Paradise City (seas are blue & views so pretty)

Trip Start Dec 21, 2010
Trip End Feb 05, 2011

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Flag of Philippines  , Palawan,
Monday, January 17, 2011

El Nido: it really was as mind-blowing and beautiful as we had read. Set in a bay in the Bacuit Archipelago, it looks out over numerous volcanic islands, each with their own hidden beaches and coves, just waiting to be explored. Because El Nido was quite remote from most of the inhabited islands in the Philippines, its pristine beauty was hidden to the world until 1979 when a sea accident happened in Bacuit Bay. As the story goes, "a tuna line disabled a dive boat's propeller in the middle of the night forcing it to drop anchor in an inlet. The following morning, the divers woke up to an amazing scenery of skyscraping dark cliffs, thick green forest, white sandbeach, sparkling water and, rising above it, a series of magnificently sculpted jade islands."

The town itself is set along a narrowish 1km beach with various hotels and restaurants lining it- but not your 5 star resorts, mainly cottages and pension houses. There is only one proper 'hotel' I would say, the rest is a little ramshackle but very cute. The nice thing about El Nido is it still has a local feel to it. Although there are more tourists here than we have seen on the rest of our trip, it is still very quiet and not at all crowded. Most of the restaurants and hotels are Filipino owned, unlike Siquijor, although there are a few Korean and European runs ones. Hopefully the big resorts don't move in anytime soon.

The biggest industry in the area is 'bird nesting' (El Nido means 'the nest' in Spanish) whereby the nests of Swiftlets are collected after breeding season and used in a local soup - the nests are built using their saliva. It sells for around $3000 a kilogram and is exported to China and most of Asia. The island directly in front of El Nido (Cadlao) is the main source for nests. Another interesting fact about Cadlao is the main mountain is El Nido's barometer as whatever clouds or rain hit that island will normally hit El Nido the next day.

Everyone comes to El Nido to explore the hundreds of islands in the archipelago and there are tours running every day (A, B, C, D) as well as various other kayak tours etc. The tours take you round to different islands and snorkelling spots, and cook you lunch on the beach. The government charges everyone 200 pesos (3) conservation fee valid for 10 days island hopping which is excellent as it goes towards keeping the marine life healthy and corals in pristine condition. The tour guides also volunteer to clean up rubbish from the sea during the low season but we didn't notice much dead coral or rubbish floating in the water at all- the Filipino people seem to be far more sensitive & caring towards the marine environment and it definitely shows. I guess they don't have the amount of tourists bombarding their beaches and reefs as Thailand do & hopefully it stays that way as we felt El Nido has the perfect balance of tourists to locals to keep vibe relaxed and friendly.

El Nido: Day 1

We arrived at lunchtime after around 6 hours on the road and it really wasn't as bad a journey as we were expecting, although apparently the roads have improved a bit between Roxas and TayTay and they were still doing some work on them when we drove through. It was not raining in Northern Palawan so we avoided the mud although it is a bit daunting seeing the driver deflating the tyres as we started the non-tarred stretch!

We had a few places in mind to stay and straight away stumbled across Entalula who don't take bookings, only walk-in, and luckily they had one room left. We grabbed it as all the other mini vans were arriving and others were sniffing around. Very basic rooms but very clean and quite new & pleasant bathrooms, and hot water! They also have some cottages overlooking the beach but they were full however we had our eye on them.

There are also electricity restrictions in El Nido, currently it's on from 2pm to 6am so you barely notice when it's not on and everywhere cooks with gas so it's not really an inconvenience.

We headed to the main tourist hangout (Arts Cafe) for pizza and some free Wi-Fi. Seem to be eating a lot of pizza; it is really cheap here so making the most of it :)

Dinner was at the self-proclaimed 'famous' Squido's. We had read about their stuffed squid, so that's what we ate- presentation was really good, taste... nice, but not in our top 5 meals on the trip.

We felt we deserved a massage so had a half hour head, neck and back and then off to bed... Entalula has a strict 'silence from 10pm to 8am' policy which suited us!

Day 2

The next day we had booked through Entalula to go on Tour A, weather was a little overcast but still warm so headed out anyway. Turns out that this was apparently the budget tour in the town... we presumed they were all the same but clearly not. The drivers didn't speak much English so just dropped us at various beaches and lagoons without much explanation. We shared the boat with 2 Filipino/ western couples of which there are a lot! Lunch was also a let-down, rice with some barbecued chicken and pork: the chicken piece was the size of a matchbox with no meat on it and the pork was 2cm chunks, 1.9cm of it was fat... so rice and their favourite garlic and onion soya sauce it was!

