It may be one of Palawan’s most appealing attractions but it sure ain’t easy deciding which El Nido Island tour to go for. Tour operators on every corner of El Nido Town Proper sell the trips and pretty much all of them are the same in price. This doesn’t make things any easier though, especially when the different routes are merely characterised by letters A, B, C and D. What does that even mean?!
How Can You Go El Nido Island Hopping?
Okay, so you’ve seen the lettered tours and you’re wondering what the hell they mean, don’t worry, I promise we will get to that. First, however, we are going to look at how easy it is to have your own El Nido Island Hopping adventure, independent of a tour.
El Nido Island Hopping by Kayak
Although you won’t be able to cram in the same amount of stops, it is possible to reach some of the El Nido islands by kayak. Although this tends to be a popular way of doing things in places such as Coron, there are attractions that you will be unable to visit without a guide and official tour in El Nido.
Kayaking is definitely harder work than sitting on a boat being driven about but this option is sure to appeal to the most adventurous backpackers. However, we wouldn’t advise doing this in the rainy season – it may just lose its appeal!
Which El Nido Island Hopping Tour is for you?
If you’re panicking about which tour to take, let us help you decide!
Tour A – The Beachbum Favourite!
Heaven for: Backpacker’s looking for a relaxed and lazy day, taking in the views of the best lagoons and incredible white sandy beaches.
Hell for: Active travellers who are over South East Asia’s beaches.
Big or Small Lagoon
Originally, tour A visited both the big and small lagoons, however, there are now municipal rules in place that prohibit this. This means that there are now two versions of this tour available, one which visits the Big Lagoon and another which explores the Small Lagoon.
Although it has been at least a few years since this place was a secret, this lagoon is still well worth a visit. It is almost entirely sealed off and to enter you must pass through a small opening in the rock, one at a time. The beach there is beautiful and combined with the snorkelling and swimming opportunities, one of the most popular stops on Tour A.
For traveller’s looking to check out El Nido’s marine life and coral, this stop is great. This stunning beach is a great place to catch a few rays and chill for a while.
Seven Commandos Beach
Known for its soft, powdery sand, the Seven Commandos Beach must surely be one of the most idyllic spots that the Philippines has to offer. There is a bar which offers fresh coconuts and cocktails, so it is the perfect place to finish off an island hopping tour!
For sure the highlights of this tour are the picturesque beaches and the clear waters just made for snorkelling. It is possible to see colourful fish and even sea turtles if you get super lucky!
Book Tour A here and read our review at the end of this post!
Tour B – The Explorers Choice!
Heaven for: Travellers who love getting off the beaten track! There are far fewer crowds than on tours A and C. Also great for those who have an interest in history.
Hell for: Beachbums who prefer to take in the sunshine.
Also known as Vigan Island, it is the long sandbar which gives this place its more popular name. It is a unique place within the archipelago and visitors say that walking along the sandbar gives the experience of walking through the sea. Sounds pretty epic, right?!
This famous limestone island also known as Ellis island encompasses everything that the majority of people think about when they picture El Nido! It probably comes as no surprise that there is also a beautiful beach here.
You can either kayak or swim into this cave which showcases some incredible rock formations.
Located north of El Nido, this pristine, white beach offers a truly special place to be explored!
To access this cave you need to crawl through a small hole which will take you into an opening inside the cliff itself. As well as just being a cool cave to visit, Cudugnon Cave is also a site of huge archaeological importance.
Pottery from the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) has been found here and the cave was also used as a hideout for locals during WW2. Despite its interesting past, the cave is now primarily used by tourists who are looking to spot brightly coloured fish and corals.
Both of the caves on this itinerary are incredible and certainly add another dimension into a trip which could very easily be ‘just another beach’ tour. Owing to the popularity of alternative options, Tour B is actually a lot quieter than the other options which means fewer crowds!
Tour C – The Snorkeller’s Pick!
Heaven for: Avid snorkelers who love wildlife spotting!
Hell for: Backpackers looking to get off the beaten track – this is one of the most popular EL Nido Island Hopping Tours.
So-called because of its unique shape (which some claim more closely resembles a camel), Helicopter island is one of the most recognisable parts of the Bacuit archipelago.
Formerly a convent and shrine, these abandoned areas offer a great exploring opportunity. As well as the shrine which makes for one of the islands more original attractions, there is also a viewpoint which showcases some stunning views of the surrounding area.
All three of the above beaches hold surprises (but no spoilers here) and are sure to please any beach lover. As if the sun, sea and sand combo isn’t enough, they also all offer fantastic snorkelling spots!
