El Nido is one of the most visually stunning destinations in all of the Philippines with towering limestone cliffs, dense tropical forest, epic viewpoints and beautiful white sand beaches.
It is one of the country’s most popular backpacker destinations; who arrive in their countless scores, to beach-hop and party.
These two facts overshadow a little known fact, which is that El Nido offer some world-class scuba diving!
Because El Nido is in Palawan; it’s often outshone by Coron to the north, which is regarded as the best wreck dive destination in all of Southeast Asia – but El Nido offers something different.
For starters, El Nido has some of the best coral in the Philippines with dozens of dive sites over extensive hard and soft reefs that are home to all manner of fish and other critters.
There is also a truly unique dive site; an underwater tunnel that opens out into a spacious cavern; this is an all time favourite. Lucky divers might even see nurse sharks and manta rays!
In this guide, I’ll talk about my experience diving El Nido over May 2023 and tell you everything you need in order to get the most out of a dive trip there yourself!
#1 Awesome Coral Reef
In 2021 a mighty typhoon destroyed vast amounts of coral reef in much of the Philippines. However, El Nido was largely sheltered from this and as a result most of its coral remained in tact.
Consequently, it now has some of the best coral reef in all of the country with many vibrant reefs of mostly hard but also soft coral. They’re home to a myriad of reef fish as well as creatures like octopus, various nudibranch and crustaceans and even garden ribbon eels (I saw my first ever one of these guys here!).
There are dozens of dive sites around El Nido, mostly over coral reef. The majority are devoid of current but there’s also a few exciting drift dives for more experienced divers.
#2 Unique Dive Site: Underwater Tunnel
For myself and many others, the coolest dive site in El Nido is by far Dilumacad underwater tunnel. It is a truly unique dive site, consisting of an underwater tunnel on the north side of helicopter island. Is starts at 12 meters deep and is around 40 meters long.
After about 20 meters it widens out into a spacious cavern with a few ceiling holes that let in light which illuminates the schools of copper sweeper fish and colourful sponge growing along the walls. There are also many small fish, shrimp and crabs along the sandy bottom. A truly unique and mesmerising dive site!
It was at the entrance to Dilumacad tunnel that one group of divers saw a massive nurse shark (on the day I was having a rest from diving, grrr!!).
This is by no means guaranteed; most people who dive El Nido will not see sharks… however it’s totally possible.
During my week in El Nido, on the one day I didn’t dive a group of divers spotted an absolutely enormous 3.5 meter long nurse shark directly outside Dilumacad tunnel!
In addition to nurse sharks, whitetip reef sharks have also sometimes been spotted. And other pelagics such as eagle rays are also a possibility.
#4 Giant Barracuda
Several dive sites are home to schools of giant barracuda which sometimes form impressive tornado like formations. These impressive pelagic fish look rather fearsome but are harmless to divers. You stand a very good chance of seeing these guys!
Like most places in the Philippines, El Nido is a great place to see turtles especially green sea turtles and the somewhat less common hawksbill turtle species. You have a good chance of at seeing at least one on most dives. If you’re diving in Palawan, El Nido is by far a better bet to spot turtles than Coron.
#6 Manta Rays!
You can get away from the noise, hustle and bustle of El Nido by catching a 50 minute car ride to Sibaltan, an extremely quiet, laid back seaside town that not many people make it to.
Sibaltan is too far from El Nido Bay to dive the main dive sites there….however there is one dive centre: “Dive Sibaltan” who offer dive trips to manta ray cleaning stations, where you have a decent chance of seeing mantas!
Accommodation and restaraunt options are limited – but there are a few!
There are of course many other things you can see at El Nido; all manners of critters and in theory any large tropical faring pelagic species is possible. It’s the ocean after all, everything is connected! You never know for sure what you might see…
Within the small El Nido town, there are well over a dozen different dive centres and resorts all within close proximity of one another as well as close to the various accommodation options, restaurants and bars.
Personally, I recommend you go with Submarine Dive Resort. They are a truly awesome dive centre, hostel, restaurant and bar all rolled into one. Accommodation is a little pricey, it’s about 1000 pesos for a dormitory room, but the vibe is simply great and there’s a fantastic rooftop bar and restaurant.
