For our first day in El Nido we wanted to do something relaxing, therefore we talked to a tour agency (Gea Tours) about the best place to go snorkeling from the beach. We were then transported by outrigger boat to Helicopter Island, which has a beautiful and big reef, lots of live coral and a nice beach. We paid 2500 Pesos including lunch, which was grilled fish, some grilled pork and plain rice with tomatoes, red onions and soy. Most of the day we had the beach to ourselves, but in the afternoon tour boats started coming in as a part of their island hopping tours.
It’s better to go to Helicopter Island earlier in the day, though, because in the afternoon, the cliffs cast a shadow on the beach and the reef. The reef there is easily accessible from the beach and quite big. We saw lots of colorful fish and Vitus and Jesper even saw a sea turtle (and filmed it – last part of the video. Notice the slow-motion effect too 🙂 ).
For us the drop off and pick up at an island is the recipe for a perfect day, as we like to be able to snorkel when we feel like it and have time to play and relax. Helicopter Island was the best snorkeling spot we experienced in El Nido (Papaya beach a close second) and the beach is beautiful with clear water and huge cliffs to the left side of the beach.
In El Nido all tour operators offer the same tour options: Tour A, B, C and D. We decided to try tour A, mostly to find out which islands would be best for at drop off and pick up. Of course a group tour to 4 islands mean lots of small stops and not much time at each stop, especially when you need to get two children ready for snorkeling. It was a bit windy this day, because a typhoon was approaching, but still ok to snorkel at most of the stops. We didn’t find any snorkeling nearly as good a Helicopter island though. At one of the stops, the Small Lagoon, we rented a kayak for 300 Pesos and sailed through an opening in the cliffs and into a hidden lagoon with tall cliffs all around. There was also a cave that you had to swim to get into which the children enjoyed. Apparently we took almost no pictures that day but we did get one of the monitor lizard that visited us for lunch.
During the tour we also did a stop at “the Big Lagoon”. Big lagoon was – well, a very big lagoon – but unfortunately low tide meant that you could only swim there and the boat stopped very far from the entrance, much too far for Line and the boys to swim there. Jesper went in by himself but also said that the swim there was very long and tough. Line and the boys stayed in the boat, but it was windy and the waves were getting bigger so it wasn’t very pleasant. Overall it was an OK day, but we prefer drop off and pick up with longer time to enjoy the beaches and reefs and to be independent.
During our week in El Nido we had 3-4 days with challenging weather because a Typhoon hit some areas of the Philippines really hard. It didn’t hit El Nido directly so we only had a lot (!) of rain and some wind. The first day with bad weather we went to Las Cabanas beach even though the weather was not the best. We had lunch at a beach restaurant (where Jesper had some of the best spaghetti carbonara he has ever had). While we ate we saw a storm/rain coming and soon we had to go inside the restaurant along with a lot of other people because the weather got quite bad.
After an hour or so the rain stopped a bit so we were able to get a tricycle back to our hotel room in El Nido. Here we practically stayed inside for the next 2 days because of the rains.
3 days with two “Tornados” (Noah and Vitus) inside can be a bit challenging. We had to get out at some point and went for a walk along the beach and visited a local village and had some Mai Tai cocktails – very strong and not quite our thing. We normally don’t drink cocktails, but the view from the local restaurant was great and the drinks sounded good – but it turned out that the boys’ fruit shakes are much more for us 🙂
We also walked around the town a lot during the rainy days and bought a few things; a new bag since our hand luggage bag was worn out, a USB speaker and lots and lots of candy and a few small Christmas presents for the kids. We really would have loved to go to Helicopter Island again, but the waves were too big there and we were lucky that the typhoon didn’t hit us directly. It did much damage to other parts of the Philippines, also in Mindoro, the next place we are going, where entire villages were wiped out by big floods and strong winds.
Other drop off and pick up destinations that we visited in El Nido was
Pasandigan cove and Papaya beach. Pasandigan Cove has a nice beach and ok reef, but unfortunately not the best visibility, not on this day anyway – still we had a very nice day and it was fantastic being out again.
For Papaya beach we got ripped off a bit in terms of price for drop off and pick-up since we paid the same as for the trip to Pasandigan and Helicopter island, which are much further away (45 minutes versus 10 minutes), but that was ok since the tour operator (that we used for all of our trips in El Nido) was very service minded and helpful (what really hurts is getting ripped off by bad people J ). The reef here is a great reef and stretches almost the entire length of the beach. Since it is quite shallow that does however make it quite difficult to get to the outer part of the reef (deeper, better visibility, more beautiful) and if you want to be on the safe side you have to swim out through the small channel the boats use to get to the beach. Noah and Jesper were lucky to see a big sea turtle and swam/dived with it for 3 minutes – unfortunately this was the only time they did not bring the GoPro camera so no video this time (but a very happy boy).
The way back to Puerto Princesa the bus ride was much better – except Vitus having a fever, Noah throwing up (along with 30% of the other passengers) and Mel Gibson’s very violent and bloody Apocalypto on DVD (which Noah found very exiting and he did not quite agree that heads being chopped off is not suitable for a 5 year old). But the bus had A/C and took only 6 hours instead of the 8+ hours up there. After Noah had thrown up the first time we put him and his booster seat in the isle in front of the bus – not good for safety but at least he could now see the road. even though the bus journey there is very long and winding (read about our bus ride to El Nido here). If you feel like it several tour companies do however offer rides in mini-vans. They cost almost the same (500 pesos) as the AC-bus (450) but only take 5 hours with less space and more hazardous driving.