Day Trippin' from El Nido

The Province of Palawan, Philippines is majestically beautiful. However, when looking for cheap backpacking options in Southeast Asia, Palawan and specifically El Nido should not be on top of your list. Despite this, it is a beautiful small town and not overly touristy (yet).

the views north of El Nido

the views north of El Nido

As two budget-conscious travelers, my ex and I were averaging about $41/day for 7 weeks (see the breakdown here) - we grocery shopped and stayed in the housing provided through our dive shop (774 pesos/night).  High season begins in December which is right around when we arrived and we found that the hostels were typically more expensive than the homestays (pensions). A non-aircon, single room in a homestay ranged from 500-900 pesos per night, whereas 1 dorm bed ranged from 400-700 pesos per night. Also, most of the places to stay are not listed online - just get to town and walk around, you'll find something!

Once in "downtown" El Nido you'll see the bay and many small boats. Warning: this is not where you want to swim. It is murky with boat fuel spillage and a couple sewage drains that seem to drain directly into this area. Sexy. Options for getting to El Nido are:

  • Flying directly into the tiny airport (pricier option)
  • Taking a van or bus from Puerto Princesa (the road is 95% paved as of Jan2016, apparently funded by American oil companies)
  • Boats + ferries from Manila or Coron (watch out for seasickness on the smaller boats)

Some of the best times in Palawan were the day trips that we went on. Many require a motorbike or renting a tricycle, but are definitely worth it!

sunset at Republica

sunset at Republica

  1. Marimegmeg Beach: Known to locals as Las Cabanas Beach. Just south of El Nido and only a 15 minute tricycle ride that should cost 100 pesos for 2 people. This beach is clean and has perfect views of the limestone islands. There are two reasonably priced bars that serve right on the beach. The only annoyance are the local kids selling fake pearls at an insane markup - you'll be asked no less than 10 times to buy them...

  2. Republica Sunset Bar: On the way back from Las Cabanas - this is the best place to watch the sunset just outside of El Nido. The San Miguel pilsner is 60 pesos and the view is perfect. The owner is Spanish, so you'll find their menu is European fusion + the sangria is amazing and the chill music they played was great. Follow them on Spotify (@republicasunsetbar)!

  3. Nacpan Beach: This beach is a 45 minute tricycle or 30 minute motorbike ride north of El Nido.  If you're looking for something more remote than the beaches in El Nido proper then this is a good option (although many tourists do head here). There is a 100 peso/person conservation fee once you arrive. The beach is pristine and is lined with small bars, restaurants and places to stay.

  4. Deep Blue Dive Seafari: A great PADI dive shop in El Nido. The staff is knowledgeable and professional, which is why we dove with them for 1.5 months. They offer day diving, night diving and occasional Seafaris to Coron for wreck diving + other remote sites. 

  5. Boat Tours: Boat tours to island hop are a popular option for everyone visiting El Nido. Almost every corner has a travel agency where these tours can be booked - most including a freshly prepared lunch. Additionally, there is an option to charter the entire boat and pick the specific islands you'd like to visit. When booking, make sure to find out how many people are on your boat - some are overcrowded (up to 16ppl). Although most of the tours leave at 9am, I'd recommend pushing for earlier and get to the best spots first. I went out with a wonderful Dutch family on Christmas day and they had chartered the boat just for us, it was one of the highlights during my time there.

  6. Duli Beach Resort: We never went to this spot, however I heard good things! It's a 60 minute motorbike ride north of El Nido (tricycle drivers will not take you there). It's quite remote with a small resort at the end of the beach that sells beer and food. Expect to pay 50 pesos per person to cut across a local family's land to get here. Another option is to charter a boat from El Nido, but this would definitely be pricier (unless you have a larger group).

  7. Verde Safari Beach: A 90 minute motorbike ride north of El Nido - and the trail is not for beginners (dirt roads, steep hills, etc.). This pristine beach is a reminder of what Palawan was 10-20 years ago, undeveloped, remote, tourist-free, gimmick free - just clean sands and the clear water. Make sure to bring snacks because there is nothing for purchase on the beach. 

  8. San Fernando: A small village just north of Verde Safari Beach. This tiny village is remote Palawan with local flavor. The friendly locals looked surprised seeing foreigners but were friendly wherever we stopped. There is almost no wifi and the cell phone data coverage is quite slow (but will work). Great place to get off the grid and disappear for awhile - especially Casa Felicidad, we stopped here for a beer and to check out their cocks (ahem, roosters...).

