Month: January 2013

A Gastronomic Weekend in Cebu

Imagine this: a colossal asteroid is bound to collide with the earth next week, will release the energy of billions of nuclear bombs detonating simultaneously and will predictably cause the extinction of human race. How will you spend your last few days?

In my ideal Catholic world, I’d go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and lament my guilt in all seven deadly sins. Or if the wretched sinner in me decides to immerse in the worldly desires for the last time, I’d say I’d fly first class to the hedonistic Ibiza.Realistically though, both are unattainable due to time constraints and my current net worth, so I would have to narrow down my options. Cebu City could be the cheapest alternative route if I insouciantly choose the latter.I imagine my pre-doomsday indulgence to be quite a bit like my Sinulog Festival 2013 weekend.With an irrepressible lust for a good time, I have made this my January tradition. Nights before the festival, the city metamorphoses into an astronomical dance floor full of frenzied revelers deifying the finest DJs. From the astounding display of colors during the Sinulog parade to the insanely wet and wild street parties, Cebu is not just a place but a spectacular, an indulgent and an unapologetic experience.

But the revelries and the pageants only make up two thirds of the pie. A Cebu experience will never be complete without gratifying your taste buds with the wickedly delectable delicacies.Have you ever indulged in a Cebu Lechon? I recklessly had several in three days, as if the world were really to blow up and crumble. Though I’ve been to Cebu numerous times before, this is the first time I have pilgrimaged to several food spots and savored every last morsel of their specialties.

Let me share with you some of my unforgettable food exploits during the Sinulog weekend.

1.)   Rico’s Lechon

       The Ridges, Panagdait,Mabolo (beside Sykes) (032) 3440119, (032) 3455688

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Rico’s wasn’t my first Lechon stop in Cebu, but Ican’t wait to tell you about it. It wasn’t even part of my must-visit list. I may have heard about Rico’s on television but there wasn’t much recall and well, hype, compared to its competitor Zubuchon.There were inadvertent publicities though, courtesy of the cab driver from the airport and my friends Ras and Cathy.But as the cliché goes, the best things in life are those that come unforeseen.

The lechon was piping hot, fresh off the spit, just the way we wanted it. The pervasive aroma of garlic and leeks from the lechon’s belly had me and the other customers drooling as we watched the brownish-red medium-sized pig being chopped. We could see the juices squirting from the meat.The crackling of the skin, which was practically falling apart from the meat, everytime the knife lands on it just fired up our eagerness. We had 2 platefuls: one was the Lechon Original and the other was the owner Enrico Dionson’s invention, the Spicy Lechon.

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The smoky aroma and the pleasant saltiness of the skin teased my palate. The skin’s fusion of fatty and salty flavors was immensely comforting it was like an explosion in my mouth at first bite. I could hear it crackle as I chewed. Cathy, Ras and I couldn’t help but exclaim “Oooohhh my God” in oblivious unison at every crunch

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Surprisingly, the lechon isn’t greasy. The very thin layer of fat clinging to the back of the skin is remarkable. This is because Rico’s roasts only free-range pigs, according to the waiter. I particularly requested for the belly part so you can just imagine the garlicky and herbal flavors that seeped into its succulent meat.

The spicy version is equally savory, but very fiery. Thelechon’s cavity is lavished with chopped chilies, and it had me sweating profusely as I indulged.Not for those with timid palate.

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I am passionate about lechon and I must say that Rico’s is perfect. This is how a lechon should be: simple yet very flavorful, familiar and traditionally roasted to perfection.

Aside from the lechon, we ordered some interesting items on the menu. I was curious about the Lechon

Carbonara. It is a platter of fettuccini in white sauce with bits of ham, shredded lechon and grated cheese on top. It is very subtle, almost bland, but has a creamy and buttery aftertaste. Average.

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The Garden Fresh Salad is made of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes on a bed of lettuce, with mayo dressing and lechon bits on top. Its freshness is flaunted by the bright colors of the vegetables. Overall, however, I find it forgettable.

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We also had the Munggo Lechon soup. The broth is clear unlike the usual munggo dishes, has lechon bits in it and seasoned just right, not too salty. Its simplicity is the perfect antidote to the fatal and intensely flavorful lechon.

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Mr.Rico Dionson, the owner (the guy in white near the counter) entertaining the diners.

Mr.Rico Dionson, the owner (the guy in white near the counter) entertaining the diners.

 

2.) Z Bar

The Tinder Box, Archbishop Reyes Road Banilad, Cebu City (6332) 234 1681-85

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Z Bar is a diorama of a surreal universe, where our world is a crumbling cocoon of extraterrestrial vastness. At least that’s how I interpret the unique and intricate designs of its interior.

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Small and glowing wishbone-shaped twigs randomly attached to spiderwebs of steel make up the “crumbling cocoon”, which is chandeliered by a “full moon” lamp made of salagofibers. The lighted floor, made of onyx, is like an ocean reflecting the glorious moon above it. Several cylindrical lamps, also made of salago, hang just above the tables.

Later on I’ve learned that the interior design is a collaboration between modernist architect Ed Calma and internationally acclaimed furniture designer Kenneth Cobonque. The latter’s clients include Queen Rania of Jordan and Hollywood A-listers Brad Pitt, Will-i-am and Kelly Rowland.

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Though it may look intimidating from the outside, Z Bar is actually very welcoming and has surprisingly affordable food and wine on its wide selection. The sofa seats are soft and comforting and complements the cozy ambience. This is the perfect chill-out place, where you and your friends can talk over a bottle of wine.

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My friends and I tried two of their bestsellers- the Beef Salpicao and the Herb & Garlic Marinated Chicken.

The familiar-looking Beef Salpicao is accompanied by two slices of baguette. Firm on the outside, the beef is waiting for your teeth to unleash the juices trapped inside. I love the piquancy of the crunchy bell peppers, garlic and onions in its thick dark red sauce. This is the best beef I had in years.

