It’s weird what following all of those travel accounts on Instagram can do to you. I was born in the Philippines, but I have never even heard of El Nido or even Palawan really until I started seeing it blasted all over my Instagram feed almost every other day.
I was already backpacking through Southeast Asia, and after impulsively booking a flight to the Philippines from Vietnam, I decided that I was going to check it out. I’ve never been a tourist in my own country, so I was excited to actually see what home had to offer.
To be honest, after exploring Thailand’s southern islands and Ha Long Bay, I was expecting more of the same: incredibly beautiful scenery ruined by mobs of rambunctious tourists.
Nope. I was pleasantly surprised at how the tourism industry really has yet to take a firm hold on El Nido. There are some resorts and hostels, but you won’t feel overwhelmed by massive tour groups like in Boracay or in literally any of the islands in Thailand and Indonesia.
El Nido was like a dream. Massive limestone karsts dotted the clear blue ocean, with white sandy beaches above the water and impressive coral reefs below. Seeing our first glimpses of the beautiful seaside mountains after a twisty and bumpy six hour minivan ride through a monsoon was love at first sight.
For the more rugged traveler or adventurous backpacker, El Nido is perfection. There are plenty of things to do in the area, and plenty of islands to go explore. El Nido is a popular destination for Scuba divers, but even if you just want to chill by some pristine beaches and swim in perfect waters, then you can’t go wrong with a vacation here.
It feels like an escape from the real world, or at least an escape from the Western comforts that you probably found yourself reverting to while experiencing the “culture” of Southeast Asia. I’ll admit, backpacking through Southeast Asia was too easy and catered way too much to the Western backpackers. You didn’t have to eat any local food if you didn’t want to, and wi-fi was almost ubiquitous so you could sit on Instagram and Facebook all day instead of experiencing the whole new world that you have flown to.
El Nido was refreshing, and was exactly what I was hoping to get out of Southeast Asia. Don’t like local food? Suck it up, because there are not too many restaurant options in El Nido. Don’t be too upset because the Philippines has some of my favorite food in the entire world. I recommend going to the beach and having someone grill a fresh fish or squid right in front of you. For 200 pesos ($4 USD), you get a whole fish, and rice, and vegetables. Ballin’ on a budget.
If you’re a budget traveler, get used to being uncomfortable. El Nido only recently got 24 hour electricity. Hostels don’t exactly have the best amenities yet, and don’t even think about wi-fi. The Philippines isn’t exactly known for its high-speed wi-fi, but El Nido takes you back to the stone age with how difficult to find wi-fi is. Even when you finally find a cafe or hotel offering free wi-fi, it will probably be completely unreliable. It was definitely refreshing not having to care about the outside world for a while.
The nightlife in El Nido also leaves a little bit to be desired, but I had some incredible nights out while I was there. The main bar that everyone goes to is Pukka Bar, and the music is good and the dance floor is usually packed. It’s not just packed with stinky backpackers either. The Filipino people love to party, and in comparison to other countries in Southeast Asia, the Filipino people are more fun and friendly. It is impossible not to make friends with a few Filipino people on every night out.
I’m not going to say that El Nido will provide a super authentic, non-touristy, local experience, but it is as close as you’re going to get for something as breathtakingly beautiful as Palawan. I have no doubt that there will be a massive increase in Palawan’s popularity in the future. Everyone’s always looking for that new exotic and untouched destination, like Bali once was a long time ago.
I believe that El Nido is going to be that place soon, so I strongly suggest that you move it towards the top of your bucket list before it becomes another festering pit of tourists and selfie sticks.