Palawan was not in our initial plans due to its relative remoteness to the rest of the Philippines. However, having read about it rated “The Most Beautiful Island in the World” only 2 years ago, we decided that considering we were already in that neck of the woods, it had to be visited. It was also the 5th biggest island of the country, so remote or not, we won’t be short of things to do and places to see, even if we were to stay put there till the end of our trip. We only had one week left anyway…
With all necessary preparations made the day before, we woke up the next morning to the sound of rain – definitely high time to leave Bohol! Another ferry starting with a prayer took us to Cebu in 2 hours without any incidents (maybe there was something to those prayers, after all…). The rain in Cebu was pouring even harder, but we only had a quick taxi ride to the airport to catch our flight to Puerto Princesa on Palawan. Just the name of the place promised adventures of royal proportions, and sounded amazingly grand! One hour later, we were there. The sun was shining, the temperatures were warm, and the surrounding looked temptingly promising.
We had only a rough plan for our stay on the island. From what we could see on the map, Palawan was actually a long mountain range, sticking out of the Sulu Sea, and stretching from Southwest to Northeast for the impressive 425 km. The capital, Puerto Princesa, was bang in the middle of it. Online resources promised amazing places and great parties in El Nido, on the Northern-most tip of the island. All of them unanimously agreed that getting either to the North or to the South of the island from Puerto Princesa was a bitch due to the length of the journey, mountainous terrain, and lack of easy public transportation options. We were mentally bracing ourselves for an 8-hour bus-ride, but did not make any commitments just yet.
Considering that our flight from Cebu arrived in the afternoon, and bus rides on unlit night roads through mountains on remote islands were not among the adventures we wanted to experience, we booked a night in a hotel in Puerto Princesa. Floral Villarosa looked nice online, was affordable, had a pool, and offered free airport transfers – what more could you want?!… Our driver for the 15-min ride to the hotel was a cheerful and completely round guy, who introduced himself as Bobby. Bobby may have had problems fitting in his own car, but was a superb driver and companion – within the first five minutes of the trip he told us where to eat and drink in Puerto Princesa, shared his opinion on various destinations on the island, and told us half his life story. All this while expertly avoiding potholes, people and chickens on the road without even looking in the direction he was driving in. He definitely would have told us much more, but the town was not that big, and the hotel was not that far from the airport. We loved Bobby!
He delivered us to the door of our lovely digs covered with vines and flowers, but before letting him go, we secured his services for the trip to El Nido the following day. Fuck the 8-hour bus-rides!… We could afford to cough up 40 euros a head, and make the trip in 4 to 5 hours in an air-conditioned car in great company. According to Bobby, he made such trips often, and the only thing he hated was driving at night. We agreed with him on this point, and decided to leave at 8 the following morning, which would allow him to get back home before dark.
We showered the day of travel off our tired bodies, thoroughly enjoyed the pool at Floral Villarosa and had dinner in Captain Ribs (recommended by Bobby – who else!?). The place had great food, a lovely garden with candles and a giant ginger cat presiding in the middle of it. Even when sleeping he looked like he owned the place.
We had the ribs, the wine, and enjoyed the evening thoroughly. Apart from a frog falling out from the tree on a couple sitting at the next table (it ran away too fast for me to take a photo, and seemed to be as shocked as the middle-aged Dutch lady and her husband whose table it landed on), the evening so far was peaceful and uneventful.
Our only mistake was the decision to have a nightcap cocktail at the bar before leaving. While sipping what we erroneously thought to be our last beverages for the night, we started chatting with three French guys at the bar. Two of them happened to be the rightful owners of the place (no matter what the ginger cat thought), and after our compliment to their restaurant and the wine, they started opening bottles, generously inviting us to join in whatever it was they were celebrating. Several hours later, we were stumbling back to the hotel rather drunk, only vaguely and painfully remembering that we had to get up early the following morning…
Alas, our last memories of Puerto Princesa were not the drunk haze, but the amazing Villarosa’s Best breakfast – hash browns with ham, cheese, eggs and bacon, that almost resuscitated us. Thank you, the unknown breakfast cook – we thoroughly enjoyed your creations!
Bobby was on time, fresh as a daisy, and cheerful as ever. He threw our bags in the car, squeezed himself behind the wheel (the fact that his driver’s seat was pushed all the way back almost into the boot did not help one bit), and we started off on our journey. During the next 4 hours (this was exactly how long it took to make 260 km from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, we congratulated ourselves numerous times on making the smart decision the day before – 8 hours on a bus with hangover, through windy mountain roads would have been way too much for our delicate souls!…
Bobby continued entertaining us with a variety of stories, and even through our headaches we managed to enjoy his company. An hour-long conversation about cocks was definitely the highlight of the trip. Only in the Philippines!…
Cockfighting (of the bird- and not S&M variety) is a serious business and a national sport in the Philippines. Before the squeamish-ones and the animal-rights activists spit in my direction for bringing the subject up, it is important to understand that cockfighting is a 6,000 year old tradition, and the gamecocks (I shit you not – this is the official name of the bird!) are not specially trained to be aggressive. This breed of roosters possesses congenital aggression toward all males of the same species, and the breeders only try to increase their stamina and strength. Tradition or not, it is still a blood sport, where the loser normally goes into the soup. Considering the fact that most roosters do end up there anyway, at least the gamecocks go out fighting. Everyone in the Philippines loves cockfighting, and big events are held regularly throughout the country. “You have a beautiful cock!” is a perfectly acceptable compliment in polite society in the Philippines (considering the bird is present as well).
With only one pit-stop on the way (toilet for us, food for Bobby), we reached El Nido in record 4 hours, hugged Bobby good-bye, and looked around. El Nido sure looked like a happening place, and was simultaneously buzzing and relaxed. We felt right at home. The Forever Blessed Inn booked online, however, needed all the blessings it could get, as it turned out to be quite a dump. We thanked our lucky stars and foresightedness for having made the booking for only one night, and decided to apply the tried and tested way of looking for accommodation: walking around and knocking on doors of decent-looking places. This had additional advantages of sightseeing and exploring the area.
Feeling the end of vacation coming, and wishing to make the most of it, we wanted not just a decent-looking place, but a decent-looking place with a pool. Of which, at the time of our visit, downtown El Nido had exactly two: Sea Cocoon and Cuna Hotel. These were the 1st two doors we knocked at, and were lucky on second try: the newly-opened Cuna Hotel was happy to welcome us starting from tomorrow! We happily paid up for the next 5 days (at the equivalent of €40 a night for a spacious, modern room with fantastic bathroom, air-conditioning and a rooftop pool it was a bargain!), and with the last week of our holiday sorted, we could now relax, have a drink and explore the area.
Upon closer acquaintance, El Nido did not disappoint – it was a crazy little town, sleepy and bustling with energy at the same time, with a wild assortment of little shops, bars and restaurants. The latter were ranging from the surprising “Odessa Mama” with home-made Ukrainian pelmeni and home-brewed beer on the menu, to the Israeli-run “Happiness Beach Bar”, serving amazing hummus and offering swings and cocktails at the bar. Throughout the following 5 days thoroughly enjoyed both, as well as “Trattoria Altrove” – a classy Italian with an authentic pizza oven, chucking out fantastic pizzas and attracting crowds of hungry diners every evening.
Our go-to place for the evenings, though, was “Subasko” – a small music bar around the corner from Cuna Hotel, where we made friends with the bar staff and the owner (all of whom were jamming together and in turns every evening). The place served drinks (wine as well!) and snacks, and was jam-packed every night, with singing and dancing (with audience participation) going on well into the early hours of the morning. We loved El Nido!