El Nido Palawan – Seven Days in Shangri-La. We were back in Puerto Princesa but this time just passing through to get to El Nido for our anniversary as a couple plus a little something I had in mind. Lots of superlatives flying around about El Nido, so our expectations were bubbling to the brim.
DAY 1 – El Nido, Palawan Arrival
We found the Lexxus Toyota Hi-Ace van at Puerto Princesa’s airport parking lot on which we had 3 seats reserved for the 2 of us so as not to be cramped, and specifically behind the driver for greater leg room. The German traveler beside me was curious why there were only 3 of us in our row, unlike the rows behind us where there were 4, so I explained.
I hadn’t slept the night before so I planned to doze off in the van. My sleep was fitful because of the winding roads, sharp turns and switchbacks along the way. At least the roads were paved all the way. We expected stretches of rough roads based on what we were told by friends who’d been to El Nido. Now and then, I’d get one eye open and see snatches of karst formations, a taste of what was to come.
One meal stop and six butt-aching hours later we arrived at Pa-Lao-Yu Dive Resort along the main road, at the outskirts before downtown El Nido, and just a few steps away from Corong Corong beach. We plopped into bed, fell right asleep, but woke up just in time to get to the nearby Republica Sunset Bar and caught a fabulous sunset over Corong Corong Beach and Bacuit Bay, drink in hand, with Miniloc Island silhouetted on the horizon.
DAY 2 – El Nido Island Hopping Tour A
We woke up refreshed, excited on what the day had in store for us. It was still early in the morning and we enjoyed watching the day unfold for the locals in the area. Children walking to school. Women sweeping in front of their houses. Men having coffee by the roadside. Motorbikes zooming into town. After breakfast we took a walk along the main road, Taytay – El Eido National Highway, and went down to Corong Corong Beach. We had an excellent vista with the sun behind us. Several bancas (native outrigger boats) were anchored in the shallows along the stretch of pebbly golden sand, rocky in some parts.
At 8:30 AM, a van from Northern Hope Tours picked us up from our resort and brought us to their Calle Real office in town. We pre-booked our island-hopping tours with them days before arriving in El Nido. Today we were doing Island Hopping Tour A along with about 12 other travelers from the US, Germany, Korea and the Philippines. As they say, El Nido is all about island hopping!When the group was complete, we all walked to beach by the Ferry Terminal facing El Nido Bay and waded into the water to board our banca.
Our boat crew had 2 tour guides, Rickneil and guy #2. I can recall Rickneil’s name because he had everyone laughing with his jokes in garbled English. We set course for Miniloc Island, towering limestone cliffs all around and cruised by the one of expensive El Nido Resorts on that island.
Our first stop was the Small Lagoon on the northern side. To get to it, we jumped off the boat, swam to a small gap, and were met on the other side by a small lagoon. River sandals, reef shoes or dive booties highly recommended.
Next, we went to the Big Lagoon on the eastern side – no crawling necessary as boats could get through the passage. We did a bit of snorkeling in the crystal clear shallow waters but mostly marveled at the majestic karst limestone walls on both sides of the lagoon and the towering boulder like formations, like clumps of ancient arrowheads, at the far end of the lagoon.
We anchored past noon off Simizu/Shimuzu Island. Our boat crew brought down a table and set it up on the beach a put on a spread of grilled fish, squid and pork belly with soy sauce, calamansi and chili dip, boiled shrimps, grilled eggplants, tomato and onion salad, rice and sliced pineapples and watermelons for dessert. All these they had grilled, cooked and prepared on the boat while we were out snorkeling earlier. Good choice for a stop as the island also had a nice beach to laze around after the heavy lunch. Other boats arrived bearing more travelers who also had lunch and sunbathed on the beach.
We dropped anchor off a small beach dotted with rows of coconut trees and was told we’d now be going into the Secret Lagoon. We were guided to a small opening in the massive limestone wall and watched how travelers who came ahead of us crawled through the wall. It was a bit of a contortionists’ act. Once past, we found ourselves in small caldera. It was like being inside a small stadium or cathedral with the roof blown away. Rickneil asked us to shout something out loud, so we did, and it echoed back at us from several places all at once.
