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26 March 2014

Feeling at home among lagoons, isolated islands, limestone rock formations and crystalline waters in El Nido



Arriving at El Nido is like coming back home after a trip, you are welcomed by the warm voices, the happy rhythm of their songs and the smiles on Filipino faces. They know how to make someone feel like they belong.

I have been here three times and every time I am happy I made the choice again.

I can't remember how we discovered the place but when we started to come to Manila for work we did a bit of research and realised that the large island of Palawan, easily recognisable on a map as the right arm of the Philippines, was the place to be. 

The Philippines is an incredibly beautiful country made even better by the permanent smile and happiness of its people. After a few weeks coming here for work from Dubai on a 9h flight each way, I realized I was happier, it turns out their optimism and kindness is contagious. I wanted to come back again and again and I developed a strong nostalgia and melancholy when I stopped coming here. They always made me feel at home.

El Nido is an hour's flight from Manila and 238km from Puerto Princesa. On a snap decision, we bought tickets to Puerto Princesa on our first trip to Manila only to realise it's a day's driving to get to El Nido on unpaved roads.  Not the best alternative since you can fly direct with ITI and stay at one of the wonderful El Nido Resorts.

Small lagoon

Together with Sulu Archipelago, Sabah, and South China Sea, El Nido and Palawan are located in the tectonically active and seismically active Sunda Plate a plate that is entirely separate from the Philippine Mobile Belt to which the rest of the Philippines belongs. The rocks and limestone cliffs of El Nido are similar to those that can be found in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Guilin in China, as well as Krabi in Thailand, all of which are part of the Sunda Plate. When you paddle around or arrive by boat to the resort you will feel exactly as if you were in Phang Nga Bay in Thailand or in Halong Bay in Vietnam.



Lagen Resort
In 1954 the name of the town was changed to today's El Nido after the edible nests of swiflets found in the limestone cliffs. These nests, nido in Spanish, are sold at approximately USD3,000 per kilo.

Tourism in the area only started in 1983 shortly after it was discovered by a group of stranded divers. The first ever resort to open is the one I visited on my last trip, Miniloc. Since then, the area evolved from a turtle sanctuary to a managed resorce protected area in 1998. This status gives an area of 900 sq km the status of pristine eco-system. The government needs around USD200,000 a year to preserve and maintain the area which is financed by a small conservation fee tourists pay (USD0.5 per day). Under its umbrella there are seveal species of protected animals and plants including the elusive dugong (I never saw one in my three trips), dolphins, turtles and sharks more commonly spotted.

El Nido town is a sleepy very basic village where the Treasury office lies at a corner where children take a pee, dogs, cows and goats roa the streets and the roads and small "mum and pap" shops dot the area selling all sorts of individually packed items: instant coffee, detergent, cookies...you name it. There are a couple of dive shops, a couple of restaurants and bars and even an "exercise corner" aka a gym where you can use some machines. The population lives of agriculture and fishing and in recent years, tourism. 

When I first came here in 2010 the are was much less developed and the guest were mostly local Filipinos or expats living in Manila. Today, there seemed to be a dramatic increase in the number of visitors from Far East countries.

The details


How to get there

El Nido Resorts will organize all your travel from Manila. They own the airstrip where private planes managed by ITI land. The flights usually run in the mornings as the properler planes are better for daytime landing. Departures from Manila are at 9am, 11am and 3pm. Returns run until 5pm. Check in is from a separate hangar between Terminal 1 and 3 in Manila and it is hard to find as the sign is only small. Look out for it on Andrew Road on the right hand side when you are going towards Manila and on the left when you drive from Terminal 3. When you land in El Nido you will meet everyone ina  small lounge area where there will be refreshments and people are distributed into groups depending on the resort they are booked into. After a 15min jeepney ride to the pier the journey ends with a boat transfer to your resort lasting between 30-45min

Best time to visit

Dry season, definitively! That is between November and May. If you go in the rainy season it'll be a real hassle. Getting there includes a relevant sea portion which is unpleasant if in the middle of a storm. I visited so many times that I twice caught rain and we got soaked.

Where to stay

Lagen Resort pool
El Nido Resorts has been expanding its portfolio of resorts since 1983. After Miniloc they opened Pangulasian and then Lagen. Pangulasian burned down and has been rebuilt.

The latest addition is Apulit resort which is slightly farther and requires a longer van drive. 


Ranked by price Miniloc is the most affordable followed by Lagen, Apulit and Pangulasian. Although prices for the first three are very similar starting at around USD350 (PhP15,000) per night for a double room with full board.

Miniloc overwater bungalows
When you book into Lagen or Miniloc the resorts will take you around for the day to see the other one. Lagen has a pool and is therefore preferred by families, Miniloc is close enough to the small and big lagoon that one can paddle across in around 15min to the big lagoon and around 30min to the big one. Pangulasian is a high-end luxury resort with pool villas and the rate is twice as much as that of Miniloc.          
Acommodation includes all meals with fresh local produce and all activities.

 

What to do 

Feeding the Jackfish
Kayaking into th lagoon
If you feel like getting up from your sunbed there is plenty to keep you occupiued. You can paddle around the resorts' islands on a kayak or try your skills at paddleboard. The area around Lagen and Miniloc also has a beach club on an isolated island where you can try to windsuf. The resorts offer tours to nearby islands such as snake island or to see the Big and Small Lagoons on a boat. You can then jump off and snorkel or paddle around. The Small Lagoon is only accessible through a tiny opening on the rocks so you can only get in swimming or kayaking and it is well worth it. All of these activities are included in your full-board rate. In Miniloc they also feed the jackfish every morning and it is a show to not be missed. These animals can reach 1m or more and are very aware that the resort will feed them large chunks of fish at breakfast sso they eagerly await at the end of the pier. If you are brave enough you can also don snorkel and mask and jump in with them. They are extremely fast at grabbing the food and will jump out of the water to catch it which can be pretty scary. The resorts aso have ping-pong tables, a basketball court and a beach volleyball net.
 
The only chargeable items are spa treatments and diving.

The resorts can also organize private dinners in secluded spots or picnics in romantic islands. In the Big Lagoon we saw a raised platform that looked very much like a wedding spot.

Practicalities

  1. Bring a dry bag because you will spend a relevant amount of time in the water and if you don't have one you won't be able to take your essentials with you kayaking, particularly your camera
  2. If you have waterproof boots they will be useful to walk on the beach which has quite a lot of rocks and corals
  3. The overwater villas on Lagen and Miniloc are good but make sure to request one that is at the end of the pier or you may not enjoy the tranquility of the place being so close to the beach and the rest of the action. And if you plan a romantic escape, make sure to be away from families with children. El Nido Resort are very popular with families.
MY TIP

With the exception of Pangulasian don't cone expecting luxury. The resorts are all made with local materials, bamboo, local trees, etc. and are very nice and well appointed but are unpretentious and barefoot. There are no TVs but today, the internet works very well everywhere in the resort and the rooms all have AC units. This is a place to feel at home, soak in the Filipino hospitality and their happiness and, like me, go back home with a renewed faith in humanity.