Palawan, Philippines: A Long, Bumpy Road and Smooth, Crystal Seas

This past January, I found round trip tickets from Manila to Puerto Princessa, Palawan for only $50 USD on Kayak.com -- pretty sweet deal, especially considering that the trip was from January 1 - 4, peak travel time in the Philippines. Family time and a gorgeous beaches -- a girl could do worse.

The deals only got sweeter from there. My tita (auntie) who lives in the Philippines booked a tour package deal through a friend of a friend (something like that). Here's what we got:
  • Pick-up from Puerto Princessa airport
  • one night hotel-stay in Puerto Princessa, including breakfast
  • tour of Underground River, including lunch, tour guide, and transportation
  • round-trip travel from Puerto Princessa to El Nido (an 8-hour van ride)
  • 2 night hotel-stay in El Nido, including breakfast
  • full-day island-hopping tour, including tour guide, private boat, lunch, and snorkeling
...all for the modest price of $150 USD. Not bad price for a little slice of paradise.

Day 1: Check-in, Dinner, and Night City Tour

The coziness and quaint luxury of our room at the Purple Fountain was a pleasant surprise and a nice change from the flat, hard bunk beds of my usual hostel stays. We fit 8 guests comfortably with all the beds and sofas in our family cabin.

For dinner, I shamelessly ordered a hearty hamburger with a generous side of fries. When you spend an extended amount of time abroad, you’re surprised at what the things you become homesick for. I never considered myself a hamburger enthusiast, but now, whenever a big, juicy 1/3-pounder burger is on the menu, I snatch that up—usually with bacon and avocado. The restaurant’s décor was an explosion of color, mixing Western and Filipino art and artifacts. It was fitting considering our party’s orders of hamburgers, buffalo wings, and fried rice with shrimp paste (a Filipino delicacy I’ve never come to appreciate).

After dinner, the eight of us squeezes into two tricycles. The tricycles in Palawan are large and spacepod-looking. The sidecar is more of a cabin car that covers the driver as well as the passengers—bulkier than comparatively minimalist tricycles of Manila.

We drove through the town and ended up at the city’s boardwalk. There, food stalls lined the sidewalk, children zipped around on tiny bicycles and tricycles, the breeze blew over the coast to kiss couples sitting side-by-side on the dock, and men and women crowded gambling booths situated next to a three-story tall Christmas tree made of metal, plastic, lights, and everything except an actual tree.

The warmth, music, leisureliness, and a roving band of musician friends reminded me of my nights in Havana, Cuba. It’s amazing the similarities you’ll find in countries thousands of miles away, among people who’ve never met each other.

Kuya Aeron, Ariane, and I decided to take a spin on the rickety, too-fast, whirling Ferris wheel. These terrifying faire rides always look so hastily slapped together. The grinding and groaning of this rusty machine made me wonder during which world war it was built. After seven (seven!) long minutes, the mad spinning and my screaming stopped, and the ride was over. A trip is not truly a trip until you feel you’re on the edge of life and thrilling death in the middle of a foreign paradise.

  Day 2: Underground River and drive to El Nido

The next morning, my family and I shared a gigantic tour van with another family headed to the Underground River. The family was Vietnamese-Canadian. The father taught English in Vietnam, met and married his wife, moved with her to Canada, had two kids, and then moved back to Vietnam, where he now teaches at a Canadian international school. He and I chatted non-stop for near an hour about our experience teaching English abroad and how I can get into teaching at international schools. Encounters like this always make me believe that I’m on a journey to cross paths with people I’m destined to meet, but would never meet in any other situation. In this man’s case, I could only meet him on a bumpy, narrow, unfinished trail road surrounded by white rock mountains that race to the sky.

After we finally arrived at a port, we had to wait hours and hours for our turn for a boat to take us to the underground river. We passed time by enjoying the mountainous scenery, the soft waves of the clear sea. We browsed souvenir and snack stalls and even played a pick-up game of basketball with some local kids and a tall, hunkering foreigner guy. It was scorching hot and we had nothing on but tank tops and sandals, but the girls’ team beat the boys 6-4.

The boat ride to the underground river was worth the wait. The sea rolled gently, the breeze sprayed us refreshingly. We were completely surrounded by the blues and greens of the clear sea and lush, tropical trees-covered mountains.

In the short walk from the underground river port to the mouth of the cave, we crossed paths with two wild monkeys. One monkey sat on the narrow walking path where hundreds of tourists strolled each day; he sat, hardly blinking at the passerbys who’d stop and take his picture. The second monkey, one we saw later, was up to no good: he cleverly spotted an unattended bag next to a crowd of people, and did his best to snatch it before anyone could notice. His efforts failed, but not without a bit of a scuffle.

