There is life before El Nido, and then there is life after.
Life before El Nido was a naïve contentment with weekend mall trips, food-park dinners, and other such trappings of modern millennial middle-class life.
Life after El Nido, on the other hand, is an aimless, empty void, colored only by daydreams about wading into class in a snorkel and water shoes and painfully reminiscing eating crabs, shrimp, and grilled pork on an empty beach while waves lapping on your feet.
Then there is life in El Nido, which, for me, was two days and three June nights of slow small-town life spent on a boat bobbing in the waters off West Palawan, hopping from islet to islet and finding a pleasant surprise at every turn.
The El Nido experience begins at the beach. At 9AM, the shore is lined with 15-person motorized bancas taking on tourists going on daylong tours. Once they leave, they don’t dock again until 5PM. The tours include around five stops across the islets that dot the bay.
As soon as the voyage begins, El Nido’s crowded streets give way to the sweeping land and seascape of Bacuit Bay. The water is a brilliant blue. The islands teem with lush greenery growing on jagged cliff faces. The abundance makes it one of those places that can be annoying to photograph. You won’t run out of shots to take. Just point and shoot, and you’re good for one full week of Instagram likes. Thankfully, social media spamming is not a mandatory part of a visit to El Nido. Indeed, aboard a boat in these waters is the best place to put everything away, forget the world, feel the breeze on your face, and just take everything in.
Each stop is either a lagoon or a beach, and it’s perfect either for swimming or for snorkeling. The boat drops anchor at a safe depth, the tour guide explains where you are and what people like to do there, and you are given a time limit: “OK, 40 minutes at this stop.” Then everyone wades off the boat to enjoy the sun and the water.
I mean, you’ve never seen such clear water. By the shore, the water is such a clear green that on a good day, you can see the sun shafts through the surface as you wade. As it gets deeper, it turns a darker green color, then blue, then deeper blue still, while the sunlight plays on the waves in brilliant sparkles, on and on toward the horizon. It looks as beautiful beneath the surface, too. Although I understand there are better places for snorkeling than El Nido, it has its own colorful underwater life. On our second day, one of our fellow tourists spotted a turtle hidden snugly between corals. (I had to settle for a turtle-shaped fridge magnet, Php50 in one of the many souvenir stalls near the beach, or even cheaper if you know how to haggle.)
At a little past noon, the boat docks on a quiet sandy beach. On our second day, the kuyas found a wonderful little cove. It was empty save for another party of tourists, who had just finished lunch and were packing to leave. We took a dip in the shallow waters while they grilled lunch on board. Then, they called everyone to one end of the shore. Lunch had been laid out on a plastic table, and plates were being handed out.
My friends and I still dream about that lunch.
Grilled pork liempo, chicken, and fish. Crab. Shrimp. Juicy little slices of yellow watermelon, pineapple, orange, apple, and cucumber. All heaped on a plate, all yours to enjoy on an empty Palawan beach. Our tour guides had spoons and forks ready, but really, there’s only one way to eat a lunch like this: with your bare hands and no pauses between bites.
“Kuya, iwan n’yo na lang kami rito, balikan n’yo na lang kami bukas,” we quipped. They chuckled, but we weren’t sure we were joking.
By the time the tour ends and you find yourself back on dry land, the Sun is setting and the town is getting quiet. There’s only just enough time to return the rented water shoes and head back to the hostel for a quick shower, some rest, and a friendly card game before dinner. Your best bet is one of the many restaurants near the beach. The seafood is fresh and the vibe is great, so you get your money’s worth.
The package cost us Php5,000, inclusive of airport transfers, accommodation for three nights, breakfast, and the tours themselves. Besides that, the only other big expense is the airline ticket, but it’s hard to run out of seat sales.
My friends and I visited El Nido over a weekend. Most of them are gainfully employed and took Friday and Monday off work. Still, two days weren’t enough to really take the place in. Two weeks later, El Nido haunts me: the warm waters, the smell of fish and pork being grilled aboard the banca, the soft dancing of the boat as we hopped from island to island.
This is the first time I’ve gone on a trip like this, but El Nido convinced me it shouldn’t be the last. Let’s go, let’s go. There’s a world out there for us to see.