Touted as one of the best islands in the world, Palawan Island in the Philippines is an untouched paradise teeming with natural wonders, rugged landscapes and deserted shorelines. El Nido on the northern tip of this pencil-thin island is a great point to start your exploration of this amazing piece of paradise.
Words & Photography: Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap
“Slow and steady,” I muttered to myself, drawing perseverance from a small, brown snail inching its way up the precipice beside me. What my friends and I expected to be a manageable ‘hike’ up the citadels of marble and limestone guarding El Nido in northern Palawan turned out to be an unnerving climb up bladed boulders and gaping sinkholes. Above us, a troop of long-tailed macaques slipped into the overhanging foliage. “We’re almost there,” our tour guide Mahie Ermino lied again. Looking ahead, we were no more than halfway up the 230-metre high taraw or limestone cliff. “I once accompanied a 72-year-old Australian lady to the top,” he assured us in Tagalog, “If she can do it, you can too.”
Thankfully, Ermino’s step-by-step supervision and bagful of encouraging half-truths delivered us unscathed to the mountain’s jagged crown where our determination rewarded us with an incredible vista that intrepid travellers risk life and limb to see. Before us, a seaside village awoke to the sunshine pouring onto a crescent of sand, lapped up by azure waters. “A view to die for,” a friend described it. Distracted by the morning view, we managed to remain oblivious to the 40-storey sheer drop while posing for proof of our audacity; flashing cheesy smiles at our cameras. On the left side of the cove, Cadlao Island – the largest of the offshore islands in the Bacuit Archipelago – hugged the white outrigger boats scattered across the bay, one of which we later hired to continue our adventures offshore.
Besides presenting such beautiful views, fearless locals called busyadores have been climbing these karsts for centuries for a lucrative reason. Chinese traders began visiting the Philippines during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD) to trade for edible bird’s nest or nido in Spanish, a strange delicacy that eventually gave the settlement its name. The so-called ‘white gold’ consists of solidified saliva from black swiftlets residing in the craggy skyscrapers that characterise much of Palawan’s northern coastlines. Drinking gourmet nido soup is traditionally believed to provide many health benefits such as aiding digestion, increasing the libido and improving the immune system. “Today, the finest grade of bird’s nest can fetch up to USD4,500 a kilogramme,” revealed tourism officer Bong Sabenacio, whose family once owned the largest concession of swiftlet caves in town.
However, most residents have now turned to more environmentally friendly industries such as sustainable tourism to earn a living. For decades, El Nido remained far removed from the rest of the world until three decades ago, explains resort owner Henri Fernandez of Entalula Beach Cottages. In 1979, a fishing line disabled the propeller of a Japanese dive boat, forcing the crew to spend a night in an inlet. The next day, the divers awoke to the surreal seascape of jade forests and astonishing cliffs rising out of sparkling lagoons. “They had to slap their faces to make sure they weren’t dreaming!” Fernandez chuckled.
Paradise On Earth
After the incident, word of paradise spread quickly. In the following years, a gravel airstrip was built to fly in luxury travellers to the high-end resorts put up by Filipino and Japanese investors on a few offshore islands. Later, backpackers began arriving in the main town, where affordable guesthouses, restaurants and dive shops had sprouted, mostly along the beachfront. More recently, El Nido appeared in The Amazing Race 5 and, Koh-Lanta; the French franchise of Survivor. Remarkably, despite earning global attention, the place has retained its laid-back appeal. “To minimise the impact of tourism on the environment,” explained Fernandez, “we advocate a ‘low density, high value’ policy.” Unlike the touristy beaches of Puerto Galera or Boracay Island, this destination is fortunately free of aggressive touts, with friendly locals complementing the relaxed and almost deserted atmosphere. Surprisingly, electricity is only available at night, while the most happening spots in town are limited to a few beachside drinking holes serenaded by acoustic guitar and percussion.
Our earlier climb whetted our appetite for more adventures. We boarded a motorised bangka (outrigger canoe) to explore Bacuit Bay, which encompasses some 45 islands and islets. These coralline formations were born 250 million years ago – long before dinosaurs roamed – in a shallow sea covering the area that North Vietnam and South China now occupy. Sculpted by nature’s whim and wrath, this limestone labyrinth now spells one word: Idyllic.
As the stone sentries of Miniloc Island welcomed our boat into the turquoise embrace of Small Lagoon, we gaped at the unbelievable scenery – not unlike those stranded divers in 1979. “There’s something magical about this place,” remarked Hugo Herrera, a Panamanian who joined the trip. His sister Jessica couldn’t agree more. “El Nido really transports you away from all the stress of the city,” she added, “It’s the perfect place to get lost.” Indeed, organised island-hopping tours are the most convenient way to explore the isles, but you can kayak to discover a beach hideaway all to yourself, or, for a Robinson Crusoe experience, camp overnight at one of the islands.
Sand, Sun and Fun
With over 50 powder-white beaches and 30 dive spots, you are definitely spoilt for choice. For sun-worshippers, there are broad stretches of soft sand at Seven Commandos Beach and Helicopter Island, to name the most popular. Shimizu Island and Tapiutan Strait, on the other hand, are great places to snorkel and drink in the underwater marvel. As part of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area – the largest marine sanctuary in the Philippines – the Bacuit Archipelago is refuge to over 100 species of corals, 800 species of fishes, six species of marine mammals (including the native dugong) and, four species of endangered sea turtles, which are frequently sighted in the area.
In Matinloc Island, an intriguing terrain is Secret Beach, an enclosed tidal pool accessible only by swimming through an underwater passage. Apparently, this very spot provided inspiration for British novelist Alex Garland to write the 1996 bestseller-turned-movie, The Beach. While set in Thailand, the novel was largely influenced by the author’s experience in the Philippines, where he lived for six months.
Secret Beach was attractive, but we were more impressed by its grander sibling; Hidden Beach, a glassy cove surrounded by jagged outcrops. During our visit, we chanced upon a juvenile blue-spotted stingray in the shin-deep waters.
At Seven Commandos Beach, an explosion of tangerine streaked the sky, signaling our departure. “Can you see the face?” Ermino asked, pointing at Cadlao Island as our boat returned to the mainland. “When the sunlight hits that mountain just right, you can see a smiling face on its peak” he enthused. Through the glow of dusk, I could barely make out the fabled smile on Cadlao’s face. Nonetheless, as I daydreamed about getting stranded on this tropical bliss, I couldn’t deny the one on my face.
WHERE TO STAY
El Nido town offers several budget resorts such as El Nido Cliffside Cottages (+63 9197856625) and Entalula Beach Cottages (www.entalula.com). For upscale options, check out El Nido Resorts (www.elnidoresorts.com).
Philippine currency is called peso (PHP) and is sub-divided into 100 centavos. 1 USD gets you around PHP 43. It is advised that you bring enough cash for your entire stay, since there are no ATMs in town. Only a few establishments accept credit cards.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies daily from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia to Clark, Philippines. Philippines’ AirAsia flies from Clark to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. For flight details, go to www.airasia.com.