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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).