When you hear someone say they are planning a vacation to Southeast Asia, most people immediately think of Thailand. When I think of Thailand, I picture crowds of swarming tourists and long wait times for good photo opportunities. That may or may not be what it is actually like, but 2017 was a particularly rough year and I needed a mental break. I visited The Points Guy to see if I could score a good deal to a place far and exotic, with minimal tourist footprint. Don’t get me wrong — I would love to visit Thailand one day but for some reason I feel like I have already experienced it. Maybe it’s because my parents took me when I was a baby or the fact that everyone around me has been there and come back with extravagant stories of their adventures. At that particular point in time, I was seeking pristine beaches and solitude.
How we got there:
There was a roundtrip flight from Chicago to Manila for $684 USD on Korean Air with a short layover in Seoul / Incheon International Airport. With a bit of research, we discovered that Palawan had been named the best island in the world by Travel & Leisure. There are several popular destinations within Palawan including El Nido, Coron, and Puerto Princesa each with their own unique attractions. We decided to go with El Nido as we only had one week. Apparently the most popular (and affordable) route to El Nido is to take a flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa followed by a 6 hour land journey. We decided that would be too exhausting especially since we were flying all the way from the United States. We flew directly to El Nido from Manila via AirSWIFT which cost a bit more ($206 USD roundtrip). It was worth every penny. The landing and take-off from El Nido’s airport are breathtaking:
On our way from El Nido airport to our hotel, there were a number of cute, tiny establishments like this one:
Where we stayed:
You will not find hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott in Palawan. Instead, there are a variety of boutique hotels, resorts, and hostels. I was interested in the El Nido Coco Resort because of its price, location, and reviews. We ended up going with Cadlao Resort because it offered a suite with 2 bedrooms and a bathroom in between (perfect for our bougie group of 3). The cost was ~$270/night which was reasonable when split by 3. In addition, there was a restaurant and spa on-site. My only grievance about Cadlao was that it was a bit off the beaten path and required you to take a separate tuk-tuk ride (5 minutes) or walk (10-15 minutes) to reach it. But those extra 5-15 minutes were definitely scenic:
There weren’t many other guests as we stayed for four weeknights and essentially had the place to ourselves. We did pass by the El Nido Coco Resort later in the trip and found it to be very quaint and relaxing. However, no amount of quaintness could beat the post-massage sunsets at Cadlao:
What we ate:
We had breakfast at Cadlao’s restaurant before venturing out in the mornings. It was omelette or eggs cooked whichever way you preferred with a side. I particularly enjoyed the sinangag, or Filipino garlic rice. Some of the world’s best fruit is here in the Philippines, particularly mango and pineapple. I also developed a liking to kalamansi, the Philippine counterpart to lemons and limes. It has a characteristic sweet tartness that is reminiscent of lime, orange, and grapefruit.
While roaming the streets of El Nido, we came across a restaurant called Happiness Beach Bar. There was a small bar facing the street with swings for barstools. How could you not want to sit on a bar swing and sip on a drink to cool off? We came for the refreshments, stayed for the wifi, and later returned to try the food, which was fresh and delicious. I particularly enjoyed their Hummus Falafel.
We had no idea at the time but this was the #1 restaurant in El Nido as voted by TripAdvisor. The owner is an expat from the United States and gave us local tips, and mentioned that we were just in time for the monthly El Nido Full Moon Party. It was essentially a full on dance party at the beach complete with DJ, drinks, and tacos. I was in heaven.
What we did:
On arrival to El Nido, the tuk-tuk drivers called out to us offering rides to two beaches: Las Cabanas and Nacpan. The first day was a bit cloudy and overcast, but we hopped in a tuk-tuk to Las Cabanas beach anyway. The vibe at Las Cabanas beach was exactly one would want on vacation: perfectly warm water, full tiki bar, and island music (think Bob Marley with a beat). I find it interesting that there are so many emotions that the English language does not have words for. For example, Tagalog — the language of the Filipinos — has a word to describe the experience of loving something so much that you are tempted to pinch it — gigli. There has to be a word in some language to explain the transcendent experience of cool rain on your skin while swimming in warm water. If not, I shall come up with one in the near future — stay tuned. Also, the best pina coladas in the world are at Las Cabanas beach.
Prior to our boating day, we stopped at the local pharmacy and picked up powdered electrolyte mix to avoid dehydration. I have always been curious about how healthcare services operate in other countries. When vacation time is so limited, it isn’t realistic to factor in a visit to the local hospitals without your travel buddies rolling their eyes at you. It is easiest (and least disruptive) to step into local pharmacies to see what they stock and how they dispense medications. I have found it is far easier and inexpensive to obtain medications without a prescription once you leave the United States.
Everyone we met in the Philippines mentioned that when in El Nido, island hopping is a must. There are multiple island hopping tours that are simply labeled Tours A, B, C, and D. We did a combination of A and C as we heard they were the most popular, and elected to take a private boat so we wouldn’t have to wait to take pictures. For three people on a private boat, the total was under $200 USD. It was a day-long venture to the many islands in Bacuit Bay, and was hands-down the highlight of our trip. Our captain, Genesis, was an excellent tour guide and photographer.
Several lagoons and beaches were not accessible by boat, so we kayaked, swam, and crawled through the crevices to reach them. We also had plenty of opportunities to snorkel.
While Genesis and the crew prepared lunch, we were given the opportunity to either swim up to Matinloc Island or wait for them to take us by boat. We decided to be adventurous and swim the distance. I was not in the best shape of my life at the time and tired out pretty quick, so I grabbed onto my friend who had wisely chosen to wear a life jacket. About halfway through the swim there, we realized we had underestimated the distance and pondered going back to the boat. But then I thought about how amazing it would feel once we finally reached land — so we persisted and after what seemed like hours of swimming (it couldn’t have been longer than 45 minutes), we finally made it. It was a mini journey of survival, but well worth it for the views waiting for us.
Aside from an occasional run-in with another boat, it really felt as if there was no one else there except us. How does the famous quote go? “A good snapshot stops a moment from running away“. Photographs never quite capture the true sentiment of a moment, but they come close. This place was every bit as incredible and beautiful as it looks.
After the epic island hopping tour, we wanted to do something relaxing on our last day so we took a tuk-tuk to Nacpan Beach. It was much further than Las Cabanas and involved a bumpy, winding dirt road. 45 minutes is a long time on a tuk-tuk, but the journey was well worth it when we arrived. Sometimes words cannot do justice to a place this pristine.
Travel guides like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet can be indispensable when visiting a new country, however the true essence of a city can only be felt when you sit down with the locals. And how do you find the locals? By looking up from your phone and talking to the person in front of you: the waiters, housekeepers, restaurant/shop owners, and especially the taxi / tuk-tuk drivers. There is a lot of hate and negativity in this world, but there is also love and kindness, and we often don’t have to look very far to find it. I cannot say enough good things about Palawan and cannot wait to return for a diving adventure. Until then, I would have to agree — it definitely is more fun in the Philippines.