An adventure in The Philippines – Puerto Princesa, El Nido & Malapascua
Welcome to my 4th and final post on my trip to the Philippines. Maybe I’ve saved the best until last? Here I talk about Puerto Princesa, El Nido, and Malapascua. For part 1 click here, part 2 click here, and part 3 click here.
Pit Stop in Puerto Princesa
After an early start and long journey back to Manila from Boracay it was time to say goodbye to Gary as he was flying back to Melbourne and real life. I was heading to the island of Palawan to El Nido via Puerto Princesa. Puerto Princesa is the capital of the island and unless you want to spend a lot of money (according to my budget) the only way to get to El Nido is on a bus from Puerto Princesa. I looked hard for alternatives but they don’t exist so I thought I’d stay the night and get an early bus the next morning. I took a room in a Pension (like a guest house) that I found online. It was clean and the room was nice, with it’s own toilet and shower. However the welcome wasn’t great and she forgot to give me my key! Kind of important. I chose it because it was a 600m walk from the airport. I had time for dinner and to organise my journey the next day.
Dinner was at La Terrasse after I spent about 30 minutes wandering around the street being indecisive. Foursquare was telling me it was one of the top restaurants in the area. It was a beautiful setting. You’d never have guessed you were next to a main road. It was surrounded by shrubbery, lit very well, not too bright and not too dark. Everything (at least from memory) was wooden and there was enough space to not feel like the tables were encroaching into each other’s space. I order the “Adobo Overload”. Chicken and pork and plenty of rice. Not half bad! I then got invited to sit with another solo traveller. We gotta stick together. I got some French practice in too because she was French.
I then headed back to organise my bus ride in the morning and get a good night’s sleep! See you in El Nido!
Enchanting El Nido
The tiny town of El Nido at the northern tip of Palawan is not so straightforward to get to as one would hope but boy is it worth it! I will write a more detailed post on the options you have when planning a trip there. I chose to take the Cherry Bus from Puerto Princesa. After a total of 7 hours travelling I arrived tired and thirsty. My tricycle driver could not find the bed & breakfast at first so I had an accidental tour of the town while we were looking. Yay! Upon arrival, my host offered me a drink and some fresh watermelon (I didn’t know there was an orange variety!), along with a welcoming chat. I was staying at BNKY Bed & Breakfast. There was building work going on but it was not a disturbance for me and the breakfasts each day were delicious!
El Nido town centre is a very small but with enough to keep you busy and feeling surrounded by civilisation. I was a 5 minute walk down to El Nido beach, so I duly took the opportunity to check it out. I stayed until sunset. Whilst its location is not great for a traditional sun-in-the-centre-of-the-horizon sunset, the effect it has as it sinks behind the iconic limestone cliffs is so cool and it was one of my favourites during my time in the country.
The main thing I wanted to do in El Nido was my PADI Advanced Open Water diver course as it’s famed for its amazing under water visibility and wealth of tropical wildlife. So the next day I went down the recommended Submariner Diving Center on the beach (all the dive shops are on the beach) to organise it. I was met by 2 very friendly guys there which is always a good sign when you’re spending a couple of hundred quid! They said I’d have to start the day after next because the election was taking place the next day and everything would be closed. It worked out well because I had some chapters in the textbook to complete before starting. I’d meet my dive instructor the next evening.
Island Hopping: Tour A
Probably the biggest tourist activity in El Nido is the island hopping tours. All tour companies in the area following 4 main routes, with combinations allowed: A, B, C, and D. You can find information on the various routes elsewhere as it’s been documented to death.
Seeing as I had a day before my dive course started I went for Tour A. TripAdvisor told me it was the most popular, and though it’s tempting to go “off the beaten track”, it had to be popular for a reason. Wow, what a day. I feared each spot would be crammed with people, and indeed there were 2 or 3 boats but not nearly as many as expected. Tourism is still in its infancy I think in the Philippines and while I have issues with other services in the country this was run extremely well.
Our first stop was a the opening to the Small Lagoon. It wasn’t very small! Slapping on some sun scream, everyone jumped in for a swim, paddleboard, or kayak into the lagoon. The author of the famous novel “The Beach” Alex Garland wrote the book whilst he was living in El Nido. The movie version was filmed in Thailand. Huge dark grey limestone structures jut out of the water towering above your head.
“Now this is what I’ve seen all the photos of”, I thought. Wow, just stunning. Crystal clear water, fresh fish being cooked on the grill for lunch, and a stunning back drop. This was a highlight, perhaps the highlight of the day. We were the only boat in our spot.
Before eating lunch on a tiny, hidden beach we jumped off the boat and heading towards a small hole in the rock. It was very awkward to squeeze through (look out for rocks at knee level, ouch!). Once inside it is like being a completely different place. The water is no longer “blue”, and it’s very silty. You can see why it’s called Secret Lagoon though. At high tide this place would not be accessible.
