El Nido, the most beautiful place on Earth

El Nido, Philippines has been at the top of my travel bucket list since I first moved to Singapore. Besides being voted No. 2 Most Beautiful Beach in the World by Conde Nast Traveler in 2016 and No. 4 in 2017, the awestruck faces and rave reviews of friends who have visited the island have said it best. This was a place I needed to visit.

Some background: El Nido is comprised of 45 islands and inlets, located on Palawan Island in the Bacuit Archipelago. El Nido means “the nest” in Spanish, which made a lot more sense once I actually read up on the place: tiny swiftlets are known to build edible nests out of saliva in the immense limestone cliffs that surround the town proper, hence the name. The Internet is amazing.

This is NOT an easy place to reach. That being said, none of the places that are worth exploring, the ones that have been largely untouched by the force of tourism, are. Our voyage started off on Thursday night, 15 February, the night before Chinese New Year began. I was traveling with Charlotte and Erica, friends from Singapore, but only Charlotte and I were able to take the early evening flight out as Erica had commitments in the chiropractor office where she practices. We took a 7PM flight out of Singapore to Manila, stayed overnight in a very basic “hotel” where the host did not speak English nor accept credit card or anything other than exact change (an appropriate welcome to the Philippines, the land of the warmest people but the worst logistics). Our accommodations were perfectly fine though, as we were up and at ’em by 5:30AM to catch a 7:40AM flight to Coron, a nice town with a hub airport that is a 4-hour ferry ride from El Nido. Erica had taken a flight from Singapore that would get her in at 6AM to Manila, enough time to make it to the domestic terminal and meet up with us in perfect harmony (we writers draw upon a sentence like this one to indicate foreshadowing). What we quickly realised upon checking in and reaching our gate at Manila Airport was that Erica was nowhere to be found. It was nearing 7AM once we got to the gate, and still, no sign of our dear friend. Bottom line, Erica was NOT going to make this flight. And further, she didn’t have any mobile data to message us, so without Wi-Fi, we were in the dark. The last we had heard from her, she was making her way from the international to the domestic terminal. Charlotte and I spent the 35-minute flight to Coron brainstorming best and worst-case theories about the current situation. Half excited for our trip, half filled with worry, because the daily ferry from Coron to El Nido left at noon (where check-in by 11AM was mandatory). If she was able to make the next flight, she’d be okay. But if not, or with any delays, she’d be out of luck not only for the ferry ride, but also the island hopping tour we’d planned for the next two days and, at that point, would it even be worth it to meet up with us in El Nido?

By the time we landed in Coron, we had some updated information: Erica was able to book another flight that got her into Coron just after 10AM. With any luck, she’d be able to catch a quick (the quickest) ride to the ferry terminal and make it on time for ferry check-in at 11. Meanwhile, Charlotte and I boogied on down to the ferry terminal to let the staff know we were there and had a friend on the way, grabbed a quick lunch and loaded up on snacks for the ferry. We returned to the ferry terminal to wait for Erica/be nervous a bit more, especially given the intermittent texts we were getting from her: “The flight was slightly delayed,” “The driver is dropping off a few people first,” “I’ve asked him to drive as fast as possible.” But lo and behold, at 11:29AM (one minute before the staff said was the ABSOLUTE latest Erica could check in), her van pulled up. Never before have three girls hugged each other so tightly. The definition of RELIEF. We were happy—no, purely giddy—boarding that ferry. (Also, shoutout to Montenegro Lines, the ferry company: even though their booking and ticketing system is a true mess, the actual ferry itself was quite comfortable and cosy!) The alternative to this trip is a flight from Singapore to Manila to Puerta Princesa plus a seven-hour van to El Nido, but for anyone traveling there in the future, I would definitely recommend traveling through Coron. It was much more enjoyable and a bit quicker!

After a 4-hour cruise across the South China Sea, filled mostly by naps but also with podcasts, books, and chatting, we arrived on the island of El Nido. There is not much to write home (or on this blog) about in terms of the main town. It is a typical Southeast Asian beach town: PADI shops, smoothie storefronts and island tour companies. Mainly, it’s a hub for people to use for their island adventures. We dropped our bags off at Inngo Tourist Inn, our two-star accommodation for the night. It was very basic and reminded us that El Nido is NOT Bali (as in, nice accommodations are hard to find), but it reminded me of why we were there: for undiscovered beauty. The hotel staff was incredibly nice, the rooms incredibly clean, and the common area outside our room overlooked the harbour where our ferry had pulled in, which was very nice. And for the price of $56 SGD/night, no one was complaining! It was truly all we needed.

