Header image courtesy of Cy Yambao
With the otherworldly beauty of Palawan, the so-called last frontier of the Philippines, it’s almost impossible to believe that the island-province isn’t a product of our imagination. For several years, it has been touted as among the best islands in the world, but its well-deserved fame is largely rooted in the global appeal of one of its municipalities—El Nido. The protected area is a gateway to the Bacuit archipelago, a region best known for its limestone formations, hidden lagoons, and immaculate beaches.
To make the most of your getaway, embark on island hopping boat tours categorised into four itineraries (and aptly named from A to D) around the famous Bacuit Bay. These typically run through the afternoon, and already include kayak and snorkelling gear rental, not to mention a delicious spread of fresh seafood for lunch. It’s quite difficult to rank each of the tours according to their worth, but if you’ve only got a weekend to spend in this tropical paradise—and you are visiting for the first time—we make planning easier for you with our suggested tour choices below.
Perhaps the most recommended by locals, Tour A introduces you to the side of El Nido that often comes up in search results, after having made headlines and landed features multiple times in a row. But not even cinematic drone shots can do the island’s paradise-like beauty justice, as you will discover upon arriving at the picturesque lagoons and beaches. In the past, this tour used to include stops at both the Small and Big Lagoons—however, the municipal government recently imposed certain restrictions to prevent overcrowding and better protect the endangered bird species that call the lagoons home.
Surrounded by majestic limestone cliffs, the Big Lagoon makes you feel like a tiny speck of dust amidst a massive natural wonder characterised by emerald waters and towering rock formations. The lagoon stretches inwards from a narrow and shallow entryway that outrigger boats cannot pass through. Your best option is hopping onto a kayak, which takes you to every nook and cranny you can possibly explore by paddling around in the vastness of the lagoon. Alternatively, you may choose to swim and maybe snorkel on the side—but beware of sea urchins lining the ocean floor!
More secluded than the neighbouring Big Lagoon, the Small Lagoon can only be accessed by kayaking or swimming your way through a narrow gap between two giant limestone rocks. During high tide, though, it is impossible to squeeze through, as the entrance gets partially or completely blocked off by high waters. Despite its name, the Small Lagoon provides plenty of room for exploration, and a trip to the other end of this sinkhole leads you to a compact water-filled cave. A light patch illuminates the lagoon from above, making the experience feel almost like a dream.
Due to its increasing popularity, the Secret Lagoon, otherwise known as the Hidden Lagoon, is no longer unknown to the world. In fact, it continues to attract a large volume of visitors, so you might have to queue to get through its small opening in the limestone wall. But the wait is certainly worth it—as soon as you're in, you are welcomed into a circular pool of knee-deep emerald waters, concealed from the open sea by the rock formations that surround it. Make sure to head out to the beach located right beside the lagoon—the palm tree-lined strip of sand is a piece of heaven!
After a long day of island hopping, you will find refuge in the tropical beauty of the Seven Commandos Beach. Its long stretch of white sand is bordered by turquoise waters on one side, and endless rows of coconut trees on the other. Legends say the beach was named after the seven soldiers that got stranded here during World War II, and today their names are engraved on rocks. While also ideal for swimming and snorkelling, the Seven Commandos Beach is actually a good place to rest and recharge, as you lounge by the shore with a buko (fresh coconut) juice in hand.
While relatively underrated, Tour B exudes a more authentic island vibe. The laidback itinerary brings you away from the usual crowds of tourists, allowing you to explore off-the-beaten paths that lead to some of El Nido’s best-kept secrets. While it doesn’t include stops to the more popular attractions, this tour has its fair share of breathtaking landscapes, including that of a long sandbar, secluded caves, and crystal-clear waters teeming with diverse marine life.
As the main highlight of this tour, Snake Island often catches its visitors by surprise, particularly those who aren’t aware that El Nido exists beyond its trademark lagoons and beaches. Officially known as Vigan, the island earned its unique nickname because of the S-shaped sandbar that runs across the coast and stretches onto the mainland. During low tide, you can enjoy a scenic walk along this strip of sand, and pause halfway to take a dip in the surrounding shallow waters. Continue with a hike to the lookout point atop a hill for panoramic views of the winding sandbar.
The historical Cathedral Cave features impressive rock formations that are said to resemble the architecture of a cathedral, hence its name. While the open chamber has a high ceiling, no boats can get past its narrow entrance—and even if they can, they run the risk of damaging the stalagmites and stalactites inside the cave. Tourists are also prohibited from swimming in its cerulean waters, as the current can get pretty strong, and the mystical cave is said to be a breeding ground for venomous snakes. Still, the exteriors make for an interesting backdrop for photo ops!
From a distance, the almost desolate Pinagbuyutan Island is everything you have imagined El Nido to be—vertical limestone cliffs formed millions of years ago, standing tall with coconut trees behind a sole bahay kubo, or nipa hut, that looks out onto the open sea. This photogenic landscape makes the dome-shaped Pinagbuyutan, known to locals as the Enchanted Island, possibly the most beautiful destination in Bacuit Bay. You will have to pass through a grass field to reach the white sand beach, which boasts a thriving marine ecosystem that makes it an ideal spot for snorkelling.
Believed to be a Neolithic burial place, the Cudugnon Cave is a significant archaeological site, where prehistoric human bones as well as primitive artefacts like Sung Dynasty potteries and jewellery have been excavated. Anthropologists say the sea cave’s former inhabitants were travellers from Borneo, who crossed the ancient land bridge once connected to Palawan. To get inside the main chamber, you’ll have to crawl through a small entry hole from the beach. You will then be welcomed by limestone walls that extend to the sky and protect the cave from the sea.