Cebu to El Nido
We were on our way to El Nido, Palawan Island, Philippines, voted as holding the #1 spot for the “best island in the world” (Travel + Leisure Magazine), 2016.
Arriving at Cebu Airport for our flight to El Nido, there were colourful shops with every kind of Filipino packaged foods and snacks. One shop even had the Filipino delicacy, Lechon, proudly displayed in an airport shop window. Lechon is a special dish where the entire pig is spit-roasted over coals, with the crisp, golden-brown skin served with liver sauce.
We had to take a bus to get to another terminal where the smaller Air Swift plane would fly us to El Nido, on Palawan Island, purportedly the best island in the world.
Island lovers and escape artists to the core, we were anxious to see this gorgeous area of Palawan Island. The photos we had seen of the white beaches and clear green water with mountainous islands off-shore made a picture-perfect setting.
A Cheaper Option to get to El Nido
Most travellers and backpackers fly into Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island, and then take a five-hour bus or van into El Nido. Travellers report that it is a long, rough drive to take this route, so when we saw that there was a flight directly into El Nido from Cebu, we opted to fly direct even if it might cost a bit more.
Flying Over the Philippine Islands
Flying over the myriad of islands dotting the sea, one could easily see why S. E. Asia had one of the best islands in the world, because there were thousands of gorgeous islands and spectacular views.
An Unusual Airport
When we landed at the tiny El Nido Airport, a colourful old bus painted bright colours picked us up and delivered us to the airport. Even the inside of the bus was elaborately decorated.
At the thatched wooden house of the airport, four women in local costume waved and sang a song of welcome. Everyone arriving at the airport could not help but arrive smiling.
As we walked up the airport stairs, there was a large table offering ice water, orange drink, ice tea and special traditional Filipino treats. How many airports do you know that offer food and drinks on your arrival? Or a wave and a welcoming song? What a sweet touch. But the Filipinos are good at that. In all situations, they make every single person feel special and welcomed.
Outside the airport, there was a lush jungle garden sitting area.
As we sat outside in the rest area waiting for the tricycle taxi that would, as promised by the hotel manager, deliver us to our beach resort, our driver appeared asking for us by name.
The tricycle taxi driver promptly picked up our bags, posed for a photo, and then somehow quickly strapped them on the back of the tiny tricycle.
Getting into the tricycle wasn’t that easy – it is small in there. And the seat is only about 6 inches wide! With what is left of the padding on the seat, you try to make yourself comfortable even though you must angle your knees for the other person to fit in between the backpacks taking up 90% of the tiny floor space. Basically, the best you can do is half-a-cheek on, half-a-cheek off.
A Wild Tricycle Ride
Off we went, down the sandy road. Now you would think that a sandy road would be soft, wouldn’t you? Not so much – in fact, not at all. We bounced from seat to ceiling and back again as we hit pot-hole after pot-hole. We swung from one side to the other until we were almost on top of each other. The driver’s muscled arms wrestled with the motorbike, working hard to keep it on a somewhat even keel. As we were boomeranged back and forth, I tried to take photos through the blurry bug-smacked windshield.
That road seemed endless as our butts and backs felt beaten black and blue. Surely it would only be a short road out of the airport, but no it went on and on and on… for miles. Maybe it was only 15 minutes or so, but it seemed like hours.
The Highway into El Nido Town
Finally, we came to the paved highway, a narrow windy highway, but to us it looked as good as the most modern freeway. Ok, so there were only a few more pot holes, and those seats were as hard as bouncing around on a rock.
As the old 250cc tricycle strained to get up the hills, it moaned and sputtered and smoked and slowed to a crawl, until we were certain the engine would blow-up and just die. We wanted to offer to get out and walk up the hills. Please, we thought to ourselves, to give our backs a rest if nothing else, but the driver was so intent on getting that little tricycle up the hill, we dare not interrupt him. It was one of those, “Go, go, go, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I think I can, I think I can…I think I can…” moments when together you almost will the vehicle up the hill.
The highway drive was another fifteen minutes or so of gently curving highway through thick wild jungle.
El Nido Town
Then we drove off the highway into town. We expected to see a remote fishing village, a quaint seaside town, the same as it had been for decades. El Nido Town was not the nicest beach town we have ever visited. It was full of tourists and tourist shops, and bustling with people.
