Let me tell you about a place. A place not well-known. A place without the tourist crowds of Thailand and other Southeast Asian islands and beaches, but a place with pristine blue water that caresses the fine powdery white sand as the sun sets over the archipelago islands mountains. Let me tell you about El Nido, Philippines.
There’s an unpaved track winding back up north along the slender Philippine island of Palawan. It’s a rough unpaved track that twists and turns with abrupt vigour over mountain ranges, through valleys, rain forests and along crisp blue coastlines offering stunning views. It ends at the small fishing town of El Nido – a beautiful village and the perfect base to explore the hundreds of hidden islands, secret lagoons and beaches in this region.
Why no tourists? Well, El Nido is a long way from the closest airport of Puerto Princessa. After landing in ‘Puerto’ you need to take a very long, bumpy, cramped and just plain-awful mini-van ride that robs you of 8 hours of your life you’ll never be able to reclaim, but… It’s worth it!
We touch down on a tarmac set in a clearing among banana and rice plantations. The runway looks short and as our Air Asia plane’s engines thrust into reverse on landing, I’m unsure if we’ll stop before running over the street vendors who line the road at the end of the runway.
The humidity assaults us as we step out of the plane and make our way through the crowds of people who’ve stopped on the tarmac to take their first ‘holiday selfie’ – it is after all – the Philippines, this is where the selfie was invented.
After collecting our bags from the carousel that looks as though it’s driven by pedal power, we step outside the terminal and are greeted with an unusual and bizarre sight. There are hundreds of local people standing in a group over the road from the terminal singing to us. They sing a traditional Palawan welcoming song in chorus as they hold up dishevelled signs and pieces of paper sticky-taped together with names written on them. Some break from the song and dance to chase their wayward improvised signs as the wind catches them, blowing them along the dusty local road. We stand with many others, scanning the smiling, singing crowd, looking for our names. We finally see it on a sign at the back and make our way over to a smiling man who takes our bags and ushers us to a nearby café to wait for “the van”. It’s a well organised logistical operation as people are ushered in to an army of waiting vans with local racecar wannabe drivers – but in the end we’re all headed for the same place… El Nido.
We crawl into the small Toyota and I begin to wonder where they will put our luggage. That’s until I hear (and see) footprints on the roof of the car. Like something out of Jurassic park – the vans roof is creaking, bending and buckling and I can almost make out the small shape of the Filipino boys feet from the inside as he clambers about the outside roof tying our luggage to the top. This is unusual as the van has no roof racks or any luggage carrying device. Despite this the boy piles the bags in a large group and spins a long rope around and through the various bag buckles. He loops it back and forth, tugging and pulling the rope with passion and vigour like a sailor rigging up a sail in a gusty wind.
After some arrogant tourist argues with the tour operator over which van he wants to go in, he settles (unfortunately) for our van and we sit all sit crammed like a bunch of schoolgirls on the back-seat of a bus, lurching down the dusty track. The next 8 hours are a carousel of scenery from local village people playing on the streets, harvesting food and selling their wares, rice plantations, forest, glimpses of bright blue ocean and cliff-side corners that we take way too fast. The van leans and protests against the opposing g forces as the driver thrashes it into submission. Most of the trip I was concentrating so hard not to die that I don’t remember much else, except for one annoying young female tourist on the back seat who was flirting with another back-packer. I learnt all about her travels, her family, her parents, her life and where she’d been around the world over our 8 hour journey.
The van makes scheduled stops every few hours at local street side restaurants serving a buffet style local cuisine and cold drinks. However we only barely begin to feel our limbs again before we have to cram back in the van. Just when you thought it impossible to fit more people in, we keep stopping to pick up locals who seem to use it as a bus service to get from village to village!
Finally, we begin to see more of the ocean and I know we’re getting close.
The sun is getting low in the sky as we pull in to our final destination. It’s a transit centre in a small town called Corong Corong which is just out of El Nido and where we are staying. From here you have to get a ‘trike’ – a motorbike with a side-car – which serve as taxis on the island. We wait and stand in awe, staring up at the giant limestone cliff that protrudes out from El Nido. Its dark textured cliff face climbs into the sky where bright green vegetation seems to touch the clouds at the top of the volcanic mountain peak.
