For the “beach vacation” portion of our travels, we decided to spend a week in El Nido, a remote destination on the island of Palawan in the Philippines. We made this decision the night before we left the states. We had stayed at Luke & Christie’s house that night and Luke was able to get on instant message with one of the Filipino employees on his team to get an inside scoop on whether El Nido survived the typhoon OK. Verdict was yes – go there. El Nido is widely considered the most beautiful and pristine place in the Philippines. It consists of 45 islands and inlets and its remoteness has helped preserve its beauty. Getting there requires a flight to the city of Puerto Princesa, followed by a 5+ hour private van ride (or 7+ hour bus ride) on a very windy road. Judging by the number of landslides and road damage we saw along the way, I can’t imagine trying to make the journey during rainy season.
A word of note about our experience flying domestically within the Philippines…first, they announce pre-boarding for families with small children. At this time, over half the plane boards (there are A LOT of children here). After pre-boarding, there aren’t many folks left & they announce that everyone else can board. Never before have I seen more people get on during pre-board than general boarding.
As we neared the end of our long van ride from the Puerto Princesa airport, we caught our first glimpses of the signature limestone rock formations and beautiful ocean bays of El Nido. We arrived in El Nido just in time for sunset.
We decided to stay at a hotel in town. The beach in town isn’t very nice, but it’s a central location, convenient to stores and restaurants, and a plethora of options for day trips in the area. The biggest downside to staying in town is that it is noisy. There is a constant stream of motorbike traffic, music at all hours of the night, crying babies, roosters crowing endlessly starting before the crack of dawn, etc. On top of all the street noise, we had the loudest gecko I’ve ever heard hiding out somewhere in our room. Noise aside, it was nice to be close to all the action and it provided a convenient launching point to all the activities we did each day.
In town, there are 20+ different tour stands that all sell the same basic tours at the same prices. We chose one at random that was near our hotel and luckily ended up with great guide. One day, we did “Tour A” which included 7 Commando Beach, Shimizu Island, Secret Lagoon, Small Lagoon, and Big Lagoon. At the first two stops we went snorkeling. We saw mostly small fish – of all different shapes and sizes and vibrant colors.
At our second stop – Shimizu Island, we were able to do more snorkeling. While we were snorkeling, a delicious lunch was prepared for us – fish, shrimp, calamari, pork, vegetables, and lots of fresh fruit.
In the afternoon, we visited the Secret Lagoon, Small Lagoon, and Big Lagoon, which all lie within Miniloc Island. This area is featured in the final scenes of the movie “Bourne Legacy” (filmed here in 2012). It has also been a filming site for episodes of the TV shows “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.” Needless to say, it’s the iconic picture of tropical paradise. We first went to Secret Lagoon, which is accessed by a short swim followed by entering an opening in the rock wall.
We next went to the Small Lagoon. The entrance is too shallow for boats, so we hopped off the boat and started swimming. Although named “Small Lagoon”, it didn’t seem so small with all the swimming we did to explore it. After the shallow entrance, most of the lagoon is too deep to touch bottom, so it made for a nice little swim workout.
Finally, we went to the Big Lagoon. Seeing the size of this one, we now understood why the other one is called Small Lagoon. Limestone cliffs tower along the sides of the Big Lagoon; inside the cliff walls lies the most pristine turquoise waters.
We were not allowed in the water of the Big Lagoon; our guide said there are too many dangerous creatures (shark, sea urchin, etc). Nonetheless, Jay just couldn’t resist dangling his feet into the pristine waters as our boat glided through.
We’ve been to a number of beautiful beach destinations in different parts of the world, but never have we been to a place with so many “hidden” or “secret” places. It’s pretty spectacular to be on a boat, heading to what just looks like big rock formations, then discover there is a beautiful beach or lagoon hidden inside.
