Leaving Manila and Exploring Palawan: El Nido

Manila was like a cozy blanket. An old work friend had set me up with her sister and friend who live there and I was luxuriously picked up from the airport and driven around town. (Many thanks to Karen, Kathryn, Benjamin, Katz and Kate!) I had booked a cheap hotel and had selected a capsule room, which has been a slight obsession of mine. And I loved it. The bathrooms were not particularly clean (the cleaner seemed to skip them entirely, once I asked for toilet paper but other than that we were left without.) I was scared to touch anything (I almost slept with the light on so I didn’t have to touch the light switch) but I loved having my own pod, it was almost like having your own studio apartment in London. But cheaper.

My first night I was taken out for dinner at the beautiful Apartment 1b and the next day, Katz showed me Chinatown, daring to get on the train with me and proceeding to let me taste a variety of delicious Chinese foods. The kind that tastes horrible when bought at an Asian supermarket in Europe, but surprisingly tasty when fresh. We walked through endless crowds of people and market stalls. The entire day I appeared to be the only white person around (the one time I thought I saw a white girl, Katz corrected me, saying that, actually, it was a Filipino guy in the process of becoming a girl – I don’t know how I could’ve been so blatantly wrong…) Later, when we arrived at the expat friendly and much more upscale BGC, we were suddenly greeted by a load full of westerners, which was admittedly slightly disappointing to me, as I’d started to feel quite special being the sole white person in Manila.

Typically, travellers skip Manila. It is too busy and lacks the charm that some other busy Asian capitals may have. I kind of liked the craziness of walking around the traffic as a pedestrian, it’s a fair playground for anyone really, and as someone who walks endlessly, I thought the extend of jaywalking that gets done was kind of fun. Something that definitely fascinates me about Manila was the slums. The makeshift homes built on top of each other and the people that live in them. I passed some on the way into town from the airport and it was such a strange sight. To imagine the lives these people live. We drove around some more areas but didn’t get to see anything beyond the car window view. I’d love to explore, in theory, knowing it’s probably not the best idea to make it a reality.

When Manila was nearing its end I decided to get out on my own and get the taste of real adventure for the first time. After hours of online search in my capsule, I decided to try my luck at the island of Palawan. I would fly towards Puerto Princesa and head up to El Nido, after which I was likely to visit Coron. I booked my flight and accommodation for the first few nights.

Puerto Princesa was over in a heartbeat. I had booked one night only and paid for the bus to head to El Nido the next day upon arrival at the airport. I had forgotten that there are a few sights to see in Puerto Princesa as well. I didn’t fret. I had just bought a Filipino SIM card with data and I was over the moon with the ability to find my way around on my own. I decided to walk the 45 minutes to my hostel, instead of getting a tricycle. Any other normal person obviously wouldn’t actually do that in the middle of the day, when the sun is strongest, but I was scared to get ripped off by the tricycle guys, so I headed off on my own, politely waving off anyone who tried to sell me their rides. When I arrived at the hostel and finally got the attention of someone to open the front gate (of course, it was already open, it just seemed closed to me), I was thoroughly soaking in my own sweat. Shortly after I was shown the dorm I had booked: the dorm being a single room with shared bathroom facilities. I worked for me. That afternoon and evening in Puerto Princesa I found some busy areas with markets and I bought some street food (that wasn’t particularly good), a piece of watermelon that was too big for me to comfortably consume, and sat around the pier, where all the locals seemed to gather to sit around, chat and eat while the sun set.

El Nido’s Corong Corong beach sunset.

The next morning I expected a 9.30 pickup to El Nido. I was just waking up at 8 when someone knocked on my door. The van was there. An hour and a half early. Typical. I was never told that the van could arrive that early. I was consistently told he would be there at 9.30. I was a mess and desperate to take a shower: not ready to sit in a van for hours on end without at least cleaning up a little bit. So I send them away. They’d be back at 9.30, they said.

