Asia’s Hidden Gem: El Nido, Philippines

30 04 2010

El Nido is truly a hidden gem in South East Asia. This is probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life (and that is pretty hard to say after you have visited Phi Phi Island in Thailand). However getting to El Nido is a story in itself. After having taking a 3.5 hour flight from Singapore to Manila, we took a 1 hour flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa and then eventually hired a driver to take us along the 6 hour dirt/cliff road to take us to El Nido.

El Nido

Now was the long journey worth it? Hell yes! El Nido is so far away that only those looking for a real adventure are willing to trek it out. The 6 hour drive is another story. By far the bumpiest, scariest and craziest road trip of my life! For the entire 6 hours, I think I only stayed sitting on my seat for approximately 40 minutes whereas I spent the remaining time flying up and down while the driver took us along the most scariest “roads” (more like dirt path ways) I have ever seen. We left for El Nido at approximately 4AM from Puerto Princesa and arrived into El Nido at about 10AM. Along the way, I think our driver almost ran over a dog (from what seemed like the screech of a dog crying) we can only assume it was some sort of wild animal.

Along the dirt path to El Nido

In any case, El Nido is similar to Phi Phi Island in a number of ways but quite different at the same time. El Nido is on the northern tip of Palawan so there many beautiful islands surrounding the town. The beaches hang off of the South China Sea and there are huge limestone cliffs everywhere! On our first day in El Nido, we checked into our hostel and we were absolutely stunned at the view once we walked out of our room. Literally, the minute you step outside your room you are on forefront of the beach surrounded by the sound of huge waves and beautiful limestone cliffs in the background. On the top floor of our hostel is a family owned restaurant where they have what they call “nests” where you can relax and watch the waves or the stars from a cushioned seat. Although the view from our room was incredible — accommodation was anything but amazing. Let’s just say I know I can “rough it” anywhere after these 4 months in Asia.

The "nest" at the restaurant The Alternative

After settling into our hostel, we took a small island hopping tour to the Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, 7 Cammando Beach and a few other islands.  The Small Lagoon was absolutely incredible. Since I have a bit of a fear (actually a huge fear) of deep water I am usually reluctant to go swimming in the ocean but…El Nido was a big “stepping out of my comfort zone” moment. Our tour guides were among the nicest people I have ever encountered on my travels. The Captain (or so we liked to call him) who guided the boat was very friendly and always willing to help and his helpers were even nicer! One specific crew member was a young Filipino man by the nick-name of Bot. Bot actually held my hand and stayed with me the entire time while snorkelling in the Small Lagoon! He was so patient and always willing to help me keep up with the rest of the group. I cannot express enough gratitude to how much I appreciated his willingness to help me snorkel in the deep waters of the South China Sea lol! Our tour guides actually took us to a cave in the Small Lagoon where we got to go inside some of the limestone cliffs. This was absolutely incredible! Unlike Phi Phi Island where you are surrounded by tourists everywhere, in El Nido it was literally just us, the islands and the water. Being the only foreigners trekking it into the caves of the Small Lagoon was amazing.
Throughout our island hopping, we encountered some of the strongest and biggest waves ever. They constantly rocked and swayed our boat but it made the experience all the more enjoyable and adventurous! Our last island destination for day 1 in El Nido was 7 Cammando island where we got to hang out on the beach and relax. We made little mer-men of our friends in the sand and just got to relax and enjoy the beautiful beach weather. However the day ended in a tragedy for a traveler…my most prized and precious possession fell into the water of the South China Sea. My camera. Sadly, my camera was unable to recover for the rest of the trip so I had to ask friends to take lots of pictures for me to help me remember my adventures.

Island hopping day 1

On our second day in El Nido, the rest of our group arrived! We had already arrived with 7 people but an additional 7 friends joined us the second day. We had discussed with the Captain and crew that we would like to do a “real hand made” lunch so the Captain took a few of us out in to the market where we bought the biggest fish I have ever seen and vegetables and lots of fruit (LOTS OF MANGOES ACTUALLY!). After shopping at the market for our meal, we hopped onto the boat and began the day. Our first island destination was suppose to be where we went snorkelling but due to the waves, the island was absolutely covered in jellyfish! I have never seen so many jelly fish in my life. There must have been easily more than 100 jelly fish on the beach and more than 100 surrounding the boat and in the water. Unfortunately we couldn’t do any snorkeling here so instead we headed over to Snake Island.

At the peak of Snake Island

On Snake Island, there aren’t any actual snakes but instead the island is just in the shape of a snake. It was here we climbed up to the top of the cliff of the island where we got have an amazing view of the entire El Nido landscape. Interestingly there was a shallow “water pathway” where me and my friends did what we like to call “walk from one end of end of the South China Sea to the other” (but really we just walked from Snake Island to a series of man groves) but lets stick with the first idea since it sounds so much cooler lol. Laughing, cracking jokes and just being with friends in El Nido was a really nice and happy experience.

After what seemed like hours from one end of the water to the other, lunch was ready! We ate like kings…literally! The Captain and his crew made a huge fish and cut up all the fruits and vegetables that we bought. Everything was absolutely delicious! With just vinegar and a few other seasonings, the fish tasted amazing! After our incredible feast we did some snorkeling in the ocean and to our amazement, one of our guides found a huge starfish!