Last stop was Seven Commandos Beach to while away the remaining hours of Tour A. The beach had a sari-sari store, The Last Frontier Paradise of Commando Store, and we bought fresh coconut juice and fruit shakes. Others had beer. The beach had about a dozen open-sided huts for day trippers. On the other end of the beach was its lone high-end resort, the Vellago Beach Resort.
It was a little past four in the afternoon when our boat got back to the El Nido Ferry Terminal. We hung around for a while with our travel companions and guides, recounting the day’s activities then walked back to El Nido Beach. The area was gearing up for the night, chairs and tables being set up on the beach, smoky aroma from food being grilled, menu-wielding wait staff trying to rope in customers, Bob Marley crying about some woman from the speakers.
We were getting hungry. A block into town, an establishment caught our fancy from afar because of a number of people milling around. Closing in we found that it was a pizza restaurant, La Trattoria Altrove.There was a long queue of customers waiting to get in, so, vowing to return, we doubled back and settled for a quick carinderia-style dinner at IBR Inn Store Fastfood instead, then took a tricycle back to our resort where we caught the last slivers of sunlight over Corong Corong beach.
DAY 3 – Wandering about El Nido Town
Light and easy recovery day today. After breakfast we took a tricycle and asked to be dropped off right in the center of town, at the point where Calle Hama and Serena Street meet, which the previous day appeared to us to be the main tourist strip in El Nido. There were lots of locals and travelers walking around, gap year backpackers, older backpackers, well-heeled retirees, couples, families. Cheerful vibe. Our feet brought us by food stalls, bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels, hostels and inns, dive shops, the local tiangge (bazaar) near the town hall, massage & spa salons. Tour operators advertising island hopping, motorbike and kayak rentals and tours to other areas of Palawan, posters and handbills stuck on walls letting us know about this weekend’s DJ-spun sunset music sessions at various beaches and hilltops around El Nido. El Nido hums at a leisurely pace.
We snuck into the narrow Serena Street and passed by the El Nido Boutique & Art Cafe, which we quickly recognized from our trip research. We had lunch on the second floor which offered a great view of El Nido Bay. Resuming our meandering, we passed by the OMP Hostel (Our Melting Pot), where right outside, a happy multi-racial assemblage of young backpackers were enjoying their San Miguels and Red Horses.
The town center is probably just a tenth of a square kilometer. We were walking in circles. We found ourselves at the mouth of Serena Street again and had some crepes and ice cream at the Belle Ile Crepe Shop.
When night fell we headed to El Nido Beach and picked our dinner at the Aplaya Resto Bar. You point at your selections and they’ll cook it for you the way you want it. Fish, oysters, lobsters and of course, marinated pork belly strips. Touristy prices but great ambiance. Our table was set on the beach facing El Nido Bay. After eating, we went over to Pukka Bar, also on the beach, for a beer each and live reggae music.
Did some more aimless wandering.We squeezed our way into row of tented booths to watch some townsfolk enjoying the night at several Philippine fiesta-style gambling tables. A block away, bright lights, music, cheering and clapping at the municipal basketball court beckoned to us. The El Nido High School Talent Competition was in full swing. We were amused to see that most of the locals were seated on the bleachers while tourists were seated in front of the stage enjoying the proceedings and cheering on the contestants. Checked out La Trattoria Altrove again, and met another long line. This was making us really curious about their pizzas.
DAY 4 – El Nido Island Hopping Tour C
Northern Hope Tours picked us up again from our resort for our El Nido Island hopping Tour C. We were bundled with different groups this time, though Rickneil was still our tour guide, and were a little late in setting off as some of the group members arrived late and on their own.
First stop was Dilumacad Island, also known as Helicopter Island, because its outline looks like a helicopter from a certain angle and distance. Nice stretch of beach. Swam a bit. Looked around a bit.
Second stop – Hidden Beach – we entered a very narrow strait with clear and shallow waters and jagged limestone walls on both sides to discover a strip of sand. We didn’t try it, but were told there’s a natural tunnel through limestone face which will take you to the other side.