They weren’t. When it was close to 11 I asked the guys from the hostel to call them. They would come, they said, soon. Surprisingly, they did. Of course, it was an entirely different van that was probably scheduled to leave four hours after the one I had booked. I was the first pick up. (Two hours later we were still in Puerto Princesa picking people up.) But at least it was happening. I was travelling and I was on my way to El Nido.

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Scenic Corong Corong beach during a morning stroll.

I liked El Nido. The first three night I had booked a private room in a very simple hotel that had tiny little bugs that looked like a cross between fruit flies and miniature ants running around the entire room. I blew them off my bed whenever I went to sleep. But it was right next to Corong Corong beach, which was a lovely stretch of serenity with a few restaurants to boost. It was a longer walk into town, but we had a great sunset and a relaxed atmosphere.

Walking from Corong Corong beach into El Nido Proper.

El Nido street view.
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The El Nido beach, boats scattered everywhere.

I did the suggested island hopping tours, appealingly named Tour A and C. The islands and lagoons we visited were beautiful and true to the pictures: turquoise, clear water, blue skies and at times showcasing very light sand. The snorkelling was disappointing: a lot of reef but not much fish. After Tour C I got scared of going into the water to snorkel. The water was too aggressive to do all the activities we were supposed to do, but at the start of the day I still dared to go out and try. We were swimming towards a serene lagoon but had to access a wide side entrance first. The waves were so intense I couldn’t make the entrance. Water was getting into my snorkelling gear and waves overwhelmed me. I was close to yelling for help. Luckily a guide appeared out of nowhere and guided me towards the lagoon. I was petrified. At a later location there was a similar situation. I didn’t go, but a few dared. This time, they returned after a few minutes as the sea was filled with dangerous jellyfish, and they were forced to return. The trip reminded me of the power of nature. I certainly wouldn’t want to be left at sea on my own.

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The colours of El Nido.
Wading through perfectly pristine, shallow waters.
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Clear waters during an El Nido island hopping tour.
El Nido island hopping.
Exploring a new beach.

After the initial few days in El Nido I moved to a backpackers dorm in town. It was cheap and noisy. I took the time to hike along the coast for several days to explore solitary beaches. I was kind of in my element. The first time I reached a beautiful beach I was dying to get in the water. When I put on my swimsuit suddenly a teenage boy appeared, wanting to talk to me. I was worried about my stuff, and I didn’t know how innocent he was, but either way, he wouldn’t let me alone so after a while of him trying to make broken conversation with too few English words and him clearly not planning on going anywhere, I had to resort the going back altogether. It was a shame, I had wanted to stay for a while but I ended up going all the way back and staying on one of the first beaches where more people had settled.

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Hiking the coastline.
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Finding the perfect deserted beach along the El Nido coastline.
Elated on a deserted beach…

A few days later I tried again: that stunning beach was a large one, and I was desperate to get beyond the farthest turn I could see. When I reached it the weather was overcast, it felt a bit gloomy. The beach, which had been so pristine and perfect at the beginning, inherited a sullen feeling. When I proceeded a dog appeared and followed me, barking on and on. I shushed it but it wouldn’t leave. It frightened me. There are many dogs in the Philippines, and many strays, but they don’t normally bark until late at night, and they merely roam around, seemingly too hot and possibly underfed to bother a soul. But this one appeared to belong to a house nearby, and it did not like me being there. I kept on walking, worriedly thinking of my way back, having to pass the dog again, when luckily it gave up. That was just before I came to a full stop. A canal had been carved for the see to turn inland. Initially, I took off my shoes and intended to wade through it. I was soon in at my middle. It felt eerie. Something about the beach left me feeling uneasy and I hesitantly gave up my mission. I kept my shoes off and waded through the water to confuse the dog and bypass it unnoticeably. It worked. When I looked back, I saw an airplane landing just beyond the canal. I realised that I had wanted to pass the airport and that I may not have been able to get beyond that point anyways. That’s why the beach had changed suddenly. When I returned, the weather improved again and I neatly took my spot on the same beach I ended up before.

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Resting. El Nido.
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Passing serene beaches along the El Nido coastline.

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