El Nido Heaven

El Nido really is a magical place. From its ageless towering marble cliffs to its white sandy beaches with crystal clear water, many refer to it as paradise. There are over 50 beaches to discover, so many in fact that sometimes you feel as if you are on your own secluded private beach. You will also find enchanting lagoons with tranquil turquoise-green water, caves that can take you to hidden beaches, and a very diverse variety of wildlife.

-- ElNidoPalawan.com

My original plan for the Philippines was to spend a week on Boracay island and then head back to the south east Asian mainland. Charles, the guy I credit with showing me the light on how to get a 'cheap' round-the-world ticket, just happened to be traveling in the Philippines around the same time and told me that I must go to El Nido. As if that was not enough, a few people that I met in Boracay have been to El Nido and everyone said it was amazing. Armed with detailed guidance from Charles on how to get there and where to stay, I decided to give it a shot.

Getting To El Nido

Located at the north tip of Palawan island, which by itself is known as 'the last frontier of the Philippines', the village of El Nido is not an easy one to get to, making it a far more relaxed, authentic Filipino experience as opposed to western party atmosphere of Boracay. The travel experience deserves a separate post and for now it suffices to say that it was quite a journey from Puerto Princesa, the main town on Palawan island, where I stopped for a couple of days checking out the Underground River.

Running Into Jamie

Jamie, an English lad I met on Boracay, decided to come to El Nido as well, but he chose to take a ferry that took a few days to reach Puerto Princesa and I did not think I would see him again. To my surprise, I saw him at the Fort Wally's shuttle van company bus station, boarding another van to El Nido. We exchanged greetings, but then again did not think we would see each other again after that. Instead, when I went out for dinner the first night I was in El Nido, I saw Jamie checking out the menu at the restaurant I was at. Even though we stayed in different guest houses, we ended up hanging out together for the rest of our stay. Heck, we might even meet up again somewhere in Laos or Cambodia in a month or so. It is interesting how these things work out.

Island Hopping (Tour C)With the Bacuit Archipelago islands surrounding El Nido, island hopping tours are by far the most popular activity in town. Guest houses, restaurants, random people on the beach, and even tuk tuk drivers try to sell you on them to get their commission as there are really only four tours to choose from - A, B, C, and D with fixed prices (which could be negotiated slightly based on the number of people you show up with). Jamie and I ended up choosing Tour C - the longest of the three.

We were joined by a couple from New Zealand on the boat, making for a grand total of four of us. We saw some boats with up to eight people while others had only two so the 'size' does vary. All boats leave around 9am an I watched in dismay as a bunch of them got on the way before us. It looked like it will be very crowded out there, but that could not have been farther from the truth. Once we got on our way, there was barely a boat in sight. In fact, it appeared that only two other boats were doing Tour C that day and they would usually leave soon after we arrived to each of the spots so it sure was not crowded at all.

After about an hour ride, we reached the first stop at Hidden Beach on Matinloc island where we went snorkeling. Jamie does not swim very well and, combined with the fact that his snorkel was not properly attached to his mask, he struggled through it and did not have much fun. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the view as the cliffs all around us were all shaped by wind rather than the water so they were all very sharp and distinctive form I have not seen before. Below the surface there was not much to see thou. Most fishes were swimming on their own and none of them were very big to really attract my attention.

While snorkeling, I used the pouch I bought for my iPhone for the first time, and was to sad to realize that it did not really work well under water as it did not register any touches. Moreover, even when I would start a video recording above the water, when I get under, the pressure change would sometime cause the power button to be stuck in the off mode, shutting it down.

Next, we did more snorkeling at Kulasa Beach before hopping off at Star Beach on Tapiutan island for lunch. Our boatmen cooked the chicken on the open fire while setting up the rest of the feast - rice, fresh veggies and fruit. It was delicious and there was a lot of food - easily paying off the tour price by itself.

After lunch, we could not go further to the Secret Beach due to the rough seas there, so we turned around and stopped on the other side of Matinloc island which has a marble shrine erected in the middle of it. It also had a nice scenic outlook at the top of the cliffs so we spent a bit of time wondering around there. Next, was a stop at the beach on Helicopter island where I did more snorkeling and the last stop was at the Cadlao Lagoon which had an awe-inspiring feeling to it. I was swimming in calm blue waters, looking up at the huge cliffs above us and it was so peaceful and majestic.

Kayaking Adventures

I got a bit sick from being wet in the wind during the island hopping trip so we spent the next couple of days just lounging around. There is a nice beach and a waterfall that are relentlessly being touted by everyone around, but we did not feel that the price of getting a ride there justified going, nor did we wanted to rock climbing the nearby hill because it looked much smaller than it was made out to be. Instead, we decided to rent a kayak and see if we can catch the sunset from the NatNat beach as we have been unsuccessful at doing so from the 'mainland'.

Since it was already around 2pm when we got the kayak (we watched the Pacquiao Vs. Marquez boxing fight at the Art Cafe first) for just 400 pesos/$10 for the remained of the day. Being in the Philippines, we did not think twice when we were not given any life jackets, that is just how it is there. Thinking back, we probably should have gotten some since Jamie does not swim, but we figured things would not get to that point.

Boy, were we in for an adventure!

We first made our way out to the Paradise Beach, which was nice, but Jamie met his nemesis there - a dog (however it got there), so we crossed over to the NatNat Beach where we camped out for a bit waiting for the sunset.

We figured it would take about forty minutes after the sunset for it to get dark so we should be able to get back to town just in time so we enjoyed the views for a bit before packing up and heading back.

As we started paddling out, we noticed that our kayak was very unstable and we capsized twice in a short amount of time. We figured that the waves were just throwing us off so we tried to paddle into them for a while. By that point, we were 10-15 meters away from shore, very unstable, and our kayak was mostly below water. Jamie was getting very uneasy as we were in deep waters and I did not have a good feeling about it myself so slowly we turned around and made it back to the beach after a few very close calls. We soon figured out our problem - the plughole was missing the plug so the inside of our kayak was pretty much full of water.

We quickly drained it, plugged the hole with a tree branch and got on our way again. We have already lost quite a bit of time and were just trying to make it around the bend where we would see the town before it gotten dark. The current was acting against us and was pretty strong so it took us a while to make it around the corner, then work hard to stay away from the cliffs. Finally, we were heading straight to town, with some current from behind and by that point it was completely dark so we just oriented ourselves towards the lights on the beach, barely making out the silhouettes of the boats anchored in the harbor and trying to avoid them. It was a huge relief to reach the shore, and even though Jamie's camera did not make it (got full of water) and I had blisters all over my hands from paddling hard, we were ready for a good meal and the 2-for-1 drinks to celebrate our safe return.

dimaIsland Hopping, Philippines