We made way for Matinloc Island, passing by several small beaches going north on its eastern side then rounded the northern end to Matinloc Shrine. The shrine is just a part of what looks to be an abandoned mansion. Rickneil said that the shrine was built by a wealthy Virgin Mary devotee. Quite eerie actually as everything was in disarray and the dark rooms were sliced by shafts of sunlight. There was a bunker-like room with old photographs, a large room with dilapidated bed frames, a bathroom with a jacuzzi. Considering that the structure looks fairly recent, 80’s or 90’s maybe, it’s a shame that it is left to neglect when a little sprucing up could be put to good use. Outside, we climbed the sharp limestone rocks and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Tapiutan Strait and Tapiutan Island.
We stopped for lunch at Star Beach on Tapiutan Island, right across Matinloc Shrine. As with Island Hopping Tour A, lunch was prepared on the boat, but this time we also ate on the boat as Star Beach was already full of anchored boats. Lunch was exactly the same as before, but delicious and filling nonetheless. Our boat brought along a kayak, so while waiting for lunch and after lunch, some of us took turns paddling while others snorkeled.
Next stop – Secret Beach – Also on Matinloc Island. Really, from the outside, you wouldn’t know it’s there. We had to swim in strong currents and then through a small crevice in the rock face that sat at the waterline to get to the secret beach. We aren’t strong swimmers so since the currents were strong and the waters deep, we needed Rickneil’s help to tow us to the opening. Said to be the inspiration for Alex Garland’s novel ‘The Beach’. It’s not much of a secret anymore with several other bancas jockeying for position near the crevice. Inside is a beautiful patch of white sand at the edge of a sinkhole enclosed by jagged limestone walls.
We had a bonus stop at Pasandigan Beach on Cadlao Island, which is part of the Island Hopping Tour D itinerary, and we had the beach all to ourselves. Pasandigan was yet another white sand beach dotted with coconut trees abruptly backed against a sheer limestone wall. We were all in the water relaxing and laughing to another installment of Rickneil’s comedy routine.
By 4Pm, our boat was lazily chugging back into El Nido. We went back to our resort to freshen up then went back to town. Espied a waiting line at La Trattoria Altrove from the corner, so we ended at Sea Slugs by the beach for dinner.
DAY 5 – El Nido’s Nacpan Beach
Out to Nacpan Beach, number 10 on Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Top 25 Beaches and echoed on CNN. Originally we pre-booked a tricycle for the two of us. However we made friends with a group of guests at our resort, who were also going to Nacpan Beach, and who still had spare seats in their rented van, so we took them up on their offer to come along with them and share in the cost for the van rental. So we cancelled our tricycle. And wouldn’t you know it, Rickneil was their guide!
We made a stop at the El Nido Public Market and bought food to grill for lunch at Nacpan Beach. We got off the highway and drove along a bumpy and dusty dirt road that ran for about 4 kilometers. We parked at the small village in Nacpan and walked to the beach. And wow, the beach was very long, pristine and immaculate! Must’ve been what Boracay looked like 20 years ago! Fine sand, coconut trees lined up neatly, no high-end resorts (so far!), crystal clear waters with waves breaking more than a foot high! We walked to what appeared to be demolished cement structure jutting out to sea and Rickneil told us that it was the remnants of a pier built by a company that mined silica. We saw one large modern house but it looked like it was private. There were a few beach huts for suitable for day trippers.
Had another coconut cracked open to enjoy its juice at hut named Jack’s Place Picnic Grove Grill and Bar Fruit Shakes. Then found that they have another establishment further north of the beach named Jack’s Place Beach Park & Camping Site Restaurant & Rooms. Quite a mouthful. You couldn’t miss it as their beachfront was filled with about 2 dozen bamboo poles bearing full-sized flags of different countries, fluttering in the wind.
Around noon, we linked up with our companions at the beachfront Mama Cita’s Restaurant, actually just a hut, for lunch. Rickneil made arrangements with the owners to cook and prepare the food we bought back at the market – a huge grilled fish, grilled squid, grilled pork belly, watermelons, sweet mangoes, cucumber and eggplant salad. Almost the same of what we had for lunch during the island hopping tours.
After lunch we walked south to the so-called Nacpan-Calitang Twin Beaches. The land mass narrowed to then spread a bit wide again. We were on Nacpan Beach and a few meters on the other side was Calitang Beach. We went up the hill for a good view of both beaches. The other side, Calitang Beach, was home to a small fishing village.
We hung loose for the rest of the afternoon at Nacpan, enjoying the tranquility and beauty of the place. When not frolicking in the water, Caucasians were sunbathing and Asians were under the shade.
