Kind, friendly and hospitable people, lovely turquoise-green waters, amazing islands, (mostly) great weather, good snorkelling and lots of adventure were the key ingredients of one of my all-time favourite trips to the Phillippines fifteen years ago.
I was a little wary of what lay ahead as I hit the streets of Manila on my first night. It didn’t take long for a local to chat to me as I walked along the promenade to Rizal Park, and I ended up spending the evening with him watching a sunset, seeing some local sights, riding the ridiculously cheap jeepneys (colourful indigenous public transport) and finally enjoying a few beers while watching a live band. Sometimes you’ve just got to go with the flow and see what happens.
The following morning I took an early flight to Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island in the west of the country. On arrival I instantly took a tricycle to the bus station ready to head up north and this was where I met a really nice Belgian couple who would become my travel companions for the rest of my trip.
After taking a cramped bus to Taytay, the Belgians and I decided to just negotiate a price with a driver to continue for an extra couple of hours to our intended destination of El Nido in north-west Palawan. On arrival the only available accommodation belonged to a man who looked put-out when we showed up offering him money to stay at his place. Still, it was only P300 (just over £3) for the night though probably the most basic of all the accommodation I’ve ever stayed in and that’s saying something!
I woke up the next morning to what sounded like Noahs Ark outside! In reality it was just a pig chained up behind my abode. Not surprisingly we changed places after that with me going to a hut with splendid views of the Bacuit Bay. It was fantastic weather on the snorkelling tour which took us on a boat tour around many islands with the main one being Matinloc Island featuring the beautiful Secret Beach which was actually not so secret at all as it was in the guidebooks. The sea was a lovely turquoise colour and was to be our first area for snorkelling.
After that, all the islands blended into one as we stopped off at many and did lots and lots of snorkelling, and inevitably I ended up burning my back despite applying sun lotion! At one of the later islands I was treated to some unbelievable Filipino hospitality on a big boat.
In the evening we had some local fish specialities, and after that myself and Nichola (an English girl on our tour) went out for a few drinks where we met a Filipino called Lester whose name alone was of great interest to me! We played pool and then went to an empty karaoke bar till about 2.30am.
It was a cloudy start to the following day which saw us take another tour around the islands and it even rained a little when we got to the crystal clear saltwaters of Big Lagoon on Miniloc Island. There was also a Small Lagoon which was only accessible by swimming through a small hole which was pretty cool.
There was another lagoon to come in the form of Secret Lagoon which was accessed by climbing through a hole in the rock. I saw a nice sunset at night near my lodgings and had drinks at a beach bar with a load of people from the two tours and, after a spot of dinner, we attended a fiesta which was taking place on the street right outside my place and this festival of dance, music and drinking carried on into the early hours. Having had a big one the night before I lasted until about 1 am before hitting the sack.
Sad to say it for an area so beautiful but my interest in the islands of El Nido and its snorkelling had started to wane and I fancied seeing a new part of Palawan so at 7 am I joined the Belgians and Nichola on a boat from El Nido down to Sabang which was more preferable than taking the bus or a jeepney. However, when we encountered heavy rainfall mid-journey I did have some momentary regrets!!
On arrival in Sabang, we checked into some lovely designer cottages before taking a quick mangrove tour where we also suffered another sizable downpour. After that we took a boat to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park which was the reason for sailing down to this part of the country. It was actually something I had wanted to do but didn’t think it would happen as I thought I would spend three whole days in El Nido.
The Subterranean River is the worlds longest navigable river of which tourists can travel along a quarter of its 8km length seeing and listening to loads of bats flying around the cave. It was really nice and is what Lonely Planet refers to as being like you’re in the Jules Verne novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth”.
Along the way our guide pointed the resemblance between the many, many rock formations and Holy figures, women, vegetables and so on. Thanks to our driver giving them some bait, wild monkeys suddenly appeared on cue when we had finished the river cruise. There was also a spotting of an alligator. Not a bad afternoons work given our time restrictions.
Night-time brought about yet another fine example of local hospitality when a couple of us were invited to sing karaoke and drink beer in one of their homes with their family and a few other hangers on. Unfortunately my throat was in pain from the previous two nights drinking and furthermore the choice of songs was fairly poor as the Filipinos seem obsessed with the kind of love songs that I despise. All in all though it was a good night.
After only a few hours sleep, the Belgians, Nichola and myself took an adventurous three hour jeepney ride (about one pound sixty) along the bumpy roads back to Puerto Princesa which is the main city on the island of Palawan. This ride was an experience in itself as the journey should only is just two hours but it takes 50% longer due to constantly stopping for locals to jump on and off or to load and unload all number of materials such as timber or fish!
Following a fairly sudden parting of ways with my travel companions, I was left to my own devices once again. I had the whole afternoon to see what I could of Palawan’s capital so hired a tricycle and my driver first took me 16 kilometres south to the world’s largest free penal colony in Iwahig. It was a nice area but most of the prisoners were on lunch though I did get to meet one who rushed over to sell a t-shirt to me when I got out to take a photo.
We also took a very bumpy road to a beautiful river which was full of bathers enjoying the crystal clear water but stupidly I had forgotten to pack my swimming shorts despite putting my towel in. After that we stopped off at Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Centre in Irawan where I got to hold a baby Crocodile.
Our little tour ended with a quick visit to Honda Bay which was nothing too special having seen the beauty of El Nido. I did get to see a fairly big group of workers going about their fishing business which was quite interesting and that was more-or-less the end of my holiday.
Overall, it was a great trip where I managed to do and experience more than I could probably have hoped for amid a cast of hundreds of happy and smiling locals in such a beautiful part of the Philippines. I would return to the country less than a year later!
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