El Nido is love at first sight. After seeing and experiencing some of its islands, I fell irrevocably in love with it. It's one of those places that I'd gladly come back time and time again. The fact that I went there twice within a relatively short interval speaks volume of how much I love it. You see, I spent my birthday in El Nido in January of 2013. Three and a half months later, I once again found myself traversing the long road north of Puerto Princesa aboard an air-conditioned bus, my heart throbbing with excitement. To put it romantically, I was back in the arms of love. And oh, I was happy!
The trip was a little different the second time around but it was sweeter nonetheless especially that I was with friends, who added a new dimension and layer to the experience. When we planned our Palawan getaway back in January, I made it straight and clear to them that I'd be spending 3 whole days in El Nido which means I'd be skipping the Underground River Tour. They were cool about it, although I sensed some disagreement that stemmed from the fact that the trip was supposed to be group getaway - and there I was doing my own thing.
On Day 1, I was practically alone in El Nido. My friends arrived at 3 in the morning the next day, tired and already sun-tanned. They complained rather enthusiastically about the awfully long trip from Puerto Princesa. We'd wake up from time to time, only to find out that we're still on the road, they told me. Spooked out after hearing a story from fellow passengers about mishaps on the road, i.e, bus windows getting busted from stones hurled by unknown perpetrators. "We were asked if we were carrying illegal mangoes!" one of them blurted out, eliciting laughter from everyone. I advised them to catch up on their sleep. Room was rather small for five people but it had a working A/C. We all conked out and got up at seven in the morning. There was ample time to take shower and apply sunblock. By eight, we were ready to head down to the beach for the day's tour but not after taking a breakfast.
They were keen about spending less while in El Nido so they only had home-made sandwich for breakfast. I couldn't even coerce them to eat with me at Art Cafe.
Instead, they watched me eat as they applied sunblock deliberately. I turned a deaf ear when they made a comment about my being a spendthrift. It hurt a little but the bacon tasted great. I argued by telling them I had a tummy issue and that I needed to eat well. Offered them some bacon, they refused.
It was already a quarter past 8 when we left Art Cafe and walked along the narrow pathway leading to the Northern Inn office where we're gently whisked off to the front beach to wait until the boat was ready for boarding.
Island hopping tours in El Nido can sometimes be a waiting game. Some start at exactly 9AM, others leave a little late. Like ours. Well, the delay was mainly due to our tour mates who came a few minutes past nine.
The boat weaseled its way out amidst a tangle of boats parked closely to one another. A crew of four introduced themselves, and Dude, our guide started the tour by giving us a little history on El Nido.
Dude was happy to learn that there was no foreigner in the tour. But our friend, H, could easily pass as a foreign tourist (he's Chinese to begin with) so we decided that he'd be our foreigner companion who didn't know how to speak Filipino.
The crew members of the boat, including Dude, believed our story right off the bat. Unfortunately, H ruined our little charade by talking in Filipino which made our tour guide, Dude, heave a sigh of relief. "Hindi na dudugo ang ilong ko," he quipped rather cheerfully. Apparently, he has been used to guiding foreign tourists and each tour has required him to speak in straight English.
Everything we needed to know about El Nido, we learned from our tour guide. I don't remember everything he said but I recall quite vividly, even without the aid of photographs, his physical features and physique - a young bronzed and robust man with plenty of stories to tell. The crooked smile and the bulging muscles. His voice, effortlessly modulated, didn't have to compete against the roaring of the boat engine.
The guy was a talking machine, though he admitted that he wouldn't be talking as much as he did if he was with foreigners. "Nosebleed ako dun! Haha." That day, he was guiding a group of eight people, all Filipino, so he didn't have to speak in English. He said, quite proudly without sounding too puffed-up, that he's an achiever. In El Nido tour guiding parlance, he was one of the best. "Before you become an official tour guide, you have to pass the training and there's an oral exam, all in English because you'd be talking mostly to foreigners so the head of the tour committee requires every tour guide to be fluent in English. I have this little book on grammar that I studied. I memorized phrases and greetings. Guess what, on our graduation day, they awarded me one of the best tour guides to pass the training," he shared in Filipino, grinning. We all cheered for him.
He shared compelling stories and funny anecdotes so a few minutes after we began the journey we felt like we were already friends with him.