The families living along the side of the road were real and authentic though.
I guess the word is out – Palawan and El Nido are great destinations for beach lovers. Being publicly named as the best island in the world also means that it is no longer a secret remote island, still pristine. The tourists have turned it into a busy little touristy town.
Before El Nido municipality became full of tourists, fishing and harvesting the Swiftlet bird’s nests (“Nido”), for the famous and expensive Bird’s Nest Soup, were the main source of income. Nowadays tourism has become the municipality’s main source of revenue. The beachfront area has exploded in popularity and is now largely a party area with overpriced food and drinks. However huge tour groups are still nowhere to be seen. El Nido is also known for water sports such as diving, snorkelling and kayaking. Although there are beautiful clear beaches, water quality around the main beach is poor, with garbage collecting at the main beach and boat oil seeping into the bay. Swimming is not even recommended on the main town beach.
Narrow Passageways and Raised Seaside Sidewalks
We whizzed through town and suddenly stopped in front of a narrow cement passageway that looked way too narrow to fit a tricycle taxi.
The tricycle driver slowly proceeded to enter the passageway, his fingers barely missing the cement wall, and our elbows carefully tucked in all the way. At the end of the narrow passage, we could see the blue sea, sparkling like a diamond on a sunny day.
We emerged to see a gorgeous bay dappled with outrigger boats that looked like giant spiders.
Then we turned right where there was a cement walkway built up higher along the beach. It was not very wide, and then became more and more narrow, again not much wider than our tricycle, with a drop down to the beach on the driver’s side. Surely he was not going up there! Pedestrians seemed used to seeing the tricycles, and casually moved to the side, barely out-of-the-way.
After a few blocks, this sidewalk became even narrower, so much so that I was certain we were going to fall off. Of course we didn’t, and at least it distracted us from our sore butts.
Finally, we came off the sidewalk down to a sandy path through the jungle, where in some places, it was so sandy that we would have gotten stuck if a few locals hadn’t given us a push.
Traveling another few kilometres through the lush green jungle, the views of the bay were seductive. I tried to take a few photos.
Stopping in the Middle of the Jungle
Then we stopped. Where was our resort? There was nothing near us but ocean on one side and jungle on the other.
Another Filipino man waited for us, and started unloading the luggage.
Walking Through the Jungle
“We have to walk from here,” our driver said.
What? How far? We were surprised.
The young men hoisted our luggage on top of their heads and started walking down the path. With bruised bums and aching backs, we clumsily followed.
We walked awkwardly, unused to muddy holes, and rocks on the path while the men ahead, paused and looked back waiting for us.
My legs and feet were still swollen from the long flight from Canada to the Philippines. I could hardly walk. I had to stop often.
We came to rocky ledges that we had to clamour down slowly and uneasily as we tried to follow the two fellows ahead, who in bare feet or flip-flops moved nimbly and easily down the steep banks and between sharp rocks.
Finally, I could not walk any further. My legs hurt terribly. T suggested that I wait on a concrete ledge by the bay, at the edge of jungle, while he went ahead to see how much further it was.
I was so grateful. It was heaven to sit down, and the throbbing in my legs slowly started to ease.
Alone in the Dark
But then it was dusk, getting darker by the minute, and as the men disappeared, I found myself completely alone. What if there were dangerous animals in the jungle? I knew there were all kinds of deadly and poisonous snakes and spiders – centipedes, scorpions, cobras, spitting snakes. It was creepy for a moment or two, until I looked at the magnificent views across the water and started snapping pictures like a madwoman.
As dusk turned to darkness, T came back. He said it was not much further. Right – that’s what the driver said, 2 kilometres back!!!
Garden Bay Beach Resort
But T was right, it was only around one more corner and into another small bay, and suddenly a little cabin appeared in the jungle with soft lights in the cleared jungle, and off to the side, the resort restaurant. I stumbled up the porch into our villa, and collapsed on the bed.
