El Nido Island Hopping — Tour A: Lagoons and Beaches
People visit El Nido, Palawan for one reason: Island hopping. And if you go, you’ll understand why. It’s awe inspiring. There are four tours, A, B, C and D. This post is about Tour A: Lagoons & Beaches. If you only have time for one tour, this, IMHO, is the one to take. El Nido is not a beach resort like Boracay. Rather, it’s one of the coolest places to explore in the Philippines. My other post has a map and a recommendation for the best pizza place in El Nido, Altrove.
Click here for a previous post on where El Nido is located and how to get there. I also did Tour B: Caves and Coves…but my photos and video are beyond awful, so Tour A is all I have to contribute. Palawan weather info at the end of this post.
Tour A Overview
Tour A is mostly centered around Miniloc Island, as shown in the map. You do two Lagoons — cleverly named Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon, then you have a totally yummy, specially-prepared lunch on a very picturesque little beach, then off to a small hidden lagoon (Secret Lagoon), and finally a pit stop on a long, off-white sandy beach just to relax a bit over a beer.
Before getting into specifics, here’s a short vid I took of the 5 stops. I was just using my iPod Touch camera, which sucks for video, and I couldn’t take it with me off the boat to get video of the really cool stuff, so this video also, by extension, sucks. But at least you can see two things: This Tour is all about stunning and dramatic island scenery — and about clear, blue-green waters. And as one of the first videos I’ve ever posted in which I don’t have a beer in my hand, it is also a bit of a first for me.
Costs and how to book
Almost any establishment in El Nido will book you a spot on a tour. You can book the day before, or just drop by before 9am and sign up. Most places charge about 700-900 Pesos for Tour A (@$15-$20). This includes boat transportation, lunch and life jackets. You’ll also want a snorkel and mask, which most rental shops will give you for no more than 200 pesos. Also get flippers if you are a weak swimmer and need a bit more of a tiger in your tank. And do yourself a favor and rent an underwater camera for the day, also available from a lot of the tour shops. I wish I had.
You will also have to pay a 200 peso park entry fee. Keep this piece of paper as you can use if for up to 10 days. It’s like an all-access pass at a concert. It’s good for all the islands and beaches in the El Nido area. And although you don’t have to, encouraging the people on the tour to give a small tip to the boat guides of 50-100 pesos will really add up and help them out.
Note that when you take a tour, you will be on a boat that will be filled with people from a number of tour operators, which are more numerous than any other kind of business in El Nido. If you want to do your own thing, just walk up the beach and see if you can find somebody to take you in a smaller outrigger to where you want to go. One guy I met did that for a total of 1500 pesos for the boat, and they supplied their own food. Personally, I met some super cool people on these tours, so I don’t think I would go it alone unless I wanted just to revisit the coolest places on the various tours.
1st Stop: Small Lagoon
Small Lagoon is deceptive. When you arrive at the amazing turquoise-green, shallow water bay, you feel that’s why you came. But that’s just where you park. To get to the actual lagoon, you follow the crowd to a small gap you can see in the rocks, as shown in this photo from wanderingdlyan.com.
You VERY CAREFULLY (it’s sharp) find your way over that impasse and you find yourself floating in a lagoon surrounded by sheer rock cliffs that jut up straight from the water. It’s striking. And in my mind, it was reminiscent of the “Big Thunder Mountain” ride at Disneyland. The rocks at the top just looked so cool. I thought, “Those must be fake and made for a movie set.” So if you’re an adventure-movie producer, go there to get inspired!
Here are two images a I found on philippinebeaches.net. and virtualtourist.com. Neither really captures the atmosphere of the place, but you can at least get an idea of what Small Lagoon is about. In fact, finding photos of the lagoon is a challenge as everybody leaves their cameras in the boat.
Warning: When you move from the boat to the lagoon entrance, you WILL get bitten on the legs and back etc by some kind of territorial fish that lives in that stretch of water. To me, they looked a bit like a less-colorful version of a Finding Nemo clownfish. Although one of the bites I got felt more like a baby Great White. Still, it has the wake-up value of a pot of double-strength espresso, so embrace the experience!
Now the special surprise. If you go right to the other side of the Small Lagoon, which isn’t very far, you can go into a small entranceway that leads to a water-filled cave. It’s completely enclosed, but over the centuries, rainwater seeping through the cracks has made a skylight with some amazing limestone shapes and formations to stare up at. Here’s a shot I am borrowing from a cool Pinoy travel blog, layovertolife.
Still, this is just a cool aside. The place you’ll want to spend the most time at is the Small Lagoon. One of the people on our tour remarked that the tour would have been worth it just to see that one lagoon. And she was Irish, so you know it must be REALLY good.
2nd Stop: Big Lagoon
OK, Big Lagoon is seriously beautiful. But it’s also a place we just drove the boat in, puttered around, then drove out again. So after the Indiana Jones adventurer feeling I had from Small Lagoon, I was a bit disappointed there were no caves to crawl in. Still, it’s beautiful. It’s one of those places you quietly boat through in stunned silence as you soak in the colors and clarity of the water. And the good news is that since we were on the boat the whole time, at least the photos here are my own.
3rd Stop: Lunch on Shimizu Island
This small island, which apparently got its name from a Japanese diver who died there in an underwater cave, is where you stop for lunch. In spite of the depressing roots of the nomenclature, it’s a stunning place to chill while the boat crew prepares your lunch.
4th Stop: The Secret Lagoon
OK, let’s dispel this myth right here and now. The secret’s out…as you’ll see when you arrive and literally have to wait for a space to get close enough to shore to dock. But it’s worth the wait.
Also known as Secret Beach, you have to swim up to a hole in a rock, swim through, and suddenly you’re back in Jurassic Park as you were in Small Lagoon. This one has more or less of a beach depending on how high the tide is. I have no decent pics, but this video I found gives a good idea of the experience of swimming into there. Note that you do not, as the video seems to suggest, go underwater to enter the lagoon. You just float in. This guy was just showboating.
5th Stop: 7 Commandos Beach
Not much to write home about here. This beach, also named for some people who died here — this time 7 commandos – is a final pitstop on the way home. It’s a long, sandy beach where all the tours end up for some chill time on the way home. Since El Nido town has a shite beach, this is some of the only sand-beach time you’ll get in El Nido, so it’s a nice end to the tour. I suspect, however, the real reason they go there is because they get kick-backs from a beach bar there, which does a fairly lucrative trade thanks to the thirsty tourists.
Note in the photo below that I found on the Net, the sand is usually whiter. I think it must have rained when they took this pic. But I chose it so you can see what it looks like looking away from the beach. This kind of dramatic scenery is everywhere in the El Nido area.
Palawan Rainfall Info
I must apologize to a dedicated reader who asked me about the weather…and I said that January is the best weather month in SE Asia. I was so wrong!!! It turns out she had a lot of rain in January…and when I checked…yes, January is still a heavy rain month. My deepest apologies for giving bad intel on that. Sorry, Leni!! Here is the actual average monthly rainfall for Palawan.