El Nido’s cluster of gumdrop-shaped islands, famous for their dramatic limestone cliffs and white sand beaches, truly is as incredible in person as it appears in photos.
The best way to enjoy El Nido is to hop around these islands, armed with a mask and snorkel, and sunscreen, of course!
Tours in El Nido are organized with set stops and labeled A through D. Tour A is the most popular in El Nido, thanks to the Big and Small Lagoons. Given this, there are some things you should know before diving in (pun intended!). Written in 2019, this is the most up-to-date resource on the Internet for El Nido island hopping Tour A:
The Big and Small Lagoons
It used to be that Tour A stopped at both the Big and Small Lagoons. However recent legislation, in an effort to curb the amount of people who visit each day, dictates that visitors may now only visit one or the other in the span of a day.
You’ll want to make sure that your tour operator has one of these permits available for you before booking. I got to experience the Big Lagoon and thought it was perfect. I’ve been told that both are amazing, so I suggest going for whichever is available.
It’s difficult to get the lagoons to yourself, but the Big Lagoon is big enough that it doesn’t feel crowded, particularly the farther in you go.
Everyone I saw at the Big Lagoon rented a kayak for 250 pesos. But I love to swim, so I opted to swim through the Big Lagoon instead and it was the highlight of my whole El Nido experience! If you love to swim as much as I do, bring along a mask and snorkel and go for it. Just be extra careful to avoid stonefish and sea urchins. I advise never standing up past the sandy entrance so only do this if you won’t need regular rests.
Keep in mind that you must wear a lifejacket when in the Big Lagoon, whether you’re swimming or kayaking. However there is no current and zero waves, so I clipped the lifejacket to a buoy and had most of my Big Lagoon experience without one. To me it’s a silly rule and I completely detest lifejackets, but do keep in mind that the lagoon truly is big and if you think you’ll get tired, you can bring it along as a sort of kickboard.
Hidden Lagoon isn’t so hidden anymore, but this circular, almost completely sealed off pool is only accessible through a tiny hole in the side of the limestone and it’s so cool!
I got lucky and had a full few minutes in the lagoon all to myself. There are often queues to get in, but you can always hang out on the beach nearby or near the rock formations a few yards out until it clears up.
There’s a lot of snorkeling involved on Tour A, including a spot devoted just to snorkeling. The corals are lovely, and a highlight for me was the school of tiny glittering blue fish swimming around.
The benefit of snorkeling in El Nido is the super clear water. Chances are good that your tour will do the snorkeling portion earlier in the day before there’s much wind and current, so it makes for an easy, enjoyable experience.
An impressive limestone island with a small white sand beach, this is usually the lunch spot for organized Tour A groups.
There is also some snorkeling around here, but be careful not to get swept down the channel between Shimizu and its neighboring island. It’s not a crazy strong current, at least not when I was there, but things can change with the seasons.
Seven Commandos Beach
Unlike Shimizu island, this beach has a bigger, longer stretch of white sand along with palm trees, a little basketball court in the sand, and beach huts.
This is where most tours finish up as it’s the closest to El Nido town. You can also access this beach with a kayak later on if you love it enough to come back!
Organized tours provide more or less the same spread of rice, grilled fish and chicken, fresh fruit, and salad. It’s a pretty good offering but tends to cost 1500 pesos extra if you’re doing the tour on your own as a private tour. In this case, I’d recommend bringing your own food.
The costs for all group tours are fixed now in El Nido with Tour A priced at 1200 pesos per person. I read online previously that the prices would differ depending on quality but this is no longer true. The only place I found the price a bit cheaper was through booking on Klook. The ratings are pretty good, so if I had done a group tour I would probably have done that. Tour A also has a 200 pesos environmental fee per person, which is good for any other tour for 10 days, and an additional 200 for either the Big or Small Lagoon. You’ll also want to bring some extra cash in case you want to buy a coconut or rent a kayak.
As for the private tours, you can expect quite a big range. Pretty much everyone in town can sell you one, from tour operators to hotels to even the tricycle drivers. I asked about 15 different places about their pricing and the cheapest ended up being at my hotel, El Nido Overlooking. Their tour is priced at 6000 pesos, which is 1000 lower than anywhere else I checked. Again, since almost everyone just goes through the same agencies and books random boats, I don’t know that quality control varies if you pay more.
