El Nido, Palawan is an island hopping mecca. The town itself is cluttered with numerous tour operators, hundreds of tricycles and even more tourists. The islands nearby, however, are a complete contrast to the busy town. They are incredible! But what if you only have a few days to explore this beautiful part of Palawan? There are so many other things to do in El Nido and so prioritizing your activities is a must. This guide will help you decide which El Nido Island hopping tour is best for your trip.
El Nido Island Hopping Overview
El Nido’s beauty lies in the exquisite limestone cliffs that are dotted all over the islands and peak out of the ocean. Each of these unique and natural geographical structures is covered in greenery and surrounded by crystal clear blue water. You cannot appreciate El Nido for what it really is until you have visited a few of the 45 islands that make up the Bacuit Archipelago.
There are four El Nido island hopping tours to choose from: Tour A, Tour B, Tour C and Tour D.
Each tour follows the same itinerary which makes it a lot easier when deciding which El Nido island hopping tour to choose from.
The tours start at 09:00, but expect to wait a while before you eventually leave the harbor. Things work at a slower pace in El Nido – otherwise known as Philippines time! The island hopping tours should be completed by 17:00, just in time for sunset at Las Cabanas Beach.
Tour A and C are the most popular, and as a result, the most crowded tours. All tours are vastly different, and so I’d recommend you try at least 2 of them.
El Nido Tour A: 1200 PHP ($22)
El Nido tour A is all about lagoons, beautiful (somewhat crowded) lagoons! You’re able to canoe at two of the stops and snorkel at another one.
The verdict: All the stops are popular for a reason and it definitely lives up to its reputation. The highlights for me were Shimizu Island and Small Lagoon. I would have been happy to skip the crowds at 7 Commando Beach.
El Nido tour A itinerary
- Shimizu Island
- Secret Lagoon
- Small Lagoon
- Big Lagoon
- 7 Commando Beach
1) Shimizu Island
This was my favorite destination for El Nido tour A. It’s a popular lunch stop but to avoid the crowds, our boat anchored at a snorkeling site where we were able to swim around for 30 minutes before heading to the next island. With its diverse marine life and bright color coral, it’s a hard one to beat.
An interesting fact about Shimizu Island – It’s named after a Japanese diver who died whilst exploring the island’s underwater cave.
2) Secret Lagoon
Secret Lagoon is the smallest of the 3 lagoons on El Nido Tour A’s itinerary.
To enter the lagoon, you need to climb through a small, narrow opening. Many people have complained about the queues at this entrance point, but it was relatively quiet when we were there.
What’s waiting for you on the other side isn’t the most extraordinary lagoon I’ve come across. But whilst walking through the not-so-blue waters, take a look up and appreciate the limestone walls that enclose Secret Lagoon. This is where the true beauty lies.
3) Small Lagoon
Incredible turquoise waters welcome you to Small Lagoon. Here, you are able to rent canoes and paddle between the limestone formations that make up the lagoon.
It’s peaceful and surprisingly silent, despite the crowds that fill it. Small Lagoon was also our lunch stop for the day where we were served fresh mussels, chicken, salad, rice, and fruit.
4) Big Lagoon
Big Lagoon is, well, big! You enter the lagoon through a wide, shallow canal. As you get closer to Big Lagoon, the water gradually fades darker as a result of the deeper water.
As with Small Lagoon, you can rent a canoe and paddle through the canal to enter Big Lagoon. However, to save time, we went in with our boat, as did most of the other groups. Once inside Big Lagoon, and surrounded by large vertical limestone cliffs, we took the opportunity to swim around for a while and explore the lagoon.
5) 7 Commando Beach
7 Commando Beach is a large beach with sandy shores and turquoise, clear water. It’s supposedly named after 7 Japanese commandos who were stranded on the island and made it their home after WWII.
It is by far the most popular stop for El Nido Tour A. This, thanks to the 2 beach bars and swings that welcome you as you arrive. Luckily for me, 7 Commando Beach was my camping spot for the night.
Whilst I did feel that this beach was too crowded, the boats left before sunset, taking the scores of tourists with them. If you have time, take a swim around the limestone rocks to the beach next door, Papaya Beach. It is smaller and less crowded than 7 Commandos Beach.
El Nido Tour B: 1300 PHP ($24)
Tour B is about caves but includes a few beaches and snorkeling.
The verdict: I did this tour with El Nido Party Boat which means that I had my first drink before we even left the shores of El Nido. Being in my merry state, I thoroughly enjoyed this tour, however, I do think that Tour A and C are better overall.
- Snake Island
- Cudugnon Cave
- Cathedral Cave
- Pinagbuyutan Island
1) Snake Island
This was my favorite stop for EL Nido tour B. Snake Island gets its name from the narrow sandbar that resembles a snake and connects two islands together. No, there are no snakes on Snake Island! (This was the first question I asked!)
There is a viewpoint which is a short hike from the beach, offering gorgeous views of Snake Island. Whilst Snake Island doesn’t offer the same standard of beaches as Talisay Beach (Tour C), it is a fun stop to splash around in the water and do a bit of exploring.
2) Cudugnon Cave
After taking a quick swim from our boat to the island, we reached Cudugnon Cave. To enter the cave you need to squeeze through a small hole. It’s definitely not a graceful entrance, especially when you’re in a bikini.
It is said that the cave was once a sacred burial site, but the fossils have since been removed. There is a small opening in the ceiling of the cave which lets light in and so you are not completely surrounded by darkness. There are three chambers within the cave, one of which is home to thousands of fruit bats.
