|This unedited article is for a commissioned travel feature
in Travel 3Sixty magazine of AirAsia, January 2012.
The map was beautifully colored in… Then on one of a cluster of small islands I noticed a black mark. An X mark. I looked closer. Written underneath in tiny letters was the word ‘Beach’.
– Alex Garland, The Beach
“Slow and steady,” I muttered to myself, drawing perseverance from the small brown snail beside me inching its way up the precipice. What my friends and I expected to be a manageable “hike” up the citadels of marble and limestone guarding El Nido town in northern Palawan turned out to be an unnerving climb up bladed boulders and gaping sinkholes. Above us, a troop of long-tailed macaques slipped into the overhanging foliage. “We’re almost there,” our tour guide Mahie Ermino lied again. Looking ahead, we were no more than halfway up the 230-meter high taraw or limestone cliff. “I once accompanied a 72-year-old Australian lady to the top,” he assured us in Filipino, “If she can do it, you can too.”
|El Nido is characterized by dramatic karsts like these ones in Matinloc Island
Thankfully, Ermino’s step-by-step supervision (and bagful of encouraging half-truths) delivered us unscathed to the mountain’s jagged crown where our determination rewarded us with the incredible vista that intrepid travelers risk life and limb to see. Before us, a languid seaside village awoke to the citrusy sunshine pouring onto an amber crescent of sand, lapped up by azure waters. “A view to die for,” a friend aptly described it. Distracted by the morning spectacle, we managed to play oblivious to the 40-storey sheer drop as we posed for proofs of our audacity, flashing cheesy smiles at our cameras like everything was simply a walk in the park. On the left side of the cove, Cadlao Island – the largest of the offshore islands in the Bacuit Archipelago – peered at the white outrigger boats scattered across the bay, one of them we hired to continue our adventures offshore.
|Fresh coconut at Seven Commandos
Besides admiring such screensaver-pretty views, fearless locals called busyadores have been climbing these karsts for centuries for a lucrative reason. Chinese traders began visiting these Philippine shores during the Song Dynasty (AD 960 to 1279) to trade for edible bird’s nest or nido in Spanish, a strange delicacy that eventually gave the settlement its name. The so-called “white gold” consists of solidified saliva from black swiftlets residing in the craggy skyscrapers that characterize much of Palawan’s northern coastlines.
Eating gourmet nido soup is traditionally believed to provide many health benefits such as aiding digestion, raising libido and improving the immune system. “Today, the finest grade of bird’s nest can fetch up to USD 4,500 per kilogram,” reveals tourism officer Bong Sabenacio, whose family once owned the largest concession of swiftlet caves in town.
|Sunset over the islands of Bacuit Bay
However, most residents have now turned to more environmentally friendly industries such as sustainable tourism to earn a living. For centuries, El Nido remained far removed from the rest of the world until three decades ago, explains resort owner Henri Fernandez of Entalula Beach Cottages. In 1979, a fishing line disabled the propeller of a Japanese dive boat, forcing the crew to spend a night in an inlet. The next day, the divers awoke to the surreal seascape of jade forests and impressive cliffs rising out of sparkling lagoons. “They had to slap their faces to make sure they weren’t dreaming!” Fernandez recounts.
After the incident, word of paradise spread quickly. In the following years, a gravel airstrip was built to fly in luxury travelers to the high-end resorts put up by Filipino and Japanese investors on a few offshore islands. Later on, backpackers began arriving in the main town, where affordable guesthouses, restaurants and dive shops have sprouted, mostly along the beachfront. More recently, El Nido appeared in The Amazing Race 5 and Koh-Lanta, the French franchise of Survivor. Remarkably, despite earning global attention, the place has preserved its laid-back appeal. “To minimize the impact of tourism on the environment,” explains Fernandez, “we advocate a ‘low density, high value’ policy.” Convivial locals complement the relaxed, uncrowded atmosphere. Unlike the touristy beaches of Puerto Galera or Boracay Island, this destination is fortunately free of aggressive touts. And, most surprisingly, electricity is only available at night, when the most happening spots in town are a few beachside drinking holes serenaded by acoustic guitar and percussion.
