The small but booming resort town of EL NIDO in the far northwest of Palawan is the departure point for trips to the mesmerizing Bacuit archipelago. With its scruffy beach, narrow, tricycle-choked streets and unplanned rows of concrete hotels, El Nido makes a poor first impression, but the surroundings are truly inspirational – the town is hemmed in between spectacular cliffs of jagged karst and an iridescent bay littered with jungle smothered outcrops of limestone.

The archipelago itself is the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines, though the area’s striking beauty has not gone unnoticed by developers, who have established a number of exclusive resorts on some of the islands. If over US$200 a night (per person) for a taste of paradise is too much for you, stay in El Nido itself – where electricity runs 2pm to 6am only – and island-hop by day. Note that mandatory “Eco Development Fee” tickets (P200/person) are sold at the tourist office and most hotels, and are valid for ten days – this won’t be included in any tours or hotel rates.

For now, EL NIDO remains refreshingly low-key, provincial and relatively cheap, with plenty of sari-sari stores selling San Miguel and snacks along the two main streets, Calle Hama and Calle Real. Don’t miss the climb to the top of the marble cliffs of Mount Taraw (the ridge that backs El Nido); it’s a strenuous haul, but the views are magnificent. Guided hikes take around three hours and cost P500 per person (ask at the Art Café).

The bayfront has ravishing views, but the beach itself is only average and not especially attractive for swimming because of the number of bangkas coming and going. Sunset Lovers Beach is much better and only a short walk along the coastal path heading north. An even better option is Napsan Beach, a vast swathe of usually empty white sand 35–40 minutes tricycle ride north of El Nido; take insect repellent because the sandflies can be voracious. Mountain bikes are P500 per day from Art Café if you want to explore the area at leisure.

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