In 2012, I traveled solo for the first time in my life.
I still remember how scared I was before the trip. With only a small backpack, a Neil Gaiman book, a thousand dollars, and a will to get out of my comfort zone, I boarded the plane to Bangkok. As I was checking in, there were no butterflies in my belly, only a great fear that I might find myself unfit for the travel lifestyle and come running back home earlier than planned.
They found me at the common area, playing bingo. Yes, bingo.
“We’ve been waiting for you downstairs,” my new friends said. “We thought you were in your room.”
Alas I was not. I was in the company of fun-loving backpackers from around the world, each of us meticulously arranging our piles of tiny pebbles that would be my markers on the two cards that bore random numbers. The next round was just about to start. Friday nights are Bingo nights at SPIN El Nido.
Dining is a big part of travel. Food is an essential part of any destination. The same holds true for El Nido.
Although this humble town tucked in the northern tip of Palawan does not have a distinct, world-famous cuisine, a trip here is not complete without trying its many restaurants — something I failed to do during my first visit. My equally wanting wallet at the time could only spew enough money for bread for breakfast and street barbeque for dinner. Not complaining, but still.
We were in the mood to bask in the sun that morning. El Nido wasn’t.
It was sweet and sunny when we left our hotel. Despite the heavy rain the night before, we kept our optimism on the way to our destination. As I sat inside the van, I thought, “This is going to be a great day!”
All of a sudden, the vehicle stopped. It was bogged. The continuous raining the past days had turned the dirt road into chocolate marshmallows and now swallowed the tires of our van. We hopped out, removed our slippers, and walked several hundred meters barefoot to the beach. Still, nothing was going to spoil the day!
As our boat glided through the waves into the Big Lagoon of Miniloc Island in El Nido, Palawan, I couldn’t help but think about how much I needed this break. The limestone cliffs that surround the clear, turquoise water reflecting the sunny skies were more therapeutic than any massage or cigarette I had. It was the perfect moment. A classic corporate-slave-meets-paradise moment. Every stress that work had brought me in the past few weeks was blown away by the wind, washed away by the waves of El Nido.
We called ourselves S Club 7. We were a group of three guys and four ladies on the beach. We couldn’t help but relive our younger days when the airwaves were filled with melodies of boy bands and pop groups. We wanted to shoot a remake of S Club 7’s Bring It All Back video when we were there. Don’t worry because we didn’t do it.
El Nido, apparently, has many secrets.
We thought the Secret Beach of Matinloc Island (Tour C) was the only concealed beach that we were gonna set foot on in this trip. But Miniloc Island has a secret, too. After exploring the Big and Small Lagoons, and having lunch at Payong-Payong Beach, Tour A continued and led us to a paradise made of limestone. It was a surreal experience approaching this hard, spiky karst world. It was like we entered another world — a world where “ugly” is either banned or non-existent.
They were the first to speak. “Where are you from?” asked the gentleman.
“We’re from Manila,” Leo, one of my friends answered. “How about you?”
“We’re from Denmark,” said the lady.
They were Rene and Kate. He’s a surgeon, and she’s an anthropologist. They had been traveling around the Philippines for almost a month at the time. El Nido was their last stop, not counting Manila.
I was starting to enter a state of depression as I tried to zip up my life jacket forcefully. “My tummy is getting in the way,” I self-deprecated when I was asked what the matter was. It was the third life jacket I tried and I really needed one because I, embarrassing as it sounds, doesn’t know how to swim. Boo, bite me. (I should start taking lessons.)
Update: El Nido Waterfront Hotel is no longer operational.
We stood in the middle of the road, not talking, on our second night in El Nido. All seven of us wanted to try other hostels but we just couldn’t find available rooms. We were in front of Garnet Hotel, a towering red-orange building that looked newly-built. We had already talked to the caretaker but she said there was only 1 room available and it could accommodate up to three persons. We were a group of seven.