Unlike Uruguay, I felt definitely is not long enough. For starters, considering there are 7100+ islands in the Philippines, you could be there a lifetime and not really see it all. So we did what we could in seven days (well eight, but we spent a whole day travelling so I’m not going to count it).
If you’ve read my blog post about California then you’ll know about our major stresses leaving L.A.X. Well, we did finally make it to South East Asia after a 14 hour flight, fat swollen ankles and all. Months before, when we were in Peru, we had booked a connecting flight to Palawan after a couple of tip-offs that El Nido was worth a visit. From what I recall it cost about £30. Our international flight landed at 5.30am, and our internal flight was to leave at 5.45pm so we had a good 12 hours to kill in Manila, the capital of The Philippines. The general consensus on Manila is steer clear: many stories of friend’s being mugged, next-level bad traffic and generally lacking in must-see culture. When the people of Manila are telling you not to bother looking around, you take their word for it. Unluckily for us, Manila has also been voted one of the world’s worst airports and certainly not somewhere you want a long stopover. We’d used up our one free shuttle ride between terminals in order to check-out our drab and lifeless Air Asia based terminal four, so we couldn’t even go visit terminal three where there were more shops and lounges for us to spend money our in. Go figure. Super miffed and stupidly hot, we decided to leave the dumbass airport and get a taxi to the Asia Shopping Mall not too far away – well geographically, you have to take the traffic into account. It happens to be the 13th biggest mall in the world – probably built with all the weary and pissed off travellers like us in mind. The taxi there quoted us 300 PHP but mistakenly left his metre on so kicked himself when we pointed out the metre had only reached 138 PHP. Rule #1 of travelling: expect every taxi driver to try to mug you off.
After some beauty salon essentials we decided a trip to the cinema was a great way to kill time. Choices were limited and we finally opted for ‘London has fallen’ – the sequel to ‘Olympus has fallen’ – with tickets costing 350 PHP. Gerard Butler? yes please. Slightly pining for home after our trip to America it made total sense to watch a film predominantly about our home city being blown to pieces by terrorists. Anyway if you haven’t seen it, don’t. It’s a piece of racist propaganda intended to scaremonger Americans and demonise the Middle East. A certain quote made me lose a fair amount of respect for the beautiful Gerard Butler, and that’s saying something. What none of us had noticed was we’d chosen to watch the film in 4D… We were very much taken by surprise when our seats starting leaning forwards and air was sprayed in our faces. Some parts were effective like bullet shots in the back, but a vibration every time someone closes a door or puts down their tea cup is quite off putting. Luckily the ridiculousness of it all had us in constant hysterics which made the terrible film a little less terrible.
We headed back to the airport and boarded our flight which arrived in Puerto Princesa around 7pm. We arranged a minibus bus transfer to El Nido just outside the airport which cost around 500 PHP each and arrived at around 2.15am. Technically four days after leaving the U.S., we finally reached our destination in the Philippines – another reason you need more than a week to see multiple places here. At this point we were still getting our tired heads around the major time difference and losing the 2nd May in the sky; we left California at 11.30pm on the 1st May and after a 14 hour flight, arrived in Manila at 5.30am on the 3rd May. Mind-boggling maths. These by the way, are the times when travelling is not glamorous, and to be honest not much fun. The days when you haven’t showered, changed your pants or managed to brush your teeth in an upsettingly long time. When you’re piled in an un-airconditioned minivan for eight hours with someone else’s sweaty leg pressed up against yours. When you’re beyond shattered but there’s nowhere horizontal to lay your head until you’ve successfully traipsed around at 3am in an unknown location to find someone who can offer a bed at a reasonable price. Yes, those are the bits we omit from Instagram, but trust me, they do exist.
