Located on the northern tip of the Palawan Island in the Philippines, an untouched paradise teeming with natural wonders, rugged landscapes and deserted shorelines; El Nido takes you away from the noise of the world.
An intimate isolated destination, located in an island just below Luzon, El Nido is known for its fine sands and majestic views of the vast seascape surrounding it. As we started exploring this island, a shooting location for the film Bourne Legacy and the The Amazing Race show…I muttered to myself ‘slow and steady’…drawing perseverance from a small brown snail inching it’s way up the precipice beside me. What my partner and I expected to be a manageable hike up the citadels of marble and limestone guarding El Nido in northern Palawan, turned out to be an unnerving climb up blade boulders and gaping sinkholes. Above us, a troop of long tailed macaques slipped into the overhanging foliage. ‘We’re almost there’ our tour guide lied again. Looking ahead, we were no more than halfway up the 230 metre high taraw or limestone cliff.
The guide’s step by step supervision the brought us unscathed to the mountain’s jagged crown where our determination rewarded us with an incredible vista that we risked our lives and limbs for. Before us, a seaside village awoke to the sunshine pouring onto a crescent of sand, lapped up by azure waters. Distracted by the morning view, we managed to remain oblivious to the 40 story sheer drop while posing for proof of our audacity, flashing cheesy smiles at our cameras. On the left side of the cove Cadlao Island, the largest of the offshore islands in the Bacuit Archipelago, were trigger boats scattered across the bay, that we later hired to continue our adventurous offshore trip.
Besides beautiful views, fearless locals called Busyadores have been climbing the Karsts for centuries for a lucrative reason. Chinese traders began visiting the Philippines since the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) to trade for edible bird’s nest or nido in Spanish, a delicacy that eventually gave the settlement it’s name. The so called white gold consists of solidified saliva from black swiftlets residing in the craggy sky scrapers that characterise much of palawan’s northern coast lines. Drinking gourmet nido soup is traditionally believed to provide health benefits such as aiding digestion increasing the libido and improving the immune system. Today, the nicest grade of bird’s nest can fetch up to USD 4,500 per kg revealed the local tourism officer, whose family once owned the largest concession of swiftlet caves in town.
However, most residents have now turned to more environment-friendly industries such as sustainable tourism to earn a living. For decades, El Nido remained far removed from the rest of the world until three decades ago, explained our resort owner. In 1979, a fishing line disabled the propeller of a Japanese dive boat forcing the crew to spend a night in an inlet. The next day the divers awoke to the surreal seascape of jade forests and astonishing cliffs rising out of sparkling lagoons. They had to slap their faces to make sure they were not dreaming!
After the incident, word of the paradise spread quickly. In the following years, a gravel airstrip was built to fly in luxury travellers to the high end resort put up by Filipino and Japanese investors on a few offshore islands. Later backpackers began arriving in the main town where affordable guest houses, restaurants and dive shops had sprouted, mostly along the beach front. More recently El Nido appeared in The Amazing Race 5 and on the French franchise of Survivor. Remarkably, despite earning global attention, the place has retained it’s laid back appeal. To minimise the impact of tourism on the environment, the locals advocate a low density high value policy. Unlike the touristy beaches of Puerto Galera or Boracay Island, this destination is fortunately free of aggressive touts with friendly locals complimenting the relaxed, almost deserted, atmosphere. Surprisingly, electricity is only available at night, while the most happening spots in town are limited to a few beachside drinking holes serenaded by acoustic guitar and percussion.
Our earlier climb whetted our appetite for more adventures. We boarded a motorised Bangka (outrigger canoe) to explore Bacuit, Bay that encompasses some 45 islands and islets. These coralline formations were born 250 million years ago – long before dinosaurs roamed in a shallow sea covering the area that north Vietnam and south China now occupy. Sculpted by nature’s whim and wrath, this limestone labyrinth spells one word, idyllic.
As the stone sentries of Miniloc island welcomed our boat into the turquoise embrace of Small Lagoon, we gaped at the unbelievable scenery – not unlike those standard divers in 1979. Theres something magical about this place. El Nido really transports you away from all the stress of the city, enabling you to get lost. Indeed, organised island hopping tours are the most convenient way to explore the isles, but you can kayak to discover a beach hideaway all by yourself, or for a Robinson Crusoe experience, camp overnight at one of the islands.
With over 50 powder white beaches and 30 dive spots, you are definitely spoilt for choice. For sun worshippers, there are broad stretches of sand at Seven Commandos Beach and helicopter island. Shimizo island and Tapiutan Straiton the other hand, are great places to snorkel and drink in the underwater marvel. As part of the El Nido – Taytay managed resource protected area – the largest marine sanctuary in Philippines – the Bacuit archipelago is refuge to over 100 species of corals, 800 species of fishes, six species of marine mammals (including the native Dugong) and four species of endangered sea turtles that are frequently sighted in the area.
In Matinloc island, an intriguing terrain is Secret Beach, an enclosed tidal pool accessible only by swimming through an underwater passage. This secret beach was attractive, but we were more impressed by it’s grander sibling – Hidden Beach, a glassy cove surrounded by jagged out crops. During our visit, we chanced upon a juvenile blue spotted sting ray in the deep waters.
At Seven Commando’s Beach, an explosion of tangerine streaked the sky, signalling our departure. As our boat turned towards the mainland. When the sunlight hits the cliff on top of Cadlao Island just right in front we saw the form of a smiling face on it’s peak. Through the glow of dusk the barely visible smile on the cliff’s face, nonetheless, as we day dreamed about getting stranded on this tropical bliss.
How to reach
Daily flights from Manila to El Nido, Palawan. Travel time is approximately 55-minutes on a 50-seater ATR aircraft
Where To Stay
El Nido town offers several budget resorts such as El Nido cliff side cottages and Entalula Beach Cottages. For upscale options check out El Nido resorts
Philippines currency is called Peso (PHP) and is subdivided into 100 centavos. 1USD gets you around PHP 43. It is advised that you bring enough cash for your entire stay since there are no ATM in town. Only a few establishments accept credit cards.