The opportunity to experience some of the most beautiful beaches in the archipelago! Matinloc Shrine is a wild card which offers an unusual attraction amongst all of the postcard scenery.
Tour D – The Off The Beaten Track Beach Lover
Heaven for: Backpackers who want to explore beautiful beaches without the crowds. Particularly good for travellers who have already done the ‘must-sees’.
Hell for: Travellers who want to tick off the main attractions of El Nido. This is definitely the least chosen itinerary of the three for this reason.
Although this beach is close to El Nido Town Proper, it is only accessible by boat. It is a great spot to do a little bit of swimming, snorkelling and even sunbathing on the picturesque beach.
Nearby to the first stop is Cadlao Lagoon. Cadlao is the biggest island in the Bacuit archipelago and boasts one of the most impressive lagoons. Unlike the lagoons visited on Tour A, there are far fewer visitors here.
All four of the above beaches are tropical paradises in their own right. The snorkelling in all of these locations is excellent and the coconut trees provide a shady space to relax if you can drag yourself away from the prospect of that summer tan!
Probably the most underrated tour, you will see far fewer crowds if you opt for Tour D. The beaches and lagoons in the itinerary are stunning and there are plenty of snorkelling opportunities.
Which Tour is Best?
Although all of the El Nido Island Hopping Tours will appeal to different types of travellers, we think the best all-round option is Tour C. If you ask a local to recommend you a tour, they will usually say A or C because of the dramatic landscapes. Whilst both of these offer incredible scenery, C takes first place because of the visit to the Matinloc Shrine which injects some variety into the itinerary.
What About Combination Tours?
If you can stretch to doing more than one El Nido Island Hopping Tour, they all come highly recommended and showcase their own unique scenery. In order to get the most out of your trip, we would definitely advise doing more than one.
However, for backpackers short on time, a combination tour could be exactly what you are looking for. These are great for people who want to squeeze more sights into one day, however, they will limit the amount of time you are able to spend at a destination.
Private Tour or Group Tour?
There are a couple of options for travellers looking to island-hop around El Nido.
Group tours are offered daily for A, B, C and D and all follow the same itinerary. As a result, the tours can be crowded and you will bump into the same people over again. It is a great budget way to see the islands, although you will need to be aware that it is an experience you could potentially share with hundreds of others.
The main plus of a private tour is the ability to tailor the tour to your own group needs and also to avoid the crowds. This is usually accomplished by departing later than the standard group tours or by hopping the islands in the reverse order.
As you would expect, the downside of private tours is that they are generally more expensive than a group option, however, if you are in a large group, you may find that this offsets much of the costs.
Tour A with Corazon Travel and Tours
On every corner, you’ll see vendors and companies selling the four island-hopping tours around El Nido. These are simply named tours A, B, C and D. No matter the agency, they all follow the same itinerary.
It can be tricky to know who to book with when each street has so many operators who offer these tours for the same price. Luckily for us, our decision was made significantly easier after a brilliant trip to the Underground River with Corazon Travel and Tours.
We were picked up at 8.30 am by a tricycle, (the usual mode of transport in the Philippines for short journeys) and taken to Corong Corong beach where we were met by a tour organiser.
The beach can get quite busy with different tour groups so it’s always good to stay within earshot of your guide for the next set of instructions. It was here we were given our permits for the tour and our guide Erwin explained the extra fees we would need to pay. These are as follows:
Environmental Fee: 200 pesos per person. Unlike many other El Nido Island Hopping tours in the Philippines, Corazon Tours and Travel actually include this in the price!
Top tip: This is valid for 10 days and can be used on other applicable tours as well – just don’t lose the permit papers!
Small Lagoon Fee: 200 pesos per person
As the trip includes snorkelling you can bring your own mask or rent one from the beach for a cost of 150 pesos per person. The same goes for wetsuit shoes. Some of the seabed is rocky and can be easier to manage with these shoes, however, they are not a necessity and we managed with flip flops.
After listening to the guide’s explanation regarding the fees, we met Erwin’s team of four who would be showing us around the 4 main locations on Tour A:
- Small Lagoon
- Secret Lagoon
- Shimizu Island
- Seven Commandos Beach
Our first mission was to get to the boat which was a little way off the shoreline so we stripped down to our swimwear and waded in! Some groups had to go a little further out so we suggest entering the water in your swimming costume/trunks as you are bound to get wet!
From here, Erwin informed us about the boat’s safety features and also gave us some guidance for our journey. There was a particular emphasis on how to keep the environment clean through sustainable travel. Our group were 13 in number (plus the crew) although, the boat does hold up to 18. We were glad we were a small number as it felt like 18 might have been a bit of a squeeze! Once we were moving, Erwin informed us our first stop was around 20 minutes away. We were heading to Small Lagoon.
