Wednesday, January 4, 2017

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines: Why this island paradise should be your next destination

Note: Edited article originally published on The Binge. Below is the longer, more personal account of my trip. Have fun reading and GO.TO. PALAWAN. NOW.






The Philippines boasts of some of the most stunning beaches in the world. Why not, with its more than 7,000 islands, mostly untouched by modernity, it is easy to see why this archipelago has been creating noise as the next Asian beach hotspot.

Having been raised in the Philippines where fine white sands and turquoise waters are considered basic, my standard for beach getaways is pretty high. It is easy to name Philippine beach destinations – Boracay, Moalboal, Panglao, Siargao and I’m sure there are more, but one place always lands the top of the list: El Nido, Palawan.

I recently visited the once sleepy town during my balik kampung (“return to village/home”), and boy it blew my mind! There I saw astonishing limestone cliffs, beautiful lagoons, colourful sea creatures and probably the most amazing sunset. I also discovered that while El Nido was once known for luxurious 5-star island resorts which made it seem unreachable, it has now evolved to catering to mid and even low budget travelers. Thanks to low-cost airlines, growing interest in backpacking and DIY traveling and the wonders of crowdsourcing, there is really no reason not to visit this paradise.



Here is the lowdown on El Nido:

The best time to visit
Summer in the Philippines is typically from February to May. However, it is also known for unpredictable rains so it is best to keep track. We traveled in November and enjoyed four days of sun and two days of rain. The good thing is that we were able to take advantage of non-peak rates as the high season (and price) starts only in December.

Getting to El Nido
El Nido is a small municipality in the northern tip of the province of Palawan. There is no international flight to El Nido so you have to fly to Manila and then jump on a domestic flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. I bought my KL-Manila-KL ticket via Air Asia for RM650 and Manila-Puerto Princesa-Manila ticket via Cebu Pacific for Php3,600 (RM323).

From Puerto Princesa airport, you can ride a tricycle (Fiipino version of tuk-tuk) for Php50 (RM 4.50) to the terminal and take a bus for Php380 (RM34). The bus ride will take about seven hours. Alternatively, you can take the van from the airport for Php500 (RM45) saving you one hour of travel time. The road is paved but ride could be bumpy. I suggest to take a pill if you are prone to motion sickness. We learned it the hard way.

Where to stay
If you are a backpack traveler, check out OMP Hostel (Php 350/night or RM31). They offer group tours, and my friends all vouched for its no-frills, homey feel. 

We stayed at SPIN Designer Hostel located at the heart of the town and got the private double room with AC and ensuite bathroom for Php2,600 or RM235/night. I loved the place because it’s a balance of comfort and affordability. It is tastefully designed, clean and the staff are helpful. Plus, I like the fact that since it’s a hostel, you still get to mingle and talk with fellow travelers while still having some privacy. They also serve really good breakfast complete with pancake and egg station, breads, jams and cheese, fruits and unlimited coffee and juice.

If you feel like splurging or on honeymoon, there are world-renowned luxury island resorts like El Nido Resorts Lagen Island or Matinloc Resort with price ranging from Php20,000 to Php100,000 or RM2,200 to RM9,000/night.

Now that you know the travel basics, let me walk you through the million-dollar question – What to do in El Nido?

Secret Beach

Explore the islands
If there is one reason to visit El Nido, it’s definitely to go island-hopping! There are several island hopping tour package to choose from and a gazillion tour providers lined up the street. Look for Emma’s Travel & Tours around the corner of Serena Street for the lowest prices. The tour packages are usually as follows:
  • Tour A: Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Simizu Island, Secret Lagoon and 7 Commando Beach
  • Tour B: Entalula Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Snake Island, Cudugnon Cave and Cathedral Cave
  • Tour C: Hidden Beach, Helicopter Island, Secret Beach, Matinloc Shrine and Star Beach
  • Tour D: Bukal Beach, Ipil Beach, Paradise Beach, Cadlao Lagoon and Pasandigan Island
You can also do a combination tour with A+C being the most popular. Price ranges from Php 1,200 (RM108) for one tour or Php1,500 (RM135) for combination (plus Php200/person for environmental fee) which already includes buffet lunch, snorkel gears and English-speaking and friendly tour guide. 

Our guide, Victor, was a powerhouse – telling us all the information about the islands while throwing gossips of who owns which island and making jokes on the side. The combination tour last the whole day from 8am to 5pm. We joined the A+C tour which brought us to a total of seven islands with 20 to 30-minute stay in each plus a good spread of rice, grilled fish, meat and fruits for lunch. It was worth every penny!

If you’re not in a hurry, you can take each tour on its own, but for time and budget’s sake, a combination tour would be the better choice. If you’re traveling in a group of 5 or more, you can rent a private boat for Php3,500-4,000 (RM315-360) depending on your haggling skills, and customise your itinerary instead.

Kayaking at Small Lagoon

Each of the islands and lagoons has its own charms and are equally stunning. It is hard to choose one over the other but my favorite has to be the Small Lagoon. You can rent a kayak for Php300 (RM27) to explore the inner caves and magnificent limestone formations.

Do not forget to bring enough water, snacks and sunscreen with at least SPF 30. A good pair of sunnies and a hat will also come handy. Do look out for the floating coconut vendor, too. Filipinos are truly hardworking hence the fishermen normally moonlight as coconut/ice cream or beer vendors at sea!