Fitting for helmets didn’t yet make me nervous to for the 45-minute tour of the cavernous 8-kilometer long cave and river tour, but the pitch blackness and hundreds of bats that hung asleep overhead once we entered the cave was enough to raise my excitement. The cave was cool, dank, huge, and completely dark. We rowed along in our little boat and gazed at the monstrous stalactites and stalagmites as we floated by. One thing that surprised me about the rocky structures was how strangely organized they were—each one was a different color according to the type of mineral it comprised. Our guide pointed out shapes of stalactites and caves that (allegedly) resembled the Virgin Mary, an altar, the shroud used to wipe Jesus’ face, a nativity scene, and a towering cathedral. Later, we passed ones that (supposedly) bear a striking resemblance to a carrot, an ear of corn, and a potato. All throughout the tour, our guide would remark… “You are in a bat cave. But there’s no Batman! Only me—a boatman!” and “You see that? That’s bat poop, or guano. We call this area the ‘BAThroom!’” and “Watch your head, the bats are sleeping—they’re low-bat!” and finally, “the water is dripping here. Look up—we call this place the Eiffel tower… because when you look up, your EYES will be FULL of water! ha ha ha.” You know you’re in the Philippines when everything can be reference to food, Jesus, or made into a corny joke.

Later in the day, we set off for our 6-hour ride from Puerto Princessa to El Nido.

Along the way, we passed fields, forests, mountains, and a check point where law enforcement checked to make sure that we weren’t bringing mangos from one side of the island to the other. What was most memorable to me, though, were the dozens of clusters of bahay kubo along the narrow, winding, unfinished highway. Bahay kubo are traditional Filipino huts made of bamboo. The openness of the hut keeps everyone cool inside the one or two-room hut. If the huts had any electricity at all, it was for a single light bulb that hung in the center of the hut. Families cooked their meals on open fires outside.

Ariane helped me pass the time by sharing stories about the province. She told me about small towns where everyone knew everybody. The only families who had electricity were the ones with personal generators. Her family in the province has not only a generator, but a TV; at night, kids and even adults crowded outside of their window to sneak a peak at that nights’ TV program. In the province, people generally stay indoors, eat, nap, and share stories during the day to hide from the heat; at night, everybody comes out to eat and share more stories. For birthdays, anniversaries, and any excuse for a celebration, the whole town participates in cooking, eat, playing, singing, and dancing.

At last, we arrived at the beachside (two hops from the front gate and you’re wading in Philippine Sea! One hop at high tide). I was a bit restless after periodic naps on during the six-hour journey, so I sat out on the hammock to listen to the waves crash and watch couples pass by on their cliché (but lovely) moonlight walk along the beach.

Day 3: Island-hopping in El Nido

The next morning, I wake up to beams of light roving the dark walls of the hotel. It was past 6a.m., which meant that electricity had been shut off and would be until 2p.m.

Everyone was up early, so we explored the little markets. A broken, run-down school was nestled in a hillside just a couple blocks away, surrounded by lush green mountains and illuminated by the morning sun.

While we waited for our tour guide to arrive, my cousins and I played dodge ball on the beach with a cheap ball that Kuya Aeron had purchased. We invited some foreigners and little kids to play with us.

At 9:00, our tour guide shuffled us onto our boat. Since we were such a large party, we had a boat to ourselves—complete with free snorkel gear to use!

We skidded across the sometimes-dark blue, sometimes-clear sea, enclosed on our left and right by towering tree-topped islands made of limestone. Our first task: snorkeling!

I was surprised that we weren’t briefed on the importance of not stepping on any coral or sea life before jumping into the water. After a few seconds, I found out why. All of the coral was dead; fish were sparse. The underwater scenery was brown and eerie. Either it was this way because tour guides didn’t bother to tell snorkelers to mind the coral, or tour guides don’t warn snorkelers because there’s not any live coral left to kill. It was sad not to see any colorful coral or tropical fish, but perhaps somewhere not too far away, there is a secret area off the coast of another deserted island where fish roam happily, safely tucked away from this human-infested snorkeling destination.

We climbed back onto the boat and zipped along to other neighboring islands. At one, we stopped to marvel at an alter and old, church-like structure on a tiny remote island. We climbed jagged rocks and took death defying but breath-taking pictures. Afterwards, sun-drained of energy, we rested on an island with a sandbar just wide enough for a BBQ party of a or so dozen beachgoers: our tour guides teamed up to cook us up some grilled fish, chicken, and squid, rice, salsa, and cut up mangos, pineapples, and yellow watermelon! This area was my favorite, because I found a hideaway cove, big enough for just one person (me!). I sunbathed, letting the crystal clear waves tickle my toes.

We hit up two more destination spots after that for more snorkeling and more time to relax at secret beaches (one beach of which is actually named Secret Beach). The views were so spectacular and other-worldly, it seemed right out of a sci-fi movie.
Finally, after a long day, we headed back to the hotel to rest. For dinner, we crawled the bar and restaurant and settled for a Southeast-fusion swanky restaurant. Of our party, none of us could decide if we liked our own dish or regretted not ordering someone else’s because everything was so good.

Day 4: City Tours of El Nido and Puerto Princessa

The next morning, after two and a half long days of traversing the seas and waters, we piled into the huge tour van again to make our way back to Puerto Princessa. Our driver was nice enough to make several stops along the way for us. Most notable was our stop for noodles with bone marrow soup!

Oddly enough, as we pulled up to the drop off curb at the airport, it started to rain. We caught only the tentative sprinkle of rain at the beginning as we walked from door to door of the van and the airport, but once we were under the shade of the awning, it started downpour. 

With that, after three days of nothing but sunshine, our trip had officially come to an end.