The Philippines: El Nido and Coron

Our last two stops in the Philippines were EL Nido and Coron – big backpacker destinations known for the beauty of the many surrounding islands, hidden lagoons and remote beaches.

Getting There

We flew direct from Boracay to El Nido, a brilliant little flight that saved us a huge slog. I was looking at flights when we were in Boracay and the journey was going to look something like this: Boat from Boracay to get to Caticlan airport (Boracay’s local airport), flight to Manila followed by a flight to Puerto Princesa on Palawan, then a five hour bus journey up to El Nido. It did not sound like fun.

However, the guys at Frendz hostel in Boracay told us to check the Air Swift website. These flights didn’t appear on Skyscanner for some reason, but for £75 each, we could fly direct from Caticlan to El Nido. This flight took just over an hour, saving us lots of time and money.

The propeller plane was tiny – only 14 rows of seats. Air Swift was pretty great, they gave us bottles of water and some sweets as we were walking to the plane, and had a little red carpet going up to the plane steps. When we got off at the other end, the carpet came back out, and our bags appeared in the terminal building one by one. They don’t bother with the baggage conveyor belts, just got the bags off the plane and handed them out.

El Nido

Arriving in El Nido, we were completely blown away. The airport itself is surrounded by mountains and tropical forest, and the ride to town was beautiful. The tiny town of El Nido is situated in a sheltered bay, sheer cliffs rising to each side, the open water in front and forest behind. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful spots we’ve been to in the Philippines.

El Nido, Palawan, The Philippines

However, like most places we’ve seen so far, the town itself was pretty run down and dirty, the roads more dirt than tarmac. If you go to El Nido town expecting 5 star, you’ll be disappointed. I’m sure there are amazing hidden resorts in the area with private beaches and beautiful pools, but the town itself is definitely more of a backpacker kind of place.

The first night we went exploring down the narrow windy roads and along the beach, then, being lured by the craft beer, settled on the microbrewery as a place to eat. We had pork dumplings. Terrible idea.

By the next morning we were both extremely ill with food poisoning, completely unable to leave the hostel or do anything that required being more than a few metres from a bathroom. By evening we were no better but figured that by morning we’d be fine, so optimistically booked a boat tour for the next day. We had to postpone it until the day after, as we were no better. On day 3, our last day in El Nido, we just cancelled it. Still ill, and outside it was still raining.

Twilight from El Nido main beach

In fact, it rained so much that when we got up the next morning to get the ferry to Coron, we found out that the ferry was cancelled. Unfortunately our hostel was booked up so we had to move. We still weren’t feeling better so our extra day was spent just like the previous three – laying in bed, very bored.

It was such a shame, because when we arrived in El Nido we were so excited – it looked so beautiful, we couldn’t wait to explore. What we would have done was the Tour A boat trip to the big lagoon, visiting the hidden beach and snorkelling above the corals… Other things in El Nido that sounded great: They have kayaks to rent, guides you can hire for hiking, beaches to visit… it would have been amazing. Oh well.

Coron

We were meant to have two full days in Coron as our final Philippines destination – two days spent doing the thing that Coron is famous for: Wreck diving. However, because of the cancelled ferry, we only managed one day before we had to catch our flight to Taiwan.

Getting to Coron from El Nido is very easy (if the ferry is running) – you just get the 3.5hr tourist ferry from El Nido port, which is about a 5 minute walk from everywhere in town. Simple.

We only had the one day diving in Coron, but it was one of the best days of our Philippines trip so far. We loved it. OK… we were still ill, but that wasn’t going to stop us.

Coming into Coron, as seen from the dive boat

We chose Corto Divers as our dive shop as they had great reviews and also they had accommodation above the dive shop, making things very simple. They were great – the dive master was really knowledgeable funny, and his dive briefings were detailed and made me feel happy with the dive plan.

As it was low season, we had the dive boat to ourselves. Finally, some good luck! I don’t know what you’d pay to have a day’s private diving, but I can imagine it’d be a lot.

The first dive was Barracuda Lake – so named because of the one lonely barracuda seen swimming around. The Lake was enclosed on all sides by limestone cliffs, but had an underground cave which gave the sea water access to the lake, making a weird mix of brackish water and fresh. To make it even more interesting to dive, the lake is an old volcanic crater with thermal springs rising from the bed, meaning we didn’t even need wetsuits to dive there as the water got up to 38 degrees C in places where the thermal springs rose.

The entrance to Barracuda Lake, Coron

It was a cool place to dive – the boat arrives at the island, you get off wearing all your dive gear, walk up and over the rocky lip of the lake (not fun with a heavy tank on your back), then jump right in. The weird water mix in the lake made it even better – the denser salt water sank to the bottom, with the fresh water on top, creating a briny layer in the water where you could swim through it, then pop your head up into the fresh water and see the salt water below you, like an additional water surface, or a sea within a sea.

Our boat captain cooked us a beautiful lunch between dives, so we sat on deck eating freshly caught fish and rice, noodles and chicken, before laying out in the sun to snooze before the next dive.

Scuba gear ready to go, Corto dive boat, Coron

After Barracuda Lake we dived two ship wrecks – The Olympia Maru and the Morazan Maru. These were both Japanese boats sunk in 1944 by US forces in WWII. They were our first wreck dives and definitely didn’t disappoint. Our dive master decided we were good enough in the water to actually explore the inside of the ships, rather than just swim around the outside. We don’t have our wreck divers certification so strictly speaking I guess we shouldn’t have been doing it, but we trusted the dive master’s judgement and went with it.

Diving the Olympia Maru, Coron

Ship wrecks are just as you’d probably imagine them – haunting. The water was murky and visibility low, so we went in with torches to guide the way, lighting up fish swimming around the corals which grew on every surface of the ship, the jail cells for prisoners of war, the wine bottles still left from the crew, the massive hole which sunk the ship… it was amazing.

Perfect end to our trip.

Are EL Nido & Coron worth visiting?       

Yes, they absolutely are. While there isn’t a huge amount to do on land, and the towns are a bit rough and ready, the water activities make up for it.

Sunset over Coron

Just be careful where you eat – apparently loads of travellers get ill in El Nido. Eat at the places where lots of other people are eating and you should be fine.

I would also suggest perhaps avoiding in the rainy season, as flights, ferries, and activities may be cancelled, and the beautiful views obscured by cloud and rain. If you don’t mind a few delays though, the rainy season has it’s advantages – you avoid the crowds, and typhoons aren’t constant.

We will definitely be coming back to this part of the world in dry season to properly see what the places have to offer, as I feel like we really missed out on seeing what the El Nido hype is really about.

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