It’s more fun in The Philippines

Or so is the official slogan of the Filipino Tourism Department. Although, I must say, I don’t disagree.

Even though me and a my travel buddy live in Malaysia, getting to El Nido was not exactly the easiest of travels. After getting on our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila and then changing in Manila to get to Puerto Princesa, we had to find a van that would take us north all the way up to El Nido. Luckily enough, the first van we approached was almost full and we were told that we will be leaving immedaitely. Well, that almost happened – these vans are typically 12 people vehicles driver included, however entrepreneurial Filipinos would try very hard to squeeze in an extra person or four as of course extra passengers equals extra income. That’s why, for the next half an hour or so we were checking whether for example in our three people row we could fit in four people. Unfortunately for the driver, our row was in a very strong opposition to spending the next six hours scrunching up. Couple of trials later and no success, we were finally ready to go.

The roads is El Nido are not your typical European highways or not even standard Asian roads. Basically, Palawan has one main road that was built only very recently. As we learned from our fellow passenger, a French guy who used to run a restaurant in El Nido before the government regulation demolished his place, we were lucky because just 5 years before instead of asphalt, it was a full-fledged dirt road with special attractions come rain. Even though we were quite privileged to use this new road, I must say it is still was the bumpiest road of my life. That’s why, to avoid my car sickness spreading outside, I have spent the majority of this five hour drive trying hard to breathe and sleep.

Our travel companion also taught us a bit about the sociopolitical climate of the island and the small town we were heading towards. Palawan has two airports – one in Puerto Princesa, the one we decided to fly in and where three significant air carriers operate, and one in El Nido which is operated only by a small private airliner. Apparently, there is a plan to build an airport no. 3 but for the past twenty years the development plans have been being staggered by a big magnate Filipino family. This family is called de Ayala and indeed, they have made a pact with the government to buy 40% of the resort’s land. Because they want to control the prices and the inflow of tourists (to also control prestige), the new airport is highly unlikely to open anytime soon and actually a lot of business activity in the region depends on de Ayalas’ vision.

Lessons aside, after some 18 hours since I left my house, we have finally reached our destination – Outpost Beach Hostel located, well, just on the beach. Absolutely starved, we headed to a place that was recommended by the very same French fellow traveller, namely Las Cabanas beach. Sitting there, looking at all the nature around – beautifully blue sea and small mountains raising out of it – all we were able to say was pretty much ‘oh my god, I really cannot believe we are here!’.

On that day the best was yet to come. Having eaten amazing prawns and made some good use of a happy hour, we made our way back to our hostel. And then the sunset started. The thing with this sunset was with every minute it would just get better and better. Starting from blue-yellow colour, slowly turning more orange and then pink. Plenty of millennials there, all trying to capture this amazing moment with their phones. You think you just got the best shot of sunset in your life, you look back and realise that it has just gotten 1000 times better than those 5 seconds before.

Sunset development.

Next day started off easily, perfect view from our hostel made it also a perfect breakfast spot. Also, very easy as we have signed up for an island hopping tour with our hostel that was staring, well, exactly, from our hostel. The boat we were about to take was parked just some 200 meters from the staring point so we just hopped on a smaller boat to get to the final one. The day was extremely hot already so as the first small boat could only accommodate just half of the total boat crew for the day, without too much hesitating, we decided that it’s high time to take a swim in those crazily blue waters. In the meantime, the rest of the people came and so we were ready to go. 

Twenty-ish minutes and we were at our first destination. And more importantly, we were the one and only boat around the beach called Paradise Beach. When we were parking our boat, we passed by a big sea turtle that was just swimming away from us.

On that day we visited three other beaches and some small lagoon and the thing was that each an every one of them was a bit different but all just incredible. What’s more, because our tour did not follow the boat tours organised by tourist agencies, in most of the spots we would be the only people around. 

One of the great things about those island hopping tours is that in the morning our Filipino guides would go to a local market, get fresh fish, shrimps, calamari, you name it, as well as fruits and veggies. When you’re having your fun swimming in the blue waters, sunbathing, playing volleyball or just enjoying the views, they would prepare a mouth watering lunch to enjoy on the boat. As this tour was organised by our hostel that is known to be a not bad party place, we also got to try local rum and use it for playing drinking games. This late afternoon rum drinking made for a good start of the party, as that night we were planning to go to downtown El Nido to figure out how the bars and clubs are.

Filipino lunch on the boat.

Having left our hostel around 21 we headed to a bar that was advised to us by some people who went out the night before. Well, fortunately they also gave us suggestion no. 2, as the bar no. 1 turned out to be a very much hookah place where there wasn’t too much going on. Bar no 2, called Pukka Bar, turned out to be a bit better but still, after not long before midnight we decided that it time for the old people to go to sleep. In sum, El Nido is not exactly your crazy party place.

