Palawan - El Nido and Port Barton

Where I stayed:  El Nido Corner Hotel / Coral Cliff Hotel

Reasons to go:  Beautiful beaches galore, snorkelling, paddleboarding, boat tours

Overall:  One of my favourite islands, beautiful forests and beaches, laid back atmosphere

Sitting on a pretty crescent shaped bay surrounded by karsts reminiscent of Halong Bay, El Nido has a laid back vibe with plenty of beaches and boat trips. It reminded me of Bali/Thailand 20 years ago and – as in all newly discovered tropical destinations – construction is everywhere, accompanied by the peaceful sound of jackhammers and heavy machinery.  The roads vary between new-tarmac-smooth to bone-jarringly awful, hotels being thrown up willy nilly with little attention to safety let alone aestheticism, and the road infrastructure is not developing fast enough to keep up with the demand of taxi-trikes, SUVs and minivan shuttles required to keep up with the increasing amount of tourists.  Already too ‘touristy’ for some, it is less commercial than Thailand and Indonesia in my opinion.
Having had some good recommendations from friends, I opted for 6 days in the area to do some of the beaches, spend a day on a boat and also have a couple of nights in Port Barton, and I did this at the end of my trip.

 View from my 5th floor room in Coral Cliff

View from my balcony at El Nido Corner Hotel

The best way, but not the cheapest, is to get to El Nido by Air Swift.  They have several flights in and out each day and it’s only an hour from Manila, and they also do connections with other islands.  You can go to Puerto Princesa with Philippines Airlines and take a bus but this is about 6 hours and can be frustrating, mainly because the bus companies wait until they have sold all the seats before leaving, and then stop unnecessarily at various restaurants along the route because they get commission.  I had to do this from Port Barton and it drove me nuts because I have no patience when a 2.5h trip takes 6h.  Bring plenty of high-octane bug spray because sand flies (or nik niks) are nasty little buggers and clearly the abundance of white tasty flesh has encouraged them to breed in their droves, with most people sporting polka-dot legs.  I also came down with food poisoning which is really common, probably from the ice used in drinks. 

On my first day I took a 45 minute shuttle to Nacpan Beach, a gorgeous and long stretch of sand with some nice little beach bars.  Waves are big and riptides are common so there’s only really one area to swim, so I opted for a stroll from one end to the other to get away from the crowded swimming area, and discovered some lovely natural beauty as well as watching some young local boys shinny up coconut trees.  It’s possible to stay overnight here if you fancy getting away from the crowds in town.  The other beach I recommend is Las Cabanas for sunset drinks.  A short trike ride from town, you can either chillax in one of the beach bars further down, zipline to little island just off the beach or head up the road back into town to one of the bars on the cliff for some local cerviche and a beer whilst watching the sun sink in a golden ball over the distant islands.

There are tourist agencies aplenty here and loads of boat trips you can do which combine snorkelling, drinking, kayaking, standup paddleboarding and all take various routes, so it’s possible to do something different every day.  It’s well worth it – the islands off El Nido are just beautiful, azure seas, big cliffs and white sands.  I went out on the El Nido Party Boat which can be booked through the coffee shop next to the gym in town.  This was a fun day with some lovely people, drinking in the sun, dancing under the sun, as well as visiting some of the beautiful lagoons and beaches on the islands around El Nido.  We couldn’t get into Big Lagoon because of the queue of boats, but we did small lagoon which is even better as you can kayak around.  Some of the girls on our trip camped overnight on one of the beaches, and the boat left them with enough food and alcohol to sink a ship.

 Small Lagoon - El Nido

I stayed in El Nido Corner Hotel – great view if you get a balcony room but very basic and not that comfortable – also the toilet didn’t flush, they have no wifi and they didn’t clean the whole time I was there. After my two nights in Port Barton I upgraded to Coral Cliff which had incredible views from the 5th floor room, decent wifi and was in the middle of town, although surprisingly not that noisy. 

 Good bar for sunset in El Nido

Port Barton is a few hours away and everyone says it is their favourite place in Palawan.  I arrived the day my food poisoning landed in all its barfing diahrrea glory and this would also be the one time I didn’t have my own bathroom (sod’s law).  The town is quiet, but expanding slowly.  The road in is very muddy and several tourist minivans had to be pulled out after being sucked down into the ooze. Our van couldn’t make it the whole way so they gave us some sort of bizarre and very shiny converted lorry-bus hybrid to go the last kilometre. I was lucky enough to sit in the front and experience the disco lights flashing around the cabin whilst we slid, skidded and grinded our way into the town.

The sleepier (for now) Port Barton

On arrival there are no taxis, but the town is laid out in a grid with few roads to navigate and Global network works here (unlike Smart), and everything is within a 5-10 minute walk.  Like El Nido the best thing to do here are the snorkel boat trips, I went on the one organised by my hotel which was a full day trip with lunch (no alcohol).  The owner had rescued two macaque monkeys, one only a few months old, which were just adorable and happy to interact, and as I love monkeys and had food poisoning anyway, I hung with the cheeky little devils whilst everyone else had lunch.  The elder monkey is best friends with the cat so we ended up having a big all-in grooming session – one very happy purring cat with me and the little monkey both giving her a massage although I refrained from eating the fleas like my Simian companion.  I stayed at the Tribal X, had a basic room with shared bathroom (they do have cabins and other rooms which have ensuite).  It was basic and comfortable, but no hot shower, and power in Port Barton is only on for a few hours a day so I’d suggest bringing a decent power pack as well as having a spare phone with a Global SIM if you can’t live without wifi.  The owner is Spanish, very accommodating and knowledgeable, and, to my delight, they also have two really soppy rottweilers.  There’s one party place at the end of the beach which had a full moon party under the massive red moon (because of the volcano apparently), but my stomach still being dicey I left this to the revellers. 

Being accosted by adorable rescued monkeys, Port Barton

Next stop:  Railay Beach and Khao Lak, Thailand (no blog for this one!)