El Nido, Palawan, Philippines – At the northern tip of Palawan is El Nido, a sleepy little beach town with one road and a few hotels scattered along the shore. Since the beach isn’t much, every morning people escape on boats to explore the Bacuit Archipelago – a vast collection of jagged limestone islands with hidden lagoons, soft white beaches, and crystal-clear water. I’ve never seen anything like it.
We arrived around lunchtime after a seven-hour van ride from Puerto Princesa – which included a drunk Polish guy – who threw a tantrum at the hotel that morning – spending most the ride asleep on Tina’ shoulder. When we got into the minivan the driver told us to move to the back because the front seats were reserved for some locals who reserved these seats “weeks ago”.
Never in our travels have we heard this, so we refused and remained in our seats because of the extra leg room (for the ride back to Puerto Princesa, our request to reserve the front seats was met with laughter).
Maybe because it takes a bit of work to get there – one little prohibitively expensive airport serves the northern tip and priority is given to high ends resorts – but El Nido has been saved the fate befallen the islands of Thailand. A few years back a developer wanted to build a jetty which could handle the docking of a car ferry from Manila. Fortunately, enough locals protested and got it shut down.
Unlike Ko Phi Phi in Thailand, there aren’t that many tourists so it never feels crowded – even around the archipelago – and the town only has a handfull of restaurants so everyone goes to bed around nine. Another big difference is while outnumbering the tourists, the tour operators are relaxed and don’t push their tours on you. Like the rest of the Philippines, it’s a laid back affair.
At some point, all the tour operators got together and came up with Tour A, B, C, and D. While the names are generic, the logic is geographic. All islands in Tour A are close – as are the islands in Tour B, etc. You can charter a boat to go wherever you want, but unless you’re part of a big group, it’s gonna be pricey.
One thing they did not agree on was the price – the cost of the tour varies by several hundred pesos (P44 = $1) depending on the operator. When I asked our hotel why their Tour A costs more than someone else, they claimed they had better food. Incredulous, we found the cheapest operator, decided on tours A & B, and spent the next couple days exploring the archipelago – while eating delicious food.
Since the the waters were a bit rough so we didn’t get to see all the places we were supposed to on Tour A, but what we did see held up to all the hype – El Nido is said to be the real inspiration for Alex Garland’s “The Beach”. Some of our favorite spots on the tours included Small Lagoon – reached by swimming through a little opening in the rock, stellar snorkeling at Pangoslian Island, Sugar Beach with sand so soft and so fine, and Snake Island – a sand bar the appears only during low tide, that gave us the feeling of walking on water when we hiked across it.
Since the waters could get a little rough in the afternoons, we spent quite a bit of time on the boat getting hit with wave after wave, just completely drenched. When the umpteenth wave crashed over the boat and hit Tina in the face she got a little whiny and I reminded her, “We’re on a boat”, a mantra we started to repeat to each other whenever traveling becomes annoying or frustrating.
On Tour A we met Andrew, a Filipino on vacation from working in Saudia Arabia at the state-run oil company. Companies from the Middle East come to Southeast Asia to recruit workers, promising them higher pay than they can get at home – however, the pay is determined by what country you’re from as well as your skills. But that better pay comes with a price: they essentially live in commune several hours outside a city – which they can only visit once a week to run errands, they can’t travel freely, and they work six 12-hour days a week.
We talked a lot about life in Saudi Arabia and compared it to life in the Philippines, and specifically that everything he liked about life in the Philippines was harem in Saudi Arabia. When his contract is finished, he plans on applying to work on the new American military base in Guam. I asked if he missed his family and he said that he kind of does, but values his freedom to travel and see more of the world, even if that means living overseas to make better money.
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After El Nido we hoped to continue traveling north by ferry to the island of Coron, a rustic island with a few desolate beaches, a zoo that Ferdinand Marcos created to save the animals of Africa, and not much else. Coron Town also had an airport with flights to Manila which would save us the trip back down to Puerto Princesa.
Due to the number of warnings about this ferry trip in our guidebook, Tina did some research and found that two weeks prior, one ferry got stranded and had to be rescued, and another ferry sank. One traveler we met who took a ferry north to El Nido from Port Barton, near Puerto Princesa, said they had to stop several times because of rough seas. He seemed terrified.
A Canadian we met on Tour B (yes, also on break from teaching English in Korea) told us his brother had taken the ferry to Coron a couple years ago and all had gone well. But with how rough the seas had been around El Nido, there was no guarantee the trip up to Coron would have been smooth sailing.
So playing it safe we took the bus back to Puero Prinsesa and caught a flight to Manila, then hopped another flight up to northern Luzon. Plus, being on a sinking ferry would have been the greatest challenge to our “We’re on a boat” motto. Literally.