El Nido town: Rustic quirks & mango rum

Staying in the town proper is the way to visit El Nido on a shoestring. While the swanky side of El Nido is definitely still on my bucket list, there are a few reasons—other than your budget—to enjoy El Nido town.

El Nido Palawan Bacuit Bay sunrise

Waking up to this literally on our doorstep was one. This beauty is democratic: everyone gets a gorgeous sunrise on the water, regardless of the number of digits they forked over for accommodation. I love it.

El Nido bay

Natural beauty is a given, but what I enjoyed most about mainland El Nido is how undeveloped—and how real—it still is. Granted, this means that you’ll discover the less-than-idyllic side of island living. For example, there’s no electricity from 6am to 2pm. There are no ATMs on the island, so bringing enough cash for your entire stay is a must.

The soil is too salty and claylike to grow vegetables, so veggies have to be brought over by sea from Manila, sometimes as infrequently as once a month. There are no poultry farms on the island, because the intermittent electricity supply can’t power the heat lamps needed to raise chickens on a large scale. Anything not grown or produced here—from eggs to bottled water—has to come in by boat, which inflates the prices of most basic goods on El Nido as compared to similarly remote provincial towns and villages.

Despite all those challenges, generations of people—Filipino and foreigners alike—have fallen in love with El Nido and have chosen to start afresh here.

El Nido Palawan Trattoria Altrove

That’s why you’ll find that the longest lines for dinner are for the authentic wood-fired pizzas of Trattoria Altrove, housed in an old bahay-na-bato…

El Nido crepe stand

and why you can get a real French crepe from a sawali-roofed plywood shack just like this.

La Salangane bar El Nido Palawan

In fact, the presence of a thriving French community in El Nido is the raison d’etre for La Salangane, my favorite bar and restaurant of this whole trip.

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Off the beaten track: Nacpan Beach El Nido

You know you’re off the beaten track when the track suddenly begins to look something like this.

El Nido Palawan road trip

You may bump into a few fellow travelers on the same path…

Carabao and kids in El Nido Palawan

in fact, more than just a few… Full jeepney on El Nido road

But you may not always end up at the same destination, which in our case, was Nacpan Beach, El Nido.

El Nido Nacpan beach resort

The most important thing you need to know about the beaten track: more often than not, going off it is totally worth doing.

El Nido Nacpan beach deserted

By far, the best part of our exploration of El Nido by tricycle was arriving at the remote, far-flung and almost totally deserted shores of Nacpan Beach.

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Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan (2 of 2)

Our second island-hopping tour in El Nido fell on the day of our sixth wedding anniversary. It’s just a little bit extra (about Php200-400 more per person) for a private tour, so we decided to make it just the two of us on our special day.

This time, we opted for Tour A, which covers the Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon on Miniloc Island, lunch at Shimizu Island, Secret Lagoon, and a final stop at Seven Commandos beach. For me, these places, particularly the lagoons on Miniloc, are simply postcard El Nido. If you only have time for one island-hopping tour (what a shame!), I highly suggest you pick this one.

There’s a sense of discovery about island-hopping in El Nido that I love. Some of the loveliest places pose a challenge to the traveler and aren’t easily accessible. (Smart choice leaving the baby at home, I must say.) Hidden away from view and behind dramatic limestone peaks, what a wonder it must have been for the explorers who discovered these places for the first time. To follow your curiosity through a peekaboo cutout in the rocks…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Small Lagoon Entrance

and to swim through to emerge in a jewel-colored lagoon, bounded by walls made of jungle and rock.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Small Lagoon

These days, kayaking is the easier option for would-be explorers, but I loved swimming through the Small Lagoon and exploring its little nooks and coves—even if I did slice my hand on some pretty sharp rocks.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Small Lagoon swimming

With the Big Lagoon, scale adds an element of drama. Everything suddenly goes quiet as a stream of bancas float down a corridor of towering limestone, like a procession into some kind of royal hall. It feels both majestic and serene.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Big Lagoon

Our tour guide sat at the prow of the banca, which I thought looked like fun. I asked to take his place and sat there, dangling my feet into the water as our boat did one long, slow circuit around the bowl of the Big Lagoon.

