From Padre Burgos, I made my way to the Island of Palawan to continue my exploration of the natural wonders of the world. A few hours from Puerto Princesa (PP), the largest town on Palawan, is a river that funnels into a cave network that runs approx. 8 kilometers. The underground river was identified sometime in the 2000’s as a new 7 natural wonder (not to be confused with the old 7 natural wonders). The tour only went approx 1 kilometer into the tunnel and felt very Disneylandish (I kept expecting to hear “it’s a small world” playing in the background). Still it was good to see and that the local government and people are taking great interest in preserving it.
After a couple nights in Puerto Princesa I took a shuttle 4 hours north near the top of Palawan, to one of the major stops on the Philippines backpacker circuit, El Nido. El Nido sits along a bay, on the west side of the island, tucked in below limestone cliffs covered in tropical forest, towering above the town. The town itself has small streets, mostly dirt, barely 10 feet wide, lined with restaurants, bars, dive shops, hostels, falafel/shawarma stands, and vendors selling t-shirts and trinkets to travelers.
When I arrived at mid-day the streets were active with locals running errands, going to and from job sites, and a few tourists wandering the streets wondering what the town is about. I planned 5 days in El Nido and the afternoon I arrived, I was thinking I overbooked. 2-3 days would be more than enough. But, when the lights came on at night and the streets came alive, the city had a different vibe. Not necessarily party, party, party but people out and about. Some beach side bars, people meandering through shops, and eating or drinking in two story open window restaurants looking out on the streets.
Part of the reason the town is so different at night is because during the day everything is focused on attractions outside of El Nido. I initially wasn’t so fortunate with these however. My first day, after seeing some people I didn’t know, but also saw and exchanged acknowledgements with in towns previously, we decided to do a canopy tour together (walking in the jungle across a rope course). However, because the operators needed to split us up, and I really only cared about the social aspect with my new strangers/friends, I bailed. I also signed up for 3 scuba dives the next day but the dive shop canceled because evidently there were no other divers in El Nido.
El Nido and Coron (my next stop) are two places on almost every Philippines backpacker’s agenda and are the logical next stops for each other. Therefore it was almost certain that at least some members of our Moalboal group would be crossing paths again here, and we did. After I landed in El Nido, friends heading to or from Coron started trickling in to hang out together again. It continued later in Coron as some of us continued in that direction.
The standout day in El Nido was when Darren, Sarah, Sonja and I took scooters to a couple different beaches. Wind in the hair (the little I have left), cruising and exploring the island, and then stopping to enjoy the sand and play in the ocean. Toes in the water and not a care in the world.
At night we somehow ended up singing karaoke again (multiple times) but this time shared our velvety voices with tables of other travelers, including some from Tunisia and the Philippines, who sang all the hits and much to our delight, songs in their local dialects.
Eventually my departure date for Coron arrived, and just in time. As I walked to the pier for my 5 hour ferry, there was light rain and small puddles in the dirt roads. Heavy rains started just a few hours after I left and flooded most of the small streets and many local businesses. While I was on the ferry, I received a What’s up chat message showing water flowing through the streets, up to peoples ankles. Word has it, everything was back to normal in El Nido the next day.
Coron as a town is difficult to navigate as it is mainly one very busy, narrow street with shops and eateries. Most residences and accommodations are up a steep hill on one side and a few smaller streets on the other side have additional shops, cafes, and bars. Further past those additional streets is the harbor.
Just like El Nido, the town is not the draw. Most people come to Coron to island hop or scuba dive. This time I took advantage of both and my time in Coron was another highlight of my trip.
My first couple days I spent with Darren and Sarah and we completed our advanced open water scuba certification. During WWII, after US pilots discovered several Japanese ships hiding in the waters around Coron, those ships were bombed and sunk. This meant the three of us during our scuba course, were able to dive to and swim into four of these ships that have sat on the bottom of the ocean since 1944.
For our scuba class we couldn’t have used a better dive center. The instruction was great but because they shared our humor and desire to have fun, we bonded well with all the dive masters and boat crew. After our dive master taught Sarah a different way to say thank you in the local language, she tried it out that night at the shawarma stand. Let’s just say the face on the person changed drastically after she said “thank you”, and that was when Sarah realized, what she had been taught was far, far, from thank you.
The rest of my time in Coron was spent with Sonja, Daniel and Lonis (two additional people met along the way). Two of the days we rented a boat for our own private island hopping tours. We swam in beautiful coves and lakes with crystal blue water and sat on the beaches overlooking them. Toes in the water, not a care in the world.
One constant on these days (actually, pretty much throughout the Philippines) was the consumption of one of the local beers, Red Horse. So much so, that I was pestered frequently that I couldn’t go home without a Red Horse t-shirt. Well, one thing led to another and during one of these nights in Coron, as Sarah, Sonja, Lonis, and I stumbled home at 2am…well let me just say two things. First it wasn’t me, it was Lonis (so don’t ask to see it). Second, you know it’s a good night when someone gets a horse tattooed on their ass.
Unfortunately it wasn’t all good in Coron. One day in between island hopping tours, we opted for another scooter day and this time it didn’t turn out as well, Sonja slid on some sand leading to both her and the scooter hitting the ground. Knees, hands, arms, and feet all got scraped up pretty bad and with the help of some locals, we got her to a local clinic, and then the ER back in town to get bandaged up. I must say she is a trooper. She was still able to laugh and smile (so much so that the nurse commented on and questioned how), and she insisted we all still do our island hopping tour the next day.
I did some fun things with some great people in El Nido and Coron, that helped make this part of the journey stand out. Again, it’s not just the adventure but the people that you meet along the way that make it special.
Life is good.