Philippines / Luzon / Palawan
Lets face it, people go to El Nido for the Island hopping.
When you do a Google image search for ‘Philippines’, vacation photos from El Nido are the most abundant result; the majority of those photos were taken on board one of these famous El Nido island-hopping tours.
Here is a post on how best to prepare for these all day adventures in the islands, so that you wont be left high and dry.
What to bring
An Underwater Capable Camera
It is tough to believe that it took so long to be convinced that the purchase an action camera was needed. Part of the reason for that is the excellent performance of the iPhones. From low light capabilities, to image stabilization, 4k video, inexpensive underwater accessories and more. The iPhones have always given us plenty of reasons to just stick with our phones when traveling.
In many situations, the best phone cameras on the market are enough; but the image quality and underwater capabilities that the latest generation of action cameras such as the GoPro provides are worth the extra few ounces of weight and bag space.
Saying "ounces" may even be a stretch, as a camera, extra battery, and charger cable take up almost ZERO space in your bag as well. There is no reason NOT to have one. While a GoPro is not great for your everyday picture taking, the image stabilization, time-lapse capabilities, and fact that they no longer need an underwater housing for anything less than 10 meters (30ft) make it a wonderful travel tool.
Adding some sunscreen to your list of island hopping essentials should go without saying.
It does not matter what time of year it is, the sun is strong in the tropics and you will be spending lots of time in the direct sunlight on an 8-hour long island hopping tour day.
It should also go without saying that you should reapply often. With water activities comes things like towel drying, putting on/ taking off a top layer, even wearing a life jacket (on the boat or in the water); and all of the above mentioned activities will strip the sunblock from your body. Frequent reapplication during an island-hopping tour is absolutely necessary, even more so than a typical beach day, so be sure to have plenty of sunblock / sunscreen with you.
One last advantage of having an ample supply of sunblock is that in some cases, having a layer of the oily lotion on your skin will prevent jellyfish stings. Not all jelly fish, and not all situations of course. If this interests you, there are even some sun block lotions that advertise themselves as being jellyfish repellant.
When purchasing your tour, be sure to remember to ask your tour provider if they provide you with a mask & snorkel.
Some tours include them, some tours make you pay additional fees to rent them. The bottom line is that it is best to be prepared and bring your own. While a mask and snorkel do take up additional bag space and weight, it is important to remember that these rental pieces have been used by HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of tourists before you; both on their face and in their mouthes.
You will be able to buy a mask and snorkel localy in El Nido, but you will pay a premium for very low qulity gear. Masks with untempered glass and flimsy rubber straps that can snap easily are all that are available locally. Snorkels from rental shops and local vendors will almost certainly not have a purge valve. Even retail shops in large cities like Manila and Cebu lack brand options and quality gear.
If you can spare the bag space it is best to purchase a quality set while at home and then bring it along with you. This will not save you much money in rentals, but the difference in experience will be worth the cost.
Lastly, a good pair of comfortably fitting fins are a great tool for being able to move around quickly in the water between locations while snorkeling. With an average "free time" of only 45 minutes at each island hopping location, fins are an absolute necesity for making the most of your time.
A proper beach towel is a luxury item because generally speaking, you want to pack light. A traditional cotton towel is bulky and heavy, especially when it becomes damp.
Many tourists (actually, most of them) will choose to simply air-dry all day, as it will be hot on an island hopping tour in El Nido. Some groups choose to share a single beach towel that they can hang in the center of the boat. While this sounds like a smart and convenient method, do not forget that a towel can serve as a beach blanket, a make shift shade from the sun, and even a seat cushion when those wooden seats on the tour boat are starting to feel uncomfortable after a long day.
Taking all of the above into consideration, you should want to bring your own towel along. Microfiber towels take up less space, less weight, and seem to dry much faster than traditional cotton towels. Microfiber towels (or a multi-sized set of them) make excellent permanent additions to your travel kit.
This should also go without saying. Yes there is water on the boat, but it can go fast. Bring along a liter per person and don’t even bother with the provided cups on the boat.
Yes tours typically provide lunch on island hopping tours, but there’s nothing like a quick boost of energy from a piece of chocolate or a small bag of chips to settle the munchies in the late afternoon. Keep in mind that you will be spending lots of energy on these tours, so its best to be prepared with a small light snack!
Some tour guides and boatmen are kind enough to carry a large dry bag and offer to stash/ portage your electronics to the shore for you, but you certainly cannot count on this. You can pick up a 5l dry bag just about anywhere in El Nido town for about 250 pesos or less (5 USD) if you are a good negotiator. Having a dry bag larger than 5l is most likely not necessary and I was able to fit a shirt, my cell phone, and a mirrorless camera (Sony A7s) inside of it comfortably.
A quality ultralight dry sack is a MUST HAVE travel item in my opinion. It is so versatile that is worth spending extra money on a high quality ultralight version. Sure the dry bags that they sell in El Nido Town are inexpensive, but these are too bulky and heavy for real travel applications. They are basically throw away items. Picking up a quality dry bag is a good idea because it can also serve as a laundry bag, cooler, water bucket, packing organizer, and much more!
For the most part, those are the necessities for island hopping in El Nido. Enjoy your adventure!