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The Herb and Garlic Marinated Chicken and its rice are impeccably garnished with herbs and shredded potatoes. The dish comes with a light serving of the zesty cucumber salad and gravy, whose smooth and creamy texture complemented the tender, moist and subtly flavorful baked chicken.

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Cathy, Ras and I obliviously finished two bottles of wine. The night was perfect.

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3.) STK Ta Bay! In Paolito’s Seafood House

#6 Orchid St., Capitol Site, Cebu City (6332) 2562700, 2534732

This charming and cozy seafood restaurant hides in a quiet street near the Capitol Building.

Shamefully contrasting its empty competitors right across, STK was full to the brim when we arrived.Cars of its patrons crowded the narrow streets

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The Platter’s Only You was playing in the background as we opened the door, hinting the restaurant’s dominant theme. Walking inside was like entering a 1950s time warp.The wall across the door has several paintings of the Sr.Sto Nino, whose statuettes you can find on the opposite sides of the room. Old artifacts like jars, weapons, musical instruments, vases, plates, bowls, pots, lamps, photographs, paintings, cabinets and clocks adorn each corner and wall, giving the restaurant an antique shop vibe. The dim yellow lights complete the homey overall ambience.

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Their bestsellers of course are the Sinugba na Panga (Grilled Tuna Jaw), Tinola (Fish Soup) and Kinilaw (Raw Fish in Vinegar). We only wanted a light meal since we had a lechon feast at Rico’s earlier that day, so we ordered a medium-sized Grilled Tuna Jaw, Squid Adobo and another favorite the Baked Scallops.

The medium-sized Tuna jaw is actually large enough to satisfy two hungry diners. The most flavorful Tuna parts are served hot off the grill and garnished with spring onions. STK’s version is quite different; it is basted with sweet and tangy barbeque sauce. A mixture of soy sauce, chili and kalamansi would make a perfect condiment. I loved every bit of the tuna, but it could have been juicier if it wasn’t pre-cooked. They pre-grill the tuna probably to lessen the waiting time since the place is always packed.

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The baked scallops are divine. The dish is light, has sweet and buttery flavors.

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The Squid Adobo is also a standout. The plump squid slices are tender and drenched in thick sauce, which is a mix of sweet, savory, salty and mildly spicy perfection.

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4.) Casa Verde

69 Lim TianTeng St. Ramos, Cebu City (6332) 2536472

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My Cebu trip is never complete without a huge slab of Brian’s Ribs at Casa Verde. I’ve been coming back countless times since 2008, consistently amazed at the size and the taste of the famous ribs for its price. The restaurant gives value for money, in other words.

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Though it has a Spanish name, Casa Verde serves a fusion of Filipino and American dishes. I always go to the main branch, though inconvenient at times.Casa Verde is not just about the food, but also about the experience of enjoying the fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs in a homey and comforting environment.This you wont find at the mall branches.

I can’t get enough of the ribs. It is baked to perfection and basted with sweet and tangy barbeque sauce, which has the piquancy of pepper and cumin.

We also had the Best Sampler for appetizer. The platter has Golden Fried Cheese, Buffalo Wings and Baked Potato Skins, served with marinara sauce, sour cream and bleu cheese.

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Other items I love in the menu are the succulent Surf n’ Turf and the fatally sinful Death by Chocolate. We didn’t have them this time though. We had to restrain ourselves from pigging out since we were heading to the LifedanceSinulog 2013 after.

5.) Zubuchon

Escario St., Cebu City (6332) 5050130

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Zubuchon was the reason I was anxious to sink my teeth into the much-acclaimed Cebu lechon. This brand of lechon has been featured many times on television shows and had me salivating for months, and is arguably the most popular one due to its genius marketing strategies. They have an outlet at the airport!

My taste buds simply couldn’t wait so I had to make this my first lechon stop during my recent Cebu trip. Apart from the lechon, I ordered other interesting items on the menu, such as the Zubuchon Dinuguan, Kamias Shake and the Seaweed Platter Vinaigrette.

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Though no longer hot, the lechon skin remained crisp, with a salty caramelized flavor. The meat is tender, succulent and very flavorful, even the thickest part. The infusion of lemongrass, garlic, onion, peppercorns and the non-traditional rosemary is evident on the aroma. I find it unusually oily though, and dark. It looks like it has been drenched in the drippings.

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The Zubuchon Dinuguan, which has Chicharon bits on top, is dangerously greasy as well but heavenly. It has a pleasant sour and savory taste, and the coconut milk gives the sauce an extra rich and creamy texture. Their version is innovative; they use shredded lechon instead of the usual pig’s innards.

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The Kamias Shake is surprising. Who knew that this tart fruit, which we usually use as a souring ingredient for paksiw, could be a refreshing beverage? The shake has a clean, mildly sweet and sour taste, very friendly to the taste buds. I recently learned that kamias has anti-fat properties, and is used in India to control obesity. So I guess this is the perfect antidote to the lavishly greasy lechon and dinuguan.

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6.) Tabuan Market

Carbon, Cebu City

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While most Cebu visitors would conveniently take home Dried Mangoes and Otap from Shamrock, I would brave the stenchy Tabuan Market for the bulad or dried fish. Dried Mangoes, you can find them at malls. And yes, dried fish is ubiquitous, but this is the only marketplace I know which massively sells dried fish of all varieties at a good price.

Humongous crates, brimful of pungent dried fish and squid, lining up the entire strip of the Tabuan Market show how ingenious Filipinos are. The dried fish we know is sharply salty. In Tabuan, you would find dried fish versions of our breakfast indispensables, the tocino and tapa.

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You’d be amazed that not a part of the fish goes to the hungry cat, as the bones are also dried up and cured. Yes, it becomes edible and is a good source of calcium. Fry it and it becomes very crunchy. It has a sweet caramelized flavor. The dried fishbone is a dish on its own; you may dunk it in spicy vinegar before eating it with a hefty serving of cold rice. This is one humble but heavenly meal especially when eaten with hands!

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I never go home without a bag of the unsalted danggit, the lesser evil among these kidney killers, and the tarorot or the dried squid. The pungent smell and the crunch of both when fried are addictive. They go well with cold rice and spicy native vinegar too!

