A backpacker community living on a paradise island, far removed from the hustling tourist hordes of the mainland – sound familiar? Considering that Alex Garland lived in the Philippines for six months before penning his backpacker classic The Beach, it wasn’t a surprise to learn that there are more beautiful beaches and undeveloped islands in this magical archipelago than you can shake a stick at. You could quite happily spend months floating from island to island, merrily losing all track of time as you investigate one little version of Eden after another.

However, the name that’s on everyone’s lips at the moment in the Philippines, is El Nido. This little town is, quite frankly, a bit of a bitch to get to; but perhaps this was the reason it flew under the radar for so long. You need to fly to Palawan and then hop on a bus for five to seven hours to make the long, bumpy journey over half-finished roads to the far north of the island (top tip – this trip is swervy so pack some motion sickness pills or plug yourself into your iPod for a long nap if you’re prone!). We went with Lexus for door-to-door service and less road time but you can get cheaper deals if you’re willing to compromise on time.


The reason El Nido has become such a popular little number is that it is the gateway to the stunningly beautiful Bacuit Bay, an archipelago said to rival Halong Bay in Vietnam but with infinitely less tourists photo-bombing your shots. Take it from me, it’s worth the journey. Towering limestone cliffs shaped like sleeping dragons, sweeping sandy beaches, secret beaches and hidden lagoons – all you need is a boat and the bay is your oyster. Not only does El Nido provide access to the treasures of Bacuit but it is in close proximity (a trike ride away) from some of the most beautiful, undeveloped paradise beaches of Palawan.


What to do in El Nido

El Nido town has certainly grown up from the days that Alex Garland allegedly spent hanging out and getting all inspired to pen his masterpiece. However, it has stayed true to its low-key, backpacker roots and the amenities that have cropped up around the town beach (not a swimming beach due to the boat traffic and waste from the town) are pitched perfectly for the budget traveller.

But cheap accommodation and quirky bars aside, the big draw of El Nido is apparent from looking at all the ticket offices lining the streets – everyone that comes to this town books a tour to explore Bacuit Bay. The tours are separated into A, B, C and D with each offering something special. A and C are the most popular – you can expect to swim through caves into hidden lagoons, lounge on gorgeous beaches, snorkel in quiet bays and enjoy a tasty seafood lunch with juicy mangoes and watermelon for dessert.



The tours are the best way to check out some of the key sights but if you would rather skip out the other groups altogether, hire your own boat and make your own plan for the day. There are plenty of people willing to negotiate and you can usually get food thrown in too if the price is right. Golden beaches, abandoned shrines, crystal clear water and the wind in your hair as you chug from beauty spot to beauty spot; surely it doesn’t get much better than this? Bacuit Bay is huge, the tourist groups are few and there is plenty of space for everyone. For now at least.




In terms of beaches accessible overland, my favourite was the charming Marimegmeg beach, also known as Las Cabanas. This breath-taking sweep of soft, milky white sand is straight out of a Bounty ad with coconut tree reflections on the water and wonderful swimming (when the jellyfish aren’t around anyway!). If I may be so bold as to say: nowhere in the world does sunsets better than the Philippines! Watching the sun go down whilst sipping a drink at the only beach bar right in the middle of Las Cabanas is definitely a golden moment worth writing home about.




Where to eat and drink

In this little backpacker town the streets are paved with traveller-friendly gems. A short wander along the beach and around town will present all sorts of interesting options but we had a few favourites during our short stay.

The Art Café, with its colonial-inspired terrace and ceiling fans, was a delicious spot to grab some breakfast, brunch or a coffee, and in the evening it became a lively dinner spot with live music several times a week. Down on the beach, Aplaya offers a sizzling beach BBQ of fresh fish and seafood every night. Simply choose a table on the sand and then select your meal and sides to go with.


We also loved Mezzanine Bar, right on the beach-front for the 4-6pm cocktail Happy Hour; Alofa in town for STRONG cocktails and equally strong Wifi; and Pukka Bar, the only reggae bar in town, is the place to go after hours with a talented in-house band belting out all those beachy, summer-time classics. 



Accommodation in El Nido 

In terms of finding a place to stay, El Nido is chock-full of choice with a range from super basic (or ‘rustic’ as you might prefer!) to a little more flash-packer. Bear in mind this little town often experiences electricity and water shortages intermittently so try to relax and go with the flow. It’ll all be back on at some point!

This laid-back and low-key little backpacker town is definitely somewhere you can easily end up staying a little longer than you thought. Enjoy, make some new friends and relax, it really is more fun in the Philippines.


All photographs taken by by Alex Saint

Alex Saint is a writer based in Bristol, England – a place she calls home due to its friendly, diverse atmosphere and never-ending list of fun things to do. She loves tattoos, quirky fashion, pugs and, of course, travelling.

Keep up with the Saint sisters and their adventures in Bristol, London and beyond at www.saintsonaplane.com and @saintsonaplane or Alex herself @alexsaint13