With such large distances between the Philippines and the western world, TIME is typically the most prized resource when traveling there.
This is also the case when traveling to even more remote locations on Palawan island, known as the Philippines “Last Frontier”. The two most remote of destinations on Palawan are El Nido and Coron, and tourists are often faced with having to choose between the two.
This article will go over some of the similarities and differences between El Nido and Coron, and talk about what you can expect between the two. My recommendation is to visit and spend as much time as possible in BOTH locations, even if they are your only stops in the country, but I also realize that is not a realistic scenario for everyone.
In the above photo, we see two of El Nido's premiere destinations Helicopter Island (left) and Entalula Island on the right.
Getting There by Air, Land or Sea
While humans have inhabited both El Nido and Coron for millennia, large-scale tourism to these destinations has only begun in the last decade.
Each has an international airport that offers direct flights, although they are some of the most expensive flights that you can find anywhere in The Philippines. El Nido’s airport (Lio Airport) is smaller and owned/ operated by AirSwift, a subsidiary of Ayala Capitol Corporation. It consists of mostly privately chartered trips. Big money trips for big spenders such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who made one of El Nido’s private resort in Bacuit Bay a vacation destination in recent years.
Coron’s nearest airport is the tiny, primative Busuanga airport. While it is much more affordable than El Nido's, ticket prices still top almost all other domestic flights. That fact doesn’t stop the number of Busuanga’s weekly flights from growing in the high tourist season (Feb-April). Note that this airport is one small terminal that is seemingly ALWAY crowded in the high season (Jan - May) so be prepared to wait in the non-air conditioned waiting area.
The third airport on Palawan is by far the busiest: Puerto Princesa, which now has direct international flights and a brand new terminal as of late 2017. Most travelers choose Puerto Princesa (PPS) or Busuanga and travel between the two via a van and boat combination.
Pictured above are two destinations on Coron's "Island Escapades" tour: left to right Banana Island and Malacapuya Island.
Island Hopping and Water Activities
These destinations are known for the beautiful islands nearby, and their inexpensive daily tours (by international standards) to those islands.
El Nido has five (5) popular tours A, B, C, D and Z. Plus, some nearby beaches and hikes. The beaches and hikes won’t cost you more than 600 pesos ( 12 USD) for a day trip via tricycle, while one can expect to pay between 1200 and 1400 pesos (24-28 USD) for the island hopping tours, which include a buffet lunch.
Coron’s tours are not as well labeled or organized, and the costs for each are slightly higher ranging from 1400-1800 pesos (28-36 USD). Additionally, depending on where you purchase the tour package from, the destinations could be a bit mixed up, as they are not as well standardized compared to El Nido’s offerings.
The island hopping destinations in both El Nido and Coron themselves are directly comparable. These are some of the most pristine beaches and islands in the region. IF one were forced to choose, Coron has the advantage because of the higher number of options available, but both are world-class destinations.
The largest difference between the two, aside from cost, is time. I was excited to see announcements that tour groups picked up tourists from their hotels as early as 8am. This service does not currently exist as part of El Nido packages. The scheduled return time, according to tour schedules is approximately 5pm in Coron, just in time for the amazing Coron Harbor sunset. El Nido tours ask you to be on the beach at 9am, with approximate return times of 4pm.
…. but do not be fooled! The higher cost in Coron is what pays for those pick-ups, and the longer transit time to the islands is what accounts for the longer tour days. Some destinations in Coron as far as an hour and twenty minutes away by tour boat! I was EXTREMELY disappointed to learn that the scheduled stops are still just one hour or less on each island. That is the case for BOTH El Nido and Coron island hopping tours.
Commercialism, Consumerism and the Almighty Dollar
You won’t find a Jollibee, McDonalds or 711 in either town, but domestic banks such as BPI and their ATMs are readily available. Currency exchanges (‘Money Changer’ as they are referred to locally) are also accessible in both locations, but some will only exchange US Dollars to Philippine Pesos, not even the other way around! Be sure to take care of currency exchange needs in Manila or Cebu before your travel to Palawan.
Because you wont find any of the commercial chains here, street vendors and shops are just about everywhere that tourists are, and tourists definitely benefit from competition between local businesses . All of the essentials are cheap, and easily accessible; from sunblock and insect repellant, to dry bags and Gucci sunglasses.
…wait, what??? Gucci sunglasses? Counterfeit goods are not exactly abundant in El Nido and Coron, but sunglasses and “name brand’ beach wear are the exception.
A large number of beach related accessories are fairly abundant at both destinations as well. I was able to pick up a no-brand floating handle for a go pro for 150 pesos (3 USD) as well as selfie sticks, and those cheap plastic bags made for smartphones. You are braver than I if you put your expensive phone in those things!
The downside of the lack of large chains is that you can expect to pay more for meals at both locations, even when buying fresh locally caught seafood. An entre is typically 300 pesos (6 USD), and while this may sound cheap, it is twice what you would pay elsewhere in the Philippines.
In regards to shopping, availability of necessities, and restaurants, El Nido and Coron are very even.
You Shouldn’t Have to Choose
In a perfect world, you should visit both El Nido and Coron and spend as much time in each as possible.
Generally speaking, Coron will cost you more and will require more time because there is more to see and do there, but that does NOT make El Nido any less attractive of a destination.
With these two world-class travel destinations so close to each other (and accessible by fast boat) I suggest planning your time wisely to maximize the island hopping time. When factoring in the extra time and locations, the best breakdown of time would be 30% El Nido and 70% Coron.