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I also love the Cebu Longannisa, which you can get in bulk at an amazing price in Tabuan. Cebu’s version is distinct. The sweet and innocent taste at first bite gradually becomes spicy.

Just be warned that the place reeks of dried and fermented fish. The odor is overpowering, it sticks to your clothes. It is best to go there in the morning, before you take your shower.

7.) Pungko-Pungko

Pungku

means “to squat” in Waray or Bisaya.

Pungko-pungko are small sidewalk eateries where customers sit on low wooden stools, making them look as if they’re squatting. They are popular even among professionals and can be found sporadically in the city.

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These eateries serve the infamous Ginabut or the Cebuano version of the chicharon bulaklak. Pig intestines are seasoned, breaded and deep-fried until they become flower-shaped and crispy. The Ginabut I’ve tried near Velez College slightly differs from the usual chicharon bulaklak. It is lightly seasoned and its delectability lies on its natural fatty flavor combined with the extra crunch of the breading. The puso or rice boiled in woven coconut leaves is the perfect pair for the ginabut, which you can dip in a mixture of vinegar, onion and chili to neutralize its greasy taste.

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It is hard not to get hooked on this dangerous street delicacy. Aside from its gratifying fatty goodness, it is economical. You can enjoy a simple and satisfying meal for 30 bucks, drink included.DSC_0317_2

8.) Larsian

Fuente Osmena, Capitol Site, Cebu City

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Larsian is a barbeque haven you can dependably go to during the indecent hours of the morning, after you have partied to exhaustion at the nearby Mango Square. Either that or you simply want a cheap and uncomplicated meal of puso and the deliciously comforting barbeque. Chicken and pork barbeques here are sweet, juicy and have a smoky caramelized flavor when toasted.

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Larsian is like the foodcourt of barbeques. Each stall offers barbeque of all sorts: Chicken, pork, longganisa, adidas (chicken feet), betamax (pigs’ blood), chicken skin, squid, fish, liver, intestines etc. Here, you eat with your hands, which is the Filipino traditional way of eating. You may wrap your hands with plastic to avoid getting messy.

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When I think of Cebu, I always think of good and delectable foods. I still have a long list of interesting foods to try next time, like the LanChow and Ngohiong, and restaurants to visit, like Ekits and Abuhan. Right now, I need to focus on detoxifying and losing the pounds I gained during this memorable and gratifying Sinulog weekend.

Happy Tummy in Tacloban City (Part 1)

If being passionate about anything that pleasures the tongue is a mortal sin, then God save me for I might have reserved a spot for myself in the vast ocean of fire.
I am a lover of good food. I’d rummage for distinct flavors and delicacies whenever I travel. Buffet restaurants are like temples that I make pilgrimage to and venerate whenever I go to a new place.
My quaint city, Tacloban, may be small and quiet but has a wide variety of flavors to its recesses. Amid stress, I’d often find solace in a corner of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, feasting on a plate of Nachos.
Let me share with you a compulsive list of my favorite food spots in the city and their comfort foods that somehow appease my insatiable stomach.
1.) Ocho Seafood and Grill
Senator Enage St., Tacloban City
+6353-325-4171
Deciding where to dine in the city with a visitor is a no-brainer. Ocho is always on top of the list. Arguably the finest seafood restaurant in the city, Ocho serves freshly cooked dishes, which you can pick the ingredients of at its counter.
Their famous Porbidang Kangkong has become a staple dish every time I visit. There’s nothing really fancy about this dish- just the finely chopped lowly kangkong as its main ingredient. But who would’ve thought it would taste so good when simmered in coconut cream then sprinkled with fried garlic? Spoon it on top of a steaming cup of rice and you have just aroused your taste buds.
The famous Porbidang Kangkong (Php 70/order)

The famous Porbidang Kangkong (Php 70/order)

Who could ever forget the unforgettable Spicy Sarad? Sarad is a variety of shellfish. Shellfish makes my face swell, but this one is so irresistible that I don’t mind rushing to the nearest pharmacy after, only to make the same mistake on my next visit. The sarad is cooked adobo-style, only sweeter and has explicit hints of onion, garlic, ginger and chili.

Spicy Sarad (Php 35/ 100g)

Spicy Sarad (Php 35/ 100g)

 

2.) Canto Fresco
Burgos St., Tacloban City
+6353 523-9085
 

DSC_0069Small dinners with friends I haven’t seen in a long time usually happen in Canto Fresco, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves a fusion of Italian and Filipino dishes.
There is something distinct about their bestseller, the Pesto Chops, that makes me crave for it strangely often. The pesto sauce’s salty, sour, sweet and garlicky herbal flavors share the same spoon without conflict and go perfectly well with the subtle pan-grilled chops, which are quite hefty for its price. This masterpiece is served with fresh vegetables and a cup of rice.
Pesto Chops (Php 130)

Pesto Chops (Php 130)

I also find their pizza really good. It is delicately flavored, not greasy and has a light and chewy crust. The pizza does not need a full array of condiments, just a few drops of their herbed olive oil and its perfect.

Chicken and Mushroom Pizza

Chicken and Mushroom Pizza (price ranges from Php 200+ to Php 500+ depending on the size)

Their Green Apple Iced Tea is lightly sweetened, refreshing and complements with any item on the menu.

3.) Na.Ning Sports Bar
Club 6500, Leyte Park Resort Hotel
Magsaysay Blvd., Tacloban City
+6353 341-3536

Na.Ning Sports Bar and Lounge sits in the chic party district of Leyte Park Resort Hotel.
A temple of booze, Na.Ning boasts a wide selection which ranges from the demure but deadly Caipiroska to the in-your-face fatal Slammer. The latter is a concoction of 7 spirits, not for the weak-kneed. They also have imported beers like Stella Artois and Hoegaarden.
But I go to Na.Ning not to lose my sanity. There are two things that keep me coming back: the MVP wings and the Polar Beer. I remember, MVP Wings was love at first bite. The most sinful chicken parts are deep fried and tossed in their spicy secret sauce. It actually reminds me of BonChon but Na.Ning’s has a more intense flavor, and the Polar Beer is inarguably its perfect quencher. Just imagine the smoothest and “almost frozen but not” San Mig Light gliding down your throat after a huge bite of that spicy chicken.

