It’s the main reason why people endure that six hour bumpy, swervy, roller coaster of a shuttle ride to and from Puerto Princesa. Island hopping in El Nido in the Philippines. It’s a pure tropical island experience. You hop aboard a banca and spend the day hopping from one white sand beach to the next, exploring lagoons, and snorkeling along the way. Sounds ideal. So what do you need to know before you go island hopping in El Nido?
Every Company Offers the Same Tours
The local government dictates which tour routes companies can offer and how much they charge. Tours A & C are the most popular and you’ll have a hard time finding a company willing to run Tours B or D. In theory, the only difference will be in your crew and their service. In reality, it’s up to the crew where they take you on the day so you may have a different Tour A experience than your hostel mate who went with someone else.
I did both Tour A and Tour C and found that neither one ran according to the advertised itinerary. On Tour A there was confusion with our boat and crew and, in the end, our group had to be driven by tricycle caravan to Corong Corong to board a different boat. This meant that we didn’t set off until 11am and had to do a modified, condensed trip. I never did see Secret Lagoon.
On Tour C, we didn’t stop at Mantiloc Shrine and no one on my boat was willing to face the waves and currents to go into Secret Beach. Also, our guide didn’t always tell us what beach we were landing on so I’m fuzzy on whether our first stop was at Helicopter Island or some other beach.
Cancellations Are Common
Every morning it’s up to the Coast Guard whether tours will run or not. If the winds are up, the tours get scrapped. The boats aren’t made for heavy weather so if the Coast Guard thinks they should stay anchored, you wouldn’t want to be out on them anyway. Trust me.
It seems like it doesn’t take much wind to call off the island hopping tours. Don’t plan your time in El Nido so tightly that everything will be ruined if your tour gets called off. Be flexible with your schedule.
You Should be a Strong Swimmer
You’ll be given a life jacket, but if you have any fear of deep water or aren’t a confident swimmer, island hopping may not be an enjoyable trip for you. There were more than a few places where we had to get off the boat in deep water and swim to shore. At Hidden Beach on Tour C the waves were strong and, in the end, I needed some help from the guide to get back to the boat, but not after bashing myself on the rocks and getting scraped up. To get to Secret Beach, you have to swim underwater through a narrow rock tunnel with strong currents. Was not for me.
Bring a Dry Bag and Water Shoes
I live in Newfoundland where, if you want to get on a boat, you go to the wharf and walk over a gangplank. Not so in El Nido. To board the island hopping pump-boats you’ll wade through the surf and then climb a small ladder. The depth of water varies from stop to stop. Water often sloshes up over the floorboards of the boats due to their design so you’re going to want to keep all of your stuff in a dry bag. If you didn’t pack one, no worries, every other store in Palawan sells them.
You’ll also want to wear water shoes. Not the sexiest or most stylish of footwear but absolutely necessary. The entrance to Hidden Beach is covered with sharp rocks and you’ll tear your feet up without protection. You can rent shoes for 150 pesos from a shop/restaurant on Serena St but it’s always nicer to have your own.
I also picked up a waterproof pouch for my phone so that I wouldn’t have to worry about ruining an expensive piece of technology but could still take photos. It worked, but a waterproof case would’ve been an even better option.
Don’t Forget Your Patience
Palawan is a seriously stunning place but sometimes it felt like the most disorganized place. If you forget to pack your patience, you’re gonna have a bad time. With our first tour, we were picked up slightly late and we followed our host down to the waterline, picking up more guests along the way. We were deposited down near the pier and our host talked to someone manning a small shop and then…just walked away. What was happening? Which was our boat? Was the tour still going ahead? We watched boat after boat board and leave and still we waited. It was the most frustrating feeling. In the end we went on our tour but it felt completely haphazard.
The next tour went more smoothly but we still didn’t get going until after 10am, when I was told to be ready at 9am. Other guests commented that someone picked them up at their hotel and then just deposited them on the beach without explanation. Maybe it’s a language barrier or maybe that’s just how they do things but you need to be able to go with the flow. Your timetables mean nothing here.
Was It Amazing? Absolutely!
Despite a few headaches, island hopping in El Nido is still an amazing experience. Digging your toes into the whitest sand while eating the freshest fish and fruit lunch. Snorkelling with colourful tropical fish. Kayaking in stunned silence while staring at towering limestone cliffs. Absolutely breathtaking and I would do it again in a heartbeat.