In the ’80s, El Nido was largely a playground for wealthy foreigners who could afford to stay at any of the three exclusive El Nido Resorts found on several islands off the main island. The sleepy fishing town of El Nido on the mainland developed a backpacker culture when locals started renting out their rooms and eventually converting their residences into inns and lodges.
Attracting the adventurous traveler, the municipality offers unparalleled discoveries both above and below water, with a seascape that has even entranced the late renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Lagoons of the bluest blue set against inspiring limestone formations have made El Nido the iconic paradise getaway when you want to get away from it all.
Today, it’s far more developed and more accessible than ever. From the Puerto Princesa international airport it’s a five-hour car ride on newly improved roads. In town, accommodations range from small pensions to modern establishments like Lagun Hotel, while beachfront cottages, glamping tents and eco-luxury resorts like Maremegmeg Beach Club dot the coast. The absence of large hotel chains have kept mass tourism at bay for now, preserving the convivial vibe where fellow travelers became part of a community.
The Palawan construction and tourism boom started sometime in 2012, after Puerto Princesa’s underground river was named one of the new seven wonders of the world. While the influx of tourists created revenue for both locals and foreigners, it also undoubtedly came at no small environmental cost. With concerns that El Nido was becoming overcrowded voiced through official channels, the local government unit scrambled to enforce its environmental laws. Establishments that violated setback regulations were torn down, while a centralized waste treatment plant has also been constructed.
In the recent months, tourist arrivals in Palawan have abated to more sustainable levels. This “unplanned low season” presents a temporary challenge to businesses, but also gives the island — as well as other strained tourist destinations — an opportunity to recover. As we paddleboarded around the imposing Pinagbuyutan Island, nobody else was on the beach save for a couple taking prenup photos. In the quiet, you could almost imagine what it must have been like as ancient seafarers navigated their ships through the maze of cliffs.
This experience of heading deeper into the sublime is what keeps traveler Christina Di Minno coming back to El Nido. Christina hails from Montreal, Canada, and has been all over the world and even all over the Philippines — but she plans to make El Nido her forever home this year, trading in busyness for slow-paced, intentional living. “I’ve met people here who have made it feel like home,” she says.
One of those friends is Diggy Alvarez, who manages Maremegmeg Beach Club, a new resort in Barangay Corong Corong. As a trained chef, he is particularly hands-on with the hotel’s food, which is some of the best on the island — the popularity of the beach bar’s ceviche is decidedly not attributable to the Lenten season. Diggy has seen how El Nido has responded to the calls for responsible tourism, specifically with its ban of single-use plastics and its constant coastal and underwater cleanups. The resort, a sumptuous design exercise in Filipino tropical modernity, also practices sustainability in small ways, such as providing bamboo toothbrushes and glass water bottles, and unwrapped soap made by a lady in Puerto Princesa who will “never sell you soap that you cannot eat.”
More stories from our Travelers’ Ultimate Guide to Palawan
Where to Stay
- Maremegmeg Beach Club: With 12 luxury villas, an infinity pool overlooking the bay and a beach bar where you can drink in the sunset, Maremegmeg is a clear choice for the luxe traveler. Here, the hotel’s details will make your stay feel even more special — contemporary Filipino art in every room, design elements from the tribes of Palawan, and a wilderness of plants everywhere. Sitio Maremegmeg, Brgy Corong Corong; +63 918 257 2981; maremegmeg.com
- Lagun Hotel: The first boutique hotel in El Nido town, Lagun has 37 artfully styled rooms and a roof deck pool with the most incredible backdrop of a limestone cliff. The hotel is also a stone’s throw away from El Nido beach, where all the tour boats take off. Balinsasayaw Rd, Brgy Maligaya; lagunhotel.com
- Spin Designer Hostel: A wallet-friendly option in El Nido town for the solo tripper who doesn’t want to compromise on ambiance and good vibes. Designed by travelers for travelers, this place puts a spin on the whole hostel experience with its community-centered activities for guests. Balinsasayaw Rd cor Calle Real, Brgy Maligaya; spinhostel.com
Where to Eat
- Panorama Beach Club: The most happening place in El Nido, Panorama Beach Club provides a sociable perch from which you can view the stunning Palawan sunset as you enjoy Spanish tapas, cocktails and DJ beats. For ₱1500 (consummable), stake out a place at the lounges. Along the Taytay-El Nido National Highway, Corong-Corong; +63 998 240 5291; fb.com/panoramaelnido
- Tambok’s: Once a local landmark along the National Highway, Tambok’s recently reopened at the Lio Tourism Estate to make way for the highway expansion. Serving regional Filipino cuisine but skewed toward Ilonggo fare, Tambok’s is known for its chicken inasal made from an old, authentic recipe. Lio Tourism Estate, next to Kalye Artesano; tamboks.ph
- Soul Kitchen: A small, simple vegan non-profit restaurant that has a buy-one-give-one philosophy. For ₱150, you get a rice bowl with two veggie toppings and a coupon for a free meal to give away to any local. Feel-good food for both the tummy and the soul. Lisang St, Brgy Buena Suerte; +63 956 443 3480