The Philippines, being the only Spanish colony in Asia, reminded me a lot of Honduras. Tagalog, their language, has a lot of Spanish influence – saying hello is “kumusta”, like “como estas”. They were even playing some of the same Christmas songs in the shops that I hear in Honduras. On many occasions, people would start talking to me and I wouldn’t understand anything until I realised they thought I was Filipina and were talking to me in Tagalog!Other than El Nido, Palawan’s greatest attraction is an underground river which has been classed as a UNESCO site. The river is actually about two hours drive from Puerto Princesa on Palawan’s terrible roads, but it shares the name of Palawan’s capital city. The number of visitors is limited and you must obtain a permit to visit the river. As was our experience with gorilla permits in Uganda, permits are hard to come by if you’re an independent tourist, as the permit office favours local travel agents who then sell the permits at a profit. We could have got a permit as it turned out, but ended up talking to a friendly local travel agent, Joseph Hidalgo (firstname.lastname@example.org), who had two spaces left on his tour leaving in 20 minutes and agreed to take us at a discounted last-minute rate. And so off we went with two nice couples, one from the Philippines, one from India, and a group of lighthearted politicians from the Philippines.
We stopped along the way at a few scenic lookouts to take photos before our driver suggested we take a detour by a cave complex nearby as we were running early for our permit time. Once there, we had an option to take a cave tour of 45 minutes. The politicians jumped at the opportunity, and since they were going, we also decided to go instead of waiting around for 45 minutes doing nothing. We felt a little sorry for the two couples who had paid full price and were now waiting around bored for a non-itinerary detour. The cave tour through a karst mountain was interesting, quite challenging (I regretted wearing flip-flops!), and very humid, and short enough to be fun and not too much like hard work.After our detour, we stopped for a tasty lunch (included in the tour) on the beach. We found a lady on the beach selling a local Palawan delicacy for dessert. Tamilok is a type of worm found in the mangroves of Palawan, and is served cold in a bowl with some chili sauce. I think the worms were still alive as we ate them. Imagine an oyster shaped like a worm, and you’ll be close to picturing a tamilok. They were debatably palatable, and given Tony’s track record of tasting “delicacies” on our trip, he’s beginning to think the word has lost its meaning.
On we went to the Underground River. Even though we had a permit and a set time, we had to wait around for half an hour – no worries, it’s a Philippine thing. But it gave us a chance to see huge monitor lizards walking right through the waiting area around the people. When we finally got going, we were dispatched into a small boat with an oarsman who was also our tour guide. We sailed into the river wearing our safety helmets and sporting large floodlights to see where we were going. The cave smells quite bad, and the helmets were to prevent the numerous bats from defecating on us as they swarmed overhead. The caves inside were huge, and we arrived at one area called the cathedral which must have been over five stories high. We paddled upriver for about 2km during which our oarsman managed to rhyme off numerous jokes such as “you know why it stinks here? It’s the bat(h)-room.” etc which went down really well with the Filipinos on the tour. It was quite interesting and completed a fun and worthwhile day excursion, although I think we’ve had our fill of caves for our whole trip now.
