El Nido Palawan Travel Writing
Cebu Pacific’s hostesses greet us with the genuine lipsticked smile of a mid-range island-based airline. A few minutes into the flight, one of them announces a game, and the Filipino families start jumping up and down, shouting and rolling around with laughter and excitement.
“For today’s game, the winner will be whoever can… present the most bills worth 20 pesos!”
At that, and during the next fifteen seconds, wild commotion seizes the plane, mamas digging into their purses and waving wads of bills. A clear winner quickly emerges: a woman waves her hands, incapable of repressing her hilarity, boasting two thick bricks of twenties produced out of a magic purse.
Coco and I watch amazed, dazed by the spectacle of boisterous families set against the backdrop of idyllic isles sprawled on the seafloor: we’re fresh off the night bus from Inferno-Baguio, caught a few extra hours of meager sleep on the couches of Manila airport.
We’re quickly coaxed upon arrival to book a seat on a tourist mini-van which will shuttle us directly to El Nido. The price difference with the public bus is marginal, and tiredness seals the deal.
Off we are to paradise: six hours in a mini-van on a bumpy road (currently being re-constructed into a super-highway to accommodate the future flux of tourists, north Palawan is home to a promotional boom).
Chat up some tourists hoping to gather some information on a place to stay, then wane off sleepily. Barn animals, coconut trees, low-lying grass fly by…
Despite our nightmare stay in Baguio, we’re giving the shoe to reservations. From what we’ve gathered, El Nido is divided into two sections: the actual town, rife with infrastructure, and the nearby beaches of Corong-Corong, soon-to-be rife with infrastructure.
Accommodation seems to be, logically enough, cheaper in the latter. But it could also be lacking in comfort and / or availability. I’m also under the impression, based on sprucely pieced bits of information, that the sunset might be more spectacular from the vantage of Corong-Corong: worse, that it could go unseen from the critically acclaimed beaches of El Nido (the region inspired a bestseller which was turned into a motion picture).
I’ve promised Coco some well-deserved rest. I’ve promised myself that too. I imagine postcard scenes, romance, intimate life-building moments. Sunset is key.
So I study the map of the coast thoughtfully, to no avail.
After six torrid hours, the van first pulls off the road at Corong-Corong. El Nido is but a few miles down the road.
“What should we do?”
We turn leftwards, and walk up the road in the opposite direction of town.
And right I am.
After a few minutes we’re introduced to a beach cottage, a few paces from the ocean, clean and comfortable.
“This will do for the night?” asks the woman.
This will do for the night. We accept and sit down. Coco looks relieved. But I’m eager to offer her something better.
In fact, as we stroll onto the beach to gaze at the indescribably vivid sunset – visible from Corong-Corong and less so from El Nido! – I sense some disappointment in her. She looks disappointedly at the murky waters, a far cry from the postcards. I try reassure her it’s only because of the ‘poor’ lighting. To no avail. She’d greatly anticipated coming here, and had pushed for it. We’ve been through a lot, and this was supposed to be our tranquil, idyllic retreat.
The rest of the evening helps to wash away some of the toils of past days, and forget the rudiments of backpack travel. Eager to grab dinner and see El Nido itself, we catch a dollar-ride into town.
And what a reward awaits!
O the joy of discovering, as we emerge onto the fine sands of the beach cradled by the warm wind of the night, a soothing beachfront lined with candlelit tables at rest, peacefully swaying to the rhythms of spirited but not overwhelming song.
We’re not alone obviously, many have been lured by the same promise, but Coco and I quickly relax into the surroundings, into each other’s eyes, as to say: “It was all worth it!”
The next morning I set off on the beach, further yet up the road away from El Nido, probing various lodge owners for price information. I’m about to give up when, at the very end of the beach, I come upon a two-storied house under construction.
Maria, the owner, just happens to be there. Her warm, maternal smile quickly wins me over. She’s eager to show the second floor, where two rooms have fortunately just been completed – and are vacant. A bed, mosquito net and clean sheets. Floor and walls made of weaves of varnished lianas and wood. I’m seduced by the comfortable, minimal atmosphere.
But the real prize is the room’s window, which opens wide and straight onto the turquoise sea, and a comfortable balcony, complete with table and chairs. Maria’s happy to make some unexpected extra income while her lodge is still in construction, as for I, save for camping on the beach, can’t think of a better bargain. A house to ourselves overlooking the clear blue waters.
“We’ll come by this afternoon.”
For a week we walk on a sunset beach, each more beautiful by the day. Wade through the translucent waters. Sit on the deck, reading. I’m busy writing a short story about the Koreas.
Our meals consist of fish, which we generally purchase from a nearby lodge. The fish gets gradually smaller every time.
Occasionally we ride into El Nido in the evening, to enjoy a candlelit dinner. The magic is there, but fading. The cocktails more watery. The surprise roasted bananas given at the end of the meal aren’t a surprise anymore. Sad how ephemeral the pleasure of idyll once first worn, which makes you wonder, which of its novelty or actual meaningfulness was the most seizing – then again, would it even be, if not for its transience?
We’ve been traveling for more than two months now, and this is the first of real rest we get.
Time slows to the ring of a drop of inexistent rain amidst a thunderstorm.
The routine is broken only once: we salvage a boat ride with two Aussie girls to the nearby sites: Azure Lagoons, snorkeling with multitudinous fish…
The boat stops by in Matinloc… A curious state-of-the-art mansion, home to a Christian Parish or something along those lines, until the island was suddenly and just as mysteriously abandoned for some ghostly reason… No sane promoter has ever attempted to return, and the mansion is left to be slowly eaten by the sea salt, intact. There’s no Wikipedia entry devoted to Matinloc. The verses are said to be hidden in the shape of rocks.
Our peace days are troubled by unrest of my own making. To start, a peculiar, linear and painless rash has spawned upon the back of my right leg, from my calf to my thigh.
For some reason this skin breakout reminds me of the Sagada witch, who cursed me as she brushed by. I also have reason (or rather, lack of) to wonder whether this may be the product of a spider bite.
The reason being that I’ve been watchful ever since we left the first cottage, after some shortcomings with the skeevy manager who initially refused to give me back my deposit. It ended with his asking “You’re staying at Maria’s?” and me vaguely avoiding an answer.
One day, shortly after, Maria shows up red-faced: she demands the money to be remitted immediately. I oblige but am surprised to see her habitually jovial tone replaced by shortness, one might almost say anger.
For some reason I can’t help but imagine this is related to the previous creep – on such a small strip of beach, they’re all bound to know each other. I even grow worried that now that we’ve paid Maria, the path is clear for the bandit to act. By sending us an army of poisonous spiders perhaps.
Coco is entirely unimpressed by my fathoming. In the meantime, she’s read a couple of books. Her tan looks revitalized, her manners are soothed. We sip at a beer and watch the sun lower slowly, slowly till it reaches the horizon and turns the skies into a layered cake of orange, velvet and blue.
We enjoy the last of our stay in El Nido, and leave regretfully behind this isle of idyll, and its eerie mix of paradise and fatal imprisonment, not unlike the atmosphere of the book it inspired, The Beach.