We flew to El Nido directly from Tokyo. You can’t pick more complete opposites from a size, cleanliness and social norm perspective. Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world while you can walk across the town of El Nido in 15 minutes. Japan was obsessive about germs, waste, and toilet hygiene and their rule based culture almost felt oppressive at times. The Philippines is the polar opposite. This trip was about experiencing different cultures but we probably could have eased into it a little better.
We arranged an airport pickup in El Nido through our AirBnB and they transported us via air conditioned van to our house. We traveled over paved roads that felt more like 4×4 tracks. The van weaved in and out of motorbikes and tuk tuks, which are three wheeled trikes based around a 125CC motor bike. This was to be expected.
The van was on the outskirts of El Nido when it pulled over between slums and a construction site. We were met by several helpers who grabbed our luggage and then lead down a path flanked with garbage through the construction site. The path turned right and wove through shacks with sewage running alongside the pathway. I had booked the AirBnB and it was supposed to be one of the nicer ones in El Nido. This is not what I expected and clearly the family was struggling as well – the vibe was “what did you get us into?” We turned up a side stairway along a fence with loudly barking dogs and then turned into our walled compound.
The house was “as presented” in the AirBnB photos, but the location was not. We were early and they were still cleaning from the previous visitors. We stowed our stuff and changed into our hot weather clothes, left our bags, and set out into the town. El Nido, like much of the Philippines presumably, qualifies as “developing”, which is the current politically correct word for “third world”. We were sleep deprived tourists and the locals sensed our naivete, and pounced on us with offers for rides, tours, trinkets, etc. We walked up and down the beach and pulled into a cafe for some breakfast. We killed a little more time and then finally returned to our house to take naps.
Our entry into the Philippines in general and El Nido specifically was rough. Not only were we taken aback by our walled compound in the middle of a slum, we struggled the first evening with Billy the Bat and Rocky the Rat. We woke up the first morning to find that a rat had gotten into our house (we think from under the kitchen sink) and ate a hole in our plastic garbage can to get at our fruit rinds from the night before. This was no small naked tailed jungle squirrel (aka – rat) – this thing chewed through some serious plastic. In addition to making a large mess, he chewed a hole in Ethan’s shoe, a blanket, and gnawed through one of Ethan’s headphones. On top of that, we went out onto the upper deck to find it covered in bat scat. We soon figured out that if we didn’t leave the deck light on, Billy (the bat) would come and roost and deposit his leftovers in the evenings. Based on the remains, he ate a lot of berries of some kind. A few monkeys visited our side yard and Ellis almost stepped on a scorpion returning home one evening.
Despite these early challenges, El Nido has amazing natural beauty. We took tuk tuks and toured several beaches and boated through the islands and it is far cleaner that Vietnam due to a local ordinance banning plastic bottles and straws. Despite the situation in our part of the town, the main streets and beaches are clean. It’s impressive.
While here we planned for the family to get open water dive certified with a highly rated local dive outfit: Palawan Divers. For those that have been dive certified before, it consists of three parts: course work, closed water dives, and open water dives. Like this trip, our plan was a little fast and loose and, apparently, we were supposed to complete the course work ahead of time. After we paid our deposit several weeks ago they did send us some e-learning materials, but it wasn’t clear that it was to be “completed”. Fortunately we arrived nearly a day earlier than planned, so we were able to go by the dive center and they gave us books and video learning materials. However, they clearly pointed out that we had to complete the coursework in the next 24 hours or “no diving”. So we spent our first two days in El Nido mostly inside studying diving materials. We met with Julien, our lead instructor, Sunday night (Dec 16th) and started our written exams. We went diving Monday and Tuesday, with three dives each day. The first dive of the day was a “closed water” dive in 2.5 meters (8 ft) of water where we practiced the required skills. This was followed by two “open water” dives in 10-12 meters (35-40 ft) of water where we repeated these skills, and then chased some fish. It was exhausting, but the family did awesome and worked through a lot of anxiety and diversity to get our certifications. On top of that, spending two days amongst the islands around El Nido was an awesome way to see the local environment, both above and below water.
We relocated from our AirBnB to the Coco Resort for our last day in El Nido and totally chillaxed at the pool, which was much needed after four frenetic days. This resort was located on Coron Coron Beach, which is just south of El Nido, and more of the tourist / hippie hangout. We dined at La Plage, a good french restaurant, the last day; and then caught another Air Swift flight to Cebu for the next leg of our Philippine adventure.
Pro Trips – Here’s some thoughts and lessons learned regarding El Nido:
- Fly to El Nido. The town is at the north tip of Palawan Island and until recently you had to fly into Puerto Princessa and then take a six hour bus trip. This bus trip has been described on Trip Advisor as a “you might die” experience given the condition of the roads and the general driving philosophy in the Philippines. We were going to take the bus and ended up flying both in and out (see “Thrilla in Manilla” post). It’s expensive but super convenient. For those on a tight budget, the bus is always an option.
- Palawan Divers is awesome. It’s owned by a french national and its a well run operation. They have four boats and seem to be one of the largest dive operations in town. On top of that they were very friendly and professional, and we never had a concern about our safety. We highly recommend them: www.palawan-divers.org.
- El Nido is changing fast. All across the town there are formal hotels and resorts being built and they are widening the road. This is probably a good thing, but the sleeping local town is transforming so if you want to visit the “old El Nido”, go soon.
- Stay in Coron Coron. These place is better suited for tourists with a wider selection of food and it feels less raw than the front streets of El Nido proper.
- Don’t stay in an AirBnB. We did this because we thought we were saving money, but there are so many small resorts that you will probably have a better overall experience there.
- Internet in the Philippines is really challenging. Bring your own wi-fi hot spot and buy a sim card upon entering the country. Better yet, but a phone that you can use with local sim cards in every country.