El Nido. The last frontier. Paradise on earth. Or is it?
Of all the places we’d planned to visit on our Big Trip one of the most anticipated was this lauded part of The Philippines, reputed to be the actual place where Alex Garland got his inspiration for The Beach. We’d heard and read so much about the famous off-shore islands in the Bacuit Archipelago, of its fabulous white, powder-sand beaches and the unrivalled clarity of the sea.
Unfortunately, the reality for us was a noisy, crowded town that resembled a building site, and an island-hopping experience that had all the attraction of a Saturday afternoon picnic in the car park of our local supermarket.
OK, I can accept we probably made some wrong choices from the outset.
We initially wanted to join the highly recommended 5-day/4-night Tao Expedition boat trip from Coron to El Nido with its promise of camping-on-remote-islands and helping local communities. But at £750 for the two us we couldn’t justify the expense.
Instead, and concerned about trying to find accommodation during peak season, I booked and paid well in advance for five nights at The Swiftlets Inn, a newish place just outside the centre of town. Trouble was I must have missed the small print on their website as I don’t remember reading anything about the whole floor above us being under construction. Having pointed this out to the manager after two days of banging hammers and rotating circular saws he calmly assured us that all the work was being done while we were out for the day on boat trips, so it shouldn’t affect us. Well, happy days then.
To add insult to injury, a bar just 50 metres away seemed to be the nightly venue for a group of Eastern Europeans to play drinking games until the early hours of the morning. There really was no escape from the relentless noise.
To be fair to the hotel manager he did give us a refund for the final three days after we told him we were leaving.
The town itself is an ugly mix of tour companies, bars and buildings under construction, which cascade down to the beachfront in probably what is one of the worst examples of how to ruin a picturesque bay. That’s if the picturesque bay hadn’t already been ruined by a floating car park of tour boats.
Tours around the islands are grouped into four itineraries – creatively called A, B, C and D – which all the tour companies in town stick to. Those who are in the know about such things say that A and C are the best choices so we went with the perceived wisdom and chose Tour A, costing 1400 pesos (£20/$30) each, including lunch and an “environmental fee”.
We then set sail with an armada of other boats towards the first of the five stops scheduled – Small Lagoon. Our group of 10 included a Canadian with his Filipino wife, four Danish girls and a young Russian couple. As we made progress across the bay I recalled images I’d seen on the internet of a lagoon with crystal clear, turquoise water and surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs. It was enough to whet my appetite for what lay ahead. Unfortunately, what lay ahead soon materialised when we turned into the small cove situated at the front of Small Lagoon.
Rows of boats were moored in a haphazard fashion, while dozens of orange life-vested snorkellers were in the water, most of them just bobbing around. Meanwhile, boats were playing “chicken” with each other as they tried to manoeuvre their way back out of the “parking area” and into open water.
The lagoon itself was indeed small. Getting there involved negotiating your way through a narrow pass while trying to avoid eager selfie-stick-wielding kayakers who clearly thought they had the right of way. Once in the lagoon, the water was too murky for any snorkelling but the area was nice enough, with limestone cliffs encasing the emerald lagoon on all sides.
With just half-an-hour allotted by our captain, we had just about enough time to swim there and back to the boat. To our dismay, the Russian couple were just heading out into the water, as they’d initially been terrified of the prospect of being surrounded by fish. I’m not sure what they’d been expecting when they booked the tour but I’m pretty sure there was always going to be a better than 50/50 chance of seeing some fish. Anyway, we waited on the boat for another half-an-hour while our two born-again adventurers were dragged through the lagoon by a guide in a kayak.
When we finally set off we took a short trip to the other side of the lagoon where there was a lovely beach (described by our captain as “Hidden Beach”). This time, there were just another three boats parked up with us, which was something of a relief.
Secret Lagoon was up next and was pretty underwhelming, to be honest. It was “secret” in that there was a small hole hidden in the rocks, which you climbed through to unveil a small lagoon with limestone cliffs on all sides. Move on.
Lunch was served on another lovely beach, this time on Shimizu Island. The water here was beautifully clear, the sand powdery white and the view across to the islands in the archipelago spectacular. The only problem was every other tour boat had turned up for their own beach BBQ, too. So we ended up having our grilled prawns and squid in the one small section of beach that wasn’t already crammed to the rafters with hungry tourists.
And then, after lunch, we arrived at the famous Big Lagoon, which as you’ve probably already guessed, features a big lagoon frequented by snorkelers, kayakers and boats. Once again it was packed. Once again we had to moor our boat on the outskirts which meant that we had to swim the rest of the way in. Nicky had by this stage had enough and opted to snorkel around the vicinity of the boat instead. I decided to go for it, however as we’d already made it this far.
Unfortunately, it soon turned to farce. There were so many boats trying to manoeuvre their way in and out that they were having to manually push each other out of the way. Trying to swim through the mayhem was at best tedious, and actually downright dangerous. This really wasn’t what I’d signed up for at all.
Into the lagoon, I waded through shallow water until I arrived at much deeper water which then snaked its way out to sea through a gorge with steep cliffs. It would probably have blown me away with its beauty had there been an opportunity to just take it all in. Instead, I was moved out of the way by the captains of two boats as they headed along the shallow gorge – at which point I gave up too and returned to the relative sanctuary of our boat.
But before I got there I saw two boats pull up their anchors, along with the live coral they were fixed upon. And I witnessed snorkellers standing on coral and others destroying it with their over-sized fins (which they didn’t need anyway as the lagoon water was calm and current-free).
Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach (named after the final seven Japanese commandos who lived on the island after the Second World War), which was again….well you know the rest. The beach was nice enough but hardly the pristine destination my previous expectations had led me to believe it would be.
After an hour or so there we jumped back in our boat and headed back to El Nido and one final dance through a web of moored boats.
Don’t get me wrong, the scenery was beautiful and I’ve no doubt that, back in the day, El Nido and the off-shore islands would have been a highlight of any trip. But it was something of a crashing disappointment for us. It looks like it’s turning into just another SE Asia beauty spot that’s sold out to over-commercialism, irrespective of the damage it’s doing to the environment. We’ve heard that they’re already considering a large airport to bring lots more people in and, judging by the building work going on, they’re getting ready for the next influx already.
We’ve also heard that the town has a groundwater problem which could potentially lead to water-borne health problems. Time will tell if this becomes a reality but if you’re considering visiting in the near future you might want to do your research first and decide how you want to get the best out of your time.
As for us, we cut short our five-night stay after two nights and booked ourselves in at a guest house about an hour’s drive north. We’d planned to do Tour C next, which mainly focuses on the beaches of the outer islands, but we just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm for another day of crowds and mayhem.
So there you go, we’ve said it.
In our opinion, El Nido really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
And that’s a crying shame.
…or visit our Philippines page.
What did you think? Have you been to El Nido? Do you agree with our view or are you a fan? Or maybe you’re thinking of holidaying there? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.