|Drink in the underwater marvels of Shimizu Island and other snorkeling spots
Our stupendous climb whetted our appetite for more adventures. We boarded a motorized bangka (outrigger canoe) to explore the archipelagic dreamscape of Bacuit Bay, which encompasses some 45 islands and islets. These coralline formations were born 250 million years ago – that’s long before dinosaurs roamed – in a shallow sea covering the area that North Vietnam and South China now occupy. Sculpted by nature’s whim and wrath, this limestone labyrinth now spelled one word: “idyllic”.
As the stone sentries of Miniloc Island drew our boat into the turquoise embrace of Small Lagoon, we gaped at the unbelievable scenery – not unlike those stranded divers in 1979. “There’s something magical about this place,” says Hugo Herrera, a Panamanian friend studying in Manila who joined the trip. His sister Jessica couldn’t agree more. “El Nido really transports you away from all the stress of the city,” she says, “It’s the perfect place to get lost.” Indeed, organized island-hopping tours are the most convenient way to explore the isles, but you can kayak to discover a beach hideaway all to yourself, or – for a Robinson Crusoe experience – camp overnight at one of the islands.
|Enjoy a seafood picnic by the beach!
With over 50 sugar-white beaches and 30 dive spots, you are definitely spoilt with choice. For sun-worshippers, there are broad stretches of soft sand at Seven Commandos Beach and Helicopter Island, to name the most popular. Shimizu Island and Tapiutan Strait, on the other hand, were great places to snorkel and enjoy a fiesta of underwater life. As part of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area – the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines – the Bacuit Archipelago is refuge to over 100 species of corals, 800 species of fish, six species of marine mammals (including the native dugong) and four species of endangered sea turtles, which are frequently sighted in the area.
In Matinloc Island, an intriguing terrain is Secret Beach – an enclosed tidal pool accessible only by swimming through an underwater passage – that, so the story goes, inspired British novelist Alex Garland to write the 1996 bestseller-turned-movie, The Beach. While set in Thailand, the novel was largely influenced by the author’s experience in the Philippines, where he lived for six months. Secret Beach was attractive, but we were more impressed by its grander sibling: Hidden Beach, a glassy cove concealed by jagged outcrops. During our visit, we encountered a juvenile blue-spotted stingray patrolling us from the shin-deep shallows.
At Seven Commandos Beach, an explosion of tangerine daubed the sky, signaling our departure. “Can you see the face?” Ermino asked, pointing at Cadlao Island as our boat retreated back to the mainland. “When the sunlight hits that mountain just right,” he explained, “you can see a smiling face on its peak.” Through the lavender glow of dusk, I could barely make out the fabled smile on Cadlao’s face. Nonetheless, as I daydreamed about getting stranded in this tropical bliss, I couldn’t deny the one I harbored on mine.
|El Nido Cliffside Cottages
AirAsia flies to Clark (Manila) from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. Visit www.airasia.com for full flight schedules.
From Manila, fly to El Nido or Puerto Princesa. Lio Airport is located 4km away from El Nido town. Alternately, one can take a public bus or van to El Nido from Puerto Princesa for 5 to 7 hours.
The best time to visit is between December and May, during the drier months.
Island hopping, kayaking and cliff climbing can be arranged through guesthouses and tour operators. Boat tours include snorkeling gear and picnic lunches. Don’t forget to pay the conservation fee of PHP 200 (USD 5) per person, valid for ten days.
WHERE TO STAY: El Nido town offers several budget resorts such as El Nido Cliffside Cottages (+63 9197856625) and Entalula Beach Cottages. For upscale options, check out El Nido Resorts.
CURRENCY: Philippine currency is called peso (PHP) and is sub-divided into 100 centavos. 1 USD gets you around PHP 43. It is advised that you bring enough cash for your entire stay, since there are no ATMs in town. Only a few establishments accept credit cards.