Part 10 – Island-Hopping in El Nido

Our next day adventures took us away from Palawan, and off to exploring nearby seas and islands.  We booked a day-trip with a boat a day earlier, and were instructed to show up at the beach at 8 in the morning.

Even though by now we got used to the fact that on holidays nothing really happens on time, we noticed that the Philippines were generally a bit more punctual than, say, Thailand, and were on the beach at 8 on the dot.  At the early morning hour, the beach, usually quiet and tranquil during the day, represented pure chaos with weak attempts at organization: the bay was full of boats, anchored or tied to buildings on the beachfront with long ropes disappearing into the water.  More boats were tied to those, forming 2nd, 3rd, and sometimes 4th row, disappearing into the mouth of the bay.  The beach itself was choker full with tourists, tour companies’ representatives (judging by the one that sold us tickets, there were at least 5 people from each company, which definitely contributed to the chaos), street food and souvenir vendors, dogs, cats, children, random people loitering about, and God knows who or what.  At first glance, it looked like nothing could possibly happen in such environment, however, after about 45 minutes of waiting around, we were grouped and re-grouped with other adventure seekers, and finally pointed out to our boat.  We walked on the long pontoon till the end, climbed through and over 5 different boats parked side by side in the bay, and finally settled down in what seemed to be our vessel for the day.

Boats waiting in the bay in the morning

Our randomly assembled and very motley crew consisted of 14 people:

  • A Philippine family of 4: two permanently giggling sisters in their mid-20-es, a serious-looking brother of about the same age, and their Mom.  During the course of the day, we learned that Mom and one of the sisters could not swim, and thus did not partake in any snorkeling, or other activities planned for the day.  They were sitting in the boat, chatting and giggling all the time, and taking photos of the other 2 siblings splashing about.
  • An American guy from San Francisco in his late 70-es, who could not swim either, but unlike the other non-swimmers readily jumped into the waters at every stop, tied to a floating buoy.  He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself throughout the experience.
  • A friendly couple from Morocco, who took a lot of photos, and were happy to practice their English with everybody who volunteered.
  • A young Philippine couple who looked like newly-weds, and kept mostly to themselves.
  • An old grandma with a stick, travelling with her daughter.  We were sure she was staying on board, but grandma surprised everybody by jumping out of the boat at the first island stop, and hurried about with her stick, exploring the island.
  • Another Philippine couple, middle-aged, friendly and smiley, but not speaking a word of English (which did not stop them from communicating with everybody in the universal language of gestures and smiles).
  • And yours truly.
Off we go!

We signed up for the “5 islands tour”, and were hoping to be all islanded out by the end of the day.  The weather was great, the sun was shining, the boat’s motor seemed reliable enough and the captain and his two mates seemed to know what they were doing, so the day was promising to be a success.

Helicopter Island (courtesy of www.travel-palawan.com)

Our first stop was the Helicopter Island (official name – Dilumacan Island) , named so due to its shape that from water was supposed to resembled a helicopter (minus the propeller).  I have to say, that it took quite a bit of imagination for the naming party to arrive at this particular one.  Off the top of my head, I’d have probably come up with a Drumstick, a Whale, or even a half-soaked Swimming Cat…  Alas, somebody saw a propeller-less helicopter, and the island was christened for tourists to come… 

Our boat closed in on a long sandy beach on the Eastern side of the island, where a dozen others were already rocking in the waves, one of the captain’s helpers jumped into the waters, showing that that it was not too deep, and waving for us to follow suit.  Grandma with a stick was the first to show a good example, helped by her daughter (whose efforts resembled more attempts at restraining the old lady, than easing her way off the boat, but grandma was unstoppable!)  Our remaining swimming companions followed her.  The American guy bravely stepped overboard, disappeared in the water, and proudly floated up with the help of a buoy, tied to his leg.

Helicopter Beach – view towards the boat-landing spot

The island boasted a long white sandy beach, stretching as far as the eyes could see, and we were given 20 minutes to explore and admire.  As we walked just a little bit further from the boats, they and the other tourists disappeared behind a sandy bank, giving us a full impression of being all alone on the beach.  This was a great start to the trip – the waters were crystal clear with all shades and colors of turquoise and blues of the skies reflected in them, the sand was white and seemed un-touched by civilization.

