Saturday, 2 April 2016

El Nido, Palawan | Philippines

     The trek from Boracay to El Nido was not an easy one - I could have flown from Hong Kong to the UK in the same amount of time. But after a van, a ferry, another van, a flight, a second flight delayed 2 hours, a 2 hour wait for the final van, and a tricycle ride, I finally made it to my El Nido hotel 17 hours after leaving my Boracay one. I stayed in the Aqua Travel Lodge, which turned out to be very nice! My room was big, clean, and nicely furnished (not as bare as many other places I've stayed), and very central in town, which was convenient, but a bit noisy at night and early in the morning. The breakfast was included, and served on the roof deck overlooking the beach, which is a very nice way to start the day. It's also a popular choice to stay out of town, by Corong Corong beach, just a 5-10 minute tricycle ride away, but since I was planning on doing the island hopping trips that El Nido is popular for, it made more sense to stay near the boats in the town itself. El Nido isn't as well known as Boracay yet, so it was far less busy with tourists, but there was still no shortage of them! This was more backpacker types though, as oppose to the general mix found on Boracay. It's a destination on the rise though, and would likely be more popular already if it weren't for that horrible, bumpy, 5 hour van ride!

Boats in the bay at El Nido town, Palawan, Philippines


Corong Corong Beach near El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Boat in the shallows at sunset at Corong Corong Beach, near El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

     After that long, long journey, I opted to spend my first day here around the town and the beach, allowing myself to rest and sleep in, rather than spend 7 hours on a boat. I wandered the streets and the beach front, and was met by a small, simple place, probably very quiet in the past, until tourism arrived here. The streets are lined with hotels and restaurants though, and a million shops selling the famed island hopping tours. It didn't take me long to roam a few streets, before turning to the beach front. The beach here isn't exactly on the level of White Beach, being much smaller, and although it's still nice enough, it's not quite that postcard-perfect blue sea, white sand, and palm trees image. The water is choppier, and crowded with boats by evening (many are out for the day trips of course), and the sand is mostly lined with tables and chairs from the restaurants behind, rather than sun beds and sunbathers. It was also a more overcast day, though the view out to the bay, with the first glimpse of the Bacuit Archipelago, is still beautiful. Overall, it was nice, quiet little town to stay in, but there's not all that much to do there.

     My wandering around town complete, I decided to go check out Corong Corong beach, having heard so much about how nice it is. It's a short tricycle ride away, or a half hour walk, and being early in the afternoon still, I decided to venture out on foot. I did get a little confused as I got close, as I knew I was on the road behind the beach, but couldn't find a path down to the shore itself at first. Turns out there's a few, but they're all narrow, rocky paths, with no obvious view of the beach from the top. Anyway, once I got there, I was met by a very picturesque view; clear water sparkling in the sunlight, a long curved strip of sand (though quite narrow) dotted by some palm trees, several boats moored in the bay, with local children scrambling along their outriggers, and the horizon lined with the mountainous islets of Bacuit Bay. I wouldn't have said it was an amazing beach, having seen others with bluer waters and wider stretches of whiter sand, but it made for a very nice walk along it, taking my photographs, followed by a couple of hours reading and sunbathing.

      More importantly, I was hanging about for the sunset, which is meant to be beautiful. And I wasn't disappointed! I got hungry while waiting, so found a beach front restaurant (part of one of the hotels), and watched the sun drop in the sky, while munching away and sipping on a cocktail (it was happy hour!). If the Philippines is lacking when it comes to transport and infrastructure (Manila airport has the most ridiculous amount of delays you've ever seen), it certainly makes up for it with its natural beauty and these stunning sunsets. Lit up in pink and orange, with the silhouettes of the boats and islets stretching into the distance... is there a better way to spend a holiday?

7 Commandos Beach on Tour A around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Beach at Shimizu Island on Tour A around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

     The next day began much earlier, as I'd booked an island tour, which all depart at 9am. There are four main routes around Bacuit Bay, A-D. Following the advice of the internet, and a fellow I'd been chatting to while waiting for the van from the airport, A and C were consistently ranked the best two, so I decided to start with A. If I enjoyed it enough, I still had my third day to do C - which I ended up doing, as the alternative was another day around town, and there's just not that much to see there. Each route has five different stops, and A focusses on "Lagoons", which you most typically see photos of when looking up El Nido. There's loads of tour companies in the town, but my hotel booked mine, so I think I ended up going with Tarawis both days, and I was very happy with their service. They were a much friendlier, chattier and more helpful crew than those on my Boracay tour. Every company does the same stops on the same tours, for the same price though, just perhaps in varying orders. There's no hidden costs either (unlike that private island off Boracay...), though there are a few optional ones.

