The anchor’s pulled up. Wet rope is rapidly coiled by the deckhand and with a gentle push backward, our small wooden boat glides out across the bright blue bay under the giant, watchful volcanic peak of the El Nido mountains. The engine splutters and whirrs into a low, vibrational hum as propellers spin thrashing the calm blue into whitewash and we gently lift up and then down over the small waves. On the downward dip, the boat’s wooden side ballasts cut into the bright blue ocean spraying refreshing cool water up and onto our hot sunburnt and windswept faces. I lick the salt off my lips and look for my camera to start capturing these perfect paradise landscapes.
We’re on an island hopping tour and are promised snorkeling in hidden lagoons, lunch on secret beaches, and pristine paradise. As we pull out of the El Nido bay, a quick glance back gives real perspective of just how small the village is. Perched as if someone accidentally dropped it from above, it’s dwarfed by the giant archipelago mountains on either side. We pick up speed and head into deep blue open ocean. We are constantly surrounded by distant mountainous islands that seem peppered throughout the ocean in abundance. Their giant peaks rise up like humpback whales breaching the surface in perfect island chain formations. We head towards one of these mountains and the boat enters a small opening between two giant limestone cliffs that stand like monoliths protecting the bay inside.
As we enter, the ocean turns from deep blue to bright azure. It’s so clear like glass, I can see the fish and coral pulsing beneath the boat as we hover over the top and glide silently and slowly deeper into a lagoon. We round the corner and are greeted with a sparkling bright blue ocean that looks as if it’s too blue to be real. Other tour boats are anchored in the bay and puffs of black smoke rise up from them their bows catching the gentle breeze as boat crews huddle around cooking barbecue lunch for their tour goers. Fresh seafood is grilled over charcoal as people snorkel about the bright blue bay.
We follow our guide through the lagoon as bright territorial fish nip at our toes (literally – we were warned – it doesn’t hurt but can be a scare at first) before we reach a rock wall with a tiny opening. We clamber through awkwardly to discover it’s a hidden cave with it’s own lagoon. We swim about, gazing up at the rock formations as the sound of water clacks and rebounds off the roof and walls of the cavernous paradise.
We get back to the boat as our legs pedal stupidly and furiously in the blue water trying to find our footing on the small, slippery wooden ladder that’s been lowered into the lagoon for us to re-board the boat. The guide picks up a long, thick bamboo stick and begins pushing the boat backward and away from the cliff face. Like a Venetian gondolier he thrusts his stick with force against the shallow lagoon ensuring the boat doesn’t come into contact the with sharp rocky bottom. Engine splutters and again we’re churning through the deep blue sea to our next island.
A Filipino tourist stands on the front of the boat with the longest selfie-stick I’ve ever seen. He swings it back and forth and takes constant 360 degree video footage of his smiling face with the backdrop of the blue ocean and cliff faces making it difficult for me to get my own photo without his giant smiling head and in it.
Again we slow and enter another bay so hidden, that I feel we simply disappear and slip into one of the crevasses on the cliff face. Again we are greeted by a hidden bay and a beautiful white sand beach, reflecting the sun and accentuating the blue water even more. Once again we clamber through a small hole in a wall and are again in a hidden lagoon. This time it’s not a cave with a roof, but a lagoon that’s completely hidden by the surrounding cliffs and I wonder how anyone ever found this place to begin with.
We splash and talk and laugh as our voices echo around the walls. Other tour groups keep squeezing and popping through the small hole to join our lagoon. The one-way traffic into the lagoon is so constant that we have to wait our turn to exit. After another awkward boarding we’re back on the boat and again in deep water.
Before long, we pull slowly into a beautiful white beach at the bottom of a rocky outcrop that’s sprouting with tropical vegetation as birds circle and call and waves slap the white sand. We walk from the boat to the beach and the tour operators follow us with a kayak carrying our lunch. Fresh fruit, and the barbecued seafood from the first hidden lagoon are plated up beautifully and floated cautiously over the clear blue water toward the beach. A plastic table is set up on the white sand under the shade of a large palm and we’re invited to eat. The breeze caresses our salty wet bodies as we stand in the shade eating barbecued squid to the sound of lapping waves and rustling palm fronds. It really is a perfect experience.
The only thing missing is a beer. I’m assured one more stop and then “we have beach with beer”. The boat pushes out again through the deep blue and comes around another corner into one of the most stunning bays I’ve seen. Bright blue water ripples gently at the base of limestone monoliths that look as though that were placed carelessly in the sand and may topple at any moment. Their bases are eaten away by oceanic battering and their thick, bulky peaks burst with vegetation and wildlife that flourishes in the tropical sun.
As soon as we jump off the boat, we’re surrounded by fish like bees to honey. They pulse, swirl and dart around us, schooling as if putting on our show just for our entertainment. I’ve never seen so many fish in my life.
We’ve just re-boarded the boat and I’m finally getting the hang of the wooden ladder and pulling my Havianas out of the water as they act like flippers fighting against me as I try to get out! But just as we sit down, I hear a tune… It sounds like a child’s melody and is coming from a small boat carrying a large box that’s approaching us. As the boat gets closer I see that this tiny craft is carrying a giant freezer in the middle that says ‘Nestle Ice cream’ on the side! It’s ‘Mr Whippy’, or I guess what could only be described as an ‘Ice Cream Boat’ in the middle of nowhere, in a hidden bay. It looks like father and son and the father clambers like a monkey on to our boat as the son seems to disappear inside the freezer to pass us ice creams. We hand over some money and the man jumps back on to his small boat and putters away as the wind-up-toy childhood ice cream tune echoes across the small bay and we sit eating our ice creams with haste as they melt rapidly in the Filipino sun.
The boat navigates through a small gap in the surrounding cliffs and back out to the open ocean. We’re now heading back to one of the beaches on the mainland. As we approach I see that it’s busy with many tour boats, nosed up against the white sand as people recline on lounges, take selfies and sip Pina Coladas… Wait… There
is a bar! We glance down the beach toward the noise of a blender and the distant beat of music. There’s a wooden shack at the end of the beach and people are queuing for drinks.
We make our way there and stand as the generators whir and blenders pulse and grind, mixing up a menu of cocktails made from local spirits. I decide to order a cold ‘san mig’ (San Miguel beer) and we make our way back to the waters edge where we lay, feet in the cool blue water sipping drinks.
The day has lived up to how it was sold to us. Well worth the money and with the BBQ seafood lunch, delivered ice creams and generator powered blender bars included… Fantastic! See below for my El Nido gallery for more images from our adventures!
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The tour leaves from the main beach of El Nido in Palawan, Philippines.
How to get there?
Read part 1 – ‘The Unpaved Road to Pristine Paradise’ which details our journey to El Nido from Puerto Princessa. Fly from Manila to Puerto Princessa with Air Asia, Cebu Pacific or Philippine Airlines, then take a mini-van for 8 hours north to El Nido.
We took ‘Tour A’ with Nothern Hope Tours who were great. Tour A takes in everything described above which is; Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Simizu Island, Secret Lagoon and 7 Commandos Beach. It’s only $1200 Pesos pp. Very friendly tour guide, good price, safe boat and equipment and great value for money. See: http://www.northernhopetours.com/