Picture water the color of turquoise stone, mountains looming like behemoths overhead, and circle-shaped hidden lagoons. Imagine wading through crystal clear water, surrounded by glittering fish with a cornucopia of colorful corals below.
Which place am I talking about? Honestly, it could be either Coron or El Nido, and you’re probably here because you’re wondering which to pick for your trip to Palawan, Philippines.
The two places have numerous similarities, not just in terms of what there is to do at each one, but also in terms of pricing, crowds, and overall experience. If you can manage to spend 2 to 3 days in each, it will give you a chance to island hop in both places and get the best of both. However not everyone has that kind of time, so which is better when it comes down to Coron vs. El Nido? This post can help you pick:
Highlights of El Nido
El Nido’s Big Lagoon
The best way to get to know both El Nido and Coron is to island hop. Neither Coron town nor El Nido town are particularly spectacular, so your time is best spent on the fringe of islands nearby.
The biggest highlight for me of all of the experiences on this list was the Big Lagoon. Almost everyone chose to kayak through it for an additional 250 pesos (about USD $5), but I just opted to swim through with my mask and snorkel and that is precisely what made it so wonderful. The water was flat and calm, it was super clear, and I just loved the freedom of it. Yes, there were a lot of people in there and I did have to pay an additional 200 pesos to get in, as will you should you choose to go, but it was worth it.
Named for its long sandbar connecting two islands, I really loved this stop on Tour B, probably because of my obsession with sandbars. I had so much fun droning over it, but even if you don’t have a drone, you can hike to the top of the island to get a nice vantage point.
7 Commandos Beach
This gorgeous stretch of white sand, with a larger beach than most of the other islands in the area, is a stop on Tour A. It’s also possible to kayak to it, especially if you rent a kayak in Corong Corong.
Las Cabanas Beach
This beach has one of the most amazing sunset views I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The incredible shape of the islands on the horizon as everything turns pink and purple is just stunning. I would take extreme caution swimming there, since there are sea urchins and even worse, stonefish. Alternatively head up to The Nesting Table in The Birdhouse for a sunset dinner and yoga session. It’s also a nice place to stay.
I wish I had seen this one super early in the morning before there were lots of people, but it was still quite a beautiful sight to see these two lagoons with beautiful turquoise water. The jellyfish were, however, not the nicest surprise. This swarming of jellyfish is just an April and May occurrence, though. I did a full review of it here.
Kayangan and Barracuda Lake
These are two separate lakes but I included them in the same category because they’re quite similar although Barracuda is less popular. Both are brackish, meaning a mix of salt and freshwater, and both have incredibly clear water that makes it pretty fun to dive down into. Barracuda provided a better experience for me because I was able to get it all to myself for a while in the afternoon. That’s not possible with Kayangan Lake unless you head there around 7:30/8am, which just wasn’t in the cards for me this trip!
I don’t see very many blogs or island hopping excursions covering Black Island, except for the Big Dream Boat Man Expeditions, but it was one of the coolest stops of both El Nido and Coron for me because there were very few other people, the beach is long and beautiful with white sand, you still get those jagged and dramatic rock formations, and there’s a cave that you can swim in!
I spent almost an hour in there without any other people coming in. This one is quite far from Coron town, however it wasn’t too far from my accommodation, which I highly recommend you stay at for at least a couple days, at the north end of the island. More info in the accommodation section below.
Costs of Coron vs. El Nido
Neither El Nido nor Coron are as cheap as other parts of the Philippines. In fact, this is the most expensive area I have been to in the country. That said, it’s still not that expensive.
Group island hopping tours in El Nido are all a fixed price these days, ranging from 1200 to 1400 pesos per person. Everyone has to pay a 200 pesos environmental fee which is good for 10 days, and the Big and Small Lagoon both require a 200 peso entry fee. It costs an extra 150 pesos for a mask and snorkel rental per day, and this is common all over the Philippines so you might as well bring your own.
If you want to do a private tour, the prices have gone up considerably over the last couple of years. I found forums and outdated websites with options for 3000-4000 pesos for a private tour, but these days you’re likely to be quoted anywhere from 7000 to 9000 pesos ($134 – $173!). You can cut it down by bringing your own food. You can read more about my private Tour A and private Tour B for a full rundown of costs and how to book plus pros and cons.