Helicopter Beach – view away from the boats

After 20 minutes of enjoying the blues and whites of the Helicopter Island beach, we got back into the boat, and continued to the next stop – Hidden Beach.  Well concealed by the cliffs of the Matinloc Island and accessible only through a narrow crevice in the rocks, the beach is, indeed, hidden from prying eyes and cannot be seen from the water.  Our boat parked next to the crevice, and we first swam, and then walked on a shallow sand spit in the clearest waters we’ve ever seen through the opening in the cliffs.  We were the only boat there at this time, and had the beach and the shallow-water lagoon just to our merry little group. 

The Secret Beach – all to ourselves!

Me, Nic and the American guy were the first off the boat, and the first to see the lagoon and the beach open up in front of our eyes.  The feeling was almost surreal – it was amazingly beautiful, and completely empty.  We felt like the only people on Earth.  That is, until the remaining members of the gang caught up with us, and started splashing about and taking photos.  We did our share of both, and headed back to the boat.  It was time to leave – several more dinghies, twice the size of ours were hovering about at the entrance to the beach, each carrying several dozen passengers, eager to jump into the waters in a quest for hidden treasures.

The clear waters of the Hidden Beach lagoon
Secret Beach

Our third stop was not, strictly speaking, the 3rd island – the boat circled around the Northern tip of the Matinloc Island, and docked at its Western side.  We disembarked at a shallow little cove off the pier at a site of the so-called Matinloc Shrine – a Virgin Mary statue in a white domed pavilion.  Built in 1982, allegedly as part of a spiritual resort construction project that went down the drain due to misappropriation of funds, and other similar distractions, the statue of the Virgin was very white, very well preserved, and covered by a classical-looking white dome. 

Matinloc Shrine – the Virgin Mary is hiding in the greenery

The former construction site boasted not only the shrine (in very decent condition), but a concrete pier, and an unfinished shell of a 3-story building, that was supposed to house the resort per se.  The pier was full of boats docked right at it, as the shrine was a popular destination for religious tourists.  It was also a common lunch pit-stop for most boat operators from El Nido, with several tables and benches, as well as big stones and logs that could be (and intensively were) used by all descendants on the island, free from visiting the shrine.

The remnants of a would-be spiritual retreat

The unfinished building towered proudly over the shrine that seemed comparatively minuscule.  Much as we love abandoned buildings, we decided against exploring the crumbled insides in flip-flops, and resorted to admiring the ruins from outside.  The shrine and the building were not the only relics on this part of the beach, though.  Tucked in the bushes opposite the empty resort shell was a surprising and very colorful memorial to Ferdinand Marcos.  A notorious former president of the Philippines, secret multi-billionaire sued by his own people and a husband of shoe-collecting Imelda, Marcos was not (to put it mildly) a very popular person in his home-country even during his lifetime, let alone after his death.  Finding his monument in full colorful military regalia next to a shrine was surprising, but maybe we were missing some insight into Philippine history and mentality…

The beautiful rocks off the Matinloc Island

While we were sightseeing, our brave crew was busy preparing lunch.  When we returned to the boat, a beautiful feast of grilled fish, fried rice, beans, vegetables and fruit was laid out for us.  Since all benches, stones and tree trunks were already taken, we eat on the boat together with our multi-tasking crew.  Whether it was the ambiance, the happy feeling of vacations, or their actual cooking skills, the food tasted amazing, and we still remember it fondly as one of the best meals we had on the trip!

Lunch!!!

Full and tranquil after lunch, we lazily watched as our brave crew was trying to jump-start the motor of the boat that at this point also decided to take a break.  We could not do much to help, but no help was needed – after about 10 minutes of the engine screeching, spitting steam and oil, and demonstrating generally un-cooperative behavior, the boys shouted over the rocks to the pier, two more boats with more curious spectators appeared, and our motor was successfully jump-started off the engine of one of them.  We were mobile again!

The boat took us down the Tapiutan Straight, separating Matinloc from the neighboring Tapiutan Island, and paused for our next pit-stop: snorkeling over a coral reef off Tapiutan.  I was not really much for snorkeling, as after several nose operations in my childhood breathing through my mouth was off the list of fun things to do.  Even so, I could enjoy the myriad of colorful fishes hurrying underneath the boat by simply looking down. 