Once we arrived, we had two options to get to Small Lagoon. We could either rent a kayak for 200 pesos or swim. The choice is entirely up to you but we’d recommend kayaking as it was both scenic and enjoyable! We were given 45 minutes to explore the Small Lagoon, famous for its crystal clear waters and soaring cliff faces.
Once we were in our kayak, we headed towards what looked like a giant limestone cliff but as we got closer, we saw there was a small separation in the rocks for kayaks to get through. The discovery beyond the rocks blew our minds! The water became much clearer and we would see tiny jellyfish everywhere.
Erwin also came into the lagoon to take photos for people which was a nice touch. As the group didn’t stay together, it was up to us to do as much or as little exploring as we wanted. We also chose to go for a quick swim to cool off before getting back on board.
Despite its name, the Secret Lagoon was busier than the small one! This was due to the access method which involved proceeding one at a time through a small opening in the rock! Patience is necessary here as you will have a wait. However, the tour guides made sure the process was efficient and quick by helping people in and out.
It is quite rocky underfoot both inside and outside of the lagoon so it is advised you swim with your wetsuit shoes or flip flops on. This small secluded lagoon is stunning and definitely worth the visit. As we had come to expect, Erwin was on hand again to make sure we snapped Instagram worthy shots.
Our third stop was for 20-minutes snorkelling just around the corner from the Secret Lagoon. Having snorkelled a few times in Bali and Thailand, we thought we’d seen it all but the crystal clear water was just incredible and the coral was the most beautiful we’ve ever seen.
It was time for lunch and there could be no better stop than this island; named after a Japanese diver who died whilst exploring the underwater tunnels of the island. Depressing story aside, the scenery was truly idyllic and we were looking forward to filling our faces.
When we arrived, there were a few groups packing up so by the time we came to eat, it was just us on the secluded beach. Throughout the morning, Erwin and his trusty crew had lit a BBQ on the back on the boat, cooking and assembling a wonderful feast for us all. Our lunch consisted of chicken, seafood, pork, grilled aubergine, fruits and of course the Filipino fuel: rice. This was beautifully presented and very tasty.
Seven Commandos Beach
This was our final stop for the day located around a 30-minute journey from our lunch spot. This gave us the chance to let our lunch settle and grab a few more rays of sunshine. Once we were off the boat, we realised the beach had the MOST AMAZING sand! It was so soft, Josh said it was like walking through flour! The guides gave us an hour to relax on the beach here and we could grab a beer or coconut whilst enjoying the view.
Tour A – The Verdict!
Finally, we returned to Corong Corong beach, a short 15 minute boat ride away. The trip was definitely one of our highlights whilst in the Philippines and South East Asia as a whole! The island scenery and the organisation of the crew were second to none. They kept us safe and informed the whole time, plus they also cooked a great lunch!
The only downside is the other costs involved. Tour A (wherever you book it) is sold for a base rate but this doesn’t include the majority of fees mentioned earlier. Whereas most tour operators sell Tour A for 1200 pesos, Corazon sell it for 1400. However, unlike most other companies, they do include the environmental fee (200 pesos) in the price.
There is also an additional cost if you want to rent a snorkel or kayak. This is definitely something worth bearing in mind when you are looking at tours in line with your budget. Having said this, we had a great time and feel like you get a lot for your money! El Nido is stunning and is surely a must-visit for any backpacker in the Philippines!
What should you pack for an El Nido Island Hopping Tour?
Dry Bag: When it comes to what to pack, we advise you to take a dry bag as you’re in and out of the water all day and the boat can get rather wet.
Towels: The company will provide you with a towel for the duration, which was nice and came in handy but we were also glad we took our own as the provided one got a little soggy!
Sun Cream: You’ll be in and out of the sun all day so this is a must-bring!
Camera: Ideally, you’ll want something waterproof as it is sometimes hard to keep things dry on a boat tour. If your budget won’t stretch to an underwater camera, a phone in a waterproof case has also been known to do the trick.
Money: There are a few extra costs (detailed below) so it is good to have some extra cash on you.
Water: It might seem obvious but the tour lasts around 7 hours and you’ll need to stay hydrated in the heat!
Snorkel: If you own one, great! If not, don’t worry as there is a chance to rent them.
Wetsuit shoes: These are an optional extra which are available to rent for the day. Although there are only a couple of places that are a little rocky on Tour A, these shoes are advised on other tours.