Due to various reasons, we had to change our winter holiday plans. We had to shorten our ‘long’ winter backpacking trip to Vietnam, and that left over 5 more (weekdays) of vacation. So where to go for a week in Asia that’s 1) not too far to fly to (from South Korea), 2) not too expensive (flights & recreation & accommodation…), 3) has the beach, sunshine and decently priced beverages (you know the kind I’m referring to;)) and 4) just gives you the overall feel of ‘now I’m getting my R&R on’? The answer is the Philippines! A week on the beautiful Palawan is just what the doctor ordered; a vacation after the frenetic pace of shopping, eating, seeing, busing and indulging in everything that Vietnam has to offer (traveling is tough hey).
This weeklong holiday worked out perfectly actually, as we planned to meet up with the in-laws after seeing them a year ago at the wedding! Needless to say, there were many toasts to catch up on….
Itinerary: We flew in to Puerto Princesa (PP) from Manila. We spent two nights here. Then we went to Sabang for the Underground River, and slept the night there. The end (and main) destination was El Nido where we spent the rest of our week.
We arrived to the smallest terminal we’ve ever encountered after a beautiful flight from Manila (well the last part at least, where the plane starts to descend over the island – with a nice sunset colouring the clouds various colours of gold!). There the in-laws surprise-welcomed us with a custom arrival sign. It was awesome reuniting with them again.
It might just be me, but I feel the two nights we spent was too much – I’d rather spend an extra night somewhere north on a beach where there are more exciting things to do. But on the other hand, it was nice to just hang out with the in-laws; catch up, have a few drinks and do as little as possible. We stayed at the lovely Dolce Vita, which is only a short tricycle ride away from the town proper. The fact that it has a nice swimming pool, outdoor bar and restaurant (in lapa setting), and very hospitable staff made the stay so much better.
In PP we took a stroll along the boardwalk of sorts with its brick pathway – I guess the city uses this as a holiday gathering spot. We then visited the ‘Immaculate Conception Cathedral’, which is very distinctive with its blue and white finish. We finished off our day’s sightseeing with some shopping for some snacks and drinks for the rest of the holiday (and did it feel like Christmas – SO cheap!)
The main reason for our stay in PP was to organise our day trip to the Underground River. What you should understand when planning this outing, is that the Underground River is in Sabang, which is quite a ways away (from PP). We organised the trip (including the permit) through Dolce Vita Hotel and the whole process was nice and smooth.
From our research we learned: you need to organise a permit before going there (apparently a limited amount is given out at the office in Sabang each morning, but I won’t put my money on getting one/a few if you only have one day – so plan for possible disappointment), so we just paid the tour price to our hotel (Dolce Vita) and they organised the rest.
The Underground River Tour goes like this:
– Pick up at your hotel rather early in the morning (usually between 7-8am).
– You take a minibus with other tourists (or private) to Sabang, where the Underground River is.
– This journey takes round about 2 hours, depending on traffic.
– You’ll then most certainly await your turn to take the 15min bangka-ride to the beach where you get off.
– You’ll get on the boat which takes around 8-10 people. The boat, steered by a single oarsman, will take you inside for around 1.5km and takes more or less 45 minutes (round trip). You will have one person in front that uses a flashlight to illuminate the many ‘interesting’ rock formations as instructed by the oarsman. Inside you’ll also see many bats, swallows and various caverns. The one section opens up to a ‘cathedral’ area which is up to 65m high.
The whole experience is really hyped up and it has the status now of being one of the new ‘7 natural wonders’ of the world, but to be honest, for us it wasn’t ALL THAT spectacular… It’s pretty – on the outside and its setting – but, in essence, just a river in a cave with some rock formations… We left a little bit disappointed. But you go, and decide for yourself.
We planned to move northwards the following day, so it didn’t make sense going down south, back to PP, again. We told them they could just leave us behind (we had all our luggage with us in the van), as we already made a reservation at Blue Bamboo.
We had a lovely buffet lunch at some place along the beautiful beach. After this we said our goodbyes, and they dropped us off. We checked in at Blue Bamboo and settled in. This is certainly not the place for any hoity-toity people – for us it was still quaint and had a nice view, and for 600 baht a night, who’s going to complain? PS do NOT eat at the restaurant – it takes ages for your food to come, and it’s frankly not that good.
We had to organise transportation further northwards to El Nido, and found a reputable company (uhhhummm) through which we booked (Lexus). That afternoon the in-laws felt a little adventurous, and decided that they wanted to take on the 800m long zip line that starts in the jungle on a platform and passes 30m above the sea’s surface and that ends on a rocky outcropping in the sea. And I should mention that Sabang has a beautiful, long white sand beach fringed with palms – quite a beautiful site!
The next day we hopped on another minibus to the junction where we had to wait for yet another minibus that came up from PP to pick us up and take us up to El Nido. Whether there was miscommunication, indifference or a mathematical error about the numbers, I don’t know, but let’s just say it was TIGHT! This resulted in a very uncomfortable long-haul with basically non-existent leg room. After a grueling 7 hours, many cramps, the boot opening up and luggage falling out, a flat tire and some sections of horrible gravel roads, we arrived in paradise.
