I first visited El Nido three years ago upon the invitation of a friend whom I dated very briefly. I must have been living in a bubble all my life for I never knew how relationships with visitors worked. Since then, I treasured a hate/hate relationship with this destination popular amongst backpackers.
And so excited to visit a place that I only knew about from travel magazines, I booked tickets to the nearest major airport, not knowing full well about the harrowing land transfer between Puerto Princesa and this tiny town sitting on the edge of nowhere: six hours of commute on some of the roughest roads I knew. If you asked me now, I would pay anything to avoid spending a total of twelve hours that I could never get back on a backbreaking road trip.
By the time we reached El Nido town in the middle of the night looking for someplace to sleep, everyone was in a foul mood. I think that our group was taken advantage of by the booking agent who found a non-air conditioned van for us without informing us about the miles of rugged and dusty road ahead. We were lucky to find a place that was still open and accepted guests who didn’t have pre-booking.
Two days of roughing it on small boats that took us on “island hopping” followed. Island hopping tours are the backbone of El Nido tourism, and most tour operators make money from the island hopping packages that go for a few hours or overnight any of the major islands that make up El Nido. It has its charms and the islands themselves were nothing short of amazing if you are not the sort whose idea of a great time is wading in calm waters or getting a tan somewhere by the shores of Boracay, some fancy private resort, or a party island.
Let me tell you what I learned then and what I still know now: El Nido is rough. You have to be brave to cross patches of West Philippine Sea and channels between islands as your tiny boat is tossed around large wave after large wave. Pray that the outrigger you were sailing in stays intact or you might as well call it a life, then go. (Please, banca owners, make sure your boats are in tip-top shaping before taking in guests. It’s not imaginary if everyone looks towards the same direction whenever your outriggers are making cracking sound as if your vessels were begging to disintegrate in the middle of the sea.)
Always wear aqua shoes so you can walk on dead corals and shells that are always present at every cove, lagoon, or beach. Your buns of steel are no match to unpadded boat seats where you have to sit for hours. This makes me wonder how padded banca seats are still not a thing. Just asking. Those life vests are heaven-sent if your backside starts to go sore. On the other hand, those vests are meant to be worn, not seated on.
You would be lucky to find a comfort room or lavatory on the islands. And if you ever got lucky to find one, there was no assurance that it was clean or had proper running water. Brush up on your swimming skills, because not all stops are done on shallow waters.
If you are not a strong swimmer, ask your tour guide for a life vest. It doesn’t look cool, but at least you will live for another day. If you want a fuss-free El Nido experience, go fancy and spend a month’s paycheck to stay at the private resorts on the islands. Otherwise, you have to be open to the idea that it’s a popular destination mostly for backpackers, and not without a good reason.
The night scene was not promising either if you do not know where to go. Back then, if we had only walked a couple of blocks further, or made the right turn, maybe we would have discovered that there was a thriving party and music scene amongst restaurants and pubs fronting the beach.
It is definitely not Boracay or any of those fancy beach destinations around the globe, so nightlife was rather limited. It is still limited as of this writing, but at least there are a number of places to enjoy good music or a couple of drinks, such as the famous Pukka bar. It was overcrowded when I got there around midnight in my last visit; rhum Coke was okay (hindi pa uso ang sliced lemon). Amoy backpacker din :) Three years ago, because we stayed on the town’s outskirts, we hardly knew of any decent restaurant apart from one that took all of 45 minutes to serve anything. At least now, there are some places that serve basic fare based on which country their owners come from or whichever place their chefs took inspiration. On the other hand, one cannot help but have the impression that whatever was served had that ersatz quality to it.
Alcohol is very expensive. I thought of getting a bottle of red from some of the liquor stores found around town, but had to change my mind when I realised just how much resellers had to jack up prices: roughly double that of liquors sold in Manila. That’s one disadvantage of being in a remote town, I suppose–you need to cover your investment around transportation, time, and effort in bringing in some basic necessities just to break even.
Customer service left much to be desired at many establishments back then. I thought the staff were either too shy, too tired, or just didn’t care. We were so clueless about the town, we ended up at the most depressing karaoke bar I had ever seen in my life. It was so depressing, not even the few drunk locals at the place were in the mood to sing and that was saying a lot because there was no one on this planet that could possibly out-karaoke Filipinos. The Japanese invented it, but we took karaoke singing to a whole new phenomenon.
Power was out at least six hours a day, and it only switched back on mid-afternoon. At least nowadays, six-hour blackouts are replaced by random short brownouts or none at all. There was no ATM either, so I had to watch my spending closely. Towards the end of the trip, I couldn’t be happier to leave El Nido.
Three years ago, I swore to never visit El Nido again. There had been places that I enjoyed so much that I didn’t mind visiting them many times over. This little pocket of Palawan, Puerto Princesa itself, left me despairing to no end with its remoteness, the never-ending bumpy roads, the tendency of a few locals to take advantage of tourists, and my company’s foul disposition.
Since then, a few things seems to have changed. It doesn’t look too remote at all on my second visit, I could fly in with just my wallet and mobile in tow. I thought there would’t be anywhere to buy decent clothes or supplies, so I ended up packing twice of everything for the next trip. Two of everything and a little fear in my heart that it would be just as bad an experience as three years ago.