Indescribable El Nido

So who deserves to see Heaven on Earth?

Time Travel in Palawan

“EIGHT hours?!”

That’s what I get every time I tell someone how long it takes to travel from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Of course, I fail to mention that’s by bus, which takes a hundred of stops picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.

But there’s a faster way, I assure them — by van. Only five hours.

“Five hours?!”

More driftwood at 7 Commando Beach

At this point of the conversation, I am tempted to drop the thing entirely, but decide against it, and instead nudge the aspiring El Nido tourist into action.

“Yes, five hours,” I’d say, citing the recent trip we made. “But that’s ‘Heaven on Earth’ we’re talking about. And we did it with children.”

Arwen, 8, Amber, 12, Cyan, 3

I’d then talk about how smooth the trip along the concrete highway to paradise was, except for the last 45 minutes or so of unpaved road, and omitting that part when one of the kids puked twice during the stretch where the highway snaked through the rainforest.

There would be no need to tell the aspiring El Nido tourist how priceless a reward of reaching this popular destination would be, because everyone already knows that, but I felt that travelers have an obligation to persuade others to take a vacation from their comfort zones.

Playing near driftwood at Secret Lagoon
Lunch at the beach is almost ready

“Make that trip happen,” I’d challenge the reluctant tourist more. “We’re not getting any younger.”

Nothing like the last statement prompts a soul filled with wanderlust into action. On the other hand, nothing could be as false as the exclusivist idea that the best kind of travel is restricted to a particular demographic, the way paradise, in its archaic sense, is reserved for a few.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age. Like our group, for example — my wife and I, our three kids, and my mother-in-law.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age.

Behind that boat are two crevices leading to Secret Beach

Powered by chaolong

The key to good travel is preparation that falls within the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too much, not too little).

Yet I felt that the kids should be prepared to endure the length of time they’ll be spending on the road. So, a couple of months before the trip to El Nido, we took a road trip along with another family and drove all the way from Cebu to Sagada in the Mountain Province, and back. A total of 72 hours spent on the road would be more than enough to prepare the children for that five-hour trip to El Nido. My wife and Momyla, my mother-in-law who’d be joining us, thought so as well.

Let’s do this!

So on the day of the trip to Palawan last June, we were confident the kids would do just fine, behave and sit still. But five hours is five hours, so we didn’t take any chances and hoarded lots of chewable candy (for dizziness) and a dozen barf bags we stashed from the flight from Cebu. We also needed to take a full meal for the long trip ahead.

After booking a van ride for El Nido at a “terminal” just outside the Puerto Princesa airport, we headed straight to our favorite noodle place in the country, Bona’s Chaolong, a hole-in-the-wall on Manalo St. just a couple of minutes away.

A legacy of Vietnamese who took refuge in Palawan decaddes ago, chaolong is pho with a Filipino twist. This satisfying noodle dish with a savory broth has started to become ubiquitous in the city, but Bona’s arguably are the locals’ favorite.

Ever since I found out about Bona’s Chaolong last year, I realized my trip to Palawan would never be complete without a lovely serving of beef stew or pork bone noodles garnished with fresh mung bean sprouts and even fresher mint leaves, paired with honest-to-goodness garlic French bread.

And I thought, what better way to start a trip to El Nido than with chaolong.

Five hours, 200 kilometers

We had arranged for the van driver to pick us up at the chaolong house at 1 p.m., and in no time we were cruising along the national highway. The van made two 15-minute stops — one in Roxas town after two hours, then in Taytay an hour later. Wonderful scenery greeted us along the way.

After close to five hours and more than 200 kilometers on the road, we knew El Nido was near, as the jagged limestone karsts began to peek from the horizon. We arrived a bit ahead on time, shortly before 6 p.m. The sun was still up.