P.S. Don't miss Nagtabon Beach, about 45 north from Puerto Princesa. Pics + details here.

verde-safari-beach-palawan-panoramic

Fishy Thingz

bye El Nido!

bye El Nido!

The day before leaving El Nido we were getting the last minute things pulled together - basics for the boat like Skyflake crackers (an addiction that will be sorely missed), mini bananas, ramen + oats - so we swung by Atienza to confirm our ferry and bike transport details.

"Hello - just checking on our cargo ride."

"Oh that's not happening. not for 2 more days, the boats somewhere in Manila."

"?"

Somewhere in Manila. and we were going to find out when we rolled up at 7am the next morning to get on our boat. The nice woman then offered to take all of the motorbike paperwork and ship the boat for us...

"NO FUCKING WAY YOU'RE GOING TO STEAL MY BIKE!"

He's so delicate and careful with the words he chooses...

trippy thingz

trippy thingz

At this point we figure out we can get on one of the smaller, shittier boats (the Bunso) for 700 extra pesos to ship us and the bike, fine. All-in shipping a bike from El Nido to Coron = 1086 pesos + 4.5 hours of my life never to be seen again.

The next morning the boat ride is going as well as it could be given that T had his final divemaster test - the snorkel test (drinking alcohol through the snorkel in a round robin trivia game). after a lunch of fishy shrimp, rice and indiscriminate vegetables T surprises me by puking overboard.

This sickness culminates in a glorious, triumphant entrance to our hostel where T rides up on the motorbike and pukes fiercely + immediately (while on the bike), his projectile only narrowly missing a tiny local girl frozen mid-step with a look of true horror on her face. I pat his back in solidarity which unfortunately releases his other end. Yes. Joke's on me however, because within an hour I've already vomited 4 times, which repeats through the rest of the night.

WWOOF Dreamz

6 days left in El Nido before we leave on the Atienza ferry (cheaper if bought right at the port office - which is a shipping container where the hours are irregular at best) to chillax in Coron for a few days of wreck diving and island life before Manila > Vietnam.

In the meantime my skillz are improving:

  • I am meditating more
  • I am working on honesty + setting healthy expectations / boundaries in our romantic relationship - sticking to those as the goal, not a specific outcome revolving around *us*
  • I drove the (135kg / 298lb, MANUAL) motorbike through windy Palawan for 3 hours without stalling it, laying it down or fearing for my life (except when the bus rattled by @45km/hr well over the center line on a corner I had judged taking from the mid-right of my lane, near heart attack for sure)
  • I secured all of our travel + accommodations through Ho Chi Minh and am working on setting up a cool WWOOFing experience
  • Dinners are getting dope @ the greenhouse - chili bread bowls, spam fried rice, "spaghetti", pulled chicken + roast potatoes (Note: this is a feat due to the supermarket + outdoor market selection, as well as the kitchen which is 2 gas stove burners and a toaster oven)
  • Social media for Deep Blue Seafari is my project for the last 11 days in El Nido, it's actually fun to grow a brand's social presence again

Speaking of WWOOF, I am currently researching farms that we can divide up our Vietnam motorbike extravaganza with. We are planning to ride from Ho Chi Minh up and work on farms in exchange for housing and food along the way. Vietnam has not entered the "official" WWOOF site yet, so the process (per usual) is not clear cut. There are 2 sites which you can pay the annual membership fees on, however only the latter option has been established with actual farms: 

http://wwoofvietnam.org/ VS. http://www.wwoofindependents.org/

WWOOF independents has only 10 farms in Vietnam and some seem like they are defunct or not accepting volunteers. I paid the $22 usd fee and messaged 3 of the farms in the south - so far no response but I don't expect these places to be all that high tech and tapped into their email, so we will probably just show up on their doorstep and hope for the best! The most exciting by far is the bee farm on the southern island of Phu Quoc, I reallllllly hope that this one works out, especially bc when he was a little nugget, T used to collect honey for a neighbor. 

February 4th note: TranGarden responded and they are no longer hosting WWOOFers. This leaves a possible 8 or less spots available from the list provided. I heard back from none of the places I emailed.

Cheetos, Wine, Dark Chocolate

Petunia!

Petunia!

The monitor lizard is stirring in the roof again. I am guessing that he weighs between 10-15 lbs and his tail (the only part I've seen) is >15 inches. T created a trap for him 3 times now and all 3 times the lizard has escaped it , leaving it in pieces. Our housemaid Ann also took it upon herself to take down the trap. This caused a tourette's style fit from Crocodile Dundee (le sigh...). She should have known better, as she was the one who let us know the lizards bring in big money when sold to the locals.