Overall, a tad bit boring but cool to see and explore.
3) Cathedral Cave
The boat anchors just outside of Cathedral Cave where you can take pictures of the entrance of the cave, however, you are not allowed to get off the boat.
This particular stop was not very exciting but would have been if we were allowed to swim in the cave. However, this is not allowed as the waters tend to be a bit rough and with the sharp edges, it is dangerous. There are also many sea snakes in the water so it’s best avoided.
4) Pinagbuyutan Island
The island is filled with coconut trees, long grass, and sandy shores. It was different to any of the other beach stops which intrigued me. It was also very quiet when we arrived, with only one other tour group visiting the island.
Pinagbuyutan Island offers snorkeling on the one end and a nice swimming beach on the other. However, the snorkeling here is nothing to write home about. After visiting some of the most incredible snorkeling sites in El Nido, our standards were set high!
Survivor South Africa 2018 will also be shot on Pinagbuyutan Island which is pretty exciting.
El Nido Tour C: 1400 PHP ($26)
Tour C is all about beautiful beaches and snorkeling. It showcases the perfect paradise that El Nido is, and it does this through the beaches on its itinerary.
El Nido Tour C is slightly more expensive than the other tours due to the extra distance it takes to reach the islands. It is also the tour that’s most affected by adverse weather conditions. As a result, some of the destinations on Tour C’s itinerary may be inaccessible.
The verdict: I spent most of my day on Tour C soaking up the sun and working on my tan – the Korean winter had been harsh! I thoroughly enjoyed Talisay Beach and Hidden Beach. Helicopter Island and Matinloc Island weren’t all they’re made up to be, but overall it was a great tour with incredible sights.
- Helicopter Island
- Talisay Beach
- Secret Beach
- Matinloc Island
- Hidden Beach
1) Helicopter Island
Helicopter Island is the first stop on the itinerary for El Nido tour C. When looking at the island from a distance, you will notice it’s odd shape, which of course looks like a helicopter.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly blown away by this beach. It didn’t quite meet my “perfect paradise” standards, with its large crowds, mediocre snorkeling and not so white-sandy shores! However, in the island’s defense, it was rather windy when we arrived (and there had been a typhoon 2 days before), so perhaps I’m being too harsh. We snorkeled a bit and took a walk along the long beach before heading to our next stop.
2) Talisay Beach
I loved this stop! Talisay Beach is a beautiful white sandy beach and was our lunch stop for the day.
Snorkeling off the shores of Talisay Beach was nothing short of spectacular. The waters were calm and clear blue. We were surrounded by all kinds of tropical fish as we tried our hand at free diving and exploring the underwater-world of El Nido.
3) Matinloc Island
Matinloc Shrine is a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary situated alongside an abandoned mansion. The owner and his wife mysteriously left the island, and the shrine has since been neglected.
After paying an entrance fee of 100 PHP, we took a walk around the grounds. It’s an old shrine and the mansion has an eerie feel to it. I would love to know the history and the story of the people who lived there, and why they left so suddenly.
The main attraction for this stop is the lookout point. It is a short climb up the jagged limestone rocks and ends with a viewpoint that has panoramic views of the islands nearby. Take a snap, then be on your way as there’s not much else to see at this stop.
4) Secret Beach
Secret beach can only be accessed through a tiny hole in the limestone walls that separates the sea from the beach. Unfortunately, the seas were too rough when we arrived and so we couldn’t enter. However, Secret Beach is one of the most popular El Nido island hopping stops and I wish we could’ve experienced it.
5) Hidden Beach
This was our last stop for EL Nido tour C. As we approached Hidden Beach and came to a stop, I thought, “Mmm, well there’s no beach here!!” However, hidden behind the beautiful limestone cliffs lies a small and isolated beach.
Getting to the beach was an adventure on its own. The sea was a bit rough but after seeing 4-year-olds dive into the water with not a worry in the world, I decided to go for it.
To enter the beach you swim through a small waterway towards a shallow bay. Hidden Beach was relatively quiet when we arrived and I really enjoyed the swim to get to it as it was a bit more exciting than being dropped off by the boats.
Tips for El Nido Island Hopping
- Be sure to confirm exactly what is included in your tour before you book. Most El Nido Island Hopping tours include snorkeling gear, a life jacket, and a buffet lunch
- Take a wet bag with you to keep your cash and personal belongings dry. Yes, the boat does get wet. These bags cost around 350 PHP for a 20L bag and will come in handy during your stay in El Nido
- Sunblock. Don’t forget the sunblock!
- Bring cash along. Coconuts (50 PHP), ice-cold beers (70 PHP) and cold drinks (70 PHP) are available at most stops
- Canoes are available for rental for 100 PHP at Small and Big Lagoon
- Pack in some water and snacks
- If you have reef shoes, wear them. However, they aren’t necessary if you have substitute shoes. Our Havaiana flip-flops were a good second best, so take them along if you have
- All tours offer the same itinerary and unless you hire a private boat, you are unable to customize your tour. If you’re traveling with friends, rather arrange a private tour. This will allow you to create your own itinerary and avoid the crowds by choosing different routes
- El Nido Party Boat is also a great company that provides island hopping with an additional perk – day drinking! It is more expensive than the regular tours, and there is no set itinerary, but it’s a fun way to explore the islands and meet like-minded travelers