MVP Wings (Php 180/0rder) photo taken from https://www.facebook.com/pages/Na-Ning/163610540335018

4.) Miyara Cake Patisserie
Burgos St., Tacloban City
+6353 321-7846
I worked in Manila and Cebu for 5 years, scoured for the perfect chocolate cake, only to find it in an unassuming patisserie in Tacloban City. I had my first bite at my aunt’s house during the town fiesta, and boy, did I forget my name?! The cake is rich, moist and heavy and melts as soon as it crumbles in your mouth. It is bliss on a plate!
I always thought that no cupcake could ever taste as heavenly as the popular and extravagant Sonja’s in Serendra, until I had some of Miyara’s last Christmas. I must say, the latter tastes richer and fuller, and three times cheaper. My favorite variants are Chocolate-Ganache, Red Velvet and Choco-Banana.
Choco-Banana, Red Velvet and Chocolate Ganache. (Php 45/piece)

Choco-Banana, Red Velvet and Chocolate Ganache. (Php 45/piece)

 TO BE CONTINUED…

I hated the beach. I despised the sun, the rosy tan that would later turn into dirty brown, the icky feeling of the saltwater on my skin and the viscid sunblock on my face.
All these changed in 2008, when I first set foot in Boracay. It was love at first sight. I couldn’t take my eyes off the kaleidoscopic sunset, which enveloped the colorful sailboats on the tranquil sea. Cathartic. My feet found home in the soft and very fine white sand. That moment I vowed to come back every year. And I make sure I do, no matter what.

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The majestic Boracay Island is located in Aklan, Western Visayas. White Beach, the main tourism beach in the island, is about four kilometers long and has many resorts, bars, restaurants, and shops. One can easily enjoy the best things in life: good food, beer or some cocktails after taking a dip in the clear turquoise water. Any vacationer can’t help but fall madly in love with the breezy lifestyle.
www.togiexplorer.com

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In July 2012, Travel+Leisure has named Boracay as The Best Overall Island during its 17th World’s Best Awards. Tripadvisor, on the other hand, ranked it the second best beach in the world.

Things To Do in Boracay:

1.) Nothing
When I’m in Boracay, I could just sit all day and admire the breathtaking panorama from the beach lounge. I can let hours pass by, and not fret about it.

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With no care in the world, I’d forget about my daily stressors and come to this paradise once or twice each year so I could lie on the white and oh so powdery sand, bask under the sun, read a good book, laugh with my friends about the most senseless things, take a dip on the crystalline waters and watch the breathtaking sunset with a happy hour cocktail or an ice-cold San Mig Light in hand.

www.togiexplorer.com

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2.) Eat

One might easily think that Boracay has ultraexpensive food and accommodation since the island is a top tourist destination in the country, but you’d be surprised to know that there are plenty of affordable resorts and restaurants.

And please! For goodness sake, drop the diet and enjoy a gastronomic vacation. You stressed yourself for months to have those chiseled abs. Now its time to relax and taste the delectable food the island has to offer. Many travelers from all over the world have come to Boracay, were mesmerized by the island’s beauty, settled and opened resorts and restaurants featuring their respective cuisines. This explains the wide range of flavors that would please any discriminating palate.

I’d always look forward to the nightly beachfront buffets, oblivious of my calorie-intake which I am always wary about prior to a trip. After a long day of swimming, snorkeling and island hopping, who wouldn’t want to dine like an aristocrat? Most resorts offer reasonably priced buffets for as low as Php 250 and have plenty of freshly-cooked dishes to choose from.

One good buffet I had was in La Carmela de Boracay. The mouthwatering menu includes grilled seafoods, chicken and pork barbeque, beef dishes, desserts and a Mongolian section, for only Php 270++, inclusive of the refillable iced tea. The candlelit setup by the beach is perfect for the sumptuous meal. The food attendants are also pleasant. Satisfactory.
If you don’t mind spending a few extra hundreds for a more upscale buffet experience, you may want to try Astoria. The items on the table include a wide variety of salads, pasta, bread and pastries, kebabs, pork and chicken barbeque, grilled seafoods and refillable drinks. I particularly loved the barbeque. It is grilled right before your eyes so you can sink your teeth on a smoking piece of flavorful meat. Whether devouring the scrumptious meal or chilling over a few bottles of beer, diners can always enjoy the live band and the astounding firedance performances. The meal is around Php500++, not bad considering the better ambience and wider selection of food.

If you’ve had enough of the nightly buffets, try heading to D’Talipapa. “Talipapa” means small wet market. There, you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, seafoods and meat and have the restaurants in the marketplace cook them for you at a minimal charge.

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If you are carnivorous like me, then you’ll be delighted at the beer-and-ribs-all-you-can every Friday at Nigi Nigi Noo Noo for only Php 680. Not bad! A slab of ribs ala carte would cost the same in other restaurants, or even more. The ice-cold beer is just perfect to wash down the tender, fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs, which are basted with sweet barbeque sauce. The distinctive aroma of these ribs is enough to make you go ravenous, so wear something dark, because it can get messy.

The fresh and wood fire brick-oven pizza in Don Vito Ristorante Italiano would make a superb lunch. Unlike the popular fastfood pizzas, theirs has a subtle taste, has evidently high quality ingredients, is less oily and yummy. The pastas are comforting and friendly to a Filipino tongue. On a hot day, their gelato would make a grand finale to a hearty meal. So if you’re up for some carbo-loading, you now know where to go.

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Many vacationers say that you haven’t truly experienced Boracay unless you have tried Jonah’s Fruitshakes, the best shakes in the island. Their bestseller and my favorite is the Choco-Banana-Peanut Shake. It is thick, rich and creamy. It’s just so good you’ll come back for more. No wonder the place is always packed.