We got our bags, hopped in some tricycles and made a beeline for Casa Buena Vista, the place where we’ll rest for the next few days. To get the kinks (and dust) out – a swim and a few cold beers.
We went to El Nido with high expectations, having friends been there and looking at some pictures beforehand, and it certainly did not disappoint! This must be one of the most amazing places we’ve ever visited. The main ‘activity’ here is to go island hopping. You will see hundreds of places offering the various tours. You usually have 4/5 tours to choose from that takes you to different islands and locations – Tour A, B, C, and D (maybe E). When you pay for the day tour, it includes lunch (so gooood! – fish, squid, chicken, pork, vegies… they’ll ask you what you like) and normally also snorkeling gear.
When we went island hopping the one day, we hired a boat for ourselves, which was really nice. Just some nice family time… We decided to do a proper day’s island hopping – we combined two tours: Tour A & C. I think we went to 8 different sites that day, and words on paper just doesn’t do the beauty of the area justice. With some of the bluest, crystal clear water from the Big Lagoon, the ‘hidden beach’ where you swim through a small hole that opens up into a little cove with a small beach, the amazing reefs, helicopter island; this place might just be THE definition of beauty. Whilst snorkeling we even saw some tuna feasting on the huge schools of small fish that swam around our snorkeling site – sometimes they even breached the water’s surface! The NOT so fun part was getting stung by jelly-fish – there were hundreds in the water that day.
The other day we hired motorbikes and went off in search of some waterfalls. This was easier said than done… We eventually found them and we took nice refreshing swims in them. Later that same day, while still having the bikes to use, we decided to watch the sunset from the beach ‘next door’. I wasn’t prepared for what we found next – absolutely the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen (and it’s just the next bay over). It is wide, clean, pure white, palm fringed, views of the outlying islands and the most attractive quality – there is no development whatsoever (yet…). We bought some ice cream and beers. We swam. We relaxed and just took in the sunset and the other beautiful surroundings.
We knew we only had a few days together, and it was great, but saying goodbye and not knowing when you’ll see each other again still sucks. The in-laws hopped on a tricycle and set off for the small terminal just outside El Nido where they got on a flight to Manila, and then onwards.
The town of El Nido has everything to offer a tourist going on a ‘beachy holiday’… You’ll find many souvenir – and clothing shops (flip-flops, sarongs, cheap shirts etc). There are MANY tour operators selling the island hopping day tours. There are many restaurants that sell local dishes and delicious smoothies or fruit shakes (there’s also this one place that’s quite famous for its pizzas; it’s on the first street from the beach). There are also many places where you can buy your own spirits if you wanna mix your own drinks (it can be tricky to get ice sometimes though, with the constant electricity outages…), and if you drink ‘local’, you can get away cheap! SCUBA dive operators you’ll find all over the place, shop around and see which place ‘has a nice vibe’ that you like (their prices are almost all the same).
And then there is the awesome beach… Take your pick, there are many restaurants along the beach. Kick out your shoes and feel the sand between your toes while tossing back a cold one to wash down the fresh seafood. From any of these restaurants you can just sit back, do some people watching or just watch the activity of the boats and kayaks in the bay.
As mentioned before, be ready or expect the power outages. It’s a daily occurrence and it has become part of their lifestyles (most places have generators on the ready). It’s tough though when the aircon kicks out when you want to go to sleep, and it is SO hot and humid… We enjoyed our stay at Casa Buena Vista where we rented our rooms. It was nice and quiet (only a few rooms), you helped yourself to coffee in the mornings, you are a 2 minute walk from the shops, and the best of all – an awesome balcony with chairs that overlooks the bay and part of the beach (check out my time-lapse that I made off of the balcony).
Marené and I were very excited for the scuba diving trip. It’s been a long time since we’ve made some bubbles under water. You can basically tell the operator how many dives you plan to make, but it seems like they usually go out and do 3 dives on an outing. We met some new people too – the one girl was from Germany and another guy was from Switzerland. The local dive master was also quite a character, and his knowledge of the dive sites was amazing (apparently his dive shop, back then ran by his uncle, was the first one in El Nido).
Our enthusiasm was quickly extinguished when we arrived at the first dive site… Even from the boat you could see that the water was going to be murky – algae everywhere. We had very limited visibility, therefore we did not see too much. It was the same story for the second dive. The last site was a bit better though, with visibility being much better, but still not great. During the dives we got to see some nice fish, many colorful nudibranchs and various shrimps (so cool!), but the sea turtles still eluded us… I think with good visibility the dive sites would be awesome though. All in all, even with the bad visibility (bad luck), it was still a nice day. It still beats any other average day 🙂
We had our last meals and beers on the beach, we drank our last breakfast mango fruit-shake, but unfortunately it was time to head back to PP to catch our flight. This time we hopped on the RoRo aircon bus, and had a much more enjoyable trip down south. (Take note people – the RoRo bus is better!)
El Nido is not the easiest place to get to (it takes time), and it is quite out of the way. But it is certainly a place that’s worth your time and money. It’s a little piece of paradise; this relaxing feeling takes over once you arrive there and you put your feet in the sand on the beach! El Nido is responsible for some awesome memories. It goes on my list of ‘think of a happy place when you close your eyes’!