The next morning was the fight and we made our way to the Coliseum, the local stadium, to watch the fight with the locals. Tony was expecting a lot of raw emotion like at football matches, but the Philippines are a laid back type of people and rarely got too excited, except for some moments in the 5th round when Manny was on the verge of getting a knockout against his unfortunate Mexican opponent, Antonio Margarito. In the end, Manny made history by winning by a unanimous points decision and won his 8th boxing title at a different weight and cemented his reputation as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, ever!We could not lose any more time so immediately after the fight we headed to El Nido. Transport in Palawan is infrequent with the only buses leaving early in the morning. We had originally been quoted about €180 for a private afternoon transfer to El Nido but managed to agree a deal with Joseph for €100 (the shared minibus would have been €14). But we were longing for beautiful forgotten beaches and did not want to wait another day. As we left Joseph bid us farewell with a newborn baby in his arms. Tony asked if it was his, but he explained that he was on his way to the funeral of the baby’s mother who had died in childbirth, and that his secretary would now look after the child. It was a sober reminder of what life can be like for people here in the Philippines, and proof of the strong bonds of community that exist here. We bid our farewells and headed off on our journey. Most of the road was in good state, except for the last section north of Roxas that was completely unpaved and very bumpy. A journey that would have taken 8 hours on the public minibus took only 4 in the luxury AC van (only option) we hired, so in the end we didn’t feel too bad about the extra expense. We arrived after dark and found a hotel on the other side of the bay about 3km from El Nido in Corong Corong and had some rest before setting out to explore the next day. When we planned our trip, I had circled the Cook Islands as my dream destination, but because of time we were not able to make it to the South Pacific, so I was really hoping that Palawan would make up for it. First impressions of El Nido therefore were a little disappointing. The town itself is not very pretty – lots of concrete – and half of the beachfront is a line of ugly hotels cramped together squeezing out every inch of space, while the other half is quite tastefully developed. On the other hand, if you get on the beach in front of the hotels, the view is spectacular! There is only electricity from around 2pm to 6am so it’s rustic for sure, just not very native. Having said that, spend a few days, and the friendly people, natural scenery and laid back vibe will start to grow on you. In front of our hotel in Corong Corong, the narrow, waveless beach was disappointing also, although the view of the bay was amazing and better even than El Nido. We decided to go exploring further away from town walking along the shore. As we walked, things started to look up, as we approached a deserted, wide, sheltered beach with white sand beaches, nobody around, and a backdrop of tall coconut trees. We hung around for a while before heading into town to plan the rest of our time ahead. We were quickly informed that paradise didn’t lie on mainland Palawan, but in the many islands dotted around Bacuit Bay. There are plenty of tours for island hopping around the bay, but our idea of paradise doesn’t involve sharing it with a tour group, so we planned our next two days with the first on a scuba-diving day-trip, and the second on a private boat tour.
To picture Bacuit Bay, its perhaps easier to first think of its well-known lookalike, Halong Bay. Bacuit Bay does not have near as many of the karst islands as Halong Bay, but it is not overrun with a conveyor belt of tourist outings, and another plus is that Bacuit Bay delivers on its promise – sundrenched (on occasion) private beaches, and a real slice of paradise.Bacuit Bay is a protected marine area and we spent a lot of our first-day underwater in Bacuit Bay, and why not? Jacques Cousteau, the world’s most famous scuba-diver and marine biologist made a film based on the coral and marine life around Palawan, and South Miniloc, our first dive site was noted as the highest concentration of cabbage coral (like huge underwater cabbages!). It was very impressive, especially near the end when we ended up surrounded by hundreds, maybe even over a thousand, yellow snapper. It’s hard to explain scuba-diving to someone who hasn’t scuba-dived, so maybe this video (not ours) will help you imagine. While the others on our scuba tour went for their second dive, we decided to relax on a small island on a deserted beach surrounded by towering limestone cliffs. We did another dive later in the day with a manta ray, a moray eel and loads of starfish among the highlights (as well as loads of adorable clown-fish of course), before heading back to land as a storm rolled in behind us.
The next day we set off on our private tour. Most tours are set options which cover different parts of the bay. You pick A,B, C or D and off you go with a group, but we picked a mix. We had dinner the previous night at El Nido Corner, a restaurant on the waterfront run by a Danish expat and his wife. Other than serving delicious fresh fish caught daily in the bay at great prices, our host Ole, also served some great advice on the best spots in the bay which formed the basis of our private tour.
As we sailed back into El Nido, we realised that some places do merit that lofty tag of paradise – just make sure you bring the sun!
Footnote: Palawan currently benefits from responsible governance which seeks to protect its environment and long may it continue. During our stay, we booked tours in Puerto Princesa from Joseph Hidalgo who we recommend. We ate at El Nido Corner restaurant, and the fish is fresh, fantastic and great value with a great welcome. We also frequented the El Nido Art Cafe and boutique which is a great place to while away the evenings in El Nido with thirst-quenching San Miguel beer, great kinilaw, and free wifi. And overall, the Filipinos (Pinoys) are among the friendliest people you’ll meet. For information, we recommend reading and contacting the websites of the very active Filipino blogging community.