Of course you can stay elsewhere and simply dive with them; in terms of dive prices they are pretty affordable.
Dives are conducted from truly enormous dive boats and honestly after cruising around on these and seeing all the major landmarks and beaches that are featured on beach-hopping tours, I didn’t feel the need to go on an actual tour as I’d already seen all the best bits.
The staff were highly experienced, knowledgable and friendly and it was super easy to get invited out for drinks and partying afterwards – which takes place right at the dive centres rooftop bar (which is jellyfish themed by the way!).
I’ve actually written a main article on the best accommodation and dive resort options for backpackers in El Nido here which I most heartily recommend you check out for insider tips and special deals! It’s also useful to read this guide because there are several distinct areas around El Nido which offer extremely different accommodation experiences and prices!!
For much of the Philippines, the best time to dive is between December – May.
However the best months for diving El Nido are actually June and July. This is really cool because it means if you find yourself in the Philippines later in the year and it’s already getting rainy in other parts, you can head to El Nido and the diving conditions will still be optimal.
Of course, technically you can dive El Nido all year round! Wet season typically occurs from August – November and during these months visibility is not quite so good.
You can fly into El Nido airport aka Lio Airport easily enough. I liked this airport a lot actually, the vibes are really chill and it’s one of the few places I haven’t been charged extra for my excessive baggage (when I was flying out of it).
The only other half convenient way way to get to El Nido is to catch a ferry there from Coron which takes around 4 hours and is actually pretty expensive at around $45.
El Nido sure does have a lotta cool stuff to do. Gather round ya’ll, I’mma go right on ahead and list some of the best things to do in El Nido, m’hmmm:
#1 Taraw Peak
This is probably the most badass and adventurous thing you can do in El Nido (besides scuba dive of course huhuhu!).
Taraw peak is the highest cliff overlooking El Nido town. You can climb to the top of it which is both an exhilarating (and slightly terrifying!) experience that rewards you with unbeatable views of the bay.
It requires a 4:30 am start and going with a guide who will provide you with gloves. Take heed – this is not for the faint of heart, there are several heart-wrenching moments when you are scaling an almost vertical cliff with knife sharp rocks on either side of you! However, do what the guide says and you’ll probably be ok! The views at the top are insane.
To find a guide ask around at El Nido Via Ferrata Walk (which is where you can also arrange canopying and other stuff).
If you decide not to do Taraw Peak, a more tame compromise is to go canopying where you are harnessed in and have a helmet and make your way to a lower and far less precarious viewpoint that still gives decent views out across El Nido town and bay. This takes just twenty minutes and can be done at any time.
Like the taraw peak, you arrange this at El Nido Via Ferrata Walk, a small office located near the town centre.
The downside of the canopying that there’s loads of travellers here and when you get to the viewpoint everyone is queing up to take lame-o selfies – hey if you don’t have a photograph of you doing it, it’s not worth it right?! (Eyeroll).
#3 Eagle's Nest
Unbeknown to many people (even locals!), there is another incredible viewpoint that lies about a 25 minute scooter ride out of El Nido Town, heading towards Las Cabanas Beach and stopping around Nagkalit waterfalls
Close to the point you’d stop for the waterfalls, you’ll see a sign on the right reading “Eagle’s Nest”. Across the road from here lies a small office where you hire a guide to take you up to the Eagle’s Nest.
The Eagle’s Nest is an extremely interesting, sharply sloping hill, that you’ll see rising up out of the ground off yonder about 7 minutes before you reach the office. It’s actually an extinct volcano that has sunk down into the ground. It takes about 20 minutes to climb and is quite steep and gruelling towards the end but the panoramic views at the top are well worth it. It’s an especially awesome place to catch the sunset!
But Alex, why don’t you show off any photos of Eagle’s Nest or other places you are talking about!? I hear you ask. Well it was actually whilst climbing up to Eagle’s Nest that I destroyed my iPhone by leaving it charging to an external powerbank in a bag that a litre of water leaked into frying it’s CPU beyond repair.
