A Cautionary Tale of Travel Hype
Some travel destinations live up to all the hype, others simply do not. Perhaps it’s the price we pay for having access to so many online travel planning resources. Or spending too much time being #inspired to #travel on Instagram. We risk over-planning. On the other end, we may assume the vacation will be just like the epic pristine beach pictures portrayed on all the tourism websites, and don’t actually educate ourselves enough before we arrive at the destination.
This was almost the case for my recent trip to the Philippines. A two week itinerary included the famed Ati Atihan festival in Kalibo, the party island of Boracay, and a week on Palawan traveling from the centre of this massive world renowned island to El Nido in the North. Ati Atihan Festival was colourful, but due to some schedule gafs we missed the “big” parades of finale weekend. Boracay was pleasant, but paradise was dominated by unexpected rain showers and hoards of tacky tourist traps. Our accommodation contact went MIA causing us to scramble for the first few days on Palawan.
This left all hopes of a fairytale vacation on El Nido. The pressure for a win was resting on the three nights my travel companion and I booked at an upmarket ‘glamping’ experience. “It’s going to be amazing. We overlook rice paddies. Plus, it’s a luxury tent straight out of some magical safari setting” I promised my friend – and myself. Thankfully it was all of those things and more. El Nido is the place responsible for completely changing my perspective on the Philippines and making me want to book a return trip.
Falling in Love with El Nido
If I’m honest, it was really the hospitality of our hosts at Aetas Glamping that completely saved the day and allowed El Nido to live up to all the hype. The attention to detail, kindness and cooking of the team elevated our holiday from pleasant to exceptional. They truly opened my eyes to the beauty of the people and the land of the Philippines.
Touring El Nido with Josh, our young Aetas Glamping guide was pure magic. We escaped from the hoards of tourists who pack into the pre-set tour A, B, C, and D boat trips (the literal naming convention). We were able to get off the beaten path and experience locations with only a handful of other travelers. You can easily spend a full day exploring Nacpan Beach and Duli Beach, with the aid of a rented scooter for around $10 USD/day. Surf is strong, sand is warm, and cold beer is readily available from several huts along these otherwise barren beaches. Take your pick of where to lounge, read or swim, as the nearest person is likely over 100 feet away. During our visit, fewer than 100 or so people could be spotted along the respective 4 km and 2 km expanses of Nacpan and Duli Beaches. This stands in sharp contrast to stories of hour long queues of novice kayakers battling to enter the ‘Big Lagoon’ on Tour A that day.
Though tourism is booming, day trips and tours that avoid crowds can easily be found El Nido if you know where to look. We’re big fans of Waz SUP. It’s owned by a Canadian couple who imported a few stand up paddleboards and their love of the sport in 2014 and currently offer a menu of several small group outings. Or, go deeper, like depths of the ocean deeper. Beyond the stunning limestone karsts, scuba diving is what El Nido is known for. Palawan Divers is top ranked, while Deep Blue Dive Seafari has the largest boat (important for those prone to seasickness). Both are great choices for novice divers looking to obtain PADI certifications.
Returning to the idea of island hopping, the best way to experience surf, sun and scenery is without a doubt private boat charter. You can set your own itinerary and delicious beach BBQ meals are still included. It’s best to negotiate in person once in El Nido versus paying online, as costs vary from 3,800 – 7,000 ₱ (inclusive of lunch, exclusive of snorkeling gear, kayak rental and alcohol) for a six to eight hour trip accommodating up to eight people. Typically trips run from 9am to 4pm however it’s strongly advised to arrange an earlier departure to get a jump on the crowds that will inevitably appear. For those who don’t quite have their sea legs, breathtaking hiking and thrilling ATV options also exist. Enjoying sunset with a beer in hand is another fail safe.
Once the sun goes down, the Aetas Glamping team has no shortage of recommendations when it comes to great restaurants and nightly entertainment that prove to cement our love of the region:
Conveniently located on the beach in central El Nido town, Pukka Bar is the defacto hot spot most nights, with live reggae music and big crowds of both locals and travellers.
Thursday nights in El Nido mean one thing: glow in the dark mini raves at the base of limestone cliffs on the southwest side of town. Just look for placards around downtown for party details.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a more up market venue to enjoy the sunset, visit La Plage Sunset Bar & Restaurant halfway between the town and Las Cabanas Beach. La Plage serves local and french inspired cuisine, with watersport rentals by day and a DJ by night.
Venture five minutes further to Las Cabanas Beach itself and you’ll be rewarded with a dozen eclectic beach bars offering bean bags, swings and loungers to patrons as they savour views of the setting sun. The Aetas folks were kind enough to wait while we indulged in a few beverages then took us back to town. Otherwise prepare for strong negotiation with the tricycle drivers who wait in this area, and post-sunset extortionist pricing.
Without a doubt the entertainment highlight of our trip was the ‘fiesta night’ held once a week on site at Aetas Glamping. Guests are encouraged to bring dishes pot luck style, and are rewarded with a Pinterest worthy dining experience. After dinner the real show begins with impressive fire dancing performances followed by the opportunity for guests to try their hand with the flames as well. Let’s just say we Canadians were total naturals.
The kindness of the Filipino people had been spoken about a great deal by other travelers, but wasn’t really experienced first hand until we arrived at Aetas Glamping. Imagine returning to your tent each day to discover a new gift of homemade organic coconut beauty and bath products waiting for you. Or access to free tricycle services saving you from negotiating with taxi drivers again and again. It was the definition of true hospitality, personified. But with only four tents (known as ‘tribes’), the operation books up months in advance, so we suggest you contact them via their Facebook page and plan early. My adoration of this operation is entirely my own, without incentive from the accommodation provider.
All in all, El Nido quickly became the highlight of my Philippines travel adventure. I hope to return again – this time venturing even further off the beaten path. If you’re planning on visiting any one of the 7,000 islands that make up this country, be sure to read the travel advice offered below.
Philippines Travel Tips: Let the Experience of Others Help You
Book your exit before you arrive. Philippines immigration policy requires proof of onward travel for foreigners. Unless you show flight or cruise booking details, ALL airlines WILL reject you while attempting to check