The Filipino boy has finished untying our bags and we get into a trike to take us to out hotel. It’s a slow trip as the driver opens the throttle to push the small engine bike, laboured with passengers and luggage up and over the crest that separates Corong Corong from El Nido. As we twist and turn along the road, I catch glimpses of the bay. It’s an incredibly beautiful sight – that’s an understatement really – what I glimpse is an orange and violet sky silhouetting distant archipelago islands as fisherman drag in their nets through the calm rippled sea.
I swing my backpack around to my stomach and quickly unzip it to get my camera out ready – I need to capture this perfect scene before the sun sets. We dump our bags at the hotel reception and rush to the beach to watch the sunset and snap many photos of postcard-perfect images that seem photo-shopped to our naked eye, but it’s real. We sit in hammocks strung between palms and it’s all just too perfect and clichéd… I love it! We’re the only people here, that is until the flirty backpacker walks along the beach hand-in-hand with her new male friend – well at least 8 hours of flirting paid off!
The sun slowly and silently slips over the deep blue archipelago islands and in to the shimmering sea for another day. Corong Corong is even quieter and more peaceful than El Nido, and we find a beach-side restaurant for some seafood, cheap drinks and a bad, yet comical cover band.
After a short rest in our hotel room we decide to go and check out the El Nido township. So we stand on the dirt road and flag down a trike. We crawl into the steel side car and climb the hill to the sound of lapping waves, grinding gears and buzzing steel as the trike struggles to the peak before descending in to El Nido. A small town with narrow streets that end abruptly in to dense darkness where the ocean begins… Perfect. We climb out of the bike and walk along the beach.
The main beach is lined with bars all with outdoor plastic furniture and bean bags taking full advantage of the seaside location. The waves lap your feet as you sit in plastic chairs, sip San Miguel beer and sing along to the (better) bands. Yet something was odd. I stared into the sky at the bright stars that hung low in the milky way. Yet half of the sky was obscured by a giant dark mass that seem to protrude in to view shrouding the stars in darkness. I thought a storm was approaching with giant dense clouds until I realised it was in fact the enormous mountains of El Nido that were reaching for the stars. It was so dark that it was impossible to make out that it was a mountain, yet the darkness seemed to curve down and suddenly end where the ocean began… Amazing. I couldn’t wait to see it in the light of day tomorrow.
After a meal of fresh barbecued seafood on the beach, we crawled back into a trike, clamoured back over the mountain to Corong Corong and rested exhausted. We had booked an island hopping tour the next morning, so we lay there in our small room under the aircon before the electricity shut off (the electricity in El Nido is only on between 6am and 2pm) leaving us with the sound of lapping waves, passing trikes and the warm wind whispering through the palm fronds… Tomorrow is another day.
Want to follow this story and more stories like this? Please like the Road Less Travelled Facebook Page.
How to Get There?
Fly from Manila to Puerto Princessa with Air Asia or Cebu Pacific (at time of writing)
If you can afford it do not just book any van. There is a van company who drive responsibly, have bigger and more comfortable vans and won’t try to kill you. They are called ‘Lexus’. You have to book in advance as once people make the one-way trip in to El Nido, they immediately try and find a better way out – and this is it!
Where to Stay?
We stayed at ‘Doublegem Resort’ in Corong Corong. This is quieter and only a 5 min trike ride in to El Nido. Clean and friendly place with an amazing view of the sunset over the bay.
How to get Around?
By trike – a trike from Corong Corong to El Nido is only approx 25 pesos.
Where to Eat?
There are many seafood restaurants who BBQ fresh seafood on El Nido beach. Unfortunately they are not all the same, and even though it’s cooked fresh, some are better than others. It goes without saying that the crowded ones are the good ones.
Art Cafe is a great place to eat and hang out. they do GREAT pizza and the staff and incredibly friendly and helpful. My favourite restaurant in El Nido!