El Nido

After what felt like a few hours on Snake Island we did some touring of the neighboring islands and caves. We visited two caves both of which we got to climb into. The second cave that we visited was particularly interesting because we had to park our boat outside the limestone cliff and then swim into the cave. Our next destination was sand bar which was pretty much sand in the middle of the ocean. It was here that me and the girls had so much fun taking jumping photos, “candid” shots and just enjoying the sun and sand. Finally we ended the evening by watching the sunset from our boat as we headed back to shore.

The Cave

In the evening we headed over to a local Philippino restaurant for dinner where me and a few friends ordered 5-6 dishes to share amongst a few people. The food didn’t arrive for at least 1.5 hour so along the way we made jokes, talked about our day and just enjoyed each others company. After dinner, we went back to our hostel to freshen up but it was pretty tough “freshening up” since the water pressure from the shower was so minimal and it honestly felt like we were bathing in salt water. In any case, we made the most of it and I know I can “rough it” after this experience lol. Unfortunately this was our last night in El Nido since me and my friend Bonita had a 10AM flight back to Manila from Puerto Princesa so we actually had to take the crazy van ride back to Puerto Princesa at approximately 2AM in order to make it back in time.

At sunset

When we did arrived back in Puerto Princesa (at about 6AM), the airport was apparently “closed” so we had to hang around Puerto Princesa for a few hours until we could get our flight back to Manila. After arriving in Manila, me and my friend Bonita had to wait for our other friends (who had a later flight into Manila from Puerto Princesa) to catch our flight back home to Singapore…from the Clarke airport. You see…as a budget traveler, we booked a flight back home to Singapore from Clarke airport since it was the cheaper airport however, we were unaware (at the time) that Clarke is actually 2.5 hours away from Manila! So here we hired another driver to drive us 7 friends from Manila to Clarke. Finally after almost 24 hours of travelling we arrived back in Singapore from what felt like the craziest but one of the most fun trips…

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The Philippines — Manila and Puerto Princesa

26 04 2010

Where do I even begin when discussing the Philippines? This was probably among the most stressful/travel intensive trips I have ever done. Since distances from one location to another are quite far, it takes a long time to get from point A to point B in the Philippines. On our first day we arrived in Manila, my friend Bonita and I headed to our hostel and we began exploring the city of Manila. Our first destination was to go see Fort Santiago which is where José Rizal (the Philippines national hero) was imprisoned before his execution in 1896. Most of Fort Santiago was dedicated to Rizal and it appeared like there was almost a shrine of him in every corner. So what makes Rizal so special to the Filipino’s? Well he was among the most prominent advocates for reform in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. Rizal wrote numerous books and essays on peaceful institutional reform in the Philippines.

Fort Santiago, Manila

After visiting Fort Santiago, we had a little bit of a scary incident while heading over to San Augustin Church but I won’t share that here on the blog (ask me in person and I will tell you the story). Since it was actually a big group of us travelling in the Philippines, my friend and I decided it would be a good idea to go back to our hostel and wait for the rest of our group to arrive from Clarke airport which is approximately 2 hours away from Manila.

When the rest of our group arrived we decided to some exploring — local style. We took a jeepney to a local night market in Manila called Divisoria. A jeepney is essentially a jeep that operates like a bus but is much smaller and it feels like a tight, un-air conditioned box. When we arrived in Divisoria, it was a huge market with absolutely no other foreigners. My friends and I were pretty much the only tourists and this was a nice change since we got to experience more local culture. The night market sold a whole bunch of random and useless things so I didn’t end up buying much but the best thing about the night market was the mangoes!  Since mangoes are my favourite fruit, it was like heaven to be surrounded by cheap, fresh mangoes everywhere!

Jeepney in Manila

The next day we took another flight to Puerto Princesa which is the capital of the province of Palawan which is suppose to be cleanest city in the Philippines (and trust me, it was a nice change from Manila since Manila was one of the dirtiest cities I have ever been to). Puerto Princesa was a cute little town with little to no tourists. The city is covered in beaches and wildlife and the most famous attraction: The Underground River. Unfortunately due to time constraints we didn’t have a chance to visit the Underground River but instead we went to Honda Bay (which is island hopping) and we went to a secluded beach where it was just me and my 4 friends on the island. It was pretty cool to have a beach all to yourself for a couple of hours. It was here at this beach that I saw some of the biggest and loudest waves I have ever seen in my life! Although the waves were really far from us, you could hear them and see them very clearly!

Honda Bay, Puerto Princesa

We ended our one night in Puerto Princesa by having an amazing dinner at the famous sea food restaurant in town: Ka Lui! The food was fresh and all different types of seafood. The meal started with appetizer of clam soup then we moved onto seaweed salad, had amazing fish (twice!) and ended the meal with a fruit salad served in coconut. This was probably one of the best meals I have ate on my travels…or in my life…lol.

Dinner at Ka Lui before the food arrived

The hostel we stayed at in Puerto Princesa is also worth mentioning. The place was called Banwa and it was decorated and adorned with local artifacts and wood-sculpted figurines. It was here we met a very nice German man living in the Philippines who helped arrange all our transportation to our next destination: El Nido and he gave us all the great food recommendations as well. I would definitely have to say that El Nido was probably one of the most amazing trips I have ever had so I feel it deserves it’s own blog post…so stay tuned for that 😉

At Ka Lui, after the food arrived