The second day started in a quite similar way. Still in Malaysia, we have booked a tour with one of the travel agencies. El Nido’s most famous attractions are Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. Due to high number of tourists and accompanying pollution, the government has made efforts to significantly reduce the human impact on these areas. Therefore, currently if you would like to see any of them, you need to book a tour couple days in advance as it requires obtaining special permits. Quite frankly, the boat experience was not as nice as the day before – whereas in the hostel organised tour we had a very spacious boat, group of 20-30 years olds and quite relaxed atmosphere, the agency tour was quite the opposite. The boat only allowed you to sit in your place, our travel companions were a big Asian family and some three British/Americans and our guides seemed quite strict about the house rules.

First stop – 7 Commando Beach. Our boat had to park in a second row of boats because there were so many others. Such a difference compared to the day before. Anyway, we got out of the boat, went swimming around to explore the area.  

A bit unimpressed with the tour so far, especially bearing in mind the previous day experience, we were hoping that the next stop is going to be worth it. Fortunately, the next stop was THE BIG LAGOON. We parked our boat before the official entrance and already from there we could get a glimpse of the spot. Even though you couldn’t see much, what you could see was that this is probably going to be one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, place you have ever seen. The only way you can explore the lagoon is by renting a kayak (no swimming in allowed, but you can hop off the kayak once inside), so that is exactly what we did. Lagoon itself is actually quite big so you can almost get your workout done rowing there and back. The views were absolutely breathtaking, the sea kept changing colour every time I put the paddle into the water, around us limestone rocks and a lot of deep green coming from trees. I don’t think that any picture I have taken there reflects how stunning it was.

Entrance to the Big Lagoon

After the Big Lagoon it was high time for lunch. We stopped at a place called Secret Beach. While we went snorkelling, our tour guides set everything up for the lunch on the beach. Again, the food was perfection, Filipino eggplant salad is sure to become one of my favourite foods. 

Stomachs were happy, so high time to go to the next spot – Secret Lagoon. Well, not that secret if you ask me. We had to swim from the boat to the entrance to the lagoon. The entrance itself is quite small, you need to squeeze in to get there. However, before we were able to get inside we had to wait as (literally) 100 people had to get out. Great thing about that – when they finally got out, we were the first ones to be in, meaning the lagoon was empty!!!!! 

Last stop for the day – I have no clue what the name of the place was BUT it was amazing snorkelling. You would leave the boat and immediately after stepping out you would find wonderful reefs. Just lay on the water and start observing and you will see the world of Finding Nemo. Dory, big purple fish, sea urchins, hoards of sardines, you name it. Of course that was also the day my good old Go Pro decided to die… Well, can’t have it all.

On no other day was the sunset as beautiful as we had it on day one, anyway, probably still better than 80% of sunsets in my life. That night, with couple of people from the hostel we decided to give an apparently famous pizza place a shot. One thing to remember about El Nido – good Filipino food is quite hard to find as they are catering for Western tastes so crepes, burgers, pizzas, pastas are plentiful. That was also a night I got convinced to go hiking at 6 the next morning. I was told that it’s more rock climbing and you get gloves but no harness and no lines, which made me a bit unsure, but then I saw the pictures of how it looks like and in the end I said okay.

Well, the truth to be told, that was totally out of my comfort zone. From the very beginning of the path you actually climb, never walk, just climb. There are quite a lot of spots where if you fall you will surely die, because if you fall, you fall on limestone rock that is very often shaped like a spike. Also, you can be going vertically some 5-10 meters up, no protection included. At one point of this hike our tour guide came to me to ask if my legs are managing because I am shaking (my legs are perfectly fine, dumbass, I’m just scared to death).

In all honesty, the view from the top will take your breath away – morning sun glazing over El Nido bay, mountains emerging from the deep blue waters, limestone rock formations. And the feeling of achievement – but for me it was only when I was safely walking on the pavement that I embraced it.

The rest of the day was supposed to be easy – we planned to take a tricycle with a driver for the day, go chasing some waterfalls and end up chilling at one of the best beaches on the Island – Nacpan Beach.

Finding a driver was a piece of cake – the first price he offered was already way lower that we were expecting to pay based on other peoples’ experiences.

Our first stop was Bulalaco Waterfall. Side note here: The day before, some friends we made in the hostel also took out a tricycle with a driver and were told not to go to the waterfalls as it has been dry for a long time (true!), there is hardly any water and it smells. At first, our driver was not much of a fan of our idea – to go to this waterfall you need to first take the main road and then turn into a mud & dirt road that is currently under construction. The road indeed turned into being my no. 1 when it comes to the worst roads of my life. As my friend Tess said it “Well, wasn’t that bad we were only holding hands once” (that was when we though there is imminent death approaching from the truck coming from the opposite side).