I lost five years worth of travel friend’s details, cutie’s numbers and photos and videos including much of the land-photo content I’d been collecting from the past ten weeks in the Philippines. Even after going all the way to Cebu to a phone repair guru I was informed it was well and truly fuck*d although in my heart I knew this before I even took it there.
At least I realised this when I got to the top of the view and not half way.
It was quite sobering to swallow my rage and frustration (I could already tell the phone was fucked), realise it was just a stupid smartphone and simply concentrate on the beautiful view, all whilst not being able to snap a single photo and knowing all the other pictures I’d taken were probably gone – they were.
There’s a whole bunch of beaches you can explore around El Nido. Here are some of the best ones:
There are many more beaches to explore in El Nido. Happy beach hunting!
There’s a big nightlife at El Nido. Personally this wasn’t my jam – the clubs are really generic with some of the most annoying and cliche music going and much of the rest of the space appears to be taken up by bars but on closer inspection these are in fact booze selling restaurants so not an ideal place to meet new people!
And let’s not forget the Philippines is a dangerously impossible place to score los druggos so your only option is to drink.
However, from the scores of drunkenly ambling backpackers everywhere the El Nido night-scene certainly seems to appeal to some (from what I could tell, those having the most fun were around the 18 years old mark).
However, if I were to go partying in El Nido, I’d make sure to do it around full moon time as rumour has it, El Nido does host a pretty decent fullmoon party!!
Otherwise, if you go diving, you’ll probably get invited out for drinks by your dive centre (or just ask them what’s going on that night). This is probably the best way to have a legit night out with genuinely interesting people who know if and where there’s something worth going to.
In El Nido, 3 dives will cost you around 4100 Pesos / $73 which is actually a very reasonable price. That said, the boats don’t come back until after 3 dives so just doing 2 dives is a less attractive option….meaning you’ll normally end up paying for 3 dives every time. To be honest, everything else in El Nido is more expensive compared to others parts of the Philippines. Accommodation, food, tours, you name it.
Absa-tota-loutly! Even the potentially daunting sounding Dilumacad tunnel is easily accessible to beginners. Most dive sites are relatively shallow. Only a few dives are “drift dives” and when I went on one of these there was absolutely no current, making it just a regular dive. SO yes, El Nido is totally beginner friendly and many people actually get scuba certified here.
Kickass coral reefs, simply beautiful limestone cliffs and rock formations that you pass en-route to the various dive sites, the unique tunnel Dilumacad tunnel dive and the chance to see huge nurse sharks and if you travel over to Sibaltan you have a great chance of seeing manta rays!
A lot! With epic viewpoints to climb (Taraw peak and Eagles nest), endless beaches to explore, island hopping tours, a zipline, waterfalls and a thriving nightlife aimed for a younger audience, you will find it hard to run out of things to do in El Nido for at least a week or two!
First, bare in mind that El Nido is a little more expensive than other parts of the Philippines and in the town centre, its extremely busy and crowded, especially at night which might not be for everyone (but you can escape to Sibltan which is far quieter and more off-grid). Second, the diving around El Nido is actually under-rated and definitely as worth checking out as any other part of the Philippines. Third, El Nido is close to Coron which is the best wreck diving destination in all of Southeast Asia and absolutely worth combining with your itinerary to El Nido.
And that’s all there is to it! Diving El Nido is a truly epic experience, it has so many awesome dive sites worth checking out and is also the most visually stunning part of the Philippines to be on a boat going from dive site to dive site.
In this article, first we covered what makes diving in El Nido so awesome; then we took a look at the best El Nido accommodation and resorts, with a useful link to a more detailed article on this.
This was followed by info on diving season, then how to get there and after that I went over other things to do in El Nido of which there are many great options.
Finally we rounded everything off with a handy FAQ section and now this debriefing which as you can probably tell summarises all that’s been covered on this page.
I strongly recommend you now go and check out my separate article on the best dive resort and accommodation in El Nido which offers insider tips, special deals and more. Go – check it out now! The fate of the universe rests on your shoulders!!
Awesome Coral Reef
Schools of giant barracuda