Upon stepping out of the van at the terminal, massive limestone karst cliffs called “taraw” loomed before us. At its feet was the new market, where we would buy cheap lapulapu, squid and prawns for dinner days later. Hidden behind the cliffs was the reason El Nido has been called “Heaven on Earth” – clusters of astonishing geological formations scattered across Bacuit Bay. We couldn’t wait to see what “paradise” looked like.

We took a short tricycle ride through town to the edge of Rizal St., at the beach front where our lodgings were. Our room on the second floor of the inn was spartan, but it accommodated all six of us and offered a fantastic view of the bay and nearby Cadlao Island, which rose 600 meters above the sea, twice taller than the country’s tallest building. Dozens of outrigger boats anchored near the shore floated still.

Down below the inn, the streets were still abuzz with life, even as nighttime fell.

After having dinner at a carenderia run by a Filipino chef, we went straight home and slept. The tiny airconditioner groaned, but we hardly noticed. It will eventually give up before our three-day stay in El Nido is over.

Tours A and C, if there’s time

Every day, electricity in paradise goes out at exactly 6 a.m. and returns at 2 p.m. I began to suspect that this was scheduled that way to force travelers to leave their rooms and take any of the four tour packages on offer, if not head to the town’s other attractions.

But the power shortage sounds legit — since El Nido is quite remote, electricity here must be pretty expensive, just like most basic commodities, with the exception of seafood.

View from our room…

Now taking the tours is a must. First timers in El Nido are advised to take Tour A or C, or if they have the time, both. There’s an option for a combined Tour A and C, since the each cluster of islands are just nearby. The tour starts at 9 a.m. and ends shortly past mid-afternoon.

We took Tour A first, then Tour C the following day. Both tours included lunch.

The tour begins: first stop, Helicopter Island
Will it rain?

Tour A centered on the lagoons: after a dip off Seven Commando Island, we headed to Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon, had lunch at a beach beside Secret Lagoon, and then ended the day after snorkeling off Shimizu Island.

Tour C was mostly a trip in and around Matinloc Island, a long stretch of rock that holds pockets of beaches and many other secrets. We visited Secret Beach, had lunch at Talisay Beach, explored Matinloc Shrine, and spent the rest of the afternoon at Hidden Beach during low tide. We were glad we did both tours separately.

The sights probably meant little to the boatmen, but we, their passengers, were in awe. Each destination was just incredibly beautiful and each spot was uniquely breathtaking. One of the lagoons even inspired some writer to write a book, only it wasn’t about the place. (What’s the name of that book, again?) But still.

And it wasn’t just the scenery — it was the experience of discovering for oneself what other wondrous sights were hidden behind a clump of towering islands or walls of rough-hewn cliffs, for instance, swimming through a crevice to find the clear blue waters of a lagoon surrounded by even taller limestone karst cliffs lush with bizarre greenery.

7 Commando Beach

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands hunched on both sides — many taller than highrise buildings — appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands… appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Hidden Beach

Elsewhere, boulders jutted from the water, their serrated edges cutting the surface of the sea at odd angles, like rigid waves. One could imagine meteors falling from the sky millions of years ago. Farther still, clumps of rock lined the horizon, blurred, suggesting only depth and distance. Somehow, we managed to get there, and closer.

By the end of the first tour, I realized that no words can describe this place. In the middle of Tour C, I was resigned to the idea that no photograph or video can capture the essence of Bacuit Bay and its geological wonders.

Swimming in the Small Lagoon
What a view from Matinloc Island!

For example, to stand on the shores of Talisay Beach on Matinloc Island can be disorienting, because everywhere one turns, he is surrounded by exceptional natural beauty he can immerse himself in. This holds true to just about every spot in Bacuit Bay.

We expected to see something beautiful and amazing in El Nido, but not this many in only a few clusters of islands, not 360 degrees of breathtaking awesomeness at any random spot.

Here in El Nido, before each wondrous sight, one runs out of breath and superlatives. Heaven on Earth — that’s the best we can come up with?

(A version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

Hidden Beach up close. Until next time, El Nido…

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