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A four- to five-hour drive from Palawan island’s capital of Puerto Princesa, the Philippines’ El Nido sounds like a tedious trip for most tourists.
Yet countless still make the journey every day.
The town’s streets are lined with small restaurants, low-key bars, boutique hotels and “sari-sari” (convenience) stores. Filipino tourists — as well as European, Australian and American travelers — are drawn to the archipelago’s legendary beaches and little islands, and can be found littering the sidewalks and filling up “tricycles” (Filipino tuk tuks). Along the coast, bright and colorful traditional Filipino fishing boats await a new wave of island-hopping patrons.
Is a visit here worth the scarcely stimulating drive from the capital? Many seem to think so. The destination is, after all, home to several small islands, caves, limestone karsts, hidden lagoons and dozens of beaches.
Some attractions, however, are more irresistible than others, especially for first-time visitors. My tip? Skip booking one or two of the four main island-hopping packages offered by most tour operators — called Tour A, Tour B, Tour C and Tour D on their websites — and instead opt for a customized tour that includes these five dreamy spots.
Big LagoonThe Big Lagoon is, without a doubt, one of the most awe-inspiring places to visit in El Nido, and it’s therefore a must-add to any customized tour.
This stunning spot, accessible by kayak or paddleboard through a long, grand, natural hallway where visitors can stop for a refreshing dip in shallow water, is more than just a larger version of the Small Lagoon (see more on that below). While also surrounded by looming limestone rock formations, Big Lagoon has a few quiet nooks and crannies worth exploring. The real shoo-in, however, is its hidden cave/canyon. The canyon, tucked in one of the lagoon’s smaller sections, has a narrow, water-immersed passageway where one can navigate a kayak (though it’s challenging).
Cathedral CaveAlthough Cathedral Cave is off limits to the public, and the closest tourists can get requires them to stand at the end of the tour boat as it’s docked next to the opening, it’s a site that’s still worth a visit.
The majestic structure, formed on the side of a cliff on Cathedral Island, is an important sight for local “busyadors,” or those who are known to climb to high places to gather swiftlet bird nests for profit (these are used for bird’s nest soup, considered a delicacy). The cave opens directly to the emerald-blue water of the bay — which is a big part of its appeal — but it’s the horizontal line patterns carved on its high walls that lend to its grandeur.
Pinagbuyutan IslandPinagbuyutan Island isn’t the most epic island in El Nido. But for first-time visitors looking for an introduction to the destination, it is most definitely an ideal stop.
Unlike the popular Seven Commando Beach, which is clearly meant for tourists, Pinagbuyutan has a deserted-island vibe that coaxes an effortless, barefoot attitude. And unlike the famous Helicopter Island — which has strong, treacherous waves — Pinagbuyutan’s waters are calm and perfect for a relaxing, leisurely swim. The coral, a stone’s throw away from shore, is ideal for a bit of snorkeling — it’s home to colorful fish, massive blue starfish and even exquisite pink jellyfish.
Small LagoonThis spectacular place is hardly an introduction to the destination. Rather, it’s required reading.
A turquoise version of heaven and hidden from the main cove of Miniloc Island behind almost-kissing rock outcroppings, the Small Lagoon will make clients gasp in awe. And the best way to experience it is by hopping on a kayak, which can be rented on the spot for cheap. A hidden lagoon surrounded by lush, towering cliffs, it offers an element of adventure, as visitors must paddle through a tiny opening before they make their way around the lagoon. Despite this, it has a sense of tranquility, and one cannot resist “dropping anchor” to just breathe it all in.
Snake IslandThere are many sights included in prepackaged tours that first-time visitors are better off skipping. However, if there’s one spot worth ticking off the list, it’s Snake Island.
Snake Island is named for the pristinely white sand bar that appears during low tide and snakes across the water to connect the shores of the island to mainland Palawan. Not only is it lovely to cross at a languid pace, but the waters surrounding it are shallow enough for small kids and nonswimmers. As a bonus, there’s a quick hike that takes visitors to a high vantage point for panoramic views, as well as a floating bar that has local beer and other refreshing drinks on offer.
Find out which El Nido resort made it on our list of six luxury, eco-friendly resorts.