We were joined on our 3am hostel hunt by a German boy and an English girl called Freya who were also on our cramped little minivan to El Nido. We all managed to find somewhere separate to kip for a few hours, and arranged to meet up with Freya the next day. Before we met up, she thankfully found us a cute little four bed room in a guesthouse. We liked Freya so much that we stayed together for the rest of our time in the Philippines! The charming little two storey wooden building had spacious rooms and was run by the sweetest Filipino family. At 1800 PHP a night for four it was also one of the more reasonably priced rooms. The rest of the day was spent perambulating up and down the streets and acquainting ourselves with El Nido. There are four basic tour packages available from vendors on practically every street for the same price. After recommendations from other travellers, we booked ourselves onto Tour A and C, for a total cost of 2200 PHP. I can’t comment on tour B and D, but imagine they’re all much of a muchness. The cost included the 200 PHP Eco-Tourism Development Fee that everyone visiting El Nido is required to pay. It is a one-off payment valid for 10 days and is taken by your accommodation or tour company, so keep hold of your confirmation once you’ve paid.
We arrived at the beach at 9am for tour A, which included Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Shimizu Island, Secret Lagoon and 7th Commando. Basically lots of blue water, snorkelling and beaches, which is why I say there’s probably not a whole load of difference in the tours. Supposedly it’s every travellers dream to ‘take the path less travelled’ and El Nido is suppose to have that remote, untouched feel. I call bullsh*t. Let’s be real, basically no place on earth is untouched, and that certainly includes El Nido. Hordes of tourists circle the archipelago on boats everyday. We had to queue for 10 minutes to enter the ‘secret’ lagoon whilst the 30+ tourists piled out of the little hole in the rock. And what we found was distinctly underwhelming. Still, we enjoyed the day, especially the snorkelling and the incredible spread for lunch. Bear in mind that on your return you’ll probably have to wade through waist high water to reach the shore; take a dry bag if you can, or avoid taking valuables. The crew will offer to take your bag and get it safely to shore, although be prepared that they’ll probably jokingly pretend to drop it first.
Either everything was more expensive than we thought or we had miscalculated the money we would need (or both) which resulted in our cash supply dwindling fast. We tried the ATMs (a new feature in the town), but they were all out of cash. It was a Wednesday and the ATM’s weren’t being refilled until Saturday. Luckily we got by by scrimping, promising the guesthouse we would pay them at some point and only eating in establishments where you could pay on card. If you’re heading to El Nido, be more sensible than us and take plenty of cash! But if you are in a pickle, then these are your three options for getting cash:
- First port of call, check the ATM’s. At present there are only two ATM’s in the town and they are in the entrance to the Municipal building. From what we gathered they are only refilled on Saturday mornings. We arrived around 9am and were able to withdraw cash but there was already a queue of about 10 people behind us at that time!
- Cashback at the petrol station on the waters edge. If you pay them by card + 6% they will give you the cash, but they also sell out fast. They open every day at 10am and have a limited kitty so it’s almost guaranteed to be gone by the afternoon. Not the most helpful when you have a tour starting at 9am, but it’s a viable option and seemingly the only place in town offering this immediate service.
- Send yourself funds online through an international money transfer service and pick the cash up at Mlhuillier, Cebuana Lhuillier or Palawan Pawnshop. For more info on this option visit http://www.enjoyelnido.com and click ‘Getting Money’.
The next day was spent enjoying tour C, which included Helicopter Island, Hidden Beach, Star Beach and Secret Beach. We also had some time left over so made a stop at Paradise Beach. The Philippines had some of the saltiest water I’ve ever swam in which, despite being agony for my eczema, was very helpful for flotation purposes during snorkelling. It turns out Disney weren’t wrong and clownfish are very easy to catch. I was snorkelling alongside one of the boat crewmen when I noticed he was keeping a little Nemo hostage in his mask. We found and held a dead jellyfish, which unsurprisingly felt like hardened jelly. Unfortunately we didn’t see any turtles.
