Finding Paradise in El Nido

El Nido - Dolarog Beach

When I think of the Philippines, I think of beautiful beaches fringed with coconut trees, dense jungles, colorful coral reefs, and tiny little islands scattered across a vibrant blue sea. While there are many places throughout this island nation that may fit that description, it couldn’t have been more so than in El Nido on the island of Palawan. Going to El Nido was actually one of the main reasons why I decided to go to the Philippines. A few years ago I was watching an episode of the Amazing Race and they went to what was then a tiny little fishing village nestled between towering limestone cliffs. They then had to sailed out to the stunning Bacuit Archipelago just off the coast, and I was instantly enamoured with the place–I knew I wanted to go there one day!

So now that I’ve been there and seen it first-hand, I can tell you it was the most beautiful place I went to in the Philippines. In fact, I’d say it is a pretty good contender for one of the most beautiful places in world. While it’s obvious that the town has seen some growth in the past few years due to increased tourism, it’s natural beauty still remains mostly unspoiled. The islands here are spectacular and are riddled with thousands of dramatic limestone formations, hidden coves, and secret beaches. Island hopping is biggest activity to do here and can easily be arranged at any of the numerous tour operators in town. Day trips are generally around 1200 php (about $27 USD) and include lunch. Depending on the operator, you may or may not have to rent out snorkel gear (fortunately I had my own as our boat didn’t include it). The tours are simply named Tour A, B, C, and D, with A and C being the most popular as they take you to some of the archipelago’s best spots and highlights.

El Nido Town
El Nido

The boats generally leave around 9 am and come back late in the afternoon, so there is plenty of time out on the water. If that’s not enough, some operators also offer overnight tours, which I wish I had known about as spending a night on one of the islands sounds amazing! I ended up doing Tour A with a friend I met on the ride up to El Nido. Since it was the middle of the high season a lot of the boats were full of people, with 15-20 pax in each boat. We got lucky with ours somehow as it was just us and only two other people. It might as well been a private trip!

We made several stops throughout the day to explore a beach or go swimming, but my favorites by far were the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon is shallow passage between tall limestone cliffs that guard a large sheltered lagoon. Since the water is shallow inside the passageway, boats can only really enter at high tide. Small Lagoon is similar in that it’s surrounded by beautiful cliffs, but can only be accessed by a small hole in the rock that you have to swim or kayak through. Both were stunning and I couldn’t believe that places like this actually exist.

Entering The Big Lagoon
Big Lagoon
Island Hopping - El Nido

For snorkeling-lovers like myself, El Nido was heaven. While the snorkeling in the beautiful lagoons themselves were so-so, there are plenty of reefs around the islands you could spend a lifetime exploring. The coral gardens around are so colorful and abundant with life. We saw a sea turtle, barracudas, and a even a sea snake! When the boat wasn’t moving, we were snorkeling–we spent so much time in the water swimming with the fish. I think the snorkeling was actually the best part of the tour.

Under The Yellow Sea
El Nido Reef

Back in El Nido, when we weren’t sailing around the islands, we simply spent our days on the beach. The town beach in El Nido proper is okay, but the water is mildly murky and the bay is crowded with boats. A better place is Las Cabanas Beach just a few kilometers south of town and easily accessible by tricycle for about 50 php. It’s much more relaxed here compared to the town beach and there are some good places to get good food and drinks right on the sand. It’s also one of the best places to watch sunsets!

El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset

Compared to the famous islands in Thailand or places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, El Nido is still relatively undiscovered and may as well be one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Only until recently, in November 2014, the town itself only had electricity for a few hours a day. There’s not even an ATM machine, so travelers must stock up on cash before arrival. Getting there is an adventure in itself–it’s 5-6 hours by van or 6-7 hours bus, all along curvy rural roads that are still unpaved in areas. However, the region has attracted lots of attention in recent years thanks to a growing tourism industry and I can imagine in a few years El Nido will be the next big tourist destination for travelers in Southeast Asia. So get there while you still can!

Bohol: The Island of Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers

Loboc River

Bohol may be just one of the several thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, but it’s one that should not be overlooked. While it may not compare to the stunning scenery of El Nido on Palawan, the island is rich with history, an interesting variety of landscapes and wildlife, beautiful jungles, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels.

Arriving by ferry from Cebu, I was greeted at the wharf in Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, by the usual throng of taxi and tricycle riders who tend to mob tourists looking for potential customers. My original plan was to take the bus to my accommodation, but eventually gave in to the pressure after a very determined young driver followed me all the way to the end of the pier asking if I needed a ride. When I asked where his car was parked, he pointed to a ruddy-looking motorbike that looked way too small for me and my big backpack. “Are you sure we can fit everything on there?” I nervously asked, having never ridden on a motorbike in my life, never mind with a complete stranger. “Yes, yes, it will be okay,” he nodded with an optimistic smile. I hopped on and we were off.

Loboc River SwingWe rode through the countryside past rice fields, old churches, groups of waving, smiling kids, and dodged the occasional chicken or dog that decided to stray out onto the road. The driver, Brian, was great, pointing out different points of interest and explaining their importance. About 45 minutes later we arrived at Fox and the Firefly Cottages in central Bohol. Located outside the nearby town of Loboc, the hostel was in the countryside in a pretty remote area next to a slow-moving river. Out here, the night air was filled only with the sound of frogs and crickets. It was a relaxing spot, and the owners and the locals living in the neighborhood were very nice! And being right next to the river, it was a great place to swim and cool off during the heat of the day.