3.) Party All Night

Gastronomy and revelry in paradise. Seriously, what else is better than this? At night, the tranquil beach metamorphoses into one big party. Colorful. Vibrant. Everything just lights up with amazing vibes. The good thing about this, you can dance all night barefoot and half-naked, with no care in the world.

Boracay has plenty of bars, pubs and dance clubs that would suit your partying mood. The parties can start as early as 5 in the afternoon, when you can enjoy happy hour cocktails in the beach lounges and pool bars. After sunset, prepare to be enthralled by the firedancer’s performances.
Reggae is synonymous with the beach, and you can enjoy some at the Bom Bom and Pat’s Creek over a few bottles of beer. What a perfect way to chillax. Ahhh, life! And if you’re in the mood for Rn’B and electronic music, some serious dancing and hobnobbing, then Juice Bar is your place. For me, they serve the perfect frozen margaritas. Sweet, innocent but can be quite deadly after a few glasses. If you’re up for some sophisticated unwinding, you can sip wine at Cork. I love the cozy ambience of this place, a perfect hangout for friends who take pleasure in a bottle or two of good wine and meaningful conversations.

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You can also enjoy vibrant live music on the beach and on special occasions, fireworks. No matter what kind of music or unwinding you prefer, there’s always a great place for you to chill out.

On the 19th of May 2012, my friends and I experienced the best party of our lives. It was Blue Leaf Events Pavilion’s 4th anniversary sunset party dubbed as SOAKED. Not one of the hundreds of party animals left dry. True to its theme, everyone was showered, sprinkled and drenched with beer and champagne. Drinks were lavish and people were insanely dancing. Wet, wild and crazy, exactly my definition of a party. The party gods must have led us there since we were already heading back to our hotel when we passed by the shindig, so we decided to crash. Now, my friends and I are always looking forward to this hopefully annual event.

photo by Ike Gube

photo by Ike Gube

And did you know that Boracay has just eclipsed Ibiza in Spain and South Beach in Miami, Florida in a list of top party beaches? That’s right, it just did, according to the travel website Cheapflights.com and this was published on Huffington Post in August.

4.) Paraw Sail. Parasail. Go Island Hopping. Snorkle.

Sail on a Paraw or the native outrigger sailboat and enjoy the tranquility of the sea under the breathtaking sunset. Catharsis. It is poetry brought to life. A very special experience. I tell you, your Boracay vacation wouldn’t be complete without this.

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If you don’t mind spending a few thousands for the cruise packages, then go ahead. Just imagine having the best view of the splendid sunset on a cruise ship while enjoying some wine and tapas or refillable beer. The experience is priceless.

Boracay is more than just a beach destination. There’s so much more around the island for your eyes and soul to feast on. Your resort can arrange a scenic and relaxing tour for you to discover some secluded beaches, coves and snorkel sites where you can go fish feeding. There are 12 beaches in Boracay. I haven’t been to all of them yet, but one that marked a spot in my soul is the Puka Shell Beach. This is an undeveloped, serene and beautiful white-sand beach in the northern part of White Beach. Just you, the sun, the azure water, the sound of the gentle waves and the puka shells on the sand. You won’t find resorts and establishments here. No water sports as well. Simplicity, peace and exquisite bliss.

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Another activity that I have tried as well is the parasailing. If your knees easily tremble when you’re on top of a tall building, then this is a good challenge for you. I did this back in 2009. First I was harnessed to a parachute, then lifted to the air while being pulled by a speedboat. The first few seconds were just terrifying I almost peed in my pants, but once I was above the deep blue sea, I felt good, liberated, detached from all the worries in the world.  Like what a friend always tells me, “Life is short, conquer your fears“.

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5.) Shop

Have you forgotten your thong at home? Did you not bring an extra swimwear so you’d have a variety of swimming attire in your hundreds of photos? Worry not, my camwhore friend! You’d find everything in D’Mall, a one-stop shopping place for anything you need. Clothes, vacation essentials, fastfood, travel agencies, optical and dental clinic, ATM, spa…everything.

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When you are in Boracay, don’t forget to shop for souvenirs for your family and friends back home. There are plenty of vendors peddling pearls, miniature boats and sculptures. Some items are unbelievably cheap, especially if you shop at D’Talipapa. You can buy Boracay shirts on a buy one take one bargain. Refrigerator magnets and keychains can go as low as php 100 for 7 pieces. There are plenty of souvenir items to choose from, just go around and you’d find something nice to take home.

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6.) Get a massage by the beach

What better way to conclude your grand vacation than a soothing beachside massage, while listening to the gentle waves slapping the white sandy shore. There are many licensed masseuses who would offer their services right on the sand for as low as Php 300. You’ll see plenty of massage tables lining the beach under the coconut trees so it is not hard to find these ladies. Make sure to approach only those who have their official badges.

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7.) Respect this masterpiece of nature

Shame on you if you kill and bury your cigarette butts in the fine white sand, you do not have a place in this tropical paradise. Shame on you if you cant walk to the nearest trash bin, which can be located practically everywhere, to dispose your food wrappers. It is very frustrating to sometimes step on a soda can, a plastic bag or even a beer bottle in the crystalline waters. Good thing the local government has now a strict campaign that prohibits littering and smoking on the beaches of the island. There are still plenty of offenders though, especially when the authorities aren’t watching.

Sadly, Boracay has been experiencing few other environmental problems as well, like the fast deterioration of the coral reefs. I witnessed this when I had my fun dive in 2010. There were plenty of dull and lifeless corals on the seabed. Recently, the government has come up with a Php 60million artificial reef project to rehabilitate the island’s reefs.

According to locals, Boracay now is just half the beauty it was years ago, no thanks to the blatant extraction of the white sand in the island. The local government has implemented an ordinance, which bans visitors from collecting white sand, corals and pebbles from the island’s beaches. They have now imposed stricter penalties: Php 2500 or imprisonment for three months, or both for first time offenders, and three to six months of imprisonment for second-time offenders. Violators would also have to return the sand and pebbles to the beaches where they were taken.

