El Nido Island hopping tours in Bacuit Archipelago are the reason we came to Palawan. We were excited for the Underground River and Honda Bay, but hopping between the islands off El Nido, with their sheer rock faces jutting out of the ocean, white sand beaches, caves, and hidden lagoons was at the top of our list of Palawan activities.
There are four tours available to see the islands that dot Bacuit Bay. These tours are cleverly named Tours A, B, C, and D. We took all four tours and put together this post with all you need to know to plan your trip and choose the best El Nido island hopping tour for you.
El Nido Island Hopping Tours: A, B, C, and D
The island hopping tours in El Nido are standardized into four tour options: A, B, C, and D. No matter where you book your tour the itinerary will be more or less the same. Each tour has 5 stops and they are grouped so that each tour goes to a different area of Bacuit Bay.
The basic itineraries for each tour package are below. In addition to the mainstays described below each tour generally includes a couple of other beach stops at varying locations based on crowds and timing.
Typically the tours are shared, meaning guests from various parties share the same boat. The boats vary in size from accommodating about 6 passengers to nearly 20.
It is possible to hire an entire boat (in which case you could dictate the exact itinerary) for added cost.
Most hotels can arrange tours for you, and many own and operate their own boats. There are also several tour providers with storefronts in El Nido proper.
Our tours were all arranged by Telesfora Beach Cottage, where we stayed on Corong Corong Beach (just south of El Nido proper). For Tours A, B, and C we went on boats owned and operated by Telesfora round trip from Corong Corong Beach. For Tour D the Telesfora staff arranged for us to go with Cadlao Tours in El Nido proper due to boat availability (i.e. we were the only ones at Telesfora who wanted to go on Tour D during our stay on the days we had available).
Our experience on the tours run by Telesfora was excellent, and definitely better than our experience with Cadlao (which was still fine, but Telesfora was excellent).
While the Telesfora boats often left a bit later than other boats in the morning, we had as much time as we wanted at each destination and typically returned at or after sunset. The lunch food was delicious and plentiful. Erwin, our guide on two of three tours, was super friendly and knowledgeable about the destinations.
Telesfora has at least three boats of varying sizes, all of which are comfortable. The smallest one (“DHRUV”) is pretty loud, so a set of earplugs would be a good idea.
The Cadlao tour was fun and we still had a great day, but we felt rushed and only stopped at 4 of the 5 locations on the typical Tour D circuit, while still getting back pretty early. They cut out Helicopter Beach “because we had already been there” but did not replace it with another stop. The lunch was fine but Telesfora’s food was better.
Our Cadlao guide, AJ, was excellent though. He guided me to the top of the mountain on Bukal Island and made little bird puppets from palm leaves for the kids.
Tour A focuses on lagoons and typically includes:
Our favorite part of Tour A, small lagoon branches into a few different coves after you enter through a small archway in the cliff. You can enter either via kayak or swimming, though we’d recommend kayaking for a couple of reasons. First, there are biting fish near the entrance to the lagoon (we were in a kayak but heard several swimmers complaining). Second, the kayak will let you see more of the lagoon during your time there. Despite the name it’s actually quite large. Your tour provider may bring a kayak but if not you can rent one at the lagoon for 200 pesos.
Big enough to tour without leaving your boat Big Lagoon offers many impressive vistas (apparently Hollywood agrees – the ending of the Bourne Legacy was shot here). It’s a majestic place. We spent a good part of our journey through the lagoon posing for pictures on the bow and outriggers of our banca with the cliffs and bright blue water in the background. One of the best views is from inside the lagoon back towards the entrance, with the sun gleaming through the gap in the rocks.
Seven Commando Beach
We were familiar with Seven Commando Beach before our tour as we kayaked there a few times from Corong Corong beach. Seven Commando is very large with great expanses of powdery white sand. Depending on your timing you can either have it to yourself or be surrounded with boats and tour-goers. Unlike most beaches there’s a dedicated swimming area in the center so even during peak time you’ll be able to find some open water free of outriggers and anchor lines.
What really sets this beach apart is the snack stand where they serve up delicious halo halos for 100 pesos apiece. Halo halo is a Filipino dessert made of crushed ice and any number of other ingredients including various fruit jellies, beans, ube paste, peanut butter, coconut, and sweetened condensed milk. After our first visit the kids started referring to 7 Commando Beach as “Halo Halo Beach”!
