El Nido: the name means “The Nest” in Spanish, and comes from the previously-dominant economy of this little town – the collecting of swallow’s nests. It is actually the swallow saliva that is so highly prized for the main ingredient in that species-destroying delicacy, bird’s nest soup, but “bird spit soup” sounds like a harder sell.
Tourism has long since overtaken bird spit in this town, but both industries rely on the same resource: towering limestone cliffs. The cliffs hem the town on one side (and are full of the caves from where the swallow nests are taken), and crumble away into Bacuit Bay to form a spectacular archipelago of karst islands. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world – and that’s without even diving into the gin-clear, coral-filled water – but, in truth, we had serious reservations about coming here. Several good friends had been to El Nido before us: Martin and Blair almost 20 years ago; and Michel and Christine 2 years ago. For Martin it was such a peak experience that he said he would actually kill us if we were on Palawan and didn’t go; Michel qualified his enthusiasm because of the tourist-saturation of Nido, and much prefered Port Barton for its authenticity. Having followed Michel and Christine’s advice and found a perfect little world in Port Barton, (see the last blog) the question was whether to leave it for the big bad unknown of El Nido.
While we were staying on Albaguen Is. outside Port Barton at Michael Damaso’s fabulous little resort, an interesting route to El Nido presented itself. Instead of backtracking to Port Barton and the hideous road we had come in on, we could (in theory) cut 3 hours off the trip by taking a barca to the small town of San Vicente, and continue by bus from there. We decided we owed it to Martin, and packed up, with many deep sighs. The first 2 stages went according to plan: Michael’s boat took us as close as the low tide would allow to the Vicente jetty, and we waded in the final 20 meters, and a mini-bus dropped us at “junction”, where a Nido bus was supposed to pass at 9 a.m. 2.5 hours later, in the middle of a downpour, the bus finally showed up – packed. Along with the 6 others waiting there we gamely piled in: in rural Asia there is no such thing as too full. Katheryn took our hand luggage and was able to get some ways down the aisle. I was the last one on, and carrying our 2 packs I was stuck in the door with the conductor. With one arm I had to hold the packs, and with the other myself, from falling out the open door. As the bus charged and banked into the mountain curves, it was like doing one-arm push-ups, and I resorted to (literally) using my head to brace on the door frame. Katheryn had her knees up around her ears crouched on a rice sack when I had a chance to glance back. She gave me an encouraging thumbs up. Just before the “unbearable” point I had the conductor climb onto the side of the careening bus, in the pouring rain, and I leaned out with one hand and passed the packs to him, and he with one hand grabbed them and threw them on the roof.
Half of whether you like a place depends on the the place you stay, and El Nido didn’t start off brightly. But we put in the effort and ended up, in my opinion, with the best deal in town: the Hotel View Deck. The owner, Rudi, is building his guest house on a property overlooking the the town and the bay, right across from the huge cliff where the swallow spit is harvested. I say “is building” because although our cute suite was complete, he was still pouring concrete in a lower one which – his laugh is a little anxious – he has pre-booked for the high season starting in just 3 weeks.
The thing to do – and we almost never do “the thing to do” – in El Nido is take a boat tour. The choices, A, B or C, go to different spots around the bay and the islands. After our rainy travel day, the morning dawns clear and sunny, and because we like Rudi we let him sign us up for tour A. It is the cheapest tour – about $25 each including lunch – and the only one to go to Martin’s must-see place: the small lagoon on Miniloc Is. I am a self-righteous, pretentious snob when it comes to taking tours, and my mood isn’t improved when our promised boat load of “6 or 8” becomes 10, and then 12. Then a large middle-aged German with his delicate teenage rent-a-girl gets on. And then another Old Fart/young Filipina couple. 16 in all.
Our first stop is the small lagoon, and since it is the first stop for all “tour A’s”, there must be 8 boats like ours at anchor. Over the side we go, masks and snorkels donned. Like spawning salmon we head for the narrow cleft into the lagoon, the snorkelers, the swimmers, the waders, and the ones who should just be naturally-selected out of the gene pool, paddling with inflated plastic rings under their armpits. Given that only one swimmer can go through the cleft at a time there is a line up, made worse by the natural-selectees holding up the process, so pleased with themselves that they have made it that they stop in the opening, completely oblivious. Once inside, however…
Once inside, however, is a place so sublime it evaporates my resistance, it transcends all our meager human clamour. Vertical limestone walls, jungle-draped, eroded into fluted stems, enclose a pool of liquid opal. We swim across the space into a scallopped recess, climb over a low natural barrier and slip into an emerald bath, floating on our backs beneath a hole of aquamarine sky. For the first time we are alone, and get a glimpse of the proprietory magic you, Martin and Blair, must have felt 20 years ago.
I don’t know how long the rest of our boat had been waiting. We are, probably by a long way, the last ones back. Next our outrigger glides, over a slide-rule sea, to our lunch spot on a small beach. Small but perfect. The water changes from Tanqueray to Bombay Sapphire as we approach, with a morel-shaped rock formation set there just for implausibility. Our debonair boatman, Aleo, builds a fire against a cliff wall, and throws on chicken and fish. By now our boat has bonded, although the neck-less one with his butterfly-on-a-pin makes everybody a bit queasy.
After lunch our boat cruises to a bay off Miniloc Is., which Aleo describes as a snorkeling spot. The fun comes, however, when he jumps overboard with a scrap of lunch leftovers, and literally feeds the fish. In the swimming pool water he is engulfed my scores of chevron-striped Sgt. Majors. I soon join him, and for the first time ever I laugh underwater, through my snorkel, as the gregarious fish nibble at the scrap in my hand, then my hand, and then the glass in from of my face.
In the end, we just can’t argue with a landscape this spectacular. We had a great time, and give El Nido a thumbs up. We just should have come 20 years ago…
For the full impact, feel as though you are there experience, watch this:http://youtu.be/ZXLVHI-_yAk or go to our flickr page (http://www. kebeandfast.com link at the top) and view the set as a slide show.