DAY 6 – El Nido’s Marimegmeg Beach
From our resort in Corong Corong, we hailed a tricycle and asked the driver to bring us to Marimegmeg Beach. Didn’t ring a bell with him, so we told him to bring us to the place where the The Beach Shack was.
So he let us off at the beginning of a stony dirt path which ran for about 300 meters to the beach. Halfway down the path, we saw a tarp advertising a “zip line adventure” you could enjoy if you took a left, which kinda left a bad taste in the mouth.
Nacpan is beautiful, but far from town and not that easy to get to. But if you want a beautiful beach, the same quiet and isolated tropical setting, that’s just a short hop from El Nido town proper, then Marimegmeg is the place to be. Plus, if you need it, it has the comforts of three nice resorts, the 3rd being the Ocean Pearl Beach Resort.
So, we bummed around all day at Marimegmeg, and put our feet up at the The Beach Shack for lunch, snacks and several orders of shakes and beer. Except for the zip line to Depeldet Islet that marred the vista, it was near-perfect. Like Corong Corong, Marimegmeg is a great place to watch the sunset.
We got ready to go before the sun fully set. We hiked up the dirt path and took a tricycle to town.
It was now or never for La Trattoria Altrove, as I wanted to celebrate our anniversary by having dinner there. Of course, there was a line. We fell in and waited for about half an hour to get a table. The pizza was seriously good. I got up and furtively asked the wait-staff, cluing them in, to place the ring box on the bill tray when our bill was ready. They brought it to our table. She was oblivious to the ring box. The wait-staff were watching. Tense seconds. Still oblivious.
Aren’t you gonna open that?
I won the most incompetent and feckless proposal of the year award.
She thought it was a paperweight. But ultimately, she said Yes.
DAY 7 – El Nido’s Caalan Beach
We went out early in the morning and were wandering about El Nido town proper again. We walked along El Nido Beach. Still quiet with just a few local souls. Chairs and tables filled with booze, food and people the night before are now stacked to one side.
The beach ended at the El Nido Corner Restaurant, we then took a concrete footpath around the promontory. Turning around, we got a good panoramic view of El Nido Beach and the bars, resorts and restaurants that line it. At the end of the footpath, we stepped onto Caalan Beach. We went by several resorts and cottages, Cadlao Resort & Restaurant looked good, until we got to Hippocampe Beach Cottages, which appeared to be shuttered, at the end of Caalan Beach. Peaceful area, and when you’re facing the ocean, you’ve got the towering heights of Cadlao Island right in front if you. But compared to Marimegmeg and Nacpan, the beach here was rocky in places and had patches of sharp reefs in some.
We took the interior road parallel to the beach back to town then had coffee and breakfast at V and V Bagel. Walking down Calle Hama in a westerly direction, it was pretty cool to behold El Nido nestled against a towering and massive rock face.
Went inside the wide school grounds of El Nido’s elementary school and watched the schoolchildren playing football. Again, that immense rock wall made the view so expansive. We took a break at the Midtown Bakery which was probably the only bakery in town.
Late afternoon, we found ourselves exploring the other end of El Nido Bay opposite Caalan. We walked the length of Serena Street, arguably the tourist district of El Nido, paused for coffee at La Salagane’s restaurant deck when we saw its nice view overlooking El Nido Bay, went past the port docks, and took the boardwalk in front of Joaquinn Bed & Breakfast. There were a lot of outrigger boats, some dry docked for repairs, others in various stages of construction by villagers, and kids playing on and between the boats. Stopped a while to watch villagers of Cabigsing/Sitio Tandul playing basketball, and went further until we hit El Gordo’s Adventures & Guesthouse. There was a small islet right in front of the village connected by a long wooden foot bridge that made for a very picturesque seascape.
DAY 8 – Bye Bye El Nido
Packing was a gloomy chore. We again took a Lexxus shuttle van, again 3 seats reserved, back to Puerto Princesa, then caught our Cebu Pacific flight back to Manila.
Seven full days in El Nido certainly wasn’t enough, but at least we were able to soak in what we could and get a feel of the place at our own pace. Of course we could have jam-packed all activities and quickened our pace, but that would just have been like ticking items off a list just for the sake of having done them. OK, I’m rationalizing. We’re coming back El Nido!