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Brief History of El Nido

Photos from Judith Distal

Legend has it that in 1979, a Japanese dive boat got tangled in a tuna line and found itself stranded in the middle of the night off the North coast of Palawan. When dawn broke, the divers awoke to find themselves in a surreal and stunning landscape. It was a landscape of crystal-clear waters hiding dazzling coral reefs and fringed with perfect white-sand beaches. It was a landscape of soaring limestone cliffs peeking out of dense tropical rainforests. It was a landscape bursting with life, with swiftlets and hornbills flying through the forest, and sea turtles and dugongs tucked beneath the waves. The divers had happened upon El Nido.

 

Three years later, they were back. They called their newly-founded company Ten Knots Japan (named for the ideal cruising speed for leisure boats) and they used it to set up Miniloc Dive Camp, El Nido’s first major resort. In 1983, then, tourism arrived in El Nido. Over the next thirty-plus years, the number of tourists vacationing in El Nido steadily increased, as word spread of the region’s natural beauty and welcoming people. Today, El Nido welcomes almost 200,000 tourists per year.

Of course, the history of El Nido began long before its “discovery” by a group of Japanese divers.  Artifacts found in caves show us that the region has been inhabited for at least a few thousand years, and possibly for more than twenty-thousand. Our first written accounts of El Nido, meanwhile, come from twelfth-century Chinese traders, who traveled to Palawan to hunt for the swiftlet nests used to make the luxurious birds-nest soup. The famous Song Dynasty adventurer, Zhao Rugua, wrote about Northern Palawan in his “Records of Foreign People.” He called the region Pa-Lao-Yu or the “Land of Beautiful Harbors.” It’s a name that still seems apt today.   

 

The first settlement on the site of present-day El Nido was a town inhabited by Tagbanwa people called Talindak. Starting in the seventeenth century, waves of Cuyo migrants from the Visayas sparked a cultural shift and the adoption of the Cuyonon language. The Spanish arrived in the early nineteenth century and founded the Poblacion of Bacuit Bay, named after the spectacular body of water off El Nido’s West Coast. But in 1954, the Filipino government changed the name of Bacuit Bay again. They called the region El Nido, or “The Nest” in Spanish, after those same swiftlet nests that had drawn Chinese traders to the region seven hundred years earlier, and that continued to provide much of the region’s revenue in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Over the course of the twentieth century, new waves of migrants from the Visayas and Luzon caused the population of El Nido to grow from about 1,600 people to about 40,000 in 2018. Today, El Nido is a thriving municipality home to a healthy economy based on tourism, fishing, and agriculture, and with a diverse community composed of people from across the Philippines and the world.

 

El Nido has especially gained recognition for its natural beauty. Ocean pioneer Jacques Cousteau called Palawan the most beautiful seascape he had ever explored. Travel writers at Condé Nast, meanwhile, ranked El Nido as home to the fourth most beautiful beaches in the world. The Filipino government has taken steps to conserve that beauty by designating much of El Nido as a national park, The El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area. On this website, you can read more about the park’s history and globally-significant biodiversity, and about the local government’s sustainability efforts here. Or, start planning your next El Nido adventure on our tourism page.

 

El Nido on a map