If there is a heaven, there is no doubt in my mind it resembles the Filipino town of El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago. If there is a hell, I am equally sure that it would involve planning the logistics of how to get to El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago.
Planning & Preparation
The frustration of the seemingly Herculean task hit David and I before we arrived in the Philippines, plotting our time in the country from a hotel room in Thailand. We had decided to visit the Philippines months earlier, lured in by Google images filled with azure waters, sparkling white beaches, and jutting limestone cliffs, but when it came time to plan for real, we were sticker shocked by the fact that to get almost anywhere between islands, you have to fly. And not just between Point A and Point B, but almost always Point A >Manila> Point B. Some blogs will tell you that this is no problem, these flights are cheap, but these blogs are liars. At least they were for our travels, which are notorious for being by the seat of our pants, so our flights were never booked too far in advance.
In Thailand, we were spoiled by the low costs of the rest of SE Asia, and starting to understand why the Philippines were so usually off the beaten path of the penny-pinching backpacker. One of the most frustrating aspects of flying there is that you have to also have an outbound flight to present to immigration. This meant having to plan out exactly how long we wanted to stay in the country and how much time we should dedicate to each location…normal for the average tourist, perhaps, but annoying for our flexible schedules that wanted to decide depending on how much we liked the places once we got there. We ended up booking a cheap $50 flight to Taipei, Manila’s closest neighbor, knowing that we could miss the flight if we desperately needed more time. Additionally, all the information online about the Philippines appeared to be from three or more years ago and full of contrasting opinions. Travel forums were heavy with personal insults that people flung at one another for daring to like one place or planning to miss out on others.
Ultimately, we persevered in all our bookings and crossed our fingers, hoping beyond hope that this far-flung destination would be worth all the planning headaches. I hate arriving at destinations with high expectations (or rather, any at all), but this time it was inevitable. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
If you do visit the Philippines, Palawan is the clear choice of island if you only have one place to go. Voted ‘the most beautiful island in the world,’ by numerous travel authorities, the title is not hubris and the growing hot spot has a healthy mix of developing tourist infrastructure, pristine natural beauty, and local flavor. The phrases ‘developing tourist infrastructure and local flavor’ are code here for ‘there’s practically no internet anywhere, but what they lack in wifi, they make up for with roosters.’ Cock-fighting is a national pastime in the Philippines and once you are done giggling at large banners that proclaim “TRIPLE COCK SHOWDOWN,” you’ll see groups of men gathered around their prize roosters, comparing wings and spurs, on every corner.
Getting to El Nido
You can fly straight to Palawan’s top tourist town, El Nido, from Manila, but that’s the rich people option, so we can pretend that doesn’t exist. Otherwise, the gateway to Palawan is the town of Puerta Princesa, where you will fly in from Manila.
A quick tip for your Manila stopover: There are many cheap, well-equipped Airbnb options directly across from Manila Airport’s Terminal 3, at the embarrassingly-named Resorts World. This giant complex is made up of apartment buildings, hotels, malls, and a large casino. If you are arriving at Terminal 3, you can simply walk straight out of the terminal exit and across the parking lot on a sidewalk that will lead you to a large overpass with two lanes of traffic running under it. Despite there being no crosswalk, just follow the locals across the street and you will have easily arrived at the Resorts World complex. If you arrive at any other terminal (or have to get to another terminal in the morning for your Palawan flight) there are buses at each terminal to and from Resorts World, you can take a taxi for a couple dollars, or there is also a inter-terminal bus that will transfer you for free (provided you have a ticket for a flight, or you are stealthy enough to sneak on among a crowd).
I cannot say much about Puerta Princesa since we only arrived there to continue onwards to El Nido. The highlight of this town is a large underground river, but spoiled with the amazing cave systems of Vietnam under our belts, we decided to pass on it. The transport from Puerta Princesa to El Nido is an infamous six-hour bus ride that many people online bemoan as a bumpy nightmare, but I firmly believe those people are whiny babies. Our original large passenger bus had left without us, even though we arrived ten minutes before departure thanks to a delayed AirAsia flight, so we jumped on a smaller van, which ended up being even cheaper than the bus after some strong haggling, and cut an hour off our travel time. The only hitch we had in our ride north was the tell-tale signs of car trouble, as our driver started looking repeatedly out the window at the back of the van and yelling questions at people in mechanic shops and gas stations that we slowly cruised by. It ended up being a flat tire, but our driver pulled over and changed it like a boss, only taking 15 minutes and still getting us to El Nido in five hours.