A Resort That Didn’t Tell the Whole Truth
Now I was upset. I had told the hotel manager at Garden Bay Beach Resort, in an email, that I often have trouble walking and she said that the tricycle taxi takes you right to the bay. When I looked on Google Maps, I had to zoom in a dozen times just to find the resort, and when I saw the bay, it looked like it was in the same place. I thought that meant their bay. Obviously it was a different bay – 2 friggin’ kilometres away. She could have told me that. She could have told me how far one had to walk. I also could have asked if there was any walking and how far. Though if she had told me, we likely would not have come, and we would have booked a different resort. So I kind of understood what happened, from her point of view.
Frustrated, I told T that we would have to find a different resort or hotel. He was not happy about that, but I had plans to go island hopping and rent a tricycle to explore Palawan Island on our own. There so many places to see on the island and on the islands off-shore.
But then I thought there has to be a better solution. In the morning, I asked the resort manager if the boats to go island hopping come into this bay. She assured me that yes, indeed they pick up in town and then stop here if there are any passengers. Perfect! I knew there was a solution; there usually is, if you don’t give up, and look hard enough.
I had seen about as much of that touristy little El Nido town as I wanted to and renting a tricycle was no longer appealing given the rough condition of the roads. Besides that, this resort was lush and peaceful. I could easily stay in this quiet place with its own secluded beach and gorgeous views for the entire week. Relaxing in the hammocks along the beach, reading on my kindle, and eating meals at my leisure at the resort restaurant would not be a terrible hardship.
T was happy. He liked it here too, and he loved to walk, so everyday he could go for a walk to town or in the opposite direction. It was a win-win.
Some of the Things on our Itinerary That We Did Not Do:
*Take a tricycle/jeep for the day with or w/o a driver – (1500PP=42CA for tricycle taxi to Nacpan beach and Coron-Coron, or explore routes through traditional villages along forest trails, roads and dirt tracks. You’ll see rivers, rice fields, coconut groves, hot springs, mangroves, waterfalls, caves and off-the-beaten-track beaches.
*Nacpan Beach – one of top 25 beaches in world, has big waves, secluded, no accommodation, 1 juice/coconut shack, motorbike rental (1500PP = 42C) or tricycle (1500P=42C), muddy road, 2.50 chair rental, 20 km N of El Nido, ask for a map, Calitang Beach and Duli Beach are a little further down the road.
***Rent a Clear Kayak to see marine life while kayaking at El Nido Boutique & Art Cafe. Day P1000=28C, half Day P650=$20C, by the hour P250=7C
*”The Philippine Experience” – a cultural experience, boating/fishing, trekking, mini cooking course, making coconut oil, coconut tree climbing, local crafts, skills & games. Mon, Wed, Thur & Sat 9am-4:30pm.
*El Nido’s Canopy walk for less experienced hikers and for a great view over town and the bay, entrance fee, El Nido Tourism Office at Calle Hama to book, or licenced guide to hike cliff face in El Nido, 3 hrs, after 2 pm.
*Las Cabanas Beach: beautiful, white sand, crystal clear, 2nd to Nacpan, catch a tricycle taxi to Las Cabanas (P50=1.35C) and sit down at the Orange Pearl Bar for a day away from the crowds on a white sandy beach and crystal waters. It’s a short walk down a dirt road from where you will be dropped off, zipline fun w/great views over water, jellyfish in water and rocks, lots of good cheap food shacks, bars.
Linapacan Island – clearest water in the world, rent a bangka boatmen for the day for 7000p (190C), but note that Linapacan Strait can be very rough, island has one store/lodge that is very cheap.
Empty beach North of El Nid0 airport for some solitude (tricycle ride: P150=4C).
Art Cafe – Live Music, 3 nts wk, Sirena St. (toward pier), 09209026317, (firstname.lastname@example.org), 7-11. has all the tours, clothing, swim suits, drug store
The only thing that we truly regret not doing is renting the clear kayak, a see-through polycarbonate kayak, where you could paddle around the shoreline in a this transparent boat and see the same incredible underwater life as you would see snorkelling. That would have been amazing.
The Most Beautiful Beach
You could easily see why El Nido has one of the most beautiful beaches on Palawan Island, and why Palawan was considered the best island in the world.
We spent a fantastic week here island hopping, relaxing in the hammocks, reading, eating excellent meals at the restaurant and meeting people from all over the world.
Best island in the world? We hadn’t decided yet. Palawan Island, surrounded by lush off-shore islands, still had to be explored.
Next week: The Stunning True Island Beauties of Palawan, the Philippines