One time we visited they also had fried sweetened bananas on skewers for 20 pesos (2 bananas per skewer). We got two and could have had 10. Delicious.
There is another lagoon in the Tour A area called Secret Lagoon. It’s a “secret” because the entrance is through a small hole in the rock, barely big enough for an adult to fit through. The lagoon is very small and the water is a cloudy blue as it’s not directly connected to the ocean so rainwater filters down over the rocks before mixing with ocean water from below.
Secret Lagoon wasn’t on our original Tour A itinerary but we asked to go there and it wasn’t a problem to add it as a stop. It’s cool and worth the time, but it’s crowded and there were so many bancas in the cove that the water smelled of diesel fuel when we were there. So don’t get too upset if it’s not part of your tour.
Tour B showcases caves and a spectacular beach. Included in the Tour B itinerary are:
A towering cave with swaths of color black, white, and grey on the stone walls. The cave opening is big enough for the bancas to poke into, giving a view without disembarking. We recommend jumping out for a swim if your tour guide will allow it though, as there are some brilliantly colorful corals just to the right of the cave entrance. Swimming into the cave also provides a unique perspective.
To enter Cudugnon cave you must crawl through a small opening in the rocks barely big enough for an adult to fit through. Once inside you’re treated to a couple of large chambers with light filtering in from above. Apparently a former burial ground and site of treasure hidden by the Japanese during World War II, it’s now just a beautiful cave with multicolor walls and some bats. There’s also a beach here with some picnic tables where we had lunch. You can buy drinks from a small stand, including fresh buko (coconut milk).
There’s no actual snakes here but there is a cool sandbar that resembles a snake when viewed from above. When you leave the boat walk to the left to go up the hill to an observation area to see the “snake” sandbar. It’s a short climb. Definitely take the time to walk across the sandbar itself too. On the far side is a fun mangrove forest which makes for a great spot for photos.
Also known as Honeymooners Island, this is one of the prettiest beaches we’ve seen in the Philippines. The sand is bright white, palm trees overhang the beach, the water is gleaming cobalt, and rocky cliffs tower above. There’s a soft grassy area behind the sand that would be great for a picnic. It’s idyllic.
Our Tour B also included Las Cabanas Beach because some folks on our boat wanted to do the zip line that runs above it. While not officially part of most tour itineraries, it’s worth asking your tour operator or boatman if you’d like to stop. It’s a pretty beach with a few options to get some food.
Tour C brings you to particularly dramatic scenery and includes a couple of “hidden” beaches to satisfy your explorer fantasies. The typical itinerary includes:
A nice white sand beach that’s not visible from the ocean. The bancas anchor in a small inlet from which you can swim and wade around the cliffs to Hidden Beach (bring reef shoes). For a little more exciting entrance to Hidden Beach look for a small cave just to the left of the main wading area (where most people will be walking) after you get off your boat. It may be easier to find the cave first from the beach and go out – just walk all the way to the left as you get to the beach from the water.
You get to secret beach by swimming through a small hole in the rock, which brings you to a lagoon and a white sandy beach. Though it feels a little less secret when filled with a dozen bancas full of tourists, it’s still beautiful and worth the stop.
An abandoned church and shrine set amongst the jungle and rocky cliffs adjacent to sparkling blue water. There’s also an observation point above which you reach by climbing a set of stone steps to the right of the shrine that offers great views out over the water. We understand there is also a museum here with exhibits describing the history of the area, though we only found out about it after our tour so we weren’t able to check it out ourselves.
Helicopter Beach (sometimes)
Helicopter Beach gets its name from the island it is on, which, from a distance and with some imagination, resembles a helicopter. The beach itself is long, wide, and covered with soft sand. The swimming is good and there’s even a gentleman selling ice cream (bring cash). Can’t beat it. We stopped here on our Tour C, but we understand sometimes it’s on Tour D instead.
Tour D is primarily a beach tour. There is one lagoon, but otherwise the focus is on gorgeous out-of-a-postcard beaches. The stops include:
Pasandigan is a powdery white sand beach lined with coconut trees. There’s a large covered picnic table nestled in the trees behind the sand for lunch. The swimming is nice here, though there’s not much to see snorkeling.