El Nido vs Coron?
When I first read about El Nido, it came up again and again as the place to visit in Palawan, a beautiful piece of paradise that was a must-see. However, doing further research, I found that many people thought it was already spoiled, overrun with tourists, and, as one guy put it, ‘a shitty little town.’ People complained that you couldn’t swim in the main beach because it was full of dirty boats and there were no locals beyond the touts and others in the tourist trade. More and more, I saw the town of Coron pop up as a place that you had to see alongside El Nido, or even more than El Nido. I got nervous about visiting El Nido and we made sure to give Coron the same amount of time in our itinerary.
Now, with clear hindsight, I wish we had ignored all those people and given more time to El Nido.
First off, it’s stunning. Drop-dead, look at the color of that water, stunning. The bay (which is only filled with the wooden island-hopping boats at 9am and 5pm for loading and unloading) stretches out like a turquoise quilt, wrapped around islands and cliffs, soft, flat, and gently tucked up against the town’s beach. Giant limestone cliffs tower over the town and jungle greenery snakes around everything.
The hotels sit so close to the water’s edge that there were many nights I feel asleep to the sound of waves. It’s the kind of town where you can leave your shoes in the room...everything opens up the beach and you can walk from place to place through their sandy back doors. The mood is lazy and laid-back and contentment fills your lungs every time you take a breath.
Is it a touristy town? Yes. There is a main street that is blocked off to cars at night and lined with hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It’s possible to get Greek food, falafels, excellent pizza (at the locally-owned Altrove), and a wide mix of other international food, along with Filipino fare. Restaurants on the beach line up tables and chairs so you can look out on the bay at night, a common feature of tourist hotspots in SE Asia. But El Nido is still a fledging in the international spotlight and it shows. Top 40 songs might be playing in a bar or two, but they don’t blare down the street like so many party hubs on the SE Asian trail. The main street still feels quaint and homey…besides the occasional tricyle driver, touts won’t bother you as you walk down it and there are no shows or rowdy pub crawls. There are also no chains and service is variable and quirky (we ordered at one restaurant after sitting a while, only to have our waitress come back and inform us that they had no food after all). Local families and little kids hang out on the street. I didn’t feel like my very presence as a tourist was exploitative of the local population.
We chatted with one tricycle driver, Derrick, who talked about not long ago, when El Nido was first growing into a place foreigners were starting to come to. The local drivers would see tourists walking along, looking for a ride, and they would do a quick U-turn to get away from them as fast as they could. The drivers couldn’t speak English much back then, and they were nervous about trying to communicate with foreigners. But now, Derrick said, it’s no problem. "We adapt."
I think many travelers yearn for authenticity…or the authenticity they have romanticized in their heads. They want to see locals in wooden huts and fishing for their livelihoods. These travelers want to feel like they are breaking new, exotic ground and local people making falafels on a beach while they talk on their smartphones just doesn’t cut it. But denying developing countries their chance to grow through a tourist economy so you can witness a primitive lifestyle is not only selfish, it’s outrageously elitist. And yet, I see it again and again online about people bemoaning the loss of an ‘authentic’ experience. Globalization does threaten many cultural traditions and lifestyles, but denying to other people the opportunities and luxuries that also come with it is unfair. So, I like El Nido and its weird mix of tourist-pandering and local island flavor. Plus, if you aren’t able to interact with local Filipinos and find unspoiled beauty in El Nido, that’s certainly not the fault of this sleepy little town.
There are two villages that sandwich the main tourist section of town. One you can find by following the path that winds around the edge of El Nido’s beach and just walking until cliffs give way to open fields and thatched houses. If you follow the path to its end (a 30 minute walk at most), you’ll end up on a deserted beach (except for a local fixing his boat while his daughter plays nearby) where the sandbar reaches far out into the bay. You can walk way out into the water and still it will only lap at your knees as you simmer in silent bliss.
