El Nido is the gateway to the Bacuit Archipelago, an area of protected natural beauty scattered over 175 square miles. With stunning limestone cliffs rocketing from crystal clear sea tingling with marine life, the archipelago is a natural wonder and one not to be missed.
You can choose from four main day tours which explore the vast spread of islands, imaginatively named A through to D. A and C are the most popular due to their distinct beauty and prime snorkeling opportunities. Following the masses, we booked onto both and set off to sea.
Cost: 1,200php (including lunch and snorkeling gear) + 200 php environmental fee (good for 10 days).
Islands visited: Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island, Small Lagoon, 7 Commandos Beach.
Tour A is probably the most popular tour of them all. My heart sank when we joined a flotilla of boats heading for the first island. Luckily our driver peeled away from the main bulk of Bangka boats and chugged our group of 8 towards the Big Lagoon rather than busier Small Lagoon.
Big Lagoon is spectacular and looks like it’s been plucked straight from an imaginary tropical paradise. Unfortunately it was only a ‘sight-seeing stop’ so we weren’t allowed to take a dip in the shockingly blue calm water.
Our next destination was Secret Lagoon. The lagoon is only accessible through a tiny opening in the limestone which you clumsily clamber through to get to the exotic dream on the other side. Well it would have been a dream if not for the bangkas worth of Korean tourists. But hey ho.
We stuffed our faces with fresh fish and fruit platters on Shimizu Island, before forcing our bloated bodies into the sea for some snorkeling. The coral was beautiful, with lots of ‘brain’ formations which were being lovingly pecked at by multicoloured fish. We spotted bright blue star fish on the ocean bed and lazy anemones clinging to the rocks. The only problem was the choppy water which flooded our snorkels and lowered the visibility.
Now it was time to try our luck with the Small Lagoon. Unfortunately everyone had the same idea as us, descending on the Small Lagoon later on. The lagoon was clogged with incompetent kayakers which made snorkeling perilous.
They weren’t the only threat to us in the water. Our guide Christopher happily warned us of the territorial fish which lurked in the shallows, attempting to take a nibble out of any unsuspecting snorkelers. With this nugget of advice ringing in our ears we dodged the kayakers and swam off.
On the way we passed some freaky looking zombie-Angel Fish. I thought they were dead but they slowly skulked off when you got near. I have never seen anything like them before.
Although the Small Lagoon was crammed with visitors, it was inescapably gorgeous and worth the risk from kayakers and hungry fish.
Our final stop was 7 Commandos Beach. Home to a couple of beach bars, we stocked up on coconuts and made the most of probably one of the most scenic swings ever.
Tour A is the perfect introduction to the Bacuit Archipelago. Although it’s a busy and well-trodden route, it is obvious why it’s so popular. I would have liked more time in the water, but that is what Tour C is celebrated for…
Cost: 1,400 php (including lunch and snorkeling gear).
Islands visited: Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Hidden Beach.
Our Tour C was a bit of a shambles. A lot of waiting around and a rickety old boat which the crew seemed a bit scared of. Not the best of starts!
Nevertheless we chugged along to Helicopter Island where we eagerly hopped into the water. Unfortunately, they have an algae problem there at the moment so the visibility wasn’t as good as we’d hoped. The coral and fish were still lovely though.
Next up was the eerie Matinloc Shrine. Stranded on an island in the middle of the archipelago and formally home to a long abandoned resort, the Shrine is very strange but also interestingly beautiful. You can scale up grooves cut into the limestone to a great lookout point, offering views of the perfect sea and beyond.
The normal lunch-stop spot was busy so we peeled off to our own island to relax and tuck into another fabulous meal. Ryan even managed to find a phone washed up on the beach in a waterproof case. Miraculously the phone still worked and its owner was still in El Nido so we were able to reunite them after 2 days at sea. Good karma all round!
Our guide tried to convince us to skip the Secret Lagoon due to crowds but we insisted and were glad we did. Yes, the lagoon was crowded but the water was as warm as a bath and shallow enough so that fish swam right in front of your face.
The final stop was Hidden Beach which we had all to ourselves. It was probably one of my favorite stops, you can’t beat relaxing in the shallows surrounded by beautiful white sand and droopy palms.
The jury was out on the long Bangka ride back to shore. Ryan had enjoyed Tour C more, whereas Tour A had clinched it for me. I think it was seeing the spectacular limestone cliffs for the first time that made Tour A stand out for me. It was great to keep being surprised by the rocketing cliffs at every turn.
- Bring sea shoes. You can get along without them but it will be uncomfortable on some of the islands.
- It’s ok to bring your camera or tablet. I was annoyed that I was solely reliant on the GoPro on Tour A. As long as you bring a backpack to pop your electricals in when it gets a bit choppy, they will be fine.
- Stock up on suncream. When you’re out at sea the pleasant breeze can be misleading as it’s often a lot hotter than it feels. Don’t make the same mistakes we did…
- Don’t expect your ‘guides’ to know anything. Neither of our guides knew anything about the marine life or the islands themselves. If you’re interested then it looks like Wikipedia is your best bet.
- Keep hold of your environmental cards! You will need it for all tours and for entry to some beaches on the island so don’t lose it!