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The first time I saw it in photos, El Nido was like a sorceress enticing me with a red shiny apple so I’d get lost in her magical world. You must have heard how magnificent this part of Palawan is. So if you want to be charmed yourself, do a little research first. Don’t just pack some clothes and board on a plane. Ten months after my trip and I’m still kicking myself for not bringing a water-resistant camera. YOU MUST BRING A WATERPROOF CAMERA! I was unable to capture photos of the breathtaking hidden beaches, the secret lagoons and other inconspicuous sites that required a little swim to see. You see, El Nido is not one of those easiest places to visit. It would require you at least 7 tedious hours of air and land travel, if you choose not to spend a ridiculous amount for the airfare of the jet that would take you directly there. You’d understand how frustrating it is for me to have missed some photo session with these masterpieces of nature. DSC00153

Initially, I planned on a 3-day 2-night stay. But when I discovered that there is so much to explore, I didn’t mind shelling out a few thousands for the rebooking of my plane ticket. A 5-day 4-night vacation would suffice, if you want to see more than half of what your eyes expect to feast on.

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As aforementioned, the land travel going to El Nido from the Puerto Princesa airport, and vice versa, would eat up your time. The flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa takes approximately an hour. From the airport, you can find shuttles going to the town of El Nido. Travel time is wearisome, 6 hours. Back and forth including the flight, that’s more or less 14 hours already consumed. We left Manila at 8 in the morning; it was almost sunset when we arrived in El Nido. Planning your itinerary ahead is therefore necessary so you won’t waste your time.

I always had an impression that an El Nido vacation would cost me more than my monthly earnings. Well, it could if you decide to be extravagant and choose to stay at the exclusive and luxurious resorts, like the Miniloc Island Resort and the Lagen Resort. But if you are the type who watches every penny like me, then great news, there are many small and inexpensive beachfront hotels in the town of El Nido. Sour-graping aside, you don’t need a high-end hotel since you’d be on a boat all day to visit the skyscraping limestone cliffs, the secluded and untouched beaches and lagoons, the lush forests and other breathtaking islands.

The beachfront of El Nido town proper

The beachfront of El Nido town proper

We checked in at the Chislyk Cottages. The room we had was basic. It only had electricity (which is only from 2pm-6am daily in El Nido), water and well, airconditioning. There was no television but a small veranda overlooking the beach, where we whiled some nights away over beer. Since most of my Day 1 was already spent for the travel, my friends and I just decided to explore El Nido’s town proper. There is a limited variety of restaurants here. Most of them are a quite pricey and easily gets packed at night. I remember one night when my friends and I couldn’t find a place to dine because all restaurants were full to the brim.

The quiet but friendly town of El Nido

The quiet but friendly town of El Nido

 

Whenever I go to a new place, I’d always look forward to something new for my palate. But El Nido isn’t one of those destinations where you could embark on a gastronomic adventure. I couldn’t find a distinctive flavor here. But hey, the food wasn’t the main reason why I just endured a 7-hour trip. It was a different kind of banquet that I was looking for- a visual banquet.
Many establishments in its town proper arrange island tours and most of them offer four similar tour packages. Since we had 3 whole days to island hop, we chose one tour for each day. Each package includes lunch in one of the island destinations.

Day 2. The skies looked furious and it was raining profusely. It was disheartening since our tour package (also called Tour A) for the day was one of the bestsellers and was highly recommended. The itinerary for Tour A includes some of the best sites in El Nido: the Small Lagoon, the Big Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon, Simizu Island and Seven Commandos. The boatman said it had been raining hard since the beginning of the February. The waters were rough and the wind was a bit unfriendly to us. Determined, we went on with the tour.

After a few minutes in the waters, the boatman cautiously navigated towards the entrance of the Small Lagoon of Miniloc Island, which is menacingly rocky and shallow. The waters bordered by towering limestones are turquoise and very clear you could see colorful fishes and corals underneath. In order to get inside the Small Lagoon, you have to take a little swim towards a small arch-like entrance. I could tell that the placid water inside is dangerously deep, due to its darker hue, so I anxiously made sure that my life vest was clasped to my body. As I swam, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the sight. Surreal. Even the obnoxious rainclouds could not hide the Small Lagoon’s magnificence. I took time to marvel at the lush greens stemming out of the majestic gray limestones, which complement the bluish-green water. Everything inside is brimming with life and color. There is a tiny cave at the end of the lagoon, but the depth of the water made me uncomfortable, so I just decided to admire it from afar. This was one of the few times I wanted to bang my head on one of the rocks for not bringing a water-resistant camera. Since i do not have a photo of the Small Lagoon, i borrowed one from ASPAC.

photo by Mon Corpuz

photo by Mon Corpuz

After we snorkled to our heart’s content, we headed to the Big Lagoon, also of Miniloc Island. The rain was erratic, and we were pale and trembling in our swimwear, though we seemed oblivious about it. We were ready to brave the waters to see another masterpiece of nature. We slowly traversed the strait leading to the Big Lagoon. None of us said a word. We were dumbfounded by the gorgeous line of limestone cliffs on the opposite sides of the deep blue passageway. The sun could have magnified the beauty of this already postcard-perfect view. We no longer jumped off our boats for a snorkel and a swim since the skies were getting delirious again.

The Small and the Big Lagoon are my favorite sites in El Nido. I swear to God I’d come back one summer to take photos of these picturesque views.

Before we had our lunch, our guide led us to a small white sand beach scattered with ferocious-looking rocks. Beside the beach are giant limestones and one of them has a small hole, which serves as the entrance to the Secret Lagoon. We wanted to see what was inside so inspite of the harsh waters, we got off the boat and trekked carefully towards the rocky entrance. I had to put my non water-resistant camera in a zip-lock bag because the small but treacherous waves were crashing against us. One by one, we curled ourselves in the tiny hole and landed on a pool of azure water circled by beautiful giant limestones. We stood in awe of this small secret paradise. We spent some time here; we swam and took some devastatingly blurry photos due to my moist camera lens.