Apparently we went to big lagoon, small lagoon, 7 commando beach and some others. Small lagoon was pretty amazing- it was a huge lagoon, at least 700m long by about 200m with a very shallow inlet that only the smaller boats could get into. The waters were crystal clear with a turquoise tinge. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to jump out and swim, still not sure why as the drivers were useless. I think our boat was so slow that we were behind schedule. The trip home was not fun as the sea was very rough and with our tiny boat, we got a lot of spray so were happy to get back and into a hot shower. We think it would have been better had the sun been out but we still got to see some beautiful places and bumped into our American friend from Puerto Princesa who had obviously found his way up and picked up a Thai/Pinoy lady from somewhere!

Day 3

The weather the following day was still a little iffy so we decided a day of rest was in order as we are so stressed... ha-ha! As we were spending our day off relaxing, reading, working etc, we decided to check into the nicest hotel on the beach which had a bit more space and a balcony on the beach to chill on. It was double the price of Entalula but as we were there for 6 days, we thought we would move around a bit. The town is very quiet during the day with everyone off island hopping. We got some foot long hotdogs and treats from the bakery and had a little picnic on the balcony and watched life pass us by on the beach.

Hit up the recommended Sea Slugs for dinner with a table on the beach... problem being that at night with the tides... there is no beach, so it was dinner with waves caressing our ankles and sometimes our knees! Our Yankee friend was there too, keep bumping into him! Had lemon butter fish (Spanish mackerel) and squid along with some deep fried courgettes, tempura style.

Somehow we managed to get chatting to the Sea Slugs tour guide (R-Man) who was telling us about the best spots on all the tours and about El Nido which was fine as when our food came he excused himself, only to return as we finished eating! He was nice enough but he sat with us for at least an hour, so during a break in convo we paid and hit the... beach home! Oh yes, another highlight was the local acoustic musician playing during our meal, amazing voice, just doing covers but really, really good!

Day 4

Following day and weather permitting, we were heading out on Tour C with Ric Sons, which is a tour company and restaurant on the main beach but was booked through our new hotel. We did a bit of research after the last one and they got some good comments so were already feeling better - and then we awoke to clear blue skies! Finally, nicest day since we were down in Bohol. Jumped on a bigger boat than the day before along with a French couple (husband being a Gordon Brown lookalike), a British man and his Thai lady and a family of around 7 Koreans. Shortly into the trip, Dennis the young tour guide (21 yrs. old) came and told us where we were going etc. In pretty good English, much better! :)

In fact all 3 guys on board were super helpful and friendly: Ariel the driver, Dennis the guide and Gilbert who just laughed at the crazy Korean lady and flashed his massive white teeth!

The Koreans really were funny, none of them could swim so every snorkelling stop it was life jackets on and into the water face down to float around, if there was a current to swim against back to the boat, then Dennis and Gilbert had to jump in and drag them all back - very amusing. First stop was Hidden Beach which had some good shallow snorkelling and a little clown fish nest in only metre deep water. Although that meant no matter how you tried to observe them they were very defensive as you were very close to their anemone. This lead to Jacqui getting butted/ bitten twice on her leg as she was standing in a sandy patch nearby! Very funny and I caught it on camera so watch this space.

The guys set us up proper tables and chairs they had loaded onto the boat and served us a delicious fish and chicken BBQ, cooked perfectly and tasted amazing! All whilst we explored a really good shallow reef with a huge drop-off which we snorkelled along. We also visited Secret Beach which apparently was the original filming location for the movie 'The Beach' but the Filipino government didn't like the fact it involved drugs so wouldn't allow it and hence they filmed in Thailand at the tourist magnet, Maya Bay. To get to the Secret Beach we had to swim through a narrow entrance in water about 4m deep and with quite a current and waves crashing on the rocks. Not too bad if you could swim, cue more Korean dragging. On the other side was a tiny lagoon and a 20m long sandy beach surrounded by huge black jagged rocks all around. Was amazing!