     Anyway, I headed down to the beach that morning, where I was handed a black bin bag to keep my things dry(ish). There's no real dock for all the tour boats, so you get wet first thing, as you wade out to the boat, bag held over your head. Most of the day is spent in and out the water though, so it's not that much of an inconvenience. I saw some people being taken to their boats in kayaks, but many either fell out, or water sloshed in beside them anyway! There were about a dozen of us on the boat, and I immediately got chatting with a couple of girls my own age, who were Israeli and backpacking around Asia for the next few months. I'm not great at meeting people when I'm travelling, as I've always been shy at just striking up conversations with people who are essentially strangers, but it was one of them who started talking to me, and I ended up palling about with them for the rest of the day.

     Our first stop of route A was 7 Commandos beach, which immediately put the beaches of the day before to shame. It wasn't big, but it was a return to crystal blue waters and clean, white sand, and the sun came out at long last - I'd been a bit worried about the clouds in the sky when we first set off from town. Ours was one of the first boats to arrive, a trend that continued over both days, so it was nice to have each place to ourselves, at least for a little while, before more and more people began to arrive. After snapping my photos, of course, we relaxed in the sun for a while, just enjoying some rest and some quiet - things I don't always find in Hong Kong! With five stops in the day, there's only so much time to spend at each one, so after 40 minutes or so, it was back aboard the boat.

     I really like boat trips like these - I definitely prefer staying kind of close to land though, as the idea of being fa rout in open water does scare me a bit) - and cruising across the waves, surrounded by these beautiful mountainous islets was absolutely lovely. I didn't even mind when the water splashed on to us! We glided across the bay, through the spectacular scenery, which was my main reason for visiting El Nido, and dropped anchor by Shimizu Island for our lunch stop. While the crew prepared the food, we had some time to swim and snorkel, or lounge on the small stretch of beach - I did a bit of both! I always take a book along too, and this was a good time to devour a few more chapters, while drying off on the sand. They cooked lunch on a grill on the boat, and we'd been able to smell it during the sail over to the island. We were treated to grilled chicken, squid and fish, mussels, rice, salad, and a fruit platter, served on the shore by the boat.

Entrance to Big Lagoon on Tour A of Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Inside Big Lagoon on Tour A around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

     The rest of the tour was all about the lagoons, which are dotted around Miniloc Island. First up was Big Lagoon, which is the only one of the three actually big enough for the boat to sail into. The entrance is a small, shallow passage between the rocks, before opening out into a large, deep blue circle, surrounded by the mountainous crags of the island. The sun was well and truly shining by this point in the day, so we were all craning out the sides of the boat, and standing at the front to snap photos as we slowly cruised around. It was just a sail around though, no stopping for a swim or anything, and again, we were lucky enough to get in and out before most of the other tour boats caught up.

     For Small Lagoon, the boat has to moor outside, as the entrance is a tiny passage through the rocks, accessible either by swimming, or by renting a kayak. I ended up in a kayak with my two companions for the day, and most of our trip around the lagoon consisted of us laughing at our abysmal steering efforts. We could make the kayak go forward, sure, but a straight line seemed to be a bit beyond our capabilities! We made it through the pass though, and then alternated between paddling and just drifting around the lagoon. Obviously, I didn't have my camera for this part - no way is that risking getting wet! - but it was a lovely, tranquil spot, with beautiful turquoise green waters, and almost exactly the sort of thing I picture when I hear the word lagoon.

     The last stop of the day was Secret Lagoon - an exciting sort of name, but actually a little disappointing to behold. It's secret because it's the most enclosed of the three, the entrance being a hole in the rock that you have to climb through. Inside, the rocks were so high that there was very little sunlight getting in, and the water was murky brown and didn't even reach my knees. It was cold in there too, so we only stayed a few minutes to have a quick look - again, no camera, as we had to swim from the boat to the entrance - before retreating out again. There's a small beach next to it though, and plenty of space for a bit of snorkelling. We hadn't done all that much snorkelling, so we spent some time swimming around, and saw a few different kinds of fish, but nothing remarkable I'd say. The other four stops were excellent, but the last was a bit of a let down.

     We cruised back to town, arriving at about 4pm. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the tour, but by this point I was tired and damp, and had been out in the sun too long (I was this close to getting burned, but noticed in time and was careful enough with the sun cream the next day, so it's evened out to a rather nice tan instead!). I bid the girls farewell - there was talk of Facebook, but I've never heard from them - and went back to the hotel to shower and change. El Nido had the best wifi on my trip, so I got some blogging and such done, then wandered out again for some dinner. As I explained in my Boracay post, I still find eating out alone somewhat awkward, but I went early-ish to avoid the busier times, when I'd be more conspicuous. I chose a place along the beach front, and caught a bit of the sunset, although the town is facing the wrong way for a good view, before turning in for the night.