Snorkeling in the clearest waters off Tapiutan Island

The water was so clear, that you could see everything going on in and over the reef, and when some left-over rice was thrown overboard by the captain, and swarms of fishes of all sizes, shapes and colors rushed to pick it up, my curiosity about underwater world was fully satisfied.

You can’t get a bluer water than that!

The last stop of the day was Secret Beach, also located on Matinloc Island, just a little further down South from the snorkeling location.  The beach is called secret, because it is completely covered from water by the rocks, and is only accessible through 2 not very long natural tunnels under said rocks. They are not under-water, but have very low ceilings, with barely a possibility to stick one’s head out from under water to get some breath.  Technically, this should scare people away, at least the claustrophobic ones.  Judging by the number of boats parked right at the entrance to the tunnels, and the hordes of people inside the tunnels and on the beach itself, the prevalence and incidence of claustrophobia among tourists in that particular area was extremely low.  Alas, the beach did not seem to be so secret anymore!…  While the hidden lagoon and the thin stretch of sand on the side of it were definitely spectacular, it was impossible to take any photos where either water or beach would be visible and not covered by visitors, let alone enjoy the experience.  I fully realize how hypocritical my words sound – after all, we were among those hundreds of people covering every square inch of the Not So Secret Beach (they should definitely think about renaming it!)  Well, we did have one beach today all to ourselves, so we could not be too greedy, I guess…

All in all, despite the crowds of the Secret Beach, the day trip was a definite success, and upon return to dry land we washed off the salt of the day with a quick shower, and enjoyed the drinks and the music in our favorite local bar.

Boats are back from the trips in the late afternoon
Our 5-Island Tour route

We still had a couple more days on Palawan, before our holidays would expire, so I am not finished with the Philippines stories just yet.

Part 9. El Nido – Tourist Stuff

Having decided on El Nido being our last destination on this trip, we fell into the routine of island life quite easily.  A morning swim in the rooftop pool, a lazy breakfast in one of many nice places in town, and doing tourist stuff.  Which for us did not include buying useless shit, but consisted of exploring the area by any means possible.

During the first couple of days we walked around El Nido proper about 10 times (the place really was not that big), and having learned every street and bar, we decided it was time to go a bit further.  Our first venture out of town was on dry land.  The next mighty island steed was not easy to find, but we persisted, and our efforts were rewarded.

A run-down but still alive scooter with two helmets of equally advanced age were found and rented for the day.  We had several places on our list:

  • Lio Beach – supposedly a nice and relaxed location with white sand and blue waters,
  • Bulalacalo Waterfalls, located somewhere in the depths of the northern tip of the island and within a scooter-ride distance from El Nido,
  • a Zip Line, which promised to bring you from El Nido proper to one of the tiny islands off its coast over the turquoise sea waters.

It took us about 30 min riding in the heat and relatively chaotic traffic in around El Nido, to get to Lio Beach.  It was, indeed, pristine and beautiful and even a resort, located right on it somehow did not manage to spoil it.  Maybe because mere mortals not holding residence at said resort were still allowed to trod the sand.  Maybe exactly despite of it.  We did not muse too long over the reasons, but were just happy to enjoy the white sand, the blue waters, and the relaxed atmosphere.  We braved the waters, and thoroughly enjoyed the long-awaited swim in the sea.  The water was warm and refreshing at the same time, and the mild wind on the shore kept the few tourists sunbathing on the beach away from the water.  We could not ask for more!

The plus point of the resort being there, was a beach bar/restaurant, where we had some lovely juices and tacos at a very reasonable price.  It looks like he resort was not trying to make all its money on food and beverage, and we were quite happy to allow the paying residents subsidized our snacks with paying heftily for their lodgings.

Refreshed and invigorated by the swim and the snacks, we moved on direction waterfall.  Remembering the lovely waterfalls of Siquijor, we were seriously anticipating this part of the program.  Especially considering the over +40C sweltering heat.  Within 5 min off the beach, the freshness evaporated and was replaced with the already familiar sensation of being in a hot sauna.

The roads of this part of the island left a lot to be desired.  The gravel track leading off the main road to where the waterfall was supposedly located (all maps we had looked quite different from one another, and the exact location of the waterfall differed by miles between them) was expectedly more adventurous.  We were navigating between potholes and huge rocks sticking out in-between them, and it took all Nic’s riding mastery not to get caught in any of huge dents in this track.