El Nido Palawan island hopping tour guide

I had to jerk my feet out of the water when I saw these, though! I’ve been stung by a sea urchin before and the scars took six years to fade. Not going that route again, thanks.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Big Lagoon sea urchins

What else did we do? Hmmm… we squeezed through this tiny passage to find a small sinkhole called the Secret Lagoon…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Secret Lagoon entrance

and dropped anchor at a spot somewhere off Miniloc, whose name I can’t remember (baby brain strikes again, argh!) for some great snorkeling. El Nido is not spectacular for snorkeling (God is fair), but this spot was really good.

El Nido Palawan island hopping snorkeling spot

To end the day we spent an hour or so at the pristine Seven Commandos beach, which was a welcome break to just doze in the sun after all that swimming.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Seven Commandos Beach

The tours dock at Seven Commandos at around 4 in the afternoon, perfect timing for a little merienda of fresh coconut juice from a tiny, barely held-together shack on the beach…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Seven Commandos

or, my absolute favorite, a mango shake from the small beach bar on the island. Drinks on Seven Commandos are sold at tourist prices, but there’s practically nothing on this island; the locals have to recoup the costs of periodically bringing everything over by boat, plus make a living.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Seven Commandos mango shake

Sweet Philippine mangoes on a gorgeous Philippine beach—if you ask me, that’s a combination that’s pretty hard to beat!

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Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan (1 of 2)

I’ve had it with this gray, gloomy, freezing winter weather. In revolt, I hereby declare this El Nido Week on the blog!

For the whole week, I refuse to blog about anything but turquoise waters, remote beaches, secret lagoons, sunny golden shores, and charming little beach bars and restaurants. Tough luck for you!

El Nido Palawan island hopping Helicoter Island beach

Looking for wintry layers, coats, boots and blankets? Look elsewhere!

Marlon and I decided to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary in another bucket list destination: El Nido, Palawan. The plan was to leave Tala with my family for a few days and aim for something a little more adventurous and off the beaten track. What better place to go than the Philippines’ so-called “last frontier?”

There are two ways to do El Nido: go for luxury with the exclusive, full-service, five-star El Nido Resorts, or do it backpacker style by staying in El Nido proper. With only our bank accounts and no baby to consider, Marlon and I joined the great unwashed among the basic, no-frills hotels of Bacuit Bay.

Regardless of accommodation, everyone goes island-hopping in El Nido. It’s simply the thing to do. All the tour companies on El Nido offer the same four itineraries with standard prices, which is brilliant because it saves you the hassle of researching or bargaining.

Our first tour took us to the beautiful white shores of Helicopter Island (see above) before depositing us at Matinloc Island for—no exaggeration—the hardest, most challenging swim of my life. And I consider myself a fairly good swimmer.

El Nido Palawan island hopping swim to Hidden Beach

Seduced by the prospect of a hidden beach, I jumped into the water without much thought and was immediately caught up in a powerful, pounding current. There had been a storm the day before, and the tide was still churning. The banca was too far out to return to, so there was nothing to do but swim to the island before the sea bashed me against the rocks. Seriously—it was a very real possibility.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Hidden Beach entrance

Somehow, after fighting the tide with everything I had, I made it! I headed into calmer shallows, and up a corridor of dramatic limestone peaks…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Hidden Beach

until I reached Hidden Beach, which is everything you hope a hidden beach could be: idyllic, remote, so beautiful it’s almost surreal.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Hidden Beach crystal clear waters

I mean, just look at that water!

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Ten months!

Tala is 10 months old! She looks as surprised as I feel. Is she really just two months shy of a year old?

Tala 10 Months

Lots of new things this month: some good (her first four teeth popping out on Christmas Day) and not-so-good (high-pitched shrieking, getting used to feeding her three solid meals a day).

The best thing about the last month is that she spent most of it back home, in the Philippines. She may not remember her first visit home, but I always will.

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