On another day, we did “Tour C” which included Helicopter Island, Hidden Beach, Matinloc Island and Secret Beach. There was snorkeling at every stop. This tour was a bit more adventurous than the first one we did. The first adventure of the day was making our way to the Hidden Beach. The boat can only get so close, then you have to swim through rough, rocky seas to reach it. Large waves were thrashing us around, making it difficult to navigate through the shallow water without getting thrown into the rocks and coral below. A couple of days before, we met a guy who got pretty banged up on this swim, so I was a little nervous about it. Not wanting the nerves to set in, I told myself “don’t think, just do it” (the same mantra I’ve used when doing Tough Mudders with Jay). Well, I guess I took off pretty fast from the boat because Jay didn’t even see me and thought for sure I was still behind him until he reached the lagoon and saw I was already there. Thankfully, we both made it without injury. Once inside, we were rewarded to a calm paradise.
Just off the shore of the Hidden Beach, we saw a sea snake in the shallow water. We were told it’s from the same family as sea horses and not poisonous.
Next, we headed to Matinloc Island. As our boat pulled up to the island, we saw a very large monitor lizard on the beach. Unfortunately, it took off once it saw humans getting off the boat, so we didn’t get to see it up close.
Matinloc Island has a catholic shrine as well as a large home that was abandoned 20 years ago. We explored both. It was fascinating to think about how much effort went into building all of this on such a remote island.
We were able to do quite a bit of snorkeling at Matinloc Island. I have never seen so many blue starfish as we did at this site – they were everywhere!
After snorkeling, we enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by our tour guide AKA master chef.
After lunch, we got back onto the boat and headed further down Matinloc Island to make our way to the Secret Beach. After a short journey, the boat stopped in front of a steep rock wall. Our guide explained that the Secret Beach lies on the other side of the wall and to reach it, we must swim through a narrow crevice in the wall. We were able to catch glimpses of the crevice in between the large waves crashing into the wall. This looked far more dangerous than anything we had done so far that day. I wasn’t sure I was going to get off the boat and told Jay to go ahead. As I sat there and watched Jay go off, I started thinking about the fact that I would probably never be back here again – this was likely my one chance to see it. So, although I was scared, I put on my snorkel gear, got out of the boat and started swimming. When I got to the rock wall, our guide was there. He said it’s all about timing; you have to go through the crevice at just the right time or the waves will slam you into the rock wall. He said to wait and he would signal me when to go. Next thing I knew, he was yelling “NOW! GO NOW! FAST!” I took off swimming as fast as I could, and then, just as I was making my way through the wall, I got pulled back by a strong current. I could hear the guide yelling at me “KEEP GOING! KEEP GOING! SWIM!” The force of the current threw my body into the left side of the crevice wall. My left arm and left foot hit the rock – I pushed off with my left foot and swam the rest of the way through. Paranoid at getting swept back into the rock wall, I swam as fast as I could until I could no longer feel the tide behind me. Once I looked up, I saw Jay; he was surprised to me since he thought I was staying on the boat. I showed him the “souvenir” I got on my left arm from the rock wall and told him I also hit my foot pretty hard. As I was talking to him, a fish bit my leg. Obviously, things were not going my way. The Secret Beach was beautiful, but I could not get myself to relax enough to enjoy it. All I could think about was that I had to swim through that rock wall again to get back to the boat.
Thankfully, on the way out, things went much smoother and I didn’t get swept into the rocks. Jay captured our swim out with the GoPro. Check it out:
When we got back on the boat, my heart was still beating pretty fast from the adrenaline rush. I was proud of myself for doing it, but mostly I was just relieved to be back on the boat. Meanwhile, Jay was smiling ear to ear and talking about how great it was…how fear makes you feel alive.
Throughout the day, we were out in the open sea quite a bit getting from place to place. The seas were pretty rough but our guide assured us it was normal and no problem. He joked and referred to all the water splashing onto the boat as “free shower.”
After the Secret Beach, we did one one last snorkel stop. During which, it started to storm…I’m talking about a full on downpour with thunder and everything. Our guide had us all get back into the boat and we hurried out. The rain was coming down so hard that one of the guys on the boat put his snorkel gear on so he could see and breathe easier – that gave me a good laugh. It was a very wet ride back to El Nido. A dramatic finish to what was a very full day.