Lagoons are Tour A's main attraction. There is a Big Lagoon and there's also a Small Lagoon. Dude said it's a good idea to drop by at Big Lagoon first because it's much better looking during high tide.
Seeing the lagoon with its bluish green water, I couldn't figure out how it looked like during low tide. Or if the water level did ever go lower. And if it did, would it even make any difference.
Low tide or high tide, it still looked blue, green and beautiful.
When Dude hopped toward the pointy end of the boat, we knew we had to take turns to have our picture taken there too. One of our tour mates took a tad too long, making us look at him in daggers. His companions noticed and shooed him away. Haha.
Then it was time for a swim. As I'm not really comfortable with my swimming skills, I joined the others don the life vest before jumping in the cool, deep lagoon. We realized how deep it was when I accidentally dropped my goggles and one of the guys had to swim several feet below to retrieve it. Its depth kind of scared me so I never dared let go of the life vest.
More boats were going our way, prompting our boat to move along. We all climbed up the boat, applied sunblock and off we went to the next island.
Approaching Hidden Lagoon
The highlight of our next stop was probably not the hidden lagoon, but the sumptuous lunch we all looked forward to. All the kicking and treading to stay afloat while in Big Lagoon had made us hungry. But lunch had to be cooked and prepared so the guides suggested that we bum around or swim or interact with other tourists. Basically, they wanted us out of their sight. Haha. Waiting proved to be difficult when your tummy was grumbling.
Guide preparing lunch
One of the guides took us to the hidden lagoon tucked inside a huge limestone formation. Getting there was a bit challenging because the water was chest-deep and the rocks were rather sharp. We had to be extra careful as we're carrying cameras. There's a small opening which served as the only way in and out of the lagoon. The hidden lagoon is quite small and the water looked murky. It's not the best place to hang out while waiting for lunch as other tourists wanted to have a peek inside too and it was getting crowded, so we moved our butts off elsewhere.
Hidden Lagoon is tucked inside these rocks
The beach was littered with people, mostly foreigners, lazing under the sun. It had this lazy, summery feel with a vibe that could make you feel sleepy and slack.
I kept myself busy by staring at the towering karst formation surrounding the beach. Our guide said in those rocks you'd find the expensive bird's nest used for the famous Nido soup.
We all rejoiced when the guides announced that lunch was ready. There, under the massive rocks and palm trees, we wolfed down the spread of grilled fish, squid, rice and fruits. Nothing can ever beat lunch on the beach.
Where we had lunch
The next stop was just a perfect place to burn off some calories. Sumizu Island, named after a Japanese diver who was stranded and drowned in the island after getting caught up by a storm, features a nice diving spot where one can have a close encounter with various fishes that abound the area.
We were just getting the hang of snorkeling properly when our guides asked us to go up the boat. Already?? We still had two stops to make, they said. I wasn't able to take any photos because I was too engrossed snorkeling. It's really a bummer that we had to leave too soon.
Getting to the small lagoon was an adventure in itself. We had to go down the boat and wade through waist-deep water until reaching a small crevice. To cross a rock-laden seabed was no mean feat, it really did slow us down. By the time we got inside the lagoon, our feet were already feeling all stressed out. Our guides realized this so they were extra watchful and made sure everyone was all right.
On our way to Small Lagoon
One of our tour mates was feeling rather ballsy and decided to swim without a life vest. She cried for help mid-way through. Suffered from a leg cramp. A guide had to drag her toward a safe area. Fortunately, there's a large rock in the middle of the lagoon. We all rested there for a bit before resuming the swim toward the cave at the far end of the lagoon. I didn't take my camera since apparently, I couldn't hold it while swimming.
Seven Commando Beach
We left Small Lagoon tired and hungry. The guides promised we're having buko shake at Seven Commando Beach, our last stop for the day.
As soon as our boat docked at the far end of the shore, away from other boats, we excitedly dashed toward the mini-bar located at the other end of the beach. It was scorching and the sand was burning. The most-sought after buko shake was nowhere to be found.
There was only margarita and other expensive cocktails.
We went back to the boat feeling a bit frustrated. But the guides simply knew how to pamper us. They had buko juice prepared for us. It wasn't cold but it was enough to quench our thirst. We did a few more snorkeling and swimming and we bid farewell to Ten Commando.
As our boat cut through the oil-calm blue waters, I was reminded yet again why I fell in love with El Nido.