During his trip to El Nido last year, José and his friends coined a term called “FOMS,” or “Fear of Missing Sunset.” This is a real fear and one that propelled us girls to get ready and be in a tuk-tuk in under 25 minutes, headed to Las Cabanas Beach for a sundowner session. The one thing I kept hearing about El Nido was “epic sunsets,” and our first night on the island did NOT disappoint! We got to the beach bar just in time to set up some seats and enjoy a majestic sunset, made only more dramatic by the addition of limestone structure silhouettes in the foreground, and sparkling waters down below. Truly breathtaking! With this sight in front of us, drinks in our hands, and Erica by our sides, we were officially in holiday mode.

After relaxing and catching up a bit on the beach, we all realised we were hungry and hadn’t yet thought about dinner. Tipped off by the lights at the other end of the beach, we decided to venture down to find something yummy to fill up on. We found a nice beachside shack with nice-looking vegetarian options and an extensive menu of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, like cucumber ginger tea. Sold! We were laughing quite hard at the appetiser portions though: our waiter brought out our order of veggies, which was a proper three-person portion, and hummus, a proper portion for one person to have half a spoonful, total. Oh, the Philippines!

The day of travel had us all pretty fatigued, but we wanted to check out the nightlife in town anyway. We headed to SAVA Beach Bar, a modern bar on the beach with good music and a nice, lively atmosphere for drinks. Charlotte and Erica ordered off the cocktail menu, and I, out of pure shock that it was on the menu at all, ordered a glass of the chenin blanc. After spending some time at SAVA, we headed back to the inn for some much-needed rest.

With a full night’s sleep under my belt, I woke up early to fulfil my body’s other much-needed request: yoga, pleaseeeee! I stretched out my bones a bit on the deck that overlooked the harbour and it was lovely. Nine hours of travel will really do you in! Once the other girls woke up, we got ready and headed into town for some breakfast of açai smoothie bowls (you can always tell a place is getting more touristy the moment they put in a smoothie bowl shop). We had booked a two-day, one-night island hopping tour with El Nido Paradise (and had picked up our tickets the night before), so we were ready to go when we reached the shopfront. After waiting a bit for our smoothie bowls to be prepped (sorry gang!), we headed down to the water and waded out on the rocky shore (ouch!) into our boat with the other 20 people on our trip (it was quite a full group as it was a long Chinese New Year weekend and everyone in the region was taking advantage). But the group was mostly around our age, and turned out to be quite a fun crew to hang out with for the next two days!

The rest that follows are a bunch of stunning beaches, the most beautiful I have ever seen. There are some places I have visited in Asia whose beauty can’t be expressed in a blog post, or even sometimes through photos, and this is one of those places. I will do my best to differentiate between these epic beaches with a quick recap of each of the five stops we made on Day One, followed by Day Two, below:

  1. 7 Commando Beach: First stop! This was a quick stop of about 25 minutes, but was a treat to visit because of its long sloping stretch of fine sand and coconut trees. Apparently was named for seven soldiers that were stranded there after WWII.
  2. Small Lagoon: Nice stop but filled with tourists early in the day. Had the option to swim or kayak. We chose to swim, and I’m glad we did—the kayaks were outrageously overpriced, and the snorkelling here was very nice! Super colourful fish in the lagoon surrounded by limestone cliffs. Didn’t manage to get any photos of the inside, but will hopefully be able to update this post once I get Charlotte and Erica’s photos.
  3. Shimizu Island: Pitstop for lunch. Really nice stop, and the crowd had started to fade by this point. Ate some very fresh seafood (including mussels and whitefish), and yummy fruit, and grilled eggplant made for the vegetarian in the group (hello!).  Named after a Japanese diver who died in an underwater tunnel in this island.
  4. Secret Lagoon: Or, as Charlotte referred to it, “Lagoon Which Should Be Kept Secret.” The crowds were dying off, but because the space is so small inside the lagoon, it was pretty crowded with people trying to take epic Instagram photos. We did get one rowdy Italian man in there that got the entire group to shout at once and make a crazy-loud echo in the lagoon, though. Coolness.
  5. Big Lagoon: We were meant to visit Big Lagoon earlier in the day but were unable to because there were no more kayaks, and thank goodness! The crowds were done by this point, and this was easily our favourite stop of the day because of it. The entrance here is stunning: a 200-meter (or 650-foot)-wide passageway gets you there. We kayaked around the lagoon, in awe of the orchid-lined walls of limestone standing hundreds of feet above us, and the transition of crystal-clear shallow water at the entrance to a deep emerald color in the deeper areas. It was so tranquil, and the perfect ending to our day!

