Exploring Palawan’s gem, El Nido
THE thought of Palawan in the Philippines conjures images of unspoilt, natural splendor and yet it cannot accurately portray just how otherworldly its hidden gem is.
El Nido acts as the gateway to Bacuit Bay’s endless white beaches, crystal-clear turquoise waters and towering karst cliffs. The 45 islands and islets offer numerous opportunities for those who want to simply enjoy a visual exploration of their surroundings, appreciate the diversity of its natural environment and especially, a multitude of ways to satisfy your need for adventure.
A small coastal town that might otherwise go unnoticed, El Nido survives mainly on visitors’ dollars and yet, it has managed to avoid the kind of tourist boom that brings high-rise hotels and throngs of people. For a while yet, you’ll be able to visit what is considered the last frontier of the Philippines and feel like you’ve stumbled upon a secret paradise.
Things might have been different if people realized that Alex Garland might have based his novel “The Beach” on Matinloc Island instead of Maya Bay on infamous Phi Phi Leh. Even though most of the novel was set in Thailand, Garland spent a great deal of time in the Philippines before writing the book that turned into a major film production and began the tourist influx to the Phi Phi Islands and specifically Maya Bay. If the rumors are true, then Bacuit Bay has thankfully managed to remain a hideout due to a case of mistaken identity.
But Bacuit Bay offers so much more than just the obvious beach attractions. Manta rays, dugongs and even whale sharks call the 30 or more dive sites home while forests boast numerous bird species while hidden islets are just waiting to be discovered. The most popular activity is of course hiring fishing boats at El Nido beach for island hopping.
The typical tour ranges from P700 – P900 (about 16-21USD) per person and includes lunch, an English-speaking guide and boat rental. While there are 4 regular tour packages, the best option is negotiating a private trip to the islands, allowing you to decide what you want to see, and how long you want to stay while avoiding other tourists, even though they’re certainly in smaller numbers than in Thailand.
Enjoy a seafood barbecue on a makeshift pit on the sand and stroll down the curving sandbar of Snake Island to relax but the island also offers a chance to hike up to the peak through tropical trees and lush rainforests where you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of Bacuit Bay. Lagen is another great place to hike where you might encounter curious monkeys and the Palawan hornbill before reaching yet another striking cove.
If you’re after even more adventure, visit Helicopter Island. Its underwater cave on the northern side can be found at a depth of 50 – 80 feet and can be reached after swimming through a 15 – 20 mm tunnel. It’s an underwater venue that promises an exciting adventure and boasts exotic fish and crabs including pipefish, tobies, sea snakes and lobsters.
Miniloc’s lagoon is spectacular to swim in, but even better to try out by rock jumping into it. If you’re staying on the island, just in front of the Miniloc’s resort is a dock that a variety of sea life call home. Snorkel with meter long jackfish and hundreds of other tropical fish like sergeant majors and fusiliers. Almost all the islands are great to explore by kayak, allowing those who choose a workout, an additional chance to check out hidden coves that the fishing boats can’t fit into.
Cudugnon Cave used to be, as archaeologists believe, a burial site during the Neolithic period. It was also used by locals as a secret hideout from the Japanese during WWII. Explore the stunning geological formations and limestone layers in a day of archeological exploration.
Whatever your reason for choosing to go to El Nido, you’ll certainly find many more to extend your trip. El Nido’s endless activities in a secluded, beautiful environment is certainly one of the last frontiers for rustic adventure.