Our tummies were already growling so we headed to Simizu Island to have our lunch. Simizu Island is another limestone island with a coral white sand beach. From the boat, you’d see an aquarium of beautiful corals swarmed by colorful fishes, which makes the island a perfect snorkeling site. According to the boatman, the island was named after two Japanese brothers who died while scuba diving. Since it was raining hard again, we took refuge in one of the giant limestones, where our boatman grilled some fish and chicken. He took out some melons, pineapples and tomatoes from his large basket and called everyone on the tour for a hearty lunch. After a satiating meal, we waited for the rain to stop before heading to the next island, but it didn’t. The skies roared and startled us with a series of lightnings. We were stuck for an hour.

When the skies calmed down, we hopped on to our boats and moved to Seven Commandos. According to stories, there were seven commandos lost in the island during the war, hence the name. Our eyes feasted on another stunning white sand beach we couldn’t help but sigh with disappointment. We thought we could’ve enjoyed it here if not for the fugitive sun. We noticed a small store a few meters away from the shore so we went there and just enjoyed some coconuts, chips and beer since it was too cold to swim.
Day 3. The night before, I ardently beseeched God for a sunny weather during the rest of my stay since according to the news, there was a tropical depression affecting a huge part of Palawan. I sprang out from my bed when I saw the orange skies the following morning. At last we’d see El Nido in its naked glory, I thought.

That day, we signed up for Tour C, another bestseller. We were excited. Some foreign tourists told us how magnificent the destinations are. Tour C’s itinerary includes the Hidden Beach, the Secret Beach, Talisay Island, Matinloc Shrine and Helicopter Island.

The sun was gloriously perched on the thin clouds. However, the water wasn’t very smooth. We headed to Matinloc Shrine first, instead of the Hidden Beach. According to the boatman, it is difficult to go to the Hidden Beach of Matinloc Island during low tide in the morning because the area is rocky and could damage the boat. Also, a swim, which is required to see this paradise, could be arduous during low tide because of the sharp rocks and corals that could scrape your skin.

The entrance to the Matinloc Shrine

The entrance to the Matinloc Shrine

The entrance to the Matinloc Shrine is a small white sand beach guarded by an army of stalwart limestones on both sides. One of the limestones has a tiny cave-like formation at the bottom, which shelters the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and another has a Cross on its peak. There are several palm trees and ornamental plants adorning the path leading to an open-air shrine that has bigger statue of the Blessed Mother. At the ceiling is a mosaic-like picture of Jesus Christ holding a sheep, another obvious reminder that this is a sacred place so we kept our voices down as we took some photos of ourselves. We then saw some Korean tourists crowding the steep concrete stairs to the top of a limestone cliff so we followed. The top of the cliff offered us a buffet of breathtaking sights. The clear skies highlighted the pristine white sand beach across, the massive rock formations and the deep blue waters. The wind blew gently against us and we could hear the waves slapping the rocks beneath. It was bliss. A haiku moment. After this pleasant assault to our senses, we headed to an abandoned port not far from the shrine to take more photos. On the sides of the port, you’d see limestones which look like giant mushrooms with sharp spines. We were captivated everywhere we looked. There’s just so much to see. Our boatman then guided us to a building across the port. “A vacation house?” I asked the boatman. He said it was supposed to be. Rumor has it that the building was just a mask to the gold-mining activities in the island years ago. And when the owners completed their agenda, they abandoned the place. Another story says that the owners went bankrupt that’s why they abandoned the house. It could have been a perfect retreat house and you could see a gorgeous vista of the verdant mountains from the second floor terrace. Inside the house is empty. The doors and windows are broken. Thin sheets of wood are peeling off the ceiling. There used to be few sets of furniture inside according to the boatman, but they were stolen. We didn’t stay long inside. There were plenty of mosquitoes buzzing our ears.

The Matinloc Shrine

The Matinloc Shrine

The abandoned building in Matinloc Shrine

The abandoned building in Matinloc Shrine

A panoramic view of the Matinloc Shrine from the port

A panoramic view of the Matinloc Shrine from the port

 

Before heading to Talisay Island for lunch, the boatman brought us to a nearby island called, if my memory serves me right, Tapuitan Island. From afar, our eyes feasted on the insanely gorgeous and ferocious rock formations regally sitting on the crystal clear waters and the blindingly white sand. The peak of the limestones looked like giant needles as we drew closer. It was almost noon, the sweltering sun further bared the unspoilt beauty of the scenery. This wasn’t part of the itinerary and we felt very fortunate that our guide decided to go an extra mile to boast this site. As we walked on a path leading to the other side of the island, we passed by a skeleton of an old house. It actually blended very well with its abandoned surroundings. The beach on the other side looked very inviting I just disappeared into its cool and very clear waters. I enjoyed my swim here because the sand is very smooth and the view of the nearby mountains is spectacular.

Yours truly, at the Tapuitan Island

Yours truly, at the Tapuitan Island

 

 

The unique and majestic rock formations at the Tapuitan Island

The unique and majestic rock formations at the Tapuitan Island

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The two photos above are of the fine white-sand beach at the Tapuitan Island.

The two photos above are of the fine white-sand beach at the Tapuitan Island.

 

We had lunch at the Talisay Island. While the boatman grilled some fish and chicken, we snorkeled. I brought some crackers underwater, and as they crumbled and dispersed from my hands, I was swarmed with a school of colorful fish. Besides the fishes, there is nothing much going on underneath. There are lifeless corals on the seabed. Our lunch was the same from the previous tour-grilled fish and chicken, pineapples and watermelons but we enjoyed every bite. The beautiful view of the beach made this simple meal very appetizing.

