Palawan Part II
El Nido is a tiny, remote, undeveloped town on the northern coast of Palawan. By undeveloped, I mean that there are no ATMs in the vicinity, no hot water at most hotels, frequent Internet blackouts, and constant screeching rooster and snorting pig noises. Even more exasperating is the electricity situation – every day, the power in the entire town is switched off at some point in the middle of the night until mid-afternoon. This means, of course, that morning showers are out of the question, unless you are one of the lucky people that has a window in your bathroom (I wasn’t).
None of this really matters though, because El Nido has, without a doubt, one of the most astonishingly beautiful land and seascapes that I’ve ever seen. The little town of El Nido is surrounded by a half-circle of towering limestone cliffs. The beach of El Nido pours alabaster sand into a bay that extends into a sea of dozens of limestone islands. The seawater is an unbelievable color of aqua and contains endless species of tropical fish and coral reefs.
A guy at my hostel in Puerto Princesa had told me that anyone who visits Palawan and does not stop in El Nido is crazy. I was a bit hesitant because the Department of State website says that in order to be admitted to the Philippines you have to show proof of onward travel, so I had already booked a flight onward from Puerto Princesa for the next day. (Of course, when I went through Immigration in Manila, the guy didn’t ask to see any onward flight proof. Lesson learned.) I had to remind myself that sticking to a bad plan just for the sake of sticking to the plan went against the whole no-plan theme of my trip. And so, trying not to think about the sunk plane ticket cost, I jumped on a van to El Nido early the next day.
The ride was peaceful at first – winding through hut-lined roads following the coastline, mostly just trying to avoid the random farm animals that would casually meander into the road. Then, with about two hours to go, the paved road ended and we were on a hole-filled dirt road. The driver, in order to avoid hitting whatever huge hole was in our path, continuously swerved from the left to the right side of the road. I spent the entire two hours praying we weren’t going to careen off the edge of the road.
About two kilometers away from our destination, the sunny skies suddenly turned thunderous, and a deluge of rain started gushing onto the van roof. Minutes later, the twelve people from my van were standing with our luggage under a rickety tin roof at the van drop-off point in El Nido, having no idea where to go or what to do. I was starting to think I never should’ve listened to that guy at my hostel.
Fortunately, there were a bunch of guys with their tricycles at the van station. I picked one, and my tricycle driver tossed my bag in his basket trunk. We bumped along the water-filled road down to the center of town, about a two minute tricycle ride. He dropped me at the first place with a “room available” sign, which two of my fellow van-mates were also checking out. They grabbed one room and I grabbed the other, and this two-room “pension” (what many small hotels are called in El Nido) went from being completely vacant to completely sold out.
Since the rain was dying down at that point, my pension buddies – a brother and sister from Denmark – and I decided to check out the town. It only took us about twenty minutes to cover the entire beach and main street area. During our short excursion through town, we ran into another of our van travel companions – a guy from Iceland – and we all decided to book a boat tour to some of the nearby islands for the next day.
Some of the best attractions in El Nido are only accessible by boat.
Bright and early the next morning, my new friends and I waded onto a banca boat in Bacuit Bay and chugged to our first destinations, the “Small Lagoon” followed by the “Big Lagoon.” In order to get into the Small Lagoon, we had to snorkel through a narrow gap in the limestone rock. Once inside, we snorkeled and swam around and climbed into crevices in the rock. The Big Lagoon entrance was big enough for our banca to glide through, so we explored that from the dryness of our boat.
Lunch was a traditional Filipino feast on the beach, followed by some relaxing on the bleached sand.
Next, our banca stopped at a beachless island with a tiny opening in the rock. We climbed through the hole and entered the “Secret Lagoon,” a secret because it isn’t visible from the water. After snorkeling around here for a bit, we stopped at Payang Payang beach, which unfortunately was being hit with an influx of waves, causing us to get knocked around and scraped up by the rocks as we tried to wade from our banca to the other side of the beach.
We recovered from the beating at a hut at our last stop of the day, the Seven Commando beach, sipping on buko juice. (One of my favorite things about tropical places is that you get to drink juice straight from the coconut. Yum.) We ended the super fun day with girly drinks and live music on the beach.
The next day called for a more extreme adventure. We rented kayaks and rowed out to a lagoon on Cadlao Island, the closest island to the town of El Nido. Despite its apparent closeness, the trip to and from the lagoon took five hours. But it was an incredibly fun way to see the seascape of El Nido. (And my sore arms the next day told me it was also an amazing workout.)
Since the first day boat tour was so fun, we decided to do another one on our last day in El Nido – this time with a focus on beaches rather than lagoons. We lucked out with calm waters in the morning, so our first stop was the “Secret Beach,” accessible only by swimming through a very small opening in the rock. Inside and surrounded by rock on all sides is a large pool of aquamarine water that contains a gold mine of potential snorkeling discoveries and is bordered by an ivory beach.
Next was snorkeling, sunbathing, and lunch on yet another island beach, followed by a snorkeling adventure in the open water. I have never been a huge fan of snorkeling – I usually get kinda bored after a few minutes – which I know is weird because so many people love it so much. Since the island hopping tours involve a lot of snorkeling, I decided on this day that I would really try to embrace it and figure out its allure. Keeping an open mind, I found that it truly is possible to lose yourself in the entertainment of the sea. With my head underwater and my mind completely immersed in the fish that makes itself the same color as the rock it’s sitting on, and, whoa, look at that crazy purple starfish, and ahh, I’m stuck in the middle of a school of thousands of tiny silver fish, it was easy for me to fail to notice that the sun was no longer beating on my back.
When I finally lifted my head again, the thunderous clouds above were producing flashes of light followed closely by echoing thunder bombs. We were caught in a thunderstorm. It was actually fun to be in the ocean as rain showered down – and much warmer than being above water – but was probably not the best place to be with lightning flashing nearby.
This storm was not one that was going to pass in twenty minutes, so our banca dropped us and our soaking wet clothes and towels back off in El Nido. Freezing in the downpour, I really wished I was staying at a resort with a hot tub or at least with hot water. My cold shower that night was quite painful.
El Nido’s land and sea scapes are absolutely awe-inspiring, and it is definitely not a place to miss when visiting Palawan. The only complaint I have is that the sunset is not viewable from the town of El Nido (you must book a sunset banca cruise to get a westerly view), so I still have not seen a sunset in the Philippines.
But perhaps I will have another chance. Now that I have no plane ticket obligations, I decided to stay a bit longer in this fabulous, friendly country. Tomorrow I’ll van back to Puerto Princesa for a flight to Cataclan, where I’ll catch a boat to the island of Borocay.