After finishing the last of our five stops, we headed to our overnight camping site: Sunset Island. And what a site: beautiful, dark and deep forests surrounding the whites of the beach, with clear, almost shockingly aqua-coloured sea water, and pure, white gold sand. Our accommodation for the night would be tents pitched a few steps up from the beach. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable sleep we’d had, but waking up to the sound of the waves would be worth it and, in any case, we knew the unlimited rum and beer that came with the package would certainly help. (And oh, the rum: the national brand, Tanduay Rhum, has the strength of 1,000 suns. One drink and I was off my feet. Oy.) It was so nice sitting around the bonfire, bonding with our new friends in the group from all over the world (including seven Portuguese who helped me practice my speaking, wooo!), eating the freshest seafood dinner, drinking, enjoying the ocean sounds and smells, and the lovely acoustic guitar and singing by our camp staffers (and each other’s less-lovely karaoke singing later in the evening….)

The next morning, we set our alarms for 6:15AM, a few minutes before the sunrise. We were NOT in good shape, but somehow managed to stumble out onto the beach for the gorgeous sunrise at 6:22AM. No boats, no people, no noise except the waves: it was pure paradise. We soaked it (separately, as none of us were in a talking mood) for a few minutes, I had a moment of gratitude for being in this stunning spot, and then all three of us went back to the tent for two more hours of necessary rest.

We were woken up at 8:30 by the calls of our camp staff saying “Breakfast, breakfast!” The camp site was quite a wreck from the night before, but our tables were somehow cleared for our breakfast of rice and vegetables, fresh fruits, and the star of the show: coffee. If the sea next to us had been filled with the stuff, it still wouldn’t have been enough. We sipped it down and caught up on the evening while enjoying our yummy food. After breakfast we broke off, some of us in the water, others reading on hammocks, others catching a few more minutes of sleep. By 10AM, our boat was back to pick us up for the second day of island hopping! Here is a recap of our Day Two stops:

  1. Helicopter Island: This island was named for an obvious reason. This one was super nice, but a bit filled with tourists as it is a rather small beach. Like most islands off the coast of El Nido, it was home to towering cliffs sandwiching thick green rainforests. On one side of the island is this massive mountain, and on the other side, another massive cliff that looks like the helicopter’s tail. Charlotte’s hangover was massively increasing, so she stayed on the boat while Erica and I waded in the surf and chatted for the 30 minutes or so we were there.
  2. Mantiloc Shrine: Stop No. 2 was a deserted Virgin Mary shrine with a white dome, built in 1982 tucked between the beach and the towering cliffs above it. There was an entrance fee to see the shrine, and as none of us were overly eager (nor had the energy) to venture off the boat and explore it, we decided to stay put (sorry Mom, I know it’s Lent and promise I will go to church next week!). It was one of the most beautiful beaches we’d seen so far, so we wanted to swim around a bit and take in some sunshine here.
  3. Secret Beach: More towering gray karst cliffs, just a few minutes from our previous stop. The snorkelling here was unbelievable! I had no idea the marine life off the coast of El Nido was so vivacious. It really took my breath away. Collectively, between the spaces in between rocks and corals, we saw a puffer fish, a dozen rainbow, stripe and angel fish, and a bunch of other fantastically-colorured reef fish. Truly WOW. I guess they don’t called El Nido “the last ecological frontier of the Philippines” for nothing. Side note, apparently inspired author Alex Garland to write the novel The Beach, which inspired the 90’s Leo DiCaprio movie by the same name.
  4. Star Beach: Probably our favourite stop of both days, though I have to say, competition of Day 2 was tough! This is where we stopped for lunch because of all the shady spots. Completely unspoiled beach, like no one had ever laid feet on this beach before. The most remote island we visited, facing the West Philippine Sea. I left my phone on the boat to charge up a bit so I don’t have any photos from this beach, but in a way, I am happy I did (plus, the Internet is amazing for this kind of thing). It gave me time to truly soak in the beauty of nature and earth, and really enjoy where I was in the moment. After lunch, I laid out on a rock on the water, taking it in the sun and just being happy. I still can’t believe I am living a life where I am able to visit places like this, and I am grateful for it every day.
  5. Hidden Beach: Our final spot, one that will probably be the most nostalgic to us because it was just that. This was another show-stopper: it is so hidden between two rocks, that this strip of white sand beach can’t be seen from the ocean. But then you boat in between the two rocks and there it is: a bundle of paradise with an expansive shallow area of clear water, and a smaller deeper area. Once again this combination of clear-and-aqua completely takes your breath away. One of the guys on our trip lost his drone while taking some photos at this stop, which kept us there for about 30 minutes extra while the boat staff helped him and his girlfriend look for it, but of course we didn’t mind.

