For most people, the word Philippines conjures up images of white beaches with sand like milk powder (Boracay), rice terraces and funny chocolate looking hills (Bohol), swimming with whale sharks (Donsol) or smoke retching contraptions resembling a conjugal cross between a jeep and a bus (jeepneys) – and not a very happy cross either. It’s also one of the few places in the world where you can pretty much go off the map and unwind at islands that few have ever heard off, much less visited. I decided to be like Leo DiCaprio and dump civilization behind, look for something a little less ordinary, with plenty of dive sites and good beaches. So I landed at the island of Palawan, located south west of the Philippine island chain, and travelled all the way to its northern tip to a place called El Nido.
The town itself is small, nestled between limestone karst formations, at the northern most point of Palawan island. It’s surrounded by some of the most pristine beaches of Philippines, as well as scores of uninhabited islands. You have access to world class dive sites and even better snorkelling around the archipelago. The stunning beaches of Nacpan and Las Cabanas are a trike ride away.
By itself, El Nido is really nothing to look at. Just some disjointed streets leading up to a boat infested beach. There’s really no swimming here. Just a lot of bars and restaurants. ATMs are scarce so take money out at Puerto Princessa or Manila. It’s the areas around that make this little town such a gem.
If you’re looking for a great night-life then this is definitely not the place for you. Try Boracay for that. There are a couple of beach side bars (mostly with 10 tourists and 300 locals) and a couple of restaurants, mostly serving local fare. Still, the seafood here is cheap, the alcohol cheaper and the bars go on till the early morning.
But the main attraction of El Nido lies in the surrounding islands.
The snorkeling tours here are the first thing you do. The marine life around the islands is exquisite, even if you’ve just come from Thailand. There are 4 tours, out of which the tours A and C are quite popular. They all include lunch on board and it’s surprisingly good. If you’re travelling with 4 or more persons, it’s best to take a private boat. It’ll cost the same and you can adjust the route across the islands depending upon the crowds you see.
We just reversed the course they normally take and found most of the snorkeling sites empty before the tourist hordes arrived. Enquire beforehand about the months when plankton levels are high, as the visibly goes down drastically.
You can also camp overnight on one of the islands. Most of the surrounding islands are small and uninhabited. A lot of outfits can arrange hammocks, food, tents, boats etc for you to spend a night in any one of these islands. Completely devoid of human habitation, it’s a great experience to sleep just looking at the stars. It’s like having your own private island.
The diving around here is, of course, one of the best and cheapest in the world. A couple of hours boat-ride away is the island of Coron, where you can do wreck-diving inside Japanese World War 2 boats. That too in 14 meters of water. As always, remember to take into account the time of the year so as not to dive during plankton season. It also coincides with the arrival of lots of marine life, yes, but also horrible visibility and lots of jellyfish.
Hire bikes or scooters and ride down to Duli and Nacpan beaches. Just north of El Nido and virtually uninhabited, they are a great way to spend the day. Nacpan has a couple of places serving beer and some food and plenty of clear sand, with the advantage of watching the sunset over the ocean. If you have more time then ride further up in the day to Duli beach. Duli has only one place to eat, with only a small private resort. It’s a great place to just loose yourself. The road is harsh, the rains will make them slushy, but believe me, they’re worth it.
Have a cocktail at Republica. It’s a small bar which only opens in the evening and is about 15 minutes from El Nido town by tricycle. It has the BEST sunset views on the island and makes no bones about the fact. Get in early to save one of the good seats, order a Mango Slice cocktail (Grey goose and mango frozen) and just enjoy the next 45 minutes, preferably with some you are (or hope to be) romantically involved with and who is way out of your league. Some might stay for dinner but most are here just to absorb the sea slowly turning orange.
Visit the local market for some street food. Philippines has some of the cheapest seafood in the world and there are food stalls (like night markets) which sell fiendishly tasty food. It’s incredible how wealthy a beer and a plate of crabs for 200 pesos make you feel.
Lastly and most importantly, visit Las cabanas beach. This was definitely my highlight here, just for lazing around and capturing great sunset views. The jellyfish season that I had stumbled into made sure that swimming was out of the question, but the calm waters also made sure that most people tried their luck. Much to the enjoyment of the rest of us watching them squeal and run out of the water. Great restaurants and lots of places with beach chair to just laze around after days of snorkelling.
How To Get Here.
Reaching El Nido is half the battle. Local airlines fly from Manila a couple of times a day, to the capital city of Puerto Princesa, from where you can take either a shuttle (aircon and faster), or bus (suicidal and cheaper) for a drive of about 6 hours to reach the tip of the island of Palawan.