Finally, some hand-painted road-side signs indicated that we reached our destination.  The terrain was flat as a pancake, and no waterfall could be spotted with a naked eye, but we tried to be positive.  A cheerful and almost round woman cashed in 50 pesos off both of us for an entrance fee to the waterfall (even though there was no entrance to be seen), and provided essential directions: “cross two rivers, turn right after the 2nd river, cross three more and you are there”.  This started sounding interesting…  Considering the fact that the woman did not mention any boats or canoes, we hoped the river crossing would be done on foot.  But on the Philippines you never know…

We parked our mighty steed in the shade, and set off on our river-crossing adventure.  The first river presented itself shortly – it was a shallow, but wide and fast stream, with clear waters and an uneven rocky bed.  The cold water was a welcome respite for our tired and dusty feet, but we had to watch closely where we stepped, and made sure our flip-flops did not sail away.  Somewhere mid-stream we gave up, and took the flip-flops off – this helped a lot.

The narrow and at times barely visible hedgehog path winding through the jungle was market at places with colorful ribbons tied in strategic locations – without them locating the path would have been difficult, to say the least. 

After trekking through the jungle and having crossed the promised 5 streams/rivers, we heard the first sounds of the waterfall. 

The jungle cleared up, revealing another cardboard sign for the waterfall, this time quoting the entrance price of 100 pesos for two and an ancient man sitting under it, receiving said money with seeming indifference.  We did not argue, and coughed up the pennies.  We were the only visitors, and happily dipped our sweaty, dusty, and mosquito-bitten bodies into the cold waters of this well-hidden jungle cascade. 

I have never felt so refreshed in my life!..  Invigorated by the waterfall coolness, we trekked back through the jungle in no time, and re-united with our mighty stead.  The cheerful round woman was nowhere to be seen…

The Zip Line, advertised all over El Nido as one of the main attractions/fun things to do, was next on our itinerary.  Technically, it was on the opposite side of town from the waterfall, so we rode back to El Nido for another good 50 minutes, past the already visited Lio Beach, and about 10 min outside of El Nido, huge commercially printed billboards left no doubts that the Zip Line was right there.

If we thought getting to the Waterfalls was a bitch, the day had a new surprise for us.  At least the waterfalls were reachable on relatively flat terrain.  To get to the start of the Zip Line, we had to climb up steep cliff on a narrow path with shaky wooden rails until our knees almost buckled and we were seriously out of breath.  On the top of the Zip Line platform we read that we just climbed almost 750 meters – we sure as fuck felt every single one of them!

Now, a brief detour into my personal history.  Somehow, having reached a respectable age of 40+ years, I have never, ever, been on a Zip Line.  Moreover, I had very vague ideas as to what it actually is.  Nic said it was a lot of fun, so I signed up.  After the trip up, that left me almost breathless, I started to seriously reconsider my decision.  Turned out – all for nothing!  Zip lining WAS a lot of fun!  True, you need to “sing for your supper” to climb to the starting point, but after that it was a piece of peace.  We were strapped into harnesses, given colorful helmets, and waved off “into the abyss”.

The abyss was full of light, with bright green treetops underneath, that quickly changed into the turquoise waters, separating mainland Palawan with the tiny Depeldet Island off its Western coast.  The views were spectacular, but the fun was over way too soon to my taste!  The guy on top warned me to keep straight and try not to turn around on the harness, but mysterious forces rotated me right at the very end, and I came to the end of the line back-first.  A huge firm cushion embraced me upon landing (this was not a euphemism for another cheerful and round Zip Line employee, but an actual big leather cushion, strategically positioned to welcome the arriving in the end of the line).  I was ready to go again, but timely remembered the tedious climb up to the starting point.  Probably, some other time…

Getting back onto the mainland Palawan could not have been easier – even though technically Depeldet was a separate island, it was separated from Palawan only by an extremely shallow sandy spit that was very walkable.  We enjoyed a stroll through the shallow clear waters, further up the Marimegmeg Beach, and up to the main road, where our mighty steed was waiting to take us back to our digs in El Nido. We spent another beautiful evening at Subasco, sipping their chilled wine (me) and beer (Nic), listening to their wonderful music, and shooting shit with our newly-found friend (the resident drummer of the band), who spoke great English, wore amazing long dreads, and rode a motorbike (proudly parked in front of the bar).

Our day trip route