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The Grand Finale of my Philippines Trip: El Nido (Part I)

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El Nido was one of the two places I was looking forward to the most on my Philippines trip (the other one was Boracay), as everyone who had been there was raving about the unspoiled beauty of the deserted islands off the coast of Palawan, the island El Nido is located on.El Nido PalawanAs I was holding on for my dear life in the van that took me up to El Nido from Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s main airport, I was praying that it would live up to my high expectations, but since Palawan had recently been declared the most beautiful island in the world, I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t disappoint.el nido beach viewWhen I booked my flight to Puerto Princesa, I wasn’t aware that it would take another 5-6 hours to get to El Nido from the airport, which would make this a 16-hour travel day starting in Dumaguete 6am in the morning and reaching El Nido 9pm at night. The hours in the van were some of the most horrible driving I’ve experienced so far, even beating the van driver from Laos to Chiang Mai who fell asleep halfway through, forcing one of us passengers to take over the wheel.bacuit archipelago shell philippinesThis driver surely saw the narrow winding mountain roads of Palawan as his own personal race track, and several times when he accelerated before a sharp turn I was convinced we’d shoot over the guardrail into the woods.el nido las cabanas beachAgainst all odds we made it to el Nido alive, and I realized mistake #2: not booking a hostel in advance. My driver took me to a number of places, all of which were full, and just when I was about to give up hope and thought I would have to spend the night on the beach, I lucked out and got the last single room in a hostel.el nido with boatsWhen I went to explore the town the next morning, I wasn’t all too impressed, to be honest. The beach seemed dirty, and while others might find the ramshackle buildings charming, I just found them.. ugly.el nido kayakBut nobody comes to El Nido for the town. People come here for the Bacuit Archipelago. The archipelago is made of 45 islets, most of them nothing more than limestone karst cliff outcrops surrounded by crystal clear water, some of them boasting secret beaches or hidden lagoons. What all of them have in common is that they offer some of the best snorkeling in the country.bacuit archipelago island hopping tourThe best way to see as many of them as possible? Go on an island hopping tour. There are four different tours which can be booked just about anywhere in town, creatively titled Tour A, B, C and D. The tours are all pretty similar: the boats leave El Nido around 9am and get back around 5pm, include a lunch and 4 to 5 snorkeling stops.bacuit archipelago boatWhen I researched the various tours to decide which ones to go on, I had found that most people were recommending A and C, so those were the ones I went on (I would have loved to hop on all four tours, but El Nido is not the cheapest place to hang around in, and it’s probably good that there is no ATM in town, forcing you to leave when you run out of money).bacuit archipelago boatsI decided to start with tour A and on a rather cloudy morning I hopped on a little Filipino fishing boat to cruise around the islands.seven comandments beach philippinesOur first stop was the 7 Commandment beach, a small sandy beach, fringed by palm trees. The snorkeling area was small and I almost didn’t go in the water because it was still overcast and I thought I might even be cold. But I am so glad I eventually did go in! There were already more fish in this little spot than I had seen in all four of my snorkeling stops in Apo Island. It was like a beautiful underwater plant garden, and I would have been satisfied staying here all day, laying out on the gorgeous beach and going for an occasional snorkeling dip, but this was only stop 1 of 5.Bacuit Archipelago underwaterThe second stop was already our lunch stop, and we spent well over an hour on a tiny strip of sand beach, and the crew was preparing lunch (lots of fresh fish, rice and fruit) while we were sunbathing and snorkeling. The snorkeling area was much bigger than on the first beach, and I loved the marine life here. You could snorkel all the way out to a massive limestone rock that stuck out of the ocean if you were a good swimmer and see plenty of fish everywhere around you.Bacuit Archipelago underwater PhilippinesAfter lunch (very filling if you’re not a vegetarian; leaving you starving if you’re a vegetarian), we moved on to our third stop, a hidden lagoon that we had to swim into, entering via a small hole in the rock. Getting there was a bit difficult because it was extremely rocky – we were all wearing our flip flops or water shoes and were still struggling. Here I could see why Alex Garland’s The Beach was apparently inspired by his time in the Philippines (even though the book is set in Thailand).bacuit archipelago lagoonHe was probably trying to keep the real beach a secret, but in this case, when five boats get there at the same time and fifty people try to make their way in there at once, it is a bit underwhelming. Only at the end, when everybody else had left and the lagoon was almost empty, I came to appreciate the stunning beauty of it with the towering limestone rocks towering high above me.bacuit archipelagoNext was an absolutely stunning stop: First we cruised in a big circle through the Big Lagoon, only open to the ocean on one side, and surrounded by massive limestone rocks on all sides. After that, we stopped outside the lagoon to snorkel in what is best described as a real-life aquarium. The coral, the plants, the fish – so so many fish – it truly felt as if someone had dropped me into an aquarium. I could’ve stayed there forever.Bacuit Archipelago underwater snorkelingThis was only my first island hopping trip in El Nido, and it didn’t disappoint. I was already looking forward to my next one!

For more impressions from Palawan and practical information on how to get to El Nido, where to stay, what to do and other things you should know before you go, check out Part II of this post: The grand finale of my Philippines trip: El Nido (Part II)bacuit archipelago lagoonbacuit archipelago beachbacuit archipelago philippines

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El Nido a Philippines Highlight

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Polaroid of the week: Sunset in Koh Chang, Thailand

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polaroid of the week thailand koh chang sunsetI had originally planned to travel straight from Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Bangkok, but decided on a whim to break up the trip and spend a few days in Koh Chang, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand just north of the border with Cambodia (there are actually two Koh Changs in Thailand, the other one located in the Andaman Sea, close to the border with Myanmar). Not only would I get to check out another Thai island, but I’d also squeeze in a few more beach days before returning to loud and congested Bangkok.

I didn’t have any expectations for Koh Chang, and to be honest, didn’t know all too much about the island, so I was curious to see how Koh Chang compared to the islands in the Andaman Sea and the other islands I’d visited in the Gulf (Koh Tao and Koh Phangan). And I didn’t regret my decision to make the detour to Koh Chang – on the contrary, it was love at first sight! From the moment I stepped off the ferry just in time to see the first of several breathtaking sunsets to the early morning I waved goodbye to Koh Chang as the car ferry moved further and further away from the shore, I was walking on sunshine (quite literally).

I didn’t get to see as much of the island as I would’ve liked, but the beaches I saw made me long for more – I will definitely be back. I stayed in Lonely Beach in the south west of Koh Chang, a beach whose lonely days are long gone, but nonetheless I enjoyed the chilled vibe there as it was never crowded or busy. Apparently, Lonely Beach is the party central of the island. However, I didn’t notice any parties while I was there – maybe my bungalow was too far away from it all. I didn’t come to Koh Chang to party anyway, but to soak up some sun and dig my toes into the sand, knowing that this would be one of the last few islands I’d visit on my Asia stint, as my time here is (already!) coming to an end this month.

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