When I was still working in the Philippines as a Divemaster, I was frequently asked by guests whether I preferred traveling to El Nido or Coron. It is definitely a legitimate question. Most people only have limited time in the paradise province of Palawan and have a hard time picking one of the locations. Although both places offer kind of the same combination of activities and landscapes, I was honestly a little disappointed in El Nido when I was traveling through Palawan in 2017. And, apparently, I´m not the only one. I met a bunch of people who told me that twenty years ago El Nido had been a peaceful paradise, pretty rural and generally less popular. Probably just like Coron today. Quite a number of travelers nowadays turn away from El Nido and prefer spending time in Coron. In this post, I´d like to share with you five reasons why to me Coron is the new El Nido.
Coron is part of the Calamian Group, a group of islands in the north of Palawan. The largest settlement, Coron Town, is located on Busuanga Island. Apart from a few huts on the beaches of smaller islands around Coron, everything is still pretty undeveloped and rural. Outside Coron Town, Busuanga Island is mostly farmland and home to a number of small communities.
Taking a look at Coron and El Nido, it is obvious that both destinations have quite a few things in common. Geographically speaking, Coron has pretty much the same landscape and scenery. Just like the Barchuit Archipelago, the Calamian Islands offer limestone cliffs, white beaches, and blue water lagoons.
Most people come to both El Nido and Coron for the activities you can do there. The good thing about Coron is that you literally find the exact same activities as in El Nido, such as island hopping cruises and diving.
Exploring the nearby islands on a bangka is probably the best way to access the undeveloped desert islands, mangroves, and crystal clear lakes. All over Coron Town, you can find tour operators offering island hopping trips – half-day and full-day. Those trips usually include boat transfers, four different stops, and lunch on one of the beautiful sandy beaches. You will also have the opportunity to do some snorkeling, so don´t forget to bring your mask and snorkel! For detailed information and tips on different island tours, check out this in-depth travel guide to Coron.
Just like in El Nido, there are numerous dive shops in Coron Town offering day trips with either two or three dives as well as different courses, such as the PADI OWD or AOW courses.
In terms of diving, it has to be mentioned that El Nido offers mostly coral diving. However, Coron is a world-class destination for all kinds of different diving adventures. In the rural north of Busuanga Island, there´s Apo Reef, one of the best coral dive spots in the Philippines. However, you have to go on an overnight safari there as the ride takes a while. Another famous dive site is Lake Barracuda on Coron Island, which has different layers of fresh, salt and brackish water that lead to temperature shifts underwater making diving there a unique experience. Nevertheless, most divers come to Coron for wreck diving. Around ten Japanese warships from WWII lie at the bottom of the sea in different depths. Some of them are easily accessible even for beginners.
Besides island-hopping and diving there are also other activities you can do in and around Coron Town. For example, you can climb Mount Tundalara, the highest peak in northern Palawan or relax in the waters of Makinit Hot Springs (preferably in the evening because they are, as the name suggests, pretty ‘hot’). You could also rent a motorbike and explore the countryside of Busuanga Island at your own pace.
Over the years it has become apparent that Coron has been less touristically exploited than El Nido. That can mostly be seen in the following three factors:
As can be seen in several statistics, such as this one, tourism in the Philippines has been on the rise for about a decade. As of 2013, El Nido has been listed as the top location to visit in the Philippines by newspapers and networks like The Guardian or CNN. As a result, the number of tourists visiting Palawan has increased immensely, which has led to a fast touristic boom that overwhelmed the small fishing village of El Nido and turned it into an emerging tourism destination. Since being voted the world´s 6th destination on the rise in 2016 and best island in the world in 2013, 2016 and 2017, Palawan has been recording almost 2 million visitors in 2017.
Today, one could even say that El Nido has transformed into a mass tourism destination: Typically you´ll find a wide range of accommodation and restaurant options, good infrastructure and international standards (esp. in food and language). However, it can also be observed that mass tourism in El Nido has led to a cultural decline (typical Filipino culture got lost) as well as environmental damage (broken corals).
Coron being north of Palawan and smaller than El Nido does not record as many tourists. Busuanga Island is less developed in terms of infrastructure and standards. In fact, quite a number of touristic institutions are still pretty traditional. As a visitor, you won´t have as many choices as in El Nido when it comes to beaches and lagoons. However, you will certainly get desert islands and empty spots instead of an overcrowded paradise. Since there are only half as many tourists, you can enjoy activities like island-hopping or diving in small groups. You´ll very likely not be sharing a desert beach with 15 – 20 other bangkas with 20 people each (unfortunately, that´s reality in El Nido). If you like to unwind and relax in a paradise-like location without meeting compatriots all the time, you will certainly find calmness and peace around Coron.
