Friday, April 12, 2013

Seven Travel Highlights of El Nido, Philippines

The boat drifted towards tall limestone cliffs carelessly draped with small green shrubs. We seemed to be floating away from the deep blue sea onto a vividly turquoise reef. The unabashed clarity of the water fooled us into thinking the seabed was four feet deep but, as the boatmen clarified, it was at least four times that. I stood up gingerly with a bulky camera on hand towards the bow of our motorized fishing boat turned tourist vessel and leaned steady against the mast.

"This is the Big Lagoon," our tour guide Von said as we entered a narrow canyon. It was flanked by karst towers on both sides and, as it was currently high tide, it was flooded by the warm, crystalline waters of Bacuit Bay. I of course immediately recognized this place. How could I not? The Big Lagoon of El Nido, Philippines has come to be the iconic picture of tropical paradise in my head, thanks to countless postcards, posters, and billboards depicting this little corner of the 7000-island archipelago I call home.

Big Lagoon, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
The Big Lagoon of El Nido, Philippines
has become the iconic picture of tropical paradise.

In the few more days that I would spend in El Nido, Philippines, I experienced a few more travel highlights that reassured me of the fact that my country, the Philippines, is one of the most beautiful travel destinations in Asia and that Palawan, an island I have visited twice before, is still the most beautiful and the most pristine of the Philippine islands I have been to thus far. I have seven reasons why. Here are the seven travel highlights of El Nido, Philippines.

1. Big Lagoon

Big Lagoon, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Entering the Big Lagoon will leave your jaw irretrievably on the (sea) floor.

As I described above, I felt my mouth gape open as I stood on the bow of our boat sailing towards the narrow opening of the Big Lagoon. Limestone karst cliffs stood on both sides and the clearest of the clearest turquoise waters lapped between them. The scenery was unforgettable and one of those things that even if you see a thousand times in numerous photos of El Nido, Philippines, you are still overwhelmingly impressed by it when you see it first-hand.

2. Reef on Miniloc Island

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Reef close to Miniloc Island with the clearest and most brilliant waters I have ever seen

Having no time left to sail to a reef too out of the way, our tour guide Von had to take us to a small beach somewhere close to Miniloc Island. The beach was quite tiny and nothing remarkable. The reef, however, was a different story. That morning, I thought the waters of the Big Lagoon was the clearest I have seen in El Nido, Philippines. How wrong was I! Upon reaching this part of Miniloc Island, this unnamed reef, I quickly donned my fins and goggles and jumped in the water. You will never realize standing on the boat how deep the waters here were. It was at least 15 feet. It is all because of the sheer clarity of the water.

Underwater Curiosities, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Even the low-quality underwater camera I was carrying had a hard time taking crappy photos.

3. Star Beach

Star Beach, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
The vast and deep reef of Star Beach became the star of the show.

Located on one side of the narrow Tapiutan Strait, Star Beach is nothing remarkable. Yet the reef right in front of it is something else. It was the best snorkeling spot I had the chance of visiting in El Nido, Philippines. Water was so clear and the reef vast and deep enough that it harbored interesting sea creatures. I was the last one to get back on the boat when it was time to sail away. Honestly, I did not want to leave just yet.

Star Beach, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Snorkeling and taking underwater photos became a little too enjoyable on my part.

4. Seven Commando Beach

Seven Commando Beach, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
We found ourselves sharing this long, sandy beach with just a few other tourists.

There were a lot of tourists when we arrived in Seven Commando Beach, mostly daytrippers like us. It was lucky, however, that we arrived a little later in the afternoon. Soon after we had descended from the boat and settled on the island, the other tourists boarded their boats and headed back to the town of El Nido, Philippines. The ten of us had the long and sandy Seven Commando Beach all to our own this warm and sunny afternoon.

5. Hidden Beach

Hidden Beach, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Not accessible to most boats, Hidden Beach
has visitors swimming a short distance to reach it.

Hidden Beach had a number of things going against it. Protected from the open seas and concealed from view by very sharp limestone towers, the beach can only be accessed on either of its two sides. Most boats cannot dock anywhere close as the waters are too shallow past the limestone towers. Rocks and boulders lie on the reef bed close to the island, too. The morning we visited, large waves were also thrashing hapless tourists about as they swam towards the shallow access area of this hidden cove. Still, I found myself drawn to this little corner of El Nido, Philippines. Maybe it is having to work hard to be rewarded with such beautiful vistas. Had there been fewer other tourists here, I would have loved to spend an entire day in this place.

Hidden Beach, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Hidden Beach is a beautiful cove protected from the open sea by limestone towers.

6. Matinloc Shrine

Matinloc Shrine, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Walking the grounds of Matinloc Shrine felt like seeing a forgotten place of worship.

Catholic sites are the last thing I would expect to find in this remote region of the country. It was certainly a surprise to me that when we reached Matinloc Shrine, it will be one of the places in El Nido, Philippines that would impress me the most. I felt like I was walking into a forgotten place of worship, abandoned and left for nature to take back what it once owned. Our guide Von tells us that once a year, devout Catholics from the town of El Nido would make a pilgrimage here to pray. Now that is something I would love to see.

Matinloc Shrine, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Matinloc Shrine is a calm and peaceful place
where the only sound you hear is the gentle lapping of the sea.

7. Tapiutan Strait and Matinloc Island

View from above Matinloc Shrine, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Tranquil waters of Tapiutan Strait viewed from atop the limestone cliffs of Matinloc Island

Perhaps no other place in El Nido, Philippines had me deliriously awestruck more than Tapiutan Strait. I had been looking forward to seeing this place even before I reached El Nido, Philippines. The viewpoint is perched atop the limestone cliffs towering above Matinloc Shrine. Upon docking on the island, I quickly asked our guide Von where the steps to the viewing deck was. I climbed up the tower with my excitement growing as I made one step after another. As I viewed the tranquil waters of this narrow body of water from the top of the dangerously sharp and jagged limestone cliffs of Matinloc Island, I was left speechless. As soon as I had clicked the shutter button of my camera for the first time, I knew I had my shot. If I returned to Manila from El Nido, Philippines that night, I would have gone home very happy, satisfied, and abundantly rewarded.

These are my top seven travel highlights of El Nido, Philippines. Have you been to El Nido? Which do you think will be your travel highlight?

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