This large lagoon is big enough for the bancas to enter. The main part of the lagoon is hidden from view until you are inside making for a dramatic entrance. Bright blue water beckons and we enjoyed swimming through the lagoon, marveling at the cliffs above.
The rock formations and crystal clear water make this a fun stop. The beach is all beautiful white sand and there’s both good swimming and snorkeling. For snorkeling go straight out, past the first patch of mostly dead coral, and you’ll find a colorful reef with lots of fish. Swimming is best off to the left (as you face the ocean) where there is clear water, a sandy bottom, and really cool rock cliffs carved out by the the waves.
On the corner of Bukal Island this small beach feels totally isolated even though it’s actually within kayaking distance of El Nido proper. We were lucky to arrive at the beach when there were no other boats. The beach quickly felt crowded once one and then two more bancas joined us. There’s decent snorkeling straight out and to the right (as you face the ocean).
If you’re up for an adventure bring some sturdy sandals (or better yet hiking boots) and climb to the top of the mountain on Bukal Island. There’s a trail behind the beach that leads up the rocky cliff.
The climb is a mix of steep stone steps, wooden ladders, balance beams, and even straight up rock climbing. It is a relativelly short climb and in about 20 minutes you’ll be at the top where there’s a small nipa rest hut with a spectacular view back towards El Nido.
At one point you’ll get to what looks like a dead end – a sheer rock wall straight up. If you look above you you’ll see a piece of wood going across between the rock. Climb up to that and then look to the right where you’ll see a cave. Go through the cave and you’ll be on your way.
It’s a very challenging, technical climb and a fall at certain points would mean serious injury on the jagged rocks, so take our time and be careful if you give it a shot. I was very glad to have left the kids safely enjoying the beach with Mommy while I went on this trek with our guide. This is not a climb for children.
Helicopter Beach (sometimes)
See our description above.
Snorkeling in El Nido
If you’re big into snorkeling, tell your guide right when you start your island hopping tour. They seem to have some leeway in where they stop for lunch and we were able to go to some really great snorkeling spots because we specifically asked about it.
One great example is on Tour C, we stopped for lunch on a secluded beach a little ways down from the Matinloc Shrine. The water is shallow right by the beach, but swimming out a little ways into the “channel” between the karst islands we found a steep coral wall drop off. There was tons of fish and bright colored corals to explore.
Most stops have at least some area to go snorkeling, so if it’s not obvious ask your guide and he or she can point you in the right direction.
Safety Tip: Watch out for banca boats while you’re snorkeling. Don’t assume they see you or are looking out for you.
Best El Nido Island Hopping Tour
The best El Nido island hopping tour for you will really depend on what you want to see. If you’re after beaches then check out Tour D. For natural beauty and impressive views from the boat Tour C is best. Tour A has some of the most unique sights in the Large and Small Lagoons, while Tour B is the only one to bring you to caves and also includes an amazing beach.
If we had to pick just one tour, it would be Tour A. Of all the tour destinations the ones we would have been most sad to miss are the Small and Large Lagoons. The addition of the awesome 7 Commando Beach and the route itself between destinations give a good sense of the dramatic scenery in Bacuit Bay. One downside is Tour A seems to be the most popular with tourists, so while it’s an easy tour to schedule, it’s harder to find solitude!
If you have time for two tours, add either Tour B or C. Tour D is too similar to A (they both go to beaches and lagoons).
El Nido Island Hopping Tour Cost
The cost per person ranges between 800 pesos and 1,400 pesos for a shared boat. The cost varies some based on the tour provider, the specific tour chosen, and your bargaining skills.
The cost is for a full day of touring and includes lunch. There are no separate admission charges to visit any of the individual stops (though there are some opportunities to spend money along the way as described above).
There is also a one-time environmental fee of 200 pesos per adult, which is good for 10 days (so you can use it for multiple tours). You pay this before your first tour and get a certificate that shows you paid, so hang onto it if you plan to do more than one tour.
Worth the 6 hour van ride from Puerto Princesa.
The island hopping in El Nido is nothing short of spectacular.
El Nido spoiled us with pristine, white sand, nearly empty beaches at every turn. We’ve never experienced anything like it anywhere in the world and it more than lived up to our lofty expectations. We loved all four of the tours and they are at the top of our list of our favorite Philippines activities.
Note: Telesfora gave us a discounted rate for our island hopping tours.
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