In Coron, things are organized a bit differently since nearly every island and lagoon you visit is privately owned. The entry costs are included in the group tours which range anywhere from 1500 pesos up to 2300 pesos per person. If you take a private boat, you’ll have to pay an entry fee for every stop. Kayangan is the most expensive at 300 pesos per person and the Twin Lagoon is 200. Almost everything else costs 150. The standard rate for just the boat going to Coron Island is 2700 if you go right to the dock to book it instead of going through a hotel or agency, which will add a middleman fee. If you want to go to the farther destinations, it can be as high as 5000. However if you split this with several people it can work out cheaper and for me it was worth it to have flexibility.
Things like food and accommodation in both places are about equal in terms of costs and there’s always a range. I did feel that there was a bit less of an effort to be scammy in Coron. Prices seemed more or less fixed for tricycles and tours, whereas in El Nido it was always necessary to haggle with tricycle drivers and the private tours seemed astronomical. I guess I can’t blame anyone for trying to get more money, but it’s so much nicer when that’s not the vibe.
Given the clear water and corals, both places are great for diving and you’ll find diving operations in both spots all around town.
It’s rumored to be pretty good in El Nido, with sea turtles and even the occasional whale shark sighting.
That said, Coron is widely considered the best place in the Philippines for scuba diving because of all of the WWII wrecks and the Apo Reef. I did an eight day liveaboard to the wrecks and the reef in 2014 and can confirm, it’s fantastic diving. I didn’t see any whale sharks but I did see tons of reef sharks, turtles, and big schools of fish in all of those wrecks. Keep in mind that you need to be an advanced open water diver and even Nitrox certified to be able to go as deep as some of these ships are.
Beautiful Places to Stay in El Nido vs. Coron
In both areas, there are super high-end luxury hotels on their own islands that look amazing. They usually cost a minimum of $500 per night, so since I didn’t try those out, I can’t recommend them here. But if you can afford it, it seems like a nice experience.
What I can recommend are some really cool, more affordable places to stay!
On El Nido’s Las Cabanas Beach, you can stay in a super vibey, glamping/yoga/perfect sunset hangout place I referenced above called The Birdhouse. Now that I checked it out for dinner, I’d probably stay there in the future. It’s somewhat secluded but not overly so, and you can’t beat the view.
I stayed at El Nido Overlooking on Corong Corong Beach which is near to El Nido town but a bit outside of the madness. I loved my view as well, and the villa was perfect. I also liked that it’s only 4 villas and it’s set above the beach, so it’s truly peaceful and quiet up there. There’s also a pool which, again since it’s just 4 villas, you rarely have to share. This also proved to be the cheapest place to buy tours, and I asked about 15 places!
Update 2023: Unfortunately, both places I stayed have closed down due to the lockdown. However, my team member visited El Nido in 2023, and here’s a list of hotels that she recommends!
In Coron, or rather Busuanga which is the island Coron town is located on, I stayed in a tree house in Sanctuaria Treehouses that was magical. I had a beautiful view of the mangroves, it was secluded and quiet, and it was super easy to order a boat to come and take us to Black Island for the day. It was also cheaper to get there since it was closer. I thought it was perfect to split time between there for two days and Coron town for two days.
If you prefer staying somewhere more centrally located, here’s a list of tried and tested hotel recommendations by my team member, who visited Coron in 2023!
It’s possible to fly to both El Nido and Coron from Manila on AirSWIFT and SkyJet Airlines. Prices can actually be pretty reasonable, but flights do not go every day, so take a look at both schedules to see if it works for your dates.
If you fly into Puerto Princesa, El Nido is much more accessible since you can get there on a cheap bus (you can read the full directions here). Coron would require an additional flight and/or ferry crossing.
A great option that I would have loved is Big Dream Boatman Expeditions, which has tour options that can take you to both.
El Nido vs. Coron – Who wins?
You no doubt came here because you want a definitive answer, and the two places are so similar, it’s not necessarily easy to say one is better than the other. But I most certainly have an opinion.
Both places are beautiful, both places are very popular, and both places have similar activities. But I would give the edge to Coron. El Nido to me feels a bit too aggressive, and it could just be luck of the draw, but my island hopping experiences were just much better in Coron. I felt the guys on the boat wanted to be there more, weren’t trying to strong-arm me, and overall, I felt like Coron was friendlier. Obviously that’s totally subjective, so I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has been to both whether they agree or not.
Personally, I could see myself going back to Coron, but not El Nido.
Even though both are beautiful, Palawan is not my favorite spot in the Philippines. Check out the links below for my favorites.