Unfortunately, after lunch there was a huge storm so we got absolutely soaked (well, we had just been swimming so not to bad). The visibility at Helicopter Island was pretty poor as well as there being lots of invisible plankton in the water stinging us- the ones on the lips were particularly painful :(

As Ric Sons (Ric started the business and has 5 sons... very original) had been such a good tour we booked Tour B for the next day with them and had dinner at their beach restaurant. Unfortunately there was a 'brown out' (limited/ no electricity due to the earlier storm) so dinner was by candlelight and they still managed to have an acoustic guy playing, who was even better than the one the night before! Jacqui had chicken teriyaki and I had what was possibly my best meal here, definitely top 3! Spicy cheesy seafood! Basically squid, prawn and fish in a slightly spicy sauce and veg, served up on a sizzling griddle, so it's still bubbling and fizzing when they placed it on the table. Wowaweewa!

Somehow managed to attract another chatterbox in the form of the head tour guide (Martin) from Ric Sons who ended up spending our entire dinner with us, not sure what the deal is but again he was pleasant enough and we got some good local info out of him.

For instance, one of the small boats used for tours costs about 100 000 pesos (1250)- most are owned by resorts but a few locals have their own and are normally bought them by foreigners who have visited and offered to buy them a boat. Hence why a lot of boats have names like 'Lolly and Abbott'. Martin himself had been given 65 000 pesos towards his own boat by a Scandinavian couple only for it to be sunk in bad weather a week after he put it in the water- and he had no insurance! Shame, so now he has to find 10 000php to fix it up. Apparently this bad storm was 2 days before we got here which sunk 15 boats in the bay overnight and also toppled a tourist boat with 15 people on board although no-one died luckily. The guys earn about 350 pesos (5) per trip they take out, which is only once a day, so not much really but they do love their jobs and appreciate the beauty that surrounds them. They are really, really proud of their land.

Day 5

Another day, another tour! Again blue skies in the morning so off we went, funnily enough the same crew as yesterday and the exact same guests on board (plus one extra Asian man in hot pants). The Korean lady on the boat really was bonkers: she layered herself in whitening sunblock, then put on a huge straw hat and then covered her head in a sarong and had an umbrella to protect her from the sun on top of that. I thought I was bad! The guides just pissed themselves at her all the time as she tried to fix her hair in her mini-mirror, bearing in mind we were on a moving boat!

Had a snorkelling stop at Pangalusian Island, again lots of plankton, not cool. We then stopped off for lunch at Snake Island: a serpentine sandbar marooned in the ocean, if you could picture paradise on a postcard, this is it! Shallow, crystal-clear blue water, white sand, beautiful views! The guides setup our table on the actual sandbar (the tail of the snake) and cooked us some more good pork and jack-fish on the BBQ. After lunch we visited Candogan cave which involved crawling through a narrow entrance into a hidden cave where the Japanese hid during the war. About 20 years ago the government followed a treasure map recovered from the Japs and found some hidden gold in the cave, there is still a massive whole in the floor where they found it. The cave was open topped so light flooded in, it wasn't a dingy dark cave as you would imagine.

Had a chat with Dennis, he is only 21 and has to support his brother and sister at university so had to stop studying his degree after two years. He was such an honest, sincere guy- if we ever came back one day we would love to try help him get his own boat so he can do his own tours and make more money although for most Filipinos it is not about money. As long as they can get by day by day then they are happy.

Day 6

The following day was an "off" day where we just caught up with emails, repacked our bags for the upcoming trip with Tao, had a sunset swim and walked to Caalan Beach (which was not great at all compared to El Nido beach). Oh, and we also switched back to Entalula as they had one of their nice little cottages right on the beach available so we took that and also took advantage of their cheap, good laundry service! Upon moving back to Entalula, we discovered that the man who snored really loudly in the room next to us on Apo Island was also staying there! Luckily he was far enough away from us that we couldn't hear him :) The Tao Expedition trip briefing was at 5pm so we went to that and Eddie, the co-owner, briefed us on what to expect. There will be 15 of us on a boat for 5 days exploring the remote Palawan islands, can't wait!

Dinner was delicious; we tried two Filipino dishes called sizzling chicken Adobo and Bicol Express. As with all the "sizzling" dishes we have had, the chicken was great and the Bicol (which is pork and veg in a coconut sauce) was the closest thing to Thai food we have found and also most tasty!

Leave for our 5 day expedition tomorrow, can't wait!
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taz on

Stunning photos! Great to follow your journey! El Nido is so amazing! Just got back last 2 weeks and i had the most memorable time. Oh im still dreaming about it. Great post about Tao Expedition too. I gonna have to try it someday myself. Happy travels!

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