After a satiating lunch, we headed to the Secret Beach of Matinloc Island. In order to see this intriguingly secret beach, we had to swim against the slightly strong current. Sharp corals surrounded the spot where we were dropped off. We had to keep a cautious eye so that we wouldn’t scrape our skin as we kicked against the current, which was pushing us towards the corals. We clung to our life raft as our guide pulled it towards the shallow part of the sea. As we trekked, we could see small fishes on the very clear water leading to the Secret Beach. I stood in astonishment when I saw the Secret Beach, a small and secluded white-sand beach surrounded by steep limestone cliffs. The giant rocks cloistering the tiny beach give the place an enchanting and mysterious vibes. You couldn’t really swim here because of the shallow waters. To say that the place is breathtaking is an understatement. This was another moment when I wanted to crack my head open for not bringing a waterproof camera.
After we marveled at the lovely Secret Beach, we knew that The Hidden Beach, our next destination, had something special for us. Unfortunately due to rough waters, we just passed by the site. We saw a tiny hole at the bottom of a huge limestone. According to our boatman, the hole is the entrance to the Hidden Beach and you have to swim to get inside.

We were quite exhausted so I was glad that our last stop was the Helicopter Island. We were curious how the island got its name and according to the boatman, it came from its shape from afar. The breathtaking white-sand beach, the clear waters and the picturesque view of the nearby mountains were just perfect for a laidback finale of this tour. According to the other tourists, the island is abundant with corals and colorful fishes but most of us just laid on the sand under the afternoon sun, enjoyed the gentle breeze and the smell of saltwater.

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The fine white-sand beach of Helicopter Island

The fine white-sand beach of Helicopter Island

Day 4. We were blessed with a great weather on our last full day in El Nido. And since we still couldn’t get enough of the marvelous sights in the nearby islands, we signed up for Tour B. The destinations for this tour are Snake Island, Pangalusian Island, Pinagbuyutan Island and Codognon Cave.

To warm us up for the breathtaking sights lined up for the day, our boatman first dropped us off in the waters of Pangalusian Island. We weren’t exactly in the island but several meters away from its wide stretch of white-sand shore. The boatman said that foreign businessmen recently bought the island and public docking is no longer allowed. From afar, we could see the skeleton of an exclusive resort being built. Armed with our snorkeling equipment, we just contented ourselves with the lush underwater life. I was so engrossed with the stunning coral formations and sea creatures when my friend scattered some crackers and bread in my direction. All of a sudden plenty of colorful fishes were breezing around me, catching every single crumb. I would’ve wanted to capture that moment, but then again, I was so stupid for not bringing a waterproof camera.

Our next stop was the Snake Island.

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We thought the island was an abode to giant anacondas, hence the name, but when we saw it from afar we knew we were wrong. There is a long gorgeous sandbar snaking between two lands, inviting us to dock on its blindingly white and powdery sand. We were fortunate that the tide wasn’t high otherwise it wouldn’t be visible. The waters on both sides of the sandbar are very clear and shallow you could see a myriad of small rocks, shells and even small fishes. On one end of the sandbar you’d see hills and a lush mangrove forest while the other end is a land where the boats dock and tourists have lunch. There is also a small hill on this side, not far from the shore. While our boatman prepared our lunch, which consisted of grilled fish and chicken, again, we scurried off to the hill. The hilltop offered us a breathtaking view of the gorgeous white sandbar, the luxuriantly verdant hills, and the crystal clear turquoise waters that expose the corals underneath. It is quite a soothing and dreamy view I could stay there all day. It is so quiet up there you could only hear the trees rustling in the wind. After a while, we could hear our tummies grumble so we headed down. The sun was scorching so we sought refuge under the mangroves, where we all ate our humble meal. Before we hopped on to our boats for our next destination, we took a quick dip in the cool waters of the island.

A hilltop view of the Snake Island

A hilltop view of the Snake Island

The boatman preparing our lunch, and a hungry kid


The boatman preparing our lunch, and a hungry kid

Codognon Cave was next on our list. It is located in the western part of the Lagen Island. The cave is believed to be a burial site during the ancient times. To get inside the cave, we had to curl up sideways so we’d fit in the tiny hole that serves as the entrance. As soon as we all slipped in, we found ourselves in awe of the towering walls and the elevated ceilings of the cave. Sunlight was streaming in through the small holes at the ceiling so we could see its shapeless and rough but glossy walls. We took time to marvel at the fascinating cathedral-like cave and had a brief photo session inside.

The Codognon Cave

The Codognon Cave

Outside, not far from the cave is another small beach. It is one of the best beaches I’ve seen in El Nido. The sand is powdery white and as fine as that in Boracay and there is a diverse marine life thriving in its waters. While my friends sipped some ice-cold beer from a stall under the coconut tree, I just sat on the shore and admired the breathtaking and unhampered view of the sea and the landscape on its borders.

The dazzling small beach beside the Codognon Cave

The dazzling small beach beside the Codognon Cave

The luxurious Lagen Resort

The luxurious Lagen Resort

Our final stop in El Nido was the Pinagbuyutan Island.  The island looks distinctive from afar. It has massive and full-bodied rock formations regally throned on a podium of white sand. The coconut trees lining up one side of the shore look like a squad of robust soldiers. Sharp corals and rocks are visible from the clear waters. Unlike the other islands, Pinagbuyutan has plenty of seashells. The deeper part of the sea is a good snorkeling site, and since it was my last day in El Nido, I spent some time watching the brightly colored fishes frolicking among the corals. Before we left, we enjoyed some refreshing coconut water, thanks to our boatman who volunteered to climb one of the trees.

Pinagbuyutan Island

Pinagbuyutan Island

I spent three full days in El Nido but I haven’t been to all of its majestic sites. I am definitely going back one summer. I would’ve wanted to dive since I’ve heard that El Nido has excellent diving spots, but time didn’t permit. And I may have tried my best to describe the magnificent islands, lagoons and beaches but trust me, you haven’t fully lived your life until you have seen this part of the world. I was exhausted from the three-day island hopping but I went home very happy and gratified.

Below are Fort Wally’s Island Hopping rates as of 2012:
Tour A (Php 700 per person): Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Simizu Island, Seven Commandos
Tour B (Php 800 per person): Snake Island, Pangalusian Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Codognon Cave
Tour C (Php 900 per person): Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Talisay Island, Matinlog Shrine, Helicopter Island
Tour D : Natnat Beach, Cadlao Island, Bucal Beach, Paradise Beach (I didn’t sign up for this tour so I cant remember the cost).

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