As I'm writing, a cat has strutted through the apartment. This actually happens quite often. Unfortunately though, my Christmas miracle Petunia has decided not to return once she caught on that each visit required a bath. Pretty sure she had fleas, whoops.

romance in the sky

romance in the sky

As of this writing, I definitely smell. The power is out (this occurs almost daily in El Nido as the power grid can't keep up with all the tourists) and so the fans are not cooling me. Also, my generally malaise about taking a shower is extreme. Luckily it's my "day off" - my life is a vacation, so what exactly constitutes a day off? I am not in the dive shop and get to blog and cook dinner for the guys. For the next few weeks I'm running the social media show for the shop to defray some of my divemaster financial obligations. Yet another reminder of how happy I am to be on the back-end of a business instead of babysitting adults under the sea. 

One of the great benefits of my semi-employment is that I have so much alone time. SO MUCH. It's a special treat. Almost as good as some of the Western amenities I crave - rich dark chocolate, a perfect cabernet, Cheetos. Yes. Cheetos. 

Accidentz

Ride Or Die. Literally.

Ride Or Die. Literally.

Melissa tells me my accident prone behaviors in Southeast Asia are (potentially) a desperate cry from my subconscious to ensure that my new boyfriend will take care of me. if that is indeed true, I'd like my subconscious to seriously stop messing with my shit and be a little more resilient.

For example, when I was taking the motorbike out yesterday I really wanted to prove I am capable of taking the painstaking lessons he has imparted on me and am in fact a Ride Or Die Bitch. Instead, while backing a non-running 125cc motorbike down a tight alley I lose control and "laid it down" ever so gingerly against a tree, Resulting in a big ass dent on the gas tank. At this point it might have been smart to call the proving quits, but my ever-rational brain determined that the net-net of a 30 second experience with one crash would seem less bad if that one crash was averaged over a much longer span of riding successfully.

Not four minutes later (after a jerky exit through a wooden plank bridge, rock wall + shoddy sand grooves in the sand), I turn right onto a dirt road and need to come to a sudden stop, which results in me trying to hold up said 278 lb. bike on my right leg, Failing and ultimately causing lay down 2, as well as an embarrassing rescue from a local, who yells after me "Drive Careful" as I stall out while careening away down a dirt hill, gripping the clutch and slamming on the foot brake for dear life.

The fortunate net-net of the biking extravaganza was a dent and a bruise to my leg, which T took remarkably well, see:

Until I picked him up at the dive shop... "Woah, that dent is like the size of my arm, you realize you dented it in the worst spot where we can't pop it out and it will for sure rust and suck for whoever has it long term. Not worried about the money though, the bike is only worth $500, but if this was a nice bike you'd be fucked."

Thanks. This on top of my firework injury. On top of my coral scratched knee that took 4 weeks to heal. On top of a UTI last month. And the scrape on the top of my foot (from dancing / doing a split in Pai). And my total dependence on contact lenses. And my general limpiness on my once broken foot. And a few other things. I'm definitely the ultimate liability for someone whose been compared to the hybrid version of James Bond, Chuck Norris, Macgyver, Transporter...

motorbike-el-nido-philippines-blog

RIP Divemaster

sea-turtle-girl-diver-divemaster

I really love to dive. It's a sort of meditative exploration where you're seeing things in a distorted way (30% larger and seem closer) and you're floating by them for much longer than a human should actually be able to. Observing all sorts of ocean life and anemones as well as bountiful coral reefs, creepy cuttle fish, protective clown fish, sea turtles + spotted sting rays is magical.

But I really hate breaking up my meditative exploration to deal with some dumbass motherfuckers buoyancy. Helping others and empathy is just not my forte. At. All. I am a really compassionate person to animals and to those few that I am close to, but even then my patience wears thin and I need excessive alone time for happiness... After completing 42 fun dives to get myself to the start point for divemaster coursework, I had a day of shadowing as an assistant. The BS of hand-holding and babysitting weren't joyful teaching moments, oh no. They made for a day of annoyance and rethinking the entire career path. I soon realized that I could still be a part of the diving world via marketing, but the saint-like position of divemaster or instructor shall be reserved for those far better and more patient than I. In a glorious twist of fate I burnt off a chunk of my finger with a firework on NYE so I can't dive now anyway. Hello universe stop LOL'ing at me, or maybe with me in this instance, that conclusion is reserved for if my finger ends up getting staph/SARS/MRSA/chopped off/gangrene/lepracy (you never know, cleanliness and clean water are not what southeast Asia are known for). 

