El Nido, Philippines – the true setting of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’ 7

Alex Garland set his novel The Beach on a fictional island in the south of Thailand, but it’s common knowledge that he wrote the book – and presumably based it on experiences had – whilst living in the Philippines. The secret beach in the novel is thought to be inspired by one of the many hidden lagoons and beaches found at El Nido, on the island of Palawan.

Secret Lagoon Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Secret Lagoon Beach. Photo credit: Benjamin White

There are many similarities between El Nido and Krabi Province, Thailand. Both are punctuated with dramatic limestone karst formations. Both are replete with idyllic tropical islands (less so in Thailand these days, as many of those idyllic islands have been developed into hotel-heavy tourist hubs following the boom of the 1990s and 2000s – which Alex Garland’s hit novel The Beach is partly responsible for).

El Nido, Philippines

Photo credit: Benjamin White

El Nido has not been as overtly developed as Krabi Province, Thailand, but it still gets its fair share of tourists. Join one of the ever-popular, island-hopping, day cruises (known unanimously as Tour A, Tour B, Tour C, and Tour D) and you’ll feel that your chances of finding an as yet undiscovered lagoon in these waters is slim to nil.

Big Lagoon, El Nido, Philippines

Big Lagoon. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The good news is there are so many islands at El Nido, so many narrow, sinuous coves, so many tucked-away beaches, that if you have the inclination – and the determination – you’ll still be able to find a pristine, uninhabited beach of your own. You’ll need to charter your own boat to get there though.

El Nido, Philippines

Photo credit: Benjamin White

El Nido (which is Spanish for The Nest – named for the swiftlet nests found in the limestone cliffs) has been inhabited for at least the last five thousand years (artefacts found in nearby caves have been dated to between 5,000 and 25,000 years old).

El Nido, Philippines

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Chinese merchants began visiting El Nido in the 10th Century CE, seeking the edible and highly sought-after swiftlet nests. The Cuyonon people (from the nearby Cuyo Islands) migrated to El Nido in the 16th Century. The Spanish followed in the 19th Century, and soon after the Chinese returned (again to harvest the swiftlet nests).

Seven Commandos Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Seven Commandos Beach. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Due its remoteness and inaccessibility El Nido remained off the tourist map until the 1980s – when the first dive shop opened. It’s unlikely to slip off the map again anytime soon.

Downtown El Nido

Downtown El Nido, Philippines

Downtown El Nido. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Downtown El Nido is not all that pleasant. The views from the shore are amazing, and budding backpackers are sure to love the raucous, everything-goes, party vibe, but for everyone else downtown El Nido is loud, smelly, dirty, and awfully overdeveloped.

El Nido, Philippines

The view from Downtown El Nido. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Worst of all, the sandy beach that fronts the town is crossed by raw sewerage, making a swim in these waters somewhat less enjoyable than it ought to be.

Experience the drunk backpackers, the incessant tooting of horns, the reek of rotting fish, the raw sewerage on the beach, the inevitable dose of gastro (which is particularly likely if you choose to swim at said sewerage-burdened beach) and you’ll see why so many locals and tourists call this place Hell Nido.

El Nido, Philippines

The sewerage-burdened beach adjacent to downtown El Nido. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

But you don’t come to El Nido to visit the stinky downtown district; you come for the pristine island beaches, the dramatic limestone karst formations, the secret lagoons.

Secret Lagoon Beach

Secret Lagoon Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Secret Lagoon Beach. Photo credit: Benjamin White

There is a ridiculously pretty beach on Miniloc Island (visited on Tour A) known as Secret Lagoon Beach. Unfortunately the water here is shallow and the sea bed is replete with spiny sea urchins and spiky corals, meaning it is not the best place to go if you’re after a carefree frolic in the water.

Secret Lagoon Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Secret Lagoon Beach. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

There is also, as you may have guessed, a secret lagoon. It’s accessed through a narrow chute in the cliff walls, a chute just large enough for a single person to scramble through. Inside you’ll find a small lagoon fully enclosed by sheer cliffs and filled with knee-deep-water.

Come here when the place is empty and I’m sure you’ll be captivated. Come here during the middle of the day, when the flotillas of tour boats are descending on the island, and you’ll find it noisy and overcrowded and will be quick to leave.

El Nido, Philippines

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Luckily there are abundant alternatives to the most popular beaches and lagoons (i.e. everywhere visited on Tour A, Tour B, Tour C, and Tour D). I doubt there are any undiscovered islands left in El Nido, but anyone looking for an empty expanse of beach to lie on, or an uninhabited tropical island to lay low on for a day or week or month or year, should have no trouble finding one.

Practical information and how to reach El Nido:

Turned off by downtown El Nido? I was too. Fortunately there are plenty of accommodation options outside of town. Try the stretch of coast along the Tay Tay- El Nido National Highway to the south of downtown El Nido. There are plenty of hotels and guest houses to choose from in this location, along with a scattering of restaurants, and the coastal views are just as spectacular as those in town. More transport info here.

Another advantage of staying south of town is that you can walk to Marimegmeg Beach – one of the better swimming beaches in El Nido.

Marimegmeg Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Marimegmeg Beach. Photo credit: Benjamin White

More on the Philippines:

Vigan – Spanish colonial town with SE Asian flavour

Puerto Princesa – home of the much-hyped underground river tour

Manila – most densely populated city in the world

My favourite beaches:

Anse Source d’Argent, Seychelles

Beaches of the Freetown Peninsula, Sierra Leone

Lalomanu Beach, Samoa

Maracas Bay, Trinidad and Tobago

More on Southeast Asia:


Borobudur – largest Buddhist temple in the world

Yogyakarta – water castles, black sand beaches, and naughty Mount Merapi


The Plain of Jars – mysterious and misunderstood


Gunung Kinabalu – climb Borneo’s highest peak

Batu Caves – where geology and religion mix


Mingun – the greatest stupa ever, almost

U Bein’s Bridge – longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world

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