Helicopter Island on Tour C around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Boat Tour C around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Talisay Beach on Matinloc Island, Tour C around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

     For my last full day here, I chose to do Tour C, as mentioned before, which focusses on "Secret Beaches". I was pleased to see that my boat had some of the same crew members from the day before, so I was confident it would be another good day. I didn't make any friends my age, like the day before, but there were an older group of Filipinos on board, who were very friendly and chatted away to everyone, showcasing the friendliness of their country that I'd heard so much about. Our first stop this time was Helicopter Island, so named because of it's shape - see it in the picture? We dropped anchor by yet another beautiful beach - I'd definitely recommend all those feature don the tours over those at El Nido and Corong Corong! The crew told us there was particularly good snorkelling here, and they were not wrong! I spent pretty much the entirety of our half hour stop in the water, swimming over colourful fish and the intricate maze of the coral reef. This was the best snorkelling I did in the Philippines, and reminded me why I enjoy it, as the other stops thus far had been good, but nothing very exciting.

     We then sailed up through some of the most spectacular scenery I'd seen so far - while the bay and all it's islands can start to look a bit the same, and be somewhat disorientating, the channel between Matinloc and Tapiutan islands was the most jaw-dropping area of it all. Although it's quite difficult to really capture it in photos taken from the boat, as it's so huge and on all sides! We pulled in to a small beach, Talisay, which was completely deserted when we arrived, though a few more boats started to appear. The crew prepared our lunch, the same fare as the day before, but no less delicious, and in, what I'd say, was a prettier location this time. We were able to snorkel again while waiting, but I didn't stay in the water long, as there were a lot of jellyfish around. They were the harmless variety, and some of the other passengers seemed to swim around them to find an area with less, but I'd already retreated to the shallows, and then the sand. No matter though, it was still an idyllic spot to lay back and relax some more.

     Our next stops were the Secret and Hidden beaches - so named for their locations, not because they are actually secrets anymore, when every tour stops at them! They were much better than the Secret Lagoon of the day before too. To reach Hidden Beach, we moored beside some cliff faces, and were pointed in the direction of a narrow passage through the rocks. The water was deep here, and you have to swim through the gap - no option to get a kayak through there this time! Once inside, you are very suddenly met by a much shallower ocean floor, and find yourself inside a circle of cliffs, with the small beach on the far side. The shallower water is perfect for just lying in for a while, and the rocks aren't too high, so plenty of sunlight streams in - far prettier than the dark, cold lagoon of the day before! The crew were particularly helpful at this stop, as well as the next, offering a dry pack to take phones and cameras inside, which I made use of, and even using the life ring to ferry our slightly older passengers, and weaker swimmers, to and from the boat.

     We continued on to Secret Beach, famous for being the supposed inspiration for Alex Garland's novel The Beach (now on my to-read list, after visiting the spot). To reach this one, we had to swim from the boat again, but rather than through a small hole, the beach is only hidden by a line of rock, with a wide opening at either end, and is shallow most of the way, so you only have to swim the first short stretch, and can wade through the rest. This was possibly the most beautiful and unique spot I visited on either tour. I was more than happy to just lay in the shallows again, and soak in the sun and the beauty surrounding me. I also couldn't help but wonder how incredible it would be to have that beach to yourself, so peaceful and idyllic (naturally it was full of other tourists while we were there).

Hidden Beach on Tour C around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Secret Beach on Tour C around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

View looking out from Cadlao Lagoon on Tour C or D around Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

     Finally, most Tour C packages advertise Matinloc Shrine as the fifth stop, but for some reason we went to Cadlao Lagoon instead, usually included on Tour D. I didn't really realise this until later on, but I didn't particularly mind either, as it was another lovely spot. The water is quite shallow, but our boat slowly crawled it's way to the middle of the lagoon, being very careful as it did so. The water was such a bright shade of turquoise, and the sun was beginning to get lower in the sky, giving the place more of that golden glow, especially towards the end. I believe there was some snorkelling if you swam out to the entrance, but I didn't make it that far, instead just swimming around the lagoon for a while, spotting a few fish, then floating in the middle of its tranquility for a while.

     When I returned to the boat, I decided to sit on the side, feet dangling over the edge, and remained there for the journey back to town (we didn't have this wider area on our boat the day before). I never spent much time on boats when I was younger, as my parents were never that keen on them, but I seem to do it quite regularly on my travels now. I've always liked swimming and being in the water, and cruising along the top of it seems to be just as much fun for me! And to be sitting on the edge like that, gliding past this spectacular scenery - definitely a good way to finish off my trip.

     After that, I just had a couple of days of travel to get back to Hong Kong, with flight delays and missed connections along the way, of course - there's a reason so many people consider Manila airport to be the worst in the world... And then my time in the Philippines came to an end. It was definitely the sort of trip I needed, to have some time in the sea and in the sun, and to just relax for a while. It's a very beautiful country, and most of the people there were very friendly and helpful - my only complaint was the transport infrastructure. El Nido may be more awkward to get to than Boracay, but the scenery and beaches on those island hopping tours do make the journey worthwhile, and I'm glad I went now before it gets as popular and busy as Boracay. I enjoyed Boracay too, for different reasons - it's just as beautiful, perfect for lazy beach days (El Nido less so, since you only visit the best beaches briefly on the tours), and I thoroughly enjoyed my people watching there. There are so many other islands that make up the Philippines though - I've visited my top two choices now, but perhaps I'll be back again to see more one day.

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