I know that I am always searching for lessons and the meaning of experiences to evolve and grow from them, but sometimes I've already learned the same damn lesson. This is a perfect example of that. Years ago I left a career in physical therapy/exercise science because of patients and my personal lack of empathy... Yet now I saw myself as a tanned, outdoorsy, informative, chill divemaster... EERRMMPPHH (buzzer noise for wrong answer). Oh well the diving was fun + beautiful (and pricey...ugh)... Lessonz...

Cliff Adventurez

el-nido-taraw-cliff-aerial-view

Recently i had the joy of exploring the Taraw Cliff and surrounding cliff-sides with T. It was a crazy experience because we took *the path less traveled* aka the free way (finances + $ hackz are still a huge personal theme, tracking here). In order to find the way up, enjoy the view and avoid paying for use of the rope bridge, one needs to navigate through the non-tourist neighborhood and ask a few locals (it's on a side street in Barangay Maligaya). Then look at the rock formations on all side and see where there are wear patterns, then proceed. Once up the Taraw Cliff you will then find that all of the other rock formations are higher and with better views. 

After we came down a different way than we went up, we had to ask anywhere from 4-8 locals for the path to the higher cliffs. You'd think they were protecting the Dead Sea Scrolls or some shit, not just a grueling hike to a different vantage point...

Back down to Barangay Suerte and deeper into the 'hood we walk wooden planks around huts, naked children, wild dogs, and finally an 8 year old girl points us to the path. And up we go!

At three different points the well worn path has huts and the higher of the two are most definitely homes. An old man we pass is using a machete to chop down bamboo, and so we ask him which way is up. the path we proceed on leads to hut #2, which is likely his home, 50 minutes up the steep and winding path - this guy is the Palawan Thoraeau for sure.

The path gets murky at this point. We are undecided on which way to go, but give "up" a try. After hut #3 the path is pretty obscure and soon brush gives way to steep rock formations. My 2 favorite interactions were by far:

"Babe, there is a chance we will encounter a wild boar, what do you do if that happens?"
"Scale a tree... duh."

"OK, babe it's steep after this point and will require quite a bit of vertical climbing - if one of us gets hurt, the other will have to leave and get help and it could be hours before a rescue would occur... if you want to turn back now is the time..."
"I'm fine - keep climbing."

Obviously I'm babe. And obviously T has us covered in case shit hits the fan. 

After approximately 1 hour of vertical movement we get to a spot where there is a glorious vantage point, about 70% of the way to the top. We savor the view and an orange from a spot that we are pretty sure no tourists or locals frequent. And fortunately neither of us was impaled by a wild boar (wear bug repellent though, I ended up with somewhere between 30 and 1 million bites).

Little Mermaid

The diving life. How sweet it is. And also... Work! We wake up every morning at 6 (or should I say, T does... he makes us instant coffee then coaxes/orders me out of bed), head to breakfast by 7 and then land at the shop by 8 to prep our gear and get out on the boat. The shop we chose was Deep Blue Seafari, a PADI IDC shop with a home-like feel + fun-loving owners, Jose & Diana.

Each day on the boat brings something new, with a comforting level of predictability. We switch between instructors and meet a steady influx of other divers who come through to see the El Nido reefs. 3 dives / day, a big ass Filipino lunch (meat, rice, veggies, fruit...) and all sorts of shit to remember... Connect the hoses. Weight belt right release. Air pressure check. Computer. Test the regs. Twist this. Don't twist this. 

All for the magical world of discovery under the sea (cue Little Mermaid soundtrack... no really, I actually get those songs stuck in my head whilst diving at times AND to make matters better our instructor is named Sebastian - you know, like the lobster...). It is so cool and strange. Can you think of anything more magical than swimming thru a school of barracuda, snapping your fingers at them and having them turn about-face in unison? 

One thing that is not up my alley (as of right now) is night diving. We went on a night dive at 6:30 one night and I nearly shit my wetsuit. I floated in my brain between "ooh this is a nice warm blanket of tranquility surrounding me and look at those interesting sea urchins that taste yummy on sushi" to "HOLY FUCK NO CONTROL THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE FUCK DIVING FUCK THIS FUCKING SHIT..." So yeah not one of my most zen moments.