I’m a spoiled traveler every time I go to El Nido Resorts in Palawan. I choose either the Miniloc or Lagen Islands for a holiday.
This time, however, the situation is different. I’m going there for work, do a shoot from scratch—and within a budget.
Bringing three Brazilian models, my crew and myself involves a big sum for plane tickets because I want to fly directly to Lio Airport in El Nido town. That way, I can save time; the longer route via Puerto Princesa includes a six-hour land trip.
Airswift is the choice airline because it will spare us the grueling six-hour drive from Puerto Princesa. But comfort comes with a price: a regular round trip fare is P11,250 which flies you to El Nido in an hour.
It has four flights a day and last time I checked, the airline terminal is now in the old domestic airport, Terminal 4.
Since I can’t afford to stay in my favorite resort, Lagen, I opt to find a place in El Nido town. As if by some divine power, I get a text message from a friend I haven’t seen for quite a while: “Come to my new place in El Nido, I know how you’ll love this place.”
Turns out this friend has opened his own place, the Sea Cocoon Hotel. Google it, or check out its Facebook account. Better yet, send an e-mail: email@example.com.
I’m not disappointed.
The rooms and the pool are excellent. The quality of the place is above everything else—pension houses, inns and B&Bs—available in town. Nothing wrong with them if you’re budget conscious, but for a spoiled traveler like me, the Sea Cocoon Hotel is the place to stay. It has all the comforts of home and more. Did I mention that it’s affordable, too?
After finding this jewel of a hotel, it’s time to hire a boat or banca for the day trip around the islands. I don’t want to join the typical boat tours for P1,200 per person because they don’t give me the freedom to shoot anytime or anywhere.
The reception staff at the hotel suggests I inquire in a seaside restaurant called Sea Slug. There I meet a lovely, down-to-earth woman named Sheen, owner of Umi Tours El Nido. I tell her I’m looking for a private boat that cruise around the island for a shoot—meals included.
And, just like that, she offers me an irresistible package. I book a private boat for three days with my choice of lunch and snacks, plus towels, water and snorkeling gear. Text her before flying to El Nido (0917-7736362) for your specific requirements. She can even arrange for a van to drop you off at the airport.
Off to the islands. This isn’t my first time in Bacuit Bay; top of my list is the Small Lagoon. Its entrance is already a good place to swim and snorkel.
Just remember to be quiet once inside. Some tourists tend to be loud and their noise bounces off the stone walls within the lagoon. It also gets really crowded here so I’m not surprised that our presence disturbs the wildlife. Please respect the place when you visit.
I love going to the Small Lagoon around noontime, when the sun shines so brightly and the water is so clear you can see the bottom of the lagoon. It is also around this time when the tide is low.
This is best for swimming because you can enter certain caves and secret nooks around the area. Wear protective shoes because some rocks are sharp.
For the best vantage point to take a selfie, go to the center of the lagoon and stand on a rock that will give you a view of the entrance and back of the lagoon. Ask your boatman where the hidden caves are; they’re great photo ops.
As we kayak our way out to board our boat, I hear a familiar recorded melody—to announce the presence of an ice cream vendor in the vicinity. But in the Small Lagoon? I imagine having heat stroke. Suddenly I see a Magnolia vendor on a small banca selling ice cream—right in the middle of El Nido’s waters under the scorching sun!
I’m getting hungry so we head out again, this time into the bay toward Entalula Island—which has three coves or beaches. The larger one belongs to El Nido Resorts and the two smaller ones are for public use.
Whichever cove you go to, the white powdery sand in this island rivals that of Boracay in its heyday.
We set up camp here and our boat captain is also our chef. While his assistants set up the table, he makes salad dressing and plates our soy steamed fish and teriyaki chicken.
After lunch we swim for a while, take pictures and enjoy the secluded beach. If you’re quiet enough, you’ll be blessed to see local wildlife. We chance upon a bright yellow hornbill, birds diving into the water to feed, and the resident monitor lizard, which despite its size, is very shy.
Later, our captain suggests we head for Papaya Beach, which is closer to town and best seen at sunset.
Papaya Beach is rustic, with a sari-sari store in a small nipa hut. At this time, the beach is filled with foreigners playing volleyball. The only Filipinos in sight are my assistants and me; the other boatmen don’t even alight from their respective boats. It’s like being in another country!
According to our captain, a drop-off service is available for those who want to visit the beach and get fetched later.
Once the large orange sun touches the horizon, our day out in the sea ends. Time always seems shorter when you’re having fun.