We made it and, to our surprise, our driver decided to also be our guide on a small hike to the waterfall, so very kind of him. As you might have guessed, the waterfall was fine, full of water and 100% not smelly. A bit of climbing rocks up and down again, a bit of just sitting in the middle of a 3-level waterfall and just gazing at the nature around. As both, me and Tess, are not huge fans of wildlife that can bite you, we decided against swimming in the waterfall as the water was a bit murky and, according to the wisdom of YouTube vlogs, leeches are widespread.

Having ticked this point off the to do list, we headed to Nacpan Beach. The road there was another adventure but I think at this point in time I started getting used to that. An hour or so later, we were there. I know I say it about almost every beach in El Nido, but the beach was beautiful – yellow, ultra soft sand, coast covered with palm trees and oh, I got the most perfect coconut there, the one you can eat the flesh once your finished drinking (while drinking in my case). That was the first time I actually laid down this holiday. For some reason I just enjoy so much this moment when you can hit the sunbed and sleep. So that’s exactly what I did. In the meantime, my friend managed to down 3 red horses (theses babies are freaking strong). Both super happy, we headed back for the last night in El Nido. 

Nacpan beach.

Morning after we were taking a van back to Puerto Princesa. Again, this wonderful drive. As we knew the food on the way is not really edible, we decided to stuff ourselves with banana pancakes and fruits for breakfast. Yes, one more breakfast with the perfect view. One downside, that we didn’t really consider, was that if you’re full your car sickness does not get any better. On the way, we received a message from Cebu Pacific, saying that our flight was rescheduled, well, ok, looks like we are flying out an hour earlier. Almost at the airport, I opened the message again and this is where it hit me – the flight was indeed rescheduled to an hour earlier but on the next day and the flight today is cancelled! #*#!& We need to get back to work tomorrow, okay, easy let’s try getting something done at the airport. 

Hostel breakfast with a view.

One thing about the culture here is that there is a huge mess. At the airport they were absolutely unprepared for the cancellation and having to answer queries from people who are missing a connection. Also, once we have given up our passports for them to check possible options, the lady holding them was running around like crazy – chatting with her colleagues approaching from all sides, checking in other customers in the meantime, laughing like crazy but absolutely not informing us at any point of what is happening. Once asked she would just say not now.

All in all, there was no other way to go back to Kuala Lumpur that night and the only option was to stay for 24 hours in Puerto. Fortunately, we were given a 3* hotel (quite frankly, our hostel had a way better standard) and some pocket money.

As always in such situations, the plan is, okay, whatever, let’s just party. Not in Puerto, my friend. However, what is great about the place is that you can find a really decent Filipino food. That evening we headed to a place called Badjao Seafront. It is a restaurant located almost on the water that you enter through a mangrove forrest. Apparently, normally you need a booking but if two blond girls enter into a Filipino restaurant, it comes out that the only place left, is the one with the best view. That night we also finally saw the final episode of Game of Thrones (oh my, how bad was that?).

View from the Badjao Restaurant.

On the next day, we still had half a day to kill and sitting in the hotel is never really an option. If you’re staying in PP airport area, all the nice beaches are at least an hour away, so that was out of reach. We managed to find a restaurant/bar that was supposed to be on the beach and looked quite good on Google. There you could see what happens is the beaches are not taken care of properly. The place had an enormous potential, however because they don’t really clean the beach, it is full of seaweed, leaves as well as occasional plastic trash and not really nice to go into the water.

After some two hours we spent there anyway, we heard the thunderstorms. Ooops, time to go. Fortunately, our previous driver came back for us and saved from getting completely soaked. He drove us to, what came out to be, my favourite restaurant in Palawan. Kalui is a place is the centre of the around-airport Puerto Princesa. The place is decorated in a traditional Filipino style with local artworks everywhere, at the entrance you are requested to take off your shoes and if you’d like you can chose to sit on the floor. Food-wise, it also makes for a perfect choice. We went for Tubbataha salad (fresh tuna & mango & papaya & cashews), catch-of-the-day tuna steaks (!!!!) and a fresh coconut for me, of course. The staff there was extremely friendly, we got a free dessert but still decided to order a coconut flan next to it. That meal was an absolute cherry on top of this trip (even though this cancellation happened…). 

Fortunately, no surprises on our way back, made it safe and sound and on time to the Asian city of twin towers.

  1. Great writting! Beijin seems like a really good place to visit and have a bit of an adventure. Come to…