Text and Photos by Euden Valdez
(Disclaimer: What you are about to read is an unpopular opinion.)
BEAUTY comes with a price—a hefty one at that—when in El Nido. Harsh as it sounds, the observation holds true for this author and family who have traveled to the top tourist destination in Palawan.
A paradise famed for its tropical islands, clearest seas, teeming marine life, unspoiled beaches, bluest lagoons and so much more, El Nido also brings about inconveniences—especially to budget travelers.
And contrary to belief, traveling on a budget doesn’t mean it is cheap in terms of experiences, food, accommodation and transportation. Things are just not luxurious but nevertheless, decent. Believe me for I have traveled on both ends of the spectrum.
Unfortunately, affordable in El Nido meant poor quality. And it isn’t even affordable in Filipino standards to begin with.
Food is overpriced
Unlike highly developed tourist destination Boracay, El Nido doesn’t have fast food chains that result to variety and affordability. While this is good for local tourism since it is not dominated by big businessmen, one expects that local players will step up their game. It is not true for most.
Budget hotels prefer to serve the usual “silog” (fried meat, egg and rice) for breakfast. These are enough for nourishment but not for enjoyment. The lunch during the island hopping tour was filling—grilled meat and fish with fruits and vegetables—but proper handling was questionable. We’ve eaten in a number of unremarkable restaurants for dinner that ranged from P200 to P500 per head.
So if you want better food, double your budget to be able to try better restaurants like Altrove, Squido and Art Cafe.
It was a mistake booking a tour via a Manila-based operator (Tripidito Tours), unaware that it will just connect my group to a local tour operator. In my mind, the staff I was talking to all along was the one who would be meeting and touring us (like a previous experience in Bohol).
Only when did we arrive at the island that I realized we were just joiners to a regular island hopping tour composed of 24 people! Perhaps, this was ignorance in my part but nevertheless, there was hope that everything would turn out well.
False hope for everything became so unorganized. Pick up and assembly time for tourists weren’t strictly followed. Some were early, other were late.
After paying the environmental fee, a staff brought us to the port along construction sites and narrow, dirty alleys. It took us another 30 minutes to get into the boat. Further delaying the tour were the late guide and even later guest.
In tours like this, time is of the essence. There should be an exact time to gather guests and another exact time to and arrive at the port, and lastly, exact time start island hopping.
To my disbelief, the tour guide tolerated tardiness by announcing, “(Being) late is not always bad. (Being) late is sometimes good.”
Poor affordable hotels
As always, I resorted to my go-to booking app Agoda to find good hotels that fit our budget. But what I saw was not what I got. In real life, the two hotels I booked didn’t appear to be what they were in photos for rooms and facilities turned out to be worn down.
Another major dilemma experienced El Nido hotels, especially those near the port, was smelly and rusty water. I read this in the review our first hotel and unfortunately, fell victim. Water was even cut once.
Even our second hotel, which was more expensive for it had a bay view and a pool, we stayed had a water issue on the third floor. This got us transferred to the first floor.
Trouble in transfers
And as if all these inconveniences were not enough, my family and I got subjected to a confusion going home. We were picked up by the wrong shuttle driver, who was supposed to pick up four tourists from the same hotel! In the meantime, we were four as well and waiting for our transfer.
So the moment a van stopped in front of us, the instinct was for us to ride (the coordinator didn’t know the name of our van). But I did tell my name to the driver and he just nodded. It was also his instinct to pick up the first passengers he saw.
One hour and 20 kilometers later, the blunder was discovered and we were told to transfer to our van, which was just behind. It would’ve been OK only if the van was not full already! After much discussion, the issue was resolved if I didn’t insist a simple solution.
To return or not to
The question now is, will I still return to El Nido? No. But must first timers visit El Nido? Yes. Because its breathtaking beauty is still worth all these dilemmas, which I will admit can be an isolated, unlucky case.
So go to El Nido if you must but make sure to prevent experiencing my inconveniences by remembering these pointers:
1. Double your savings for the trip and bring extra pocket money.
2. If booking hotels from third-party apps, read the reviews carefully and research more. Look for blogs or posts with actual photos.
3. Another good option for accommodation is AirBnb. If possible, select a room with kitchen amenities so can actually cook your own food.
4. Read good spots to eat in advance, like Altrove. If you want to eat there, reserve.
5. Prices of island hopping tours (there are four to choose from) so book in the island. Most establishments offer tours so you won’t run out.
6. The same goes with transfers. While it’s best to book in advance, look for a company that is based in the island.
7. There are a lot of activities to do in El Nido. Besides the popular island hopping, don’t miss a daytrip to Nacpan Beach, which is one of the best swimming spots.
8. As always, book airfare in advance to avail of promos.