Hired a private boatman ;)

Lay on Las Cabanas beach all day
A 15-20-minute tricycle ride from the town, Las Cabanas beach is famous among tourists and is a perfect place to sun bathe and enjoy a lazy day. The beach is very clean and the water is clear. There are bars and restaurants that provide deck chairs for its customers. Stay until 6pm for a spectacular sunset. The fare for the tricycle is Php150/way (RM13.50) and you can arrange for your driver to pick you up at the end of the day. 

Sunset at Las Cabanas

Take the Zip line
Also located at Las Cabanas, the zip line is 750 meters long and connects to a nearby island. It is short but fun and gives you a good view of the sea and surrounding islands. You have to hike for 5-10 minutes, take the zip line and then walk along the coastline back to the beach. Two-way zip line is also available but I didn’t mind walking the rocky shores as the view is pretty nice too. Price is Php500 (RM45) for a one-way trip.



Go on a road trip to Nacpan beach
We rented a motorbike for Php400 (RM36) and rode to Nacpan beach for about an hour. The road is 80% paved and the rest is bumpy and muddy, but it’s all part of the fun! You’ll pass by long stretches of dense mountains and green fields littered with carabaos, cows, goats and flocks of white birds. The ride itself is a treat!

If you cannot ride a motorbike, you can rent a habal-habal (motorbike with a driver) or a tricycle to bring you to Nacpan beach for Php 1,500/day (RM135). Upon reaching Nacpan, you have to pay an environmental fee of Php30 (RM2.70). The beach is pristine and there are a few huts that sell Filipino meals, fruit shakes and fresh coconuts. There are no big resorts but I saw a few rooms for rent if you wish to stay the night. We stayed for the rest of the afternoon and decided to head back to town before dark because there are no street lights.

Roadside on the way to Nacpan Beach

Climb Taraw Cliff
About 230 meters above sea level, Taraw cliff offers a panoramic view of Bacuit Bay. The hike takes around an hour depending on your strength and ability, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. The terrain is rocky, very steep and filled with sharp limestone rocks and is often hiked with no safety ropes which makes it quite risky. However, once you reach the peak, the view will take your breath away. 

If you decide to go YOLO, you have to book a guide for Php500/person (RM45) with minimum of two persons. Make sure to wear proper hiking shoes (no slippers!) and bring water. It’s also advisable to wear long pants and put on sunblock.
  
Giant limestone karst overlooking El Nido town | Photo courtesy of Jefferson Co
Go crazy with food
El Nido has lots of food places ranging from local to Asian and Western cuisines. We made it a point to try different restaurants but we didn’t really find one single place to rave about. Little Italy’s pizza was good. Mezzanine’s homemade pasta was great, but the pizza was so-so. Altrove’s pizza, which has raving reviews, disappointed us with its gummy crust. I wanted to give it a second chance but we were only able to try it on our last night as the queue was always long.

There are good seafood places along the bay where you can buy fresh fish, squid, prawns, and other types of shellfish – cooked the way you want. Garlic butter is a must try!

Make sure to try the Philippines’ own beer, San Miguel, which is known as one of the best in Asia. For a stronger kick, go for Red Horse beer. If you are on the adventurous side, try Palawan’s crocodile sisig (minced crocodile meat cooked on a sizzling plate with onions and chilies) and tamilok (woodworm). There is something for everyone!



Go bar hopping
As El Nido became more touristy, bars and party places abound around the town and along the bay. Our hostel arranges pub crawl nights where you get to bar hop with the other travelers, which I think is a cool way to meet new people especially for solo travelers. We opted to go drinking at our own pace, and ended up watching live bands and fire dancers at Pukka Bar for two nights in a row. Even if you’re not into drinking, you can still walk along the beach under the moonlight and just enjoy the atmosphere.

Get a massage and try the traditional Filipino ‘Hilot’
We ended our 6-day trip with a cheap but really good massage. You can get one by Las Cabanas beach for Php600/hour (RM54) for Swedish or combination massage, or choose among the many small massage parlours in the town proper where it’s even cheaper at Php400/hour (RM36). Just take note that these are just basic beds with curtain dividers so it’s not for the picky. If you want the spa ambiance and experience, go to The Organic Spa but make sure to book in advance as the waiting time can be long. While you’re at it, give the traditional Filipino massage called ‘Hilot’ a try. It’s a deep tissue massage with coconut oil and banana leaves and is believed to have healing effects.

Mother nature has outdone herself with El Nido because every nook and cranny is postcard perfect. I have snorkeled in quite a few places in and outside the Philippines but only El Nido made me scream underwater. 

By the time we reached the third site where the famed Matinloc Shrine is, I’m already convinced that it’s time to stop making excuses and take the diving course that I’ve always wanted but never really pursued. You see, traveling does wonders to one’s personal growth. It helps you clear your mind and break away from the routine inspiring you to take action. In my case, it drove me to finally chase a lifelong dream. If you haven’t been to El Nido, do yourself a favor and book the next flight out. You’ll be surprised what this charming place can do to you.  




Are you visiting anytime soon? Let me know how it goes! 

Cheers,
B

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