The Philippines have long been a hot destination for tourists, but while most opt for the commercial party island of Boracay, we decided to hit the more rustic island of Palawan. Last year Condé Nast’s Readers’ Choice Awards ranked Palawan the number one island in the world, and after this trip, we can’t disagree.
We visited El Nido, located in Bacuit Bay, on the northern tip of the island. A utopia that is untouched by tourism (probably because it’s quite a trek to get there), it is a stunning locale for adventurers, beach lovers and photography nerds keen to get a snapshot of the lush jungles, deep-blue lagoons, and rugged limestone rock formations that dot the bay.
We flew direct to Manila and overnighted in the capital, gambling until dawn at Solaire Resort & Casino. The next morning, we hopped on a puddle jumper to Palawan island and landed in the main city of Puerto Princesa.
Ditch the local bus service, which is slow and cramped, for a private bus that takes you direct to your hotel. We opted for Daytripper (www.daytripperpalawan.com) for their roomy vans that easily accommodate luggage and sports gear. Admittedly, you won’t have to do this if you splash out on pricey charter flights direct to El Nido, but if you’re traveling with a fun crew, the seven-hour bus ride is manageable. It is also a fantastic opportunity to take in the gorgeous countryside and its people.
The island remains relatively undeveloped -- there is an untouched feel to the landscape. The roads have yet to be entirely finished, as we noted when bumping up and down the mountains, and winding through narrow dirt paths cutting through villages. We passed children attending school outdoors with only a simple wooden stage lined with desks; we watched farmers cutting coconuts off trees and laying them out in the sun. Most of the time, however, there was nothing at all but a mountainous landscape filled with a glorious profusion of cliffs and rocks against a backdrop of blue sea and sky.
We recommend staying at Stunning Vistas (elnidostunningvistas.com), a simple resort that delivers what its name promises. It is located on the beachfront in Corong-Corong, minutes from downtown, where the sunsets are said to be the best in Palawan.
The main mode of transportation on Palawan is a tricycle taxi. They are converted out of motorcycles, with a covered area attached to the side. We hailed one of these strange contraptions for a day out on Nacpan Beach, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the drivers were actually quite friendly and not out to scam us. The drive out to Nacpan took 45 minutes over scarily narrow roads and dirt paths. As we rode over the occasional unsteady bridge of tree trunks and wooden planks, we spotted cows bathing in the rivers below.
When we arrived at Nacpan’s stretch of sandy white beach lapped by vibrant shades of crystal blue water, we knew this week-long holiday was going to be just as beautiful and relaxing as we’d hoped -- except one person in our group unfortunately found out firsthand that early spring is jellyfish season on the island. Luckily, the staff at a nearby beach bar doused the sting with vinegar to temporarily relieve the pain.
Water sports are the thing to do in El Nido. Kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding, and scuba diving are all available; many tourists opt to get their diving instructor certification here, as it only takes three days and is quite cheap. Even the less adventurous can enjoy island hopping, with tours of similar price and itinerary available pretty much anywhere you go.
We signed up for one of these tours through our hotel with a group of 11 people we met over drinks the night before. Our motley crew of Swedes, Filipinos, East Asians, and Americans made for an interesting adventure. That is when we discovered that it isn’t so much where you book, or where you go, that matters with these tours. It is the size of your boat (naturally). Once a bigger tour boat gets unloaded, you’ll find the time at your destination becoming quickly limited. If you’re a small group of four or so, pay a little extra for a private tour, which nets you a meal on the beach and more flexibility about your next island stop.
The highlight was the Big Lagoon, with shimmering blues of an intensity we’ve yet to see in the rest of Southeast Asia. Shimizu Beach is a private strip of sand with good snorkeling options, and we were dazzled by the gorgeous sea life swimming among the coral. We were also treated to a lunch whipped up by the locals. Each of our other tour stops, including the Small Lagoon, the Hidden Lagoon, and Seven Commandos Beach, were incredibly scenic and striking -- no Instagram filter needed here.
Our nights were spent walking along El Nido, which offers the usual Southeast Asian mix of cheap shopping, massages, beachfront restaurants, and cute beach bars. But the food is not up to standard, and in El Nido you definitely have to hunt for good seafood. Beware of cheap grilled meat and fish joints, as more than one person in our group suffered from food poisoning. If you tire of local food, we suggest Mezzanine -- a laid-back Italian eatery that offers hand-pulled pasta.
Our last few days were spent relaxing at Las Cabanas Beach, where the bars are suitably stocked, and they often have paddleboards and kayaks for rent. We hiked up an 80-meter-high hill to access a zipline that extends from Las Cabanas to an island called Depeldet. It is 1.4 kilometers long, and an exciting way to get those stunning panoramic views.
El Nido has beautiful beaches, rugged landscapes, a range of leisure activities and friendly locals. However, in two to three years, tourism here may come to resemble the current experience in Thailand. This will especially be the case once Puerto Princesa puts the finishing touches to their airport in a few years. Get there before this paradise becomes a paradise lost.
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