Shimizu/Simizu Island & Entulala Island
The first of these was primarily a snorkel stop but as I don’t like snorkelling I jumped it and swam with just a mask. There was quite a strong current. On the way back to the boat one of the local guides saw a turtle under the water. I feel like I’d been very unlucky so far in my diving/snorkelling life to have not seen a turtle! There, clear as day, was a turtle just minding her own business, about 10 metres below us. I managed to observe her from afar for a good minute or so before she decided enough was enough and descended super fast! So cool!
2 days, 6 dives, 1 Advanced Open Water certification
So I could finally begin my diving course. For the first day I had private tuition! Pretty good going when you’re a bit anxious like me, and are getting used to the feeling of diving again. The schedule was thus:
- Navigation dive (mandatory)
- Peak Performance Buoyancy (PPB)
- Fish Identification
- Deep dive (mandatory)
- Fun dive not part of the course
- Night dive
I’ll over the course in detail in another post. What I will say here is that I had a great instructor. This was for a few reasons: he was laid back, he was VERY professional, he was so knowledgeable and patient and he was French so I could practice a little! We saw HUGE schools of tropical fish right in front of our faces, a crocodile fish, a sting-ray, barracudas, parrotfish, clownfish, lionfish, triggerfish, pufferfish and so much more. So much colour! Just as in my Open Water Diver course in Fiji I was more focussed on doing everything right, and the pain I often had in my ears a lot of the time, but I knew I would get past that and the qualification would be so useful in the future.
I can see why many westerners are moving here. Spending your days on a boat diving and coming back to paradise for some good fresh fish and local beer is very tempting.
I didn’t really want to leave El Nido but I wanted to see 2 different places in 2 weeks. Coron was closer but still a real pain to get to and the reviews of the 8 hour boat were less than convincing. Malapascua has an extremely good chance of seeing Thresher Sharks. A species I’d never heard of before the trip but one that I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity of seeing, one of the only places in the world to see them is Malapascua. Throw in a really nice group of fellow guests, and super knowledgeable and passionate dive instructor (also French!), and it was a fantastic few days. Thanks guys.
Getting there had to be planned carefully due to availability of transport. I took an overnight bus back to Puerto Princesa, hung out in McDonalds until the airport opened, flew to Cebu, and had a 4 hour journey by taxi and boat to Malapascua Island. I’m glad I shelled out on the private taxi transfer from Cebu arranged by my resort (£65) because I was far too tired to have a 2nd cramped bus journey in 24 hours.
The resort – Thresher Cove
By this point in my trip I had no desire to shop around much for “the best” place to stay. I chose somewhere with good reviews, and cheap accommodation. For what I paid I was very please. I stayed in a dorm in Thresher Cove on a less than touristy part of the island. Trips into town or to the other beaches was easy by renting a motorbike or paying 20PHP for a ride (40 at night). It was a resort, so there were cosy cottages for couples or families, with and without air conditioning. Apart from the diving the best place to chill is in the bar/restaurant area. There are sofas and a big TV with a huge selection of DVDs and Blu-rays. I spent a fair chunk of time there.
I did 4 dives across 3 days, 2 of which were to see the Thresher Sharks. Going once I felt a bit disappointed because I saw 1 clearly and for only a couple of seconds, and then the tail fin of another. I held faith that it would be better because the divemasters said the visibility was rubbish that day. In such a popular dive site, there are so many divers and this can impact how many sharks you see. Thresher Sharks are distinctive because of their round noses, relatively small bodies and verrrry long tail fins which they use to whip their prey, stunning them. You dive at Monad Shoal, where these sharks come to be cleaned at a cleaning station by other fish. The rest of the time they live too deep for us to access them. The second of my dives to see them was AMAZING, I must have seen 10 up close. So graceful, but very capable of dashing away in a split second. In some areas, a rope has been put on the seabed to mark the boundary of the cleaning station and to give divers something to hold on to to observe them. Everyone on the boat was buzzing afterwards, all in such a good mood, and this carried on throughout the day as we discussed diving stories. Most good, some sad. This one dive was great personally for 2 reasons: obviously the sharks, and I saw noticeable improvement in my buoyancy and breathing.
I tell you, getting up at 4.30am (best time for the sharks) doesn’t feel so bad when you get to see a beautiful sunrise and some rare aquatic life. The best feeling!
Whatever problem plagued my ears during my Advanced Open Water course were no where to be seen (or heard?) and this had a big influence on my enjoyment of the dives.
Other highlights came on the other dive trip which consisted of 2 dives around Gato Island (Gato means cat in Spanish). I’m not a fan of tight spaces but one dive started from inside a cave, down into the dark, and through to the other side of the island where the light streamed in from above once more. There we saw many tiny lifeforms, including the highlight: a big blue and yellow seahorse. However, on the second dive we were lucky enough to see 2 white tipped reef sharks. One right up close in a little chamber in the rock being cleaned whilst asleep. So close it was incredible to be able to observe for a few minutes. It was, however, difficult to stay still on the uneven bottom.
That makes 17 dives so far and I’m hooked!
Goodbye Sir, goodbye Ma’am!