After our tour ended, we collected our things from the camp site and headed back to El Nido. We were sad to say goodbye to the new friends we’d made on the trip, but happy we had been able to meet them. The sun was about to go down, and FOMS was setting in again, so we stopped at SAVA once again for a happy hour cocktail.

Once we got back into town, we had to fulfil Charlotte’s day-long craving for crepes (Belgians always need their fixing), and I had my first one! Nutella and bananas, mmmm. Definitely will not be my last. The three daughters of the owner were insanely adorable, and before I knew it, I was chatting with these 2, 6, and 10-year-olds, even offering the baby some of the bananas on my crepe. Cuties!

We dropped our things off at the hotel (same one as Friday night—it felt SO nice to shower here), and headed into town for some dinner. It was actually quite difficult to find a place, as many restaurants had at least a 60-minute wait (including the Ukrainian restaurant called Odessa Mama we walked by, say whattt?!), or no definite time they could seat us. Luckily, we stumbled upon a Mexican place that somehow went from having a 60-minute wait to “no wait” when we started walking away. Suspicious, but we went with it. We were seated at a table right on the water, which turned out to be hilarious as the tide came in and we were forced to take off our shoes. The restaurant really was packed though, and we ended up waiting for over an hour for our food (the New Yorker in me came out around 40 minutes in, and we got some free peanuts and fresh juices out of it!). In the meantime, we bonded with the tables (yes, plural) next to us, and had a pretty funny moment declining three eager single guys asking to sit and eat with us. A messy dinner experience, but a funny one for sure.

After dinner, we shopped around town for some souvenirs a bit, and Charlotte bought a nice magnet, but we all knew the end was near: we needed to get sleep for our 5AM wakeup. Yes, 5AM. A time only Mom and Dad Hayden are familiar with. But our ferry left promptly at 6AM, and we needed to check in an hour ahead of departure. Upon boarding the ferry, Charlotte and Erica learned a new fact about me, which is that I am able to sleep, no matter where I am, no matter how much or how little sleep I have gotten in the days prior. I slept through the entire four-hour trip, even with some supposedly rough seas for a straight two hours on the way. I am amazed, even at myself.

We arrived in Coron at 11AM, collected our bags, and headed into town to have lunch at a cute cafe we spotted in the van when we had arrived on Friday. It was called TreeTopper Cafe, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone visiting or stopping over in Coron! Not only is the coffee and food delicious, but the owners are super sweet! They are a very kind Filipino couple who have been living in different parts of Southeast Asia for the last 25 years, moving around because of the husband’s career at Proctor & Gamble. They eventually decided enough was enough, and decided to realise their dream of “owning a cafe on the islands.” Their story was so nice, it made me really happy to see them living their dream. Erica, a coffee connoisseur, even brought back a bag of their coffee beans, so it was truly up to snuff.

The owners arranged a van to bring us to Coron Airport around 2PM. From there, not much to write about: a quick flight back to Manila Airport, a 6-hour wait in the Manila Airport filled with lots of laughing and reminiscing on our trip, followed by extreme tiredness kicking in around 9PM. Then back to Singapore!

This trip came off the back of a very rough week at work, and in the world (prayers and thoughts to my Americans back home, suffering with the loss of 17 at a Florida high school). It’s not always easy to remember how lucky I am to live here, especially when the daily stresses, along the worldly ones, come into play. But being on these incredible beaches, forming connections with the two amazing women and friends that joined me there, reminded me how good it is to be alive. How nice it is to have what I have. While it’s never okay to forget about what’s happening in the world, I am truly grateful every day for the life I am living (and yes Mom, I promise to go to church this weekend).

Some photos from El Nido: