternative way of reaching a secluded beach would be to rent a kayak from El Nido town or Corong Corong beach. If the weather had been better, we would definitely have wanted to do this. Perhaps next time!
El Nido Group Island Tour vs Private Boat
The idea of a private boat cruise amongst the towering cliffs of El Nido sounds idyllic, but it may not be within everyone’s budget and it may not be exactly what you had in mind.
If you are planning on visiting any of the three main attractions of Miniloc Island (Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Secret Lagoon), even a private boat will not guarantee you being alone at these places. If you can make it to these spots really early morning or very late in the afternoon, you should at least be able to avoid the tour boats who are usually there between 9 am and 4 pm.
If you want to spend a lot of time snorkelling in one spot or don’t want to be rushed from one place to another, then you will need to take a private boat. We did the El Nido Tour A and could easily have spent more time at Big Lagoon and Shimizu Island if we were able to - but then again, the day is only so long!
Another advantage of the group tours is the delicious lunch buffet selection that you will get. This makes your food planning easy and allows you to taste a few of the local dishes including fresh seafood.
If you are a group of people, arranging a private boat might work out cheaper than joining a tour, but keep in mind that you will also have to pay the relevant Environmental User Fees as well as the El Nido Eco-Tourism Development Fee (200 PHP valid for 10 days). This is where the financial feasibility will greatly depend on how many people you are and exactly what you want to go. Personally, if we were enough people to share the costs, the private boat option would be a great way to see the main attractions either before or after the tour boats arrive and then spend most of the day at quieter less-visited spots.