Once back on shore we took advantage of the 241 cocktails between 4pm and 6pm and ate an amazing dinner at Mezzanine El Nido, overlooking the beach as the sun set. It’s a really nice space and they conveniently take card, but there is a 4.5% surcharge which they forget to tell you about. We finally got a lie in after leaving a note for our noisy neighbours, which we followed by breakfast at the Art Boutique Cafe. It also takes card, has an extensive menu and an information desk on the top floor if you need help booking flights, boats etc. We paid 50 PHP for a five minute tricycle to the bus station and 500 PHP for an air conditioned minibus back to Puerto Princesa, which we organised through our guesthouse.
From Puerto Princesa we had hoped to get a 24 hour boat across to Boracay which is close to where we would be flying on to Singapore. Due to limited time, no concrete answers from locals and another friggin’ Election Day getting in the way we decided a flight was a more sensible route. We stayed at the Airport Side Inn for 1500 PHP a night for four of us, with breakfast included. Although that was nothing to get excited about; I’m pretty sure I ate a dodgy egg that left me feeling funky for the rest of the day. As we were flying, we gained one extra day, so Freya, Andrea and I decided to spend that day visiting one of the 7 New Natural Wonders of the World: The Underground River.
We had heard from a couple of people that the tour consisted of a lot of waiting around, but that the 45 minute trip through the cave was well worth it. Which although I found myself irked and impatient at first, I do generally agree with. Staring out the window of our minibus was like watching a real life scene from Avatar. It wasn’t the most comfortable drive, but it dawned on me that I’m probably going to spend a lot of my time here trying to fit my overly long legs into very mini minivans. Our first stop was a canopy company where they tried to sell us an additional activity for an additional cost. Those that weren’t interested had to wait. Luckily we drove onto the port while they got on with it, where we located a place to have a cheap massage on the beach. For the equivalent of £2 we each got a 30 minute head and shoulder massage. I guess it’s to do with pressure points, but you can then imagine my surprise when I find my elbow essentially being finger f**ked. Still, it was so good and the perfect unwind after a morning of boredom. After an absolutely glorious beach-side lunch we took the short boat ride to the mouth of the river where we waited another 15 minutes for our group to be called. Luckily the heavy rained held off until we had got on the boat!
I never thought I could think bats were cute, especially when there are literally hundreds of them snoozing above you and swooping down just a foot from your head. But they are, especially the baby ones. The underground river is a very important ecological site, home to eight species of bat amongst other animals and plant life. If you’re into geology and rock formations then the underground is literally a chamber of wonders; it’s like cloud-watching but with rocks. At some points the height reaches 65 metres – the sort of place that simply can’t be photographed by an amateur and has to be seen to be believed.
Our flight to Iloilo left the next day at 10.45am and arrived at 12.30pm. It’s worth noting that all the airports we used in The Philippines charged a 200 PHP terminal fee for domestic flights and 700 PHP for international flights. From Iloilo we took a bus directly to Caticlan for 500 PHP each, which took about 5 hours. I believe the buses from the local station cost around 380 PHP, but you then need to factor in the additional cost and time to reach the bus station to take the local bus – this was definitely a pay a bit more to make life easier kind of moment. To reach Boracay you have to take a boat from Caticlan; the boat itself costs 25 PHP but you have to pay a 75 PHP terminal fee and a 100 PHP environmental fee, which from what we heard from the locals doesn’t get spent as it its supposedly intended. We then took a tuk-tuk to Jeepney Hostel costing 50 PHP each. Boracay is split into three ‘stations’, with station two being the most central and generally the party station. White Beach spans the length of it and takes quite some time to get from one end to the other! It’s very built up and westernised, but the beach itself is absolutely beautiful. Traditional Filipino food and street food is fairly difficult to come by in Boracay, but you are definitely spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat. Money and time constraints meant we didn’t really sample any of these nice restaurants except Sunny Side Up Cafe which is worth a mention. We had a fantastic breakfast there including officially the best pancakes I have ever eaten. And we had just arrived from America, so there you go! Honestly, if you go to Boracay, make sure you stop by for a pancake or two.
Love, Lottie xx