It’s also possible that the boats will quote a higher price. That happened to me with Tour A but not with Tour B. So I ended up needing to pay 6000, but without food. If you cut out food from the trip, you can save 1500 pesos. It’s highly unlikely that you would spend more than that if you get food on your own, so I’d suggest doing what I did and getting extra food the night before and storing it in your room fridge (El Nido Overlooking has them in their rooms). I brought along the Mexican beans and rice bowl from Taste El Nido and it was perfect.
Is a Private or Group Tour A Better?
Is it better to do Tour A with a group in order to cut down on costs, or is it better to do a private tour? Year over year, the cost of a private tour in El Nido has been compounding. Even just two years ago, it was about half the price that it is these days. I found a few companies online that had too-low-to-be-true prices, and when I contacted them to verify, they told me that they had actually doubled. So if you’re doing a private tour in El Nido you can expect to be quoted anywhere from 7000 pesos on the low-end to 9000 on the high-end….. almost $175 USD!
Is it worth it to do a private tour? This totally depends on how much flexibility and freedom you want to change up certain items in the itinerary (or even try to leave earlier or do some of it in reverse order), AND how many people you’re sharing the boat with. On one hand I liked doing the tours as private tours because it meant no waiting around in the morning, unlike group tours where sometimes you can wait up to two hours, and being able to enjoy each place for as long as I wanted. I was sometimes able to get things to myself this way, like the Hidden Lagoon.
The downside is whoever you book this with, whether it is a hotel or agency, chances are good the right hand isn’t really talking to the left. I was pretty disappointed that the guide on my boat tried to cut out two of the stops on my Tour A, rationalizing it by saying that Shimizu Island was the “lunch stop” but since we had brought our own lunch, he could cut that stop off. I also did a private Tour B, which I was able to customize a bit more, but overall my experience with both guides in El Nido was not that positive, especially when compared to Coron and Romblon. Maybe it’s because the guys make a good commission off of the included lunch and were mad we’d gone the cheaper route, or they just figured we didn’t know which stops should be included, but this was a bit frustrating and disappointing, particularly since this is the most expensive island hopping in El Nido that I’m aware of. I only mention this because if you’re on a private tour, it’s a bit easier for a stop to get cut off or missed and you’re probably not getting the best crew and boats, so just make sure that you’re getting what you paid for and asked for.
I’m not aware of a possibility of just showing up at the boat docks like one can do in Coron. It seems in El Nido finding a boat that isn’t hired out by someone is harder to do these days, but just because I didn’t manage to do it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you do manage to do this, please let me know in the comments below!
Overall, I’d still opt to do private tours because that’s just my preference, even when it costs more. However if it’s not in your budget, the group tours take you to all the same places and on a tour as popular as Tour A, you’ll be sharing it with others no matter what anyway.
What to Bring
Most group tours will include lunch and water, though you may want to double check that they will have water for you to refill your bottles with. In theory El Nido is trying to cut down on single use plastic, but not every tour provides water.
You’ll also want to bring along snorkeling gear, which you can rent for 150 pesos for a mask and snorkel and 150 for a set of fins. I brought my own mask from home and would suggest you do the same. You can be more sure of the quality and won’t have to pay the equivalent of 3 US dollars every single day that you go island hopping. I didn’t use fins during my El Nido experience and didn’t really feel they were necessary, but I would base your decision on that on how strong of a swimmer you are without them. There are plenty of places in town where you can rent, or most of the tour operators will have gear as well.
It can also be a good idea to bring along a dry bag (I use this one) if you want to be able to take photos, especially if kayaking in the lagoons. All of these photos were shot with a GoPro HERO7 Black, and my DJI Mavic 2 Pro. You can read more about my camera gear here.
Also be sure to bring along sunscreen, as you’ll have your back to the sun often on this trip. It’s also helpful to bring along your own beach towel.
Overall, El Nido Tour A gives you a glimpse into some truly beautiful and unique beaches, snorkeling spots, and rock formations that you can’t see anywhere else in the world. It is popular, so plan on sharing it with others. However despite that, the Big Lagoon was still the highlight of my time in El Nido. So bring some extra patience, definitely bring your camera, and enjoy the ride!