Having a pool in the hotel is such a plus. After all that salty seawater, soaking in the pool is so relaxing.
For dinner, we take everyone’s suggestion and go to Art Café, one of the older establishments in town. It’s a bit pricey, but the quality of food is good. And it also gets crowded and noisy here.
If that’s not your scene, there are numerous places to eat along the road. Choose from an Italian trattoria, a French café or a simple ihawan or barbecue place. Don’t forget to try the local Palawan beer.
After dinner, we find a crepe place at the corner and go souvenir shopping to get rid of our food coma.
If you still want to drink and party, places along the beach might be of interest—some for dancing, the others for quiet conversation.
It’s fairly safe there at night. We find ourselves walking aimlessly by the shore and sitting on the sand, admiring the wonderful night sky that we don’t normally see in the city.
The next day, the captain suggests we head out to the farthest place in the whole Bacuit Bay tours, the Matinloc Shrine. Good thing I have my strong coffee and breakfast before we leave because it takes us 40 minutes to get there.
The long trip, however, is soon forgotten when we make a brief, unplanned stop to a secret beach. It’s low tide; our captain anchors the boat close to a cliff and tells us to bring waterproof cameras as we need to swim through a small opening.
The captain’s assistant is the first to jump into the dark waters. This honestly scares me because I can’t see the bottom from the boat. I close my eyes and jump anyway. The water’s cold temperature gives me a jolt.
When I surface, I see the boys dive under to enter a small opening on the cliff wall. No choice, I’m already in the water, might as well follow them in. I close my eyes again and pray that my contact lenses won’t fall off. As soon as I feel I have crossed the opening, I surface and open my eyes.
What lies before me seems straight out of the set of Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, “The Beach.” Imagine a beach inside a cliff wall, above it, a gaping hole revealing the sky.
“Normally the place is filled with tourists,” one of our companions says. “When the captain saw that there were no boats anchored, he decided to show you the place.” Now I wish I had brought my camera.
The place is quiet for about 15 minutes. Then the sound of motorized bancas gradually grow louder. People start to arrive, and it’s time for us to leave.
Not far from this “secret beach” is the Matinloc Shrine. From what I gather, this is the place where they used to celebrate religious gatherings or Masses.
It is now abandoned and looks like a ghost town, but the adjacent beach and surroundings are still beautiful.
Opposite the shrine is a great snorkeling area, while the shrine itself has a gorgeous view of the sea—if you’re brave and careful enough to climb the sharp, jagged rocks leading to the top.
Our next stop, Snake Island, is no island at all, but a sand bar connecting two beaches. We are warned to look out for sea urchins and sharp rocks, and also monkeys, which is why we have lunch on the boat.
On the way back, we pass by the Big Lagoon and have a short stop on the island in front of Miniloc Resort.
I love the rock formations here, they’re perfect for pictorials. We also stop in the island opposite Miniloc to continue our pictorial. It doesn’t take long for the skies to turn to amber, signaling that sunset is near and it’s time to head back to town.
On our last day, I wake up around 2 a.m., with what sounds like a series of gunshots just outside my window. When I open my window to check, I’m greeted by bright, sparkling lights—a dazzling fireworks display.
Later in the day, I learn it’s the town’s fiesta, a celebration that begins with the crowning of the new Ms. El Nido.
The town is so alive. There are flea markets, street food stalls and parades. I get so caught up in the revelry that it leads me to a place called V & V Bagels. Really now, in the middle of town!
Inside, I see an Illy coffee machine. I decide to have my breakfast here and order a cup of Illy coffee and a burger which is the size of a child’s face. The coffee is so good, I finish two cups.
Going by a more relaxed pace this time, we head out rather late that morning to 7 Commandos Beach where my captain treats us to halo-halo inside a coconut shell and banana fritters from a kiosk on the beach.
Unbelievable. The beach has about five nipa huts you can stay in for free.
The captain’s men literally go fishing for our lunch right where we are anchored. Not too many people on the beach that day so we have a chance to shoot again. After lunch we head back to town to join the fiesta.
There are still many things I haven’t explored in town. My friend, Vic Santiago, one of the owners of Sea Cocoon, says I should go to Las Cabanas beach. He also mentions Squidos Restaurant on the hilltop. It serves a buffet that starts around 7 p.m., and so far the reviews are great.
Hope this helps you the next time you plan a vacation.
For more of my travel adventures, visit my Facebook: Raymund (with a “u”) Isaac; follow me on Instagram and Twitter @raymundisaac.