Coined the “most beautiful island in the world,” Palawan definitely lives up to the hype. But don’t let that intimidate you -- as a whole, this island in the Philippines is surprisingly affordable and won’t break the bank. Plus, many of the main attractions, like watching the famously vibrant sunset or touring downtown on foot, are completely free. Here’s a budget guide to El Nido, Palawan’s most charming beach town.Where to Play
Island hopping is arguably the best way to tour El Nido, as there are so many hidden beaches just waiting to be explored. An all-day snorkeling tour -- that often includes a freshly prepared lunch on a secluded beach -- takes you past jagged limestone islands, rocky coves, rainforest, and sandy beaches. Tourists can either book upon arrival in El Nido or opt for a tour company that organizes outings in advance. (Intrepid Travel offers a seven-night package covering four destinations along the island, including El Nido, with activities and some meals from $1,550 per person.)
While the beach is El Nido’s main attraction, there are plenty of activities on land, too. Climb to the top of El Nido cliff for unobstructed views of the ocean. It takes about three hours round-trip, and a guide is required to accompany all travelers. Alternatively, Nagkalit-kalit Falls boasts a natural pool perfect for a lazy afternoon swim. It’s a 25-minute tricycle ride from El Nido, where you'll pass through rice fields, jungle landscape, and river crossings.
Where to Eat
Downtown El Nido is bustling, especially during high season. For lunch with a view, head to El Nido Boutique and Artcafe. The restaurant directly overlooks the sea and even has beach access for all your frolicking needs. The menu is pretty extensive, but their most popular dishes are pizzas and pastas.
For free WiFi and cheap grub, swing by Aplaya Restaurant, also located right on the beach. Entrees cost anywhere from 150 to 300 Philippine peso (approximately $3.30 to $6.60 USD) and a bucket of four beers is about 170p (less than $4). Haven't eaten all day? Try Squidos and split one of their seafood platters with a friend. And Marber’s Restaurant is yet another El Nido staple and a local favorite.
By night, El Nido is just as thrilling. There are a slew of bars right along the beach, many of which feature live music. Reggae fans will gravitate to Pukka Bar, with its low-key vibe and graffiti-covered walls.
Where to Stay
Where to stay in El Nido largely depends on personal preference, but you can bet on getting change for a Benjamin wherever you go. To experience nightlife, a downtown hotel like Ipil Suites is a safe bet. All rooms are equipped with air-conditioning, hot and cold shower water, ceiling fans, and safety deposit boxes. WiFi and breakfast are also included in the price. From 2,500p ($55) or 3,300p ($72) depending on the season.
For something a bit more luxurious and remote, try El Nido Cove Resort. Rooms are spacious and there is direct beach access plus water sports gear like kayaks. It’s about a 15- to 20-minute tricycle ride into downtown, which is an adventure, but stick around for the famous El Nido sunset before leaving. From 3,500p ($78) per night.
Can’t choose between the city and the country? Cliffside Cottages is a good mix of both. It’s a five- to 10-minute walk from the beach, yet it has the secluded feel of an upscale resort. Décor is simple, but the garden views are scenic and serene -- ideal for anyone who craves peace and quiet. From 1,500p ($33) per night for an air conditioned room, breakfast for two included.
Additional Notes & Tips
Since Palawan is an island, travelers will need to fly into Manila and then book a separate flight to El Nido. Alternatively, you can fly into Puerto Princesa and spend a few days there before taking a bus to El Nido. This is usually the less expensive option but does entail more time. The bus journey is about five hours, so we recommend bringing a good book.
Make sure you have plenty of cash before arriving to El Nido. There are no ATMs in town and it’s best to locate one at the airport (if flying directly El Nido) or visit one before leaving Puerto Princesa. Electricity runs from around 2:30 p.m. until 6 a.m. in the morning. Like any tropical destination, pack plenty of sunscreen and bug spray.