Panglao Island

The next morning I caught a ride on a jeepney (an old converted WWII US Army jeep which provides the most popular form of public transportation in the PI) and made my way down to Panglao Island on Bohol’s south end. This is where some of the nicest white sand and palm fringed beaches in the province are found, granted it’s also the most touristy as the coastline is congested with hotels and resorts. Alona Beach is the most popular, but I decided to go to Dumaluan Beach with a nice German couple I met on the jeepney as we heard it was less crowded. The only way onto the beach was by going through one of the resorts, which was packed with Filipinos on holiday, but we easily escaped the crowds by simply walking a few hundred feet up the shoreline. Apparently the diving is really good off the coast here (the Philippines in general is supposed to be amazing for diving), which made me wish I had my PADI certification!

Chocolate Hills After a nice day at the beach, I left my new friends and headed back inland to the island’s most famous feature, the Chocolate Hills. The symmetrical grass-covered hills get their name when they turn a brownish color during the dryer times of the year. Many people, myself included, would say they resemble something out of a scene in a Super Mario game. It’s considered one of the best things to do in the Philippines, and while interesting to look at, there’s really not a whole lot else to do here. Still worth a look though, especially if you come at sunset!

Tarsier

Another famous curiosity is the Philippine tarsier, one of the world’s smallest primates which are endemic to the Philippines and are mostly found on Bohol. These odd-looking critters are an endangered species and are very hard to find in the wild, so we went to one of the nearby sanctuaries to see if we could see some. We ended up not seeing just one, but several of the little primates hiding in the trees and bushes around the park. They really are bizarre looking, with huge eyes and extremely long hind legs and fingers. Since their eyeballs are immovable, they also have the ability to rotate their head 180 degrees! Cute, but also kind of creepy, they reminded me of gremlins.

Boholanos

Two days was not enough time to spend on Bohol. While the island may look small on the map, it takes a few hours to cross and it’s rumored there are several beautiful hidden places that many travelers often overlook, places I would have loved to have visited if I had more time!

Swimming With Whale Sharks In Oslob

Whale Shark

The Philippines is famous for its abundant wildlife living under the sea. Thousands of people come here every year for the excellent diving and snorkeling. It’s also one of the best places to swim with the world’s largest fish—the whale shark. Also known as butanding in Tagalog, these gentle giants can grow up to 41 feet (12 meters) long and weigh as much as 23.5 tons. Despite their intimidating size, whale sharks are mostly slow-moving and fairly mellow creatures, drifting close to the surface through the world’s tropical oceans, filter feeding on plankton and small fish as they go.

You can find whale sharks pretty much anywhere in the Philippines, but there are two places in particular where they are especially common–Donsol and Oslob. Located on the southern end of the island of Luzon, Donsol has grown from a sleepy little fishing village to a whale shark watching mecca over the past few years. The other locale is near the little town of Oslob in Cebu, where the whale sharks can be found just a few hundred feet offshore.

Whale Shark

Getting to Oslob is rather easy. There are daily domestic and international flights flying right into Cebu City. From the airport you can take a taxi to the South Bus Station (about 250 pisos) where you can then take a bus to Oslob. The journey takes around 3-4 hours and cost only 150 pisos for an air-conditioned bus. I found the bus system on Cebu to be really good with buses making several trips between Cebu City and Oslob throughout the day.

Originally I had planned on seeing the whale sharks in Donsol, but since I was coming to Cebu anyway to visit the nearby island of Bohol I figured I would save time by going to Oslob. Upon arrival in town, I was told the best time of day to see the whale sharks was in the early morning as that’s the time of day they come to feed. The cost of swimming with the whale sharks is 1100 pisos for foreigners (about $25 USD) and includes your snorkeling gear, boat, and environmental fee. Before setting out to sea, we were given a quick briefing of the dos and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks. A few in particular I remember was that we weren’t allowed to wear sunscreen since it’s toxic to them. Another was we were supposed to give them a 3 meter berth and that we couldn’t touch them. Simple enough.

Whale Shark

We got in our boat and paddled off from the beach around 06:30 and within five minutes we were at the spot where the sharks were in water. Being only a few hundred feet off shore the water was shallow, maybe only 20 feet deep. As soon as we jumped in there was already one swimming by! Over the duration of the experience, I was surprised not only to see one or even two sharks, but a total of 5 whale sharks! Incredible. We didn’t have to go very far either as they swam right by the boat. They were varying sizes, but the largest one I saw was maybe around 30 feet long. We were given 30 minutes to swim with the sharks and I felt that was plenty of time.

Whale Shark

Until 2011, Oslob was just another little fishing town off the southeastern coast of Cebu. The sharks have been in present in the area for years as they are thought to have been attracted to the small shrimps that the fishermen use for bait to do their fishing. Initially this caused some fishermen to see the sharks as a pest as they ate their bait and scared away the fish and some used to capture and kill them. But when tourists began visiting the site to see the whale sharks, the fishermen saw the opportunity to make some money off of the tourism and the hunting stopped.

Whale Shark

While the hunting has ceased, the feeding of the whale sharks has become a controversial topic. While they’re by no means kept captive by a net, the fact that they’re hand-fed is concerning to a lot of people as the sharks lose their natural migratory habits and become more reliable on humans for food. I also didn’t like how crowded it was–there must have been a hundred people or so out on the water at once. It was pretty noisy and some people were kicking and splashing around. The only real positive thing about seeing the whale sharks in Oslob is that you’re highly likely to see them. I met people who had been to Donsol and while it’s much less crowded there it’s hit and miss. Some people got lucky and had an amazing experience, others not so lucky. But apparently its more regulated and eco-friendly in Donsol as well, something I think the people in Oslob could learn from.