The stunning destination in Palawan, Philippines, is all about embracing the laid-back beach life.
Photos by Daron Stoker
The Philippines has less than half the population of Indonesia and Indonesia is more than six times the land size of its Northern neighbour, yet, there are some striking similarities. Both, for instance, are archipelagos with stunning islands and coastlines, and both economies rely heavily on tourism.
Take El Nido, for instance. If it’s beaches you want, it’s beaches that El Nido has… in abundance. Hire a boat to search the azure-blue waters and dotted amongst the limestone cliffs that jut out of the water you will find lagoons of various shapes and sizes along with small beaches, big beaches, secret beaches and hidden beaches. El Nido is, unarguably, the place to find some of the best quiet beaches in the world.
El Nido, in Spanish, means the nest and it can be found tucked away on the northern tip of Palawan Island, facing East into the South China Sea. There are a number of ways to reach it, either by plane from Manila or by a range of motor transportations that connect it to Palawan’s main city of Puerto Princesa; you can even take a ferry from Manila. In hindsight, we regretted not doing our homework and flying directly into El Nido. That connecting cab ride from Puerto Princesa that I mentioned, listed at four to five hours, takes closer to six hours and after a 4-hour flight from Jakarta that can make for a long journey when you consider how close the two countries are. The saving grace of a long drive is that you do get to see plenty of the countryside and it is particularly rural, and beautiful, and with very little in the way of modernisation.
Arriving in El Nido town, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve arrived in a less than prime location. When we visited, El Nido was showing signs of a metamorphosis from it’s current, relatively unknown state, into what will surely be a must-see highlight on traveller maps in the near future. You can already find anything from hostels to 5-star hotels.
Currently, it would appear that every other business you find is trying to sell you the same island hopping tours. The effect of this is that you would assume a healthy competition although there would definitely appear to be an agreement between the operators that there is a bottom price that no one will undercut. We joined a tour that included Hidden Beach, Star Beach, Secret Beach, Matinloc Temple and Helicopter Island (it really does look like a helicopter in profile!). Do watch out for hidden charges, though. This is an area of natural beauty and, as such, the government is trying to protect this with local taxes the proceeds of which go towards the general upkeep. The snorkelling was, unsurprisingly, the standout feature of the boat trip and to top it all off included a Tomb Raider-style swim through a small hole in a rock face into a totally secluded beach!
On top of the island hopping, we had a half-day out at the local Kuyawyaw waterfalls. Choosing to travel by trike, local motorized tricycle, we drove the 40 minutes there in relative comfort. The 3-stage falls are fairly easy to manage being about a fifteen minute walk apart. The going is ok for sure-footed adults and kids but the third stage involves a steep climb so be prepared with the correct footwear. It’s worth mentioning that the locals who operate the food and beverage stalls are some of the nicest people I have met. Not pushy and definitely not expensive.
We joined a group bus tour to the nearby Nacpan Beach. In El Nido, you can choose to hire tour buses privately or alternatively book seats in a group service, the price depends accordingly. An Instagram-able spot if ever there was one, this beautiful stretch of sand, adjacent to rice paddies and serviced by restaurants and cafes selling truly excellent and inexpensive food, was a great choice for a day trip.
Which brings me around to the food. There are some chillies in dishes but food is much calmer in the spicy category. Even asking for extra chillies produced something akin to indifference. Philippine food also seems sweet, from the bread to the milk to the juices, to the savoury dishes. Still, there are some fabulous restaurants and hotels serving classic local dishes like Adobo and Sissig, plenty of international cuisine to choose from which represents the varied nationalities who travel here, and delicious juices and shakes. A sizeable amount of sugar so the alcoholic by-product, rum, is readily available. Local brewed beers include San Miguel Light and San Miguel Pale but do watch out for a beer called Red Horse as it is significantly stronger in terms of alcohol.
Downsides? The internet on the island is currently quite pitiful. It is possible to go days without a speedy connection, so if you need to maintain contact with the outside world you might want to check with your hotel first. Secondly, all transactions I made were in cash. From booking the trips to eating in a 5-star beachside restaurant whose accommodation started at 10,000 pesos a night, no one accepted credit cards. There are cash points in the banks in El Nido that accept all of the major card symbols and also places where you can exchange American Dollars, too, but it’s only fair to be aware.