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 road 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!
After touching 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 disheveled 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.
After sitting in a cramped mini van for 8 long stomach-somersaulting hours, we finally reach our destination. The Filipino boy unties our bags from the roof of the van and we get into a ‘trike’ (the main mode of transport – just a motorbike with an enclosed sidecar) to take us to our hotel. It’s a slow trip as the driver opens the throttle to push the small engine bike, loaded with passengers and luggage up and over the crest that separates Coron Coron 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’ve never seen a better sunset in my life.
The following day we begin our Island Hopping tour! The anchor’s up. Wet rope is rapidly coiled by the deck-hand 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 the 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.
After snorkeling amongst thousands of fish in the bluest ocean I’ve seen we’re off to another island. 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 the sharp, rocky bottom. Engine splutters and again we’re churning through the deep blue sea to our next island.
Throughout the afternoon we slow many times and glide into other bays so hidden, that I feel we simply disappear and slip into one of the crevasses on the limestone cliff face. We are overwhelmed by hidden lagoons and beautiful white sand beaches.
On one of the islands, we stop for lunch. Fresh fruit and the barbecued seafood from the first hidden lagoon are plated up beautifully and floated cautiously in a kayak 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 clamber aboard the boat as my Havianas act like flippers, frantically trying to get footing on the wooden ladder. We navigate 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. I’ve seen the bluest water in my life, been caressed by thousands of tropical fish, explored hidden lagoons amongst ancient limestone cliffs and even had BBQ seafood and cocktails. Well worth it and an incredible experience.
For more – see my gallery of island hopping below!
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How to Get There?
Fly from Manila to Puerto Princessa with Air Asia or Cebu Pacific.
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! http://www.lexxusshuttle.com
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.
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/
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!
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