The other village is found by walking the opposite direction on the far side of town, towards the imposing limestone cliffs. The tourist shops will give way to houses, signs in Tagalog, and more and more roosters strutting down the street. Here, you may only see one or two other tourists and locals start to wave more, as their little children shout hello.
This is a fishing village that seems a world away from El Nido’s main street. David and I were exploring a pier near the edge of it, when we saw two little girls sitting on a rock in the water, waving at us. When I looked back at them, the rock was empty. A minute later, the girls popped up beside us. They were full of the usual questions we got from Filipinos.
“What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? Is that your….*giggle giggle*…boyfriend??”
Their names were Ira Jean and Lani and they asked us if we wanted to see their secret spot. You can’t turn down an offer like that, so before we knew it, we were following our little guides off the pier and into the water, around old boats being repaired and towards a small island in the shallows of the bay. We chatted with them as we climbed up jagged limestone rocks, remarking on their goat-like ability to jump from one sharp point to the next. They were patient guides, waiting for us as we lumbered behind them, holding back branches that might hit us. We finally reached their secret lookout point, presiding across the bay over the entire town’s beachfront. We all sat in silence, enjoying the view and basking in the glow of each other’s unique company.
On the way back, David demonstrated his rock-skipping abilities, only to be challenged by Lani. She flung a stone across the water, skipping it many times over as we cheered with awe. Turning back towards us, she gave Ira Jean a smug high-five, confident in her title as presiding rock-skipping champion. Eventually, we headed back towards town, bidding them farewell. The little village is one of relative poverty, but tucked between the cliffs and bay, it feels like a magical secret spot of our own.
El Nido’s real claim to fame is not for the town itself, but as a jumping off point to the Bacuit Archipelago, a gorgeous maze of islands dotting the nearby sea. Every establishment in El Nido offers the same tours that take you various routes along the archipelago, with Tour A and C being the most popular. Early in the morning, you hop on an iconic banca boat with a small crew and explore jaw-dropping lagoons, caves, beaches, and reefs by kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, and climbing to them through various nooks and crannies.
After we had done the tours, we also tried exploring neighboring islands on our own. Cadlao Island sits across the bay from El Nido, so we set our sights on reaching it on a rented kayak. With our first launch attempt through the surf, we tipped our boat over, much to the delight of a crowd of locals sitting on the beach. I had taken off my clothes except for my swimsuit and they were quickly claimed as tribute by the water. Feeling discouraged, we tried again and finally punched through the waves and into the bay.
After about a half hour’s paddle, we reached Paradise Beach, Cadlao’s aptly named slice of sand backed by thick jungle. Empty except for a couple other intrepid kayakers, we basked in the shadow of the island’s peak, humming the theme to Jurassic Park as we floated in the shallows. Indeed, it would have surprised neither of us if little dinosaurs were to emerge from the vine-covered depths of the island’s core.
After visiting one more glorious island, we kayaked back towards town, which took over an hour as we battled swells that had picked up in the afternoon wind. It took all our strength to keep paddling through as tour boats whizzed past with their motors. Some of the crew members would yell at us across the water to make sure we were okay, which was reassuring. Other locals on boats nodded at us with some respect and I felt a slight comradeship form across the swollen waters.
Our other favourite spot was Los Cabanos Beach, a short tricycle ride away from the main street, where cheap drinks and beach beanbag chairs abound. If you arrive at low tide, there is a shallow sandbar you can walk across to a tiny neighboring island. A zip line terminates at its peak, so you can watch people zoom past as you explore the rocks and tidepools around its edge. Hundreds of islands pepper the horizon, giving sunset an extra row of gradient as purples and oranges light the bay on fire.
Despite all the trouble of planning our stay there, El Nido was worth every second and more. It blends adventure with relaxation, comfort with challenge, and it abounds with friendly people and good vibes.
It was with heavy hearts that we said goodbye to El Nido and took a ferry to our next island destination…Coron.