The town of El Nido in Palawan is a stepping stone to the Bacuit Archipelago beyond, dotted with limestone islands with stretches of white sand beaches, hidden coves waiting to be discovered, dive sites swarming with coral and marine life, and lush forests that harbor birds and other interesting fauna.
El Nido Town is Just the Beginning
From El Nido, you'll have a wide choice of boats for hire, many of them offering different price ranges depending on the number of people going aboard, the number of islands you wish to hop onto, and even the option of a packed lunch!
For convenience's sake, all island-hopping boat tours follow the same itinerary, grouped under the same letter system: Tours A, B, C, and D - with each tour showing a different side of the archipelago. (There’s a Tour E to the mainland beaches, via tricycle or hired van.)
The tours cost between PHP 1,200-1,500 (US$22.50-28; read about money in the Philippines). Lunch and additional activities (snorkeling, kayaking) may cost extra.
Tour A: the “Lagoon Tour” Kicks off at Miniloc Island
Of the four popular boat-hopping tours that make the rounds of El Nido, tours A and C are the most popular choices. That’s because both tours connect its passengers to the best aspects of El Nido’s islands: Tour A with El Nido’s lagoons, and Tour C with El Nido’s most gorgeous snorkeling spots.
Let’s start with Miniloc Island, site of the lagoons in question. Located some forty minutes by pump-boat away from the town of El Nido, Miniloc Island derives its fame from its towering limestone formations and its hidden beaches.
The big lagoon is a bay carved into the island, with dazzlingly clear water and corals below; pointed limestone cliffs tower above you as you drift into the lagoon. Water and coral conditions have conspired to make this lagoon relatively free of marine life, but kayakers will find this a magnificent backdrop to paddle through.
The small lagoon offers better snorkeling conditions. Another cove (the secret lagoon) can be entered from this lagoon, although with some difficulty; at low tide, a four-foot gap in the cliff lets avid snorkelers into a cliff-lined chamber that feels entirely like another world.
On the east side of the island, Payong-Payong Beach offers great snorkeling opportunities.
Miniloc is the location for one of El Nido Beach Resort's two high-end resorts in the area, the other being on the forested Lagen Island.
Shimizu Island: Lunch Al Fresco for Tour A Guests
South of Miniloc Island, Shimizu Island and its compact white-sand beach is a picnic favorite for both locals and tourists, making it an ideal lunchtime stop for Tour A patrons.
The corals around Shimizu are healthy for now, providing a nice home for a good variety of marine life. The beach is surrounded by limestone outcrops, and a limestone islet sits right across the shore.
Tour A often concludes on one of the best beaches on the mainland: 7 Commandos' Beach, a deserted stretch of beach with a gently sloping sea floor a magnificent view of the sunset. Part of the beach is cordoned off during turtle nesting season from January to May.
Tour B: “Cave Tour” Sails on the Sea, and Ventures Underground
Spelunkers and karst experts will love El Nido’s Tour B, as it mixes snorkeling activities with visits to some of the archipelago’s most haunting caves.
Most trips begin with a visit to the curving sandbar that extends off of Vigan Island: this spit of sand gives the island its popular nickname, "Snake Island". There's great swimming to be had off of both sides of the sandbar, but you'll only see this at low tide.
Afterwards, the boat will venture to two different caves around the islands:
Cudugnon Cave on the mainland requires a tight squeeze through an awkwardly-placed opening on a beach on the mainland, but will take the casual spelunker’s breath away with its high-flying ceiling and glittering walls. Locals hid from Japanese soldiers in Cudugnon Cave during World War II.
Cathedral Cave lies a boat-ride away from Cudugnon Cave: it’s a boat-navigable cave in a cliffside on Pinasil Island. The cave takes its name from the soaring cathedral opening that surprises guests as they sail in from the open sea: an opening so vast that the ceiling can’t be seen with the naked eye!
Pinagbuyutan Island: Limestone Fortress Winds Up Tour B
The forbidding cliffs of Pinagbuyutan Island – Tour B’s classic afternoon stop – may feel impregnable, until you find Ipil Beach on its southern side.
Pinagbuyutan resembles a fortress in the middle of the sea, with vertical limestone cliff walls surrounding most of the island’s perimeter. The greenery crowning the cliffs give the game away – this is a completely natural formation, its karst structure accounting for its otherworldly appearance. Spend an hour or so swimming, snorkeling or relaxing on the island’s Ipil Beach before you call it a day.
If you have a little more time to spare, Tour B sometimes covers Lagen Island, a thickly forested island with a proliferation of wildlife. The island's Leta-Leta Cave harbored a collection of Neolithic artifacts – pottery, axes, adzes, and shell jewelry – that offered a look back into Philippine prehistory.
A walking trail through Lagen Island's forest cover terminates at a cove where you can kayak over to the Lagen Island Resort, Bacuit Bay's fanciest tourist destination.
Tour C: Abandoned Chapel is Star of “Shrine Tour”
Tours A and C, as mentioned before, are the two El Nido boat tours most recommended for first-time visitors. Where Tour A explores the archipelago’s lagoons, Tour C has an abandoned Catholic shrine as its main highlight.
But the shrine can wait: most Tour C expeditions begin at Dilumacad Island, a 20-minute boat ride from El Nido town. It's also known as "Helicopter Island" due to its helicopter-like shape when viewed from afar.
The island is home to a long, dazzling white sand beach that beckons to picnickers and snorkelers. The seafloor's abrupt drop makes this beach slightly dangerous for children and novice swimmers. (Divers, take note: the island's southern side has a fringing reef, and the northern side has an underwater cave at 50-80 feet, both great places to explore with a diving buddy.)
Matinloc Island’s Deserted Shrine and Gorgeous Beaches
Matinloc Island is a long, thin islet with a decades-old abandoned shrine. Once envisioned as a retreat house and convent, the Our Lady of Matinloc Shrine fell into disuse and has since been stripped of all furniture and valuables. The remaining structure remains open to visitors, though the tour guides love to tell ghost stories about the place to spook their guests.
Get over the shrine’s spooky experience by taking in the sun from one of Matinloc Island’s beaches:
The Secret Beach requires some effort to reach: you must swim underwater through an opening in the limestone, till you break through the water and find a strip of white sand bordering a hidden cove. When the sun comes in during noon, the limestone comes alive with light reflected from the water – absolute magic.
Kulasa Beach (pictured here), also on Matinloc, is a longer stretch of white sand beach within a cove. The deepening sea floor offers magnificent snorkeling and swimming.
Matinloc's four dive sites are a great place to get acquainted with the local marine life; the deepest at the southern tip of the island is 124 feet deep.
Tour D Explores El Nido’s Biggest Island – and its Beaches
Tour D kicks off with a visit to Ipil Beach on the mainland, before riding off to the biggest island in Bacuit Bay.
With an area of 2,400 acres and a peak that rises almost 2,000 feet above sea level, Cadlao rules over El Nido with its record-setting sights: its curving white sand beaches, lush forest cover, and many other surprises.
It’s Cadlao’s beaches that make it the best part of Tour D: the island’s gradually sloping sea floor makes its beaches relatively safer compared to the other beaches in the bay.
Swimmers and waders will appreciate the beaches of Bocal Point, Sabang Beach, Paradise Beach, and Natnat on Cadlao Island. Cadlao Lagoon's limestone formations and lush corals provide a magnificent setting for snorkelers.
The jungle cover is riddled with nature trails, one of which ends at a saltwater lagoon called Makaamo, which is ringed by mangroves that attract a proliferation of birds. Makaamo is a great spot to visit at sunrise or sunset, when the birds begin to feed.