On top of that, a lot of establishments in Coron are small and cozy. For example, you may find some cute little bars with daily live music, cheap drinks, open-minded people and peaceful vibes while all you get in El Nido are cramped beach bars with extremely loud (sometimes live) music and drunk backpackers. A travel buddy of mine once said that she had appreciated and actually noticed the loving details of institutions in Coron whereas in El Nido everything had seemed kinda overwhelming and cluttered to her.
Unlike El Nido, Coron is very budget friendly! As stated above, activities like island-hopping and diving are good value for money. While El Nido has become an expensive destination for island hopping due to mass tourism, tours in Coron start as low as PHP 600. (Be aware: at some tour operators, prices exclude environmental fees!) Most all-inclusive day trips cost around PHP 1000, but you can try to negotiate the price. In terms of diving, you have to check out several dive shops to find the cheapest option. Most of them charge between PHP 2500 – 3400 for two/three dives including equipment and lunch. (TopTip: The Asian dive shops tend to be a little cheaper than the international dive centers, but dive instructors usually speak English no matter what nationality they are.)
However, not just activities cost little, accommodation is very affordable as well. Hostels are around PHP 400-600 (room/night) while in El Nido you have to be very lucky to find a budget accommodation for less than PHP 800. Moreover, restaurants and bars in Coron offer diverse menus with low prices. You can get local food for as cheap as PHP 60 and mains at around PHP 130-170. Even street food is cheaper than in El Nido and available all over Coron Town at night.
While working in the Philippines I used to be among Filipinos all the time and therefore got to know numerous locals. I learned a lot about their mentality and culture. The typical Filipino way of life is laidback and relaxed. People are generally hospitable and generous. They value harmony and peace. The typical Filipino is not profit-oriented; for example, if you went into a sari-sari store looking for Sprite and they only sell Seven Up, they would rather call up a competitor across the street to see whether he sells Sprite instead of selling you Seven Up. Know what I mean? This mentality makes the Filipino culture really special.
Unfortunately, in many mass tourism places, such as El Nido, Filipinos got used to foreigners spending money while on vacation. They have learned to take advantage of wealthy tourists. That´s why you´ll find a lot of profit-making local businesses, whose intention is not necessarily to treat you in the most generous and hospitable way but to get as much money from you as possible. Hence you´re less likely to experience the authentic Filipino culture or find helpful and honest travel advice by locals on the street. You will have to negotiate prices all the time as rip-off attempts are very common. Also, locals will be moody and angry with you if you decline any of their offers – almost emotionally manipulative! I´m not saying that you will never have to negotiate prices in Coron. But you will have to do it less often.
Generally, locals in Coron still live very traditionally (e.g. in shacks on the water) and are happy to welcome tourists in their town. Life in Coron is culturally influenced giving you the perfect opportunity to get in touch with locals and pick up free travel advice and perhaps an insider´s tip.
Overall, Coron will give you an authentic Filipino experience. Busuanga Island is less touristy, less crowded and less expensive than El Nido. In Coron, you´ll immediately notice the laidback island vibes and courteous locals, who provide you with advice and warm hospitality. Coron Town being mostly a gateway for island-hopping and diving, is not necessarily a party town, but a place that you will appreciate for inexpensive food and accommodation options. Around Coron you may enjoy the same limestone landscapes, crystal clear water lagoons and desert islands as in El Nido – with the one difference: the places actually are empty and paradisiacal.
If you have enough time, I would recommend traveling to both El Nido and Coron. Experience the difference yourself. However, if you only have limited time in Palawan, ask yourself what you want/need during that particular period of travel.
Travel with your eyes open
At the end of the day, Coron is probably not the new El Nido. More precisely, it is the El Nido from twenty years ago. The El Nido that people are actually looking for when they travel to Palawan, but cannot find and thus are disappointed.
If we imagine El Nido in a destination life cycle, I´d assume it is still in some sort of consolidation stage, but slowly heading towards its peak. At that point, the destination will likely reach stagnation, which means that El Nido will either have to be rejuvenated or decline. In my opinion, it will be extremely hard to rejuvenate the town as more and more people already turn away from El Nido as a result of the cultural and environmental “damage”. Therefore it is also possible that Coron will go through the same kind of mass tourism development after El Nido will have lost its tourism peak.
The question arises: what impact do we all have on a region like this? Probably even this post contributes to more people traveling to Coron and thus supporting the mass tourism development. On the other hand, not drawing attention to these issues doesn´t reverse the effect either. I guess all I want you to do is: be aware of your contribution – travel with your eyes open!
Also, check out my personal Top 5 Travel Highlights in the Philippines with recommendations and off-the-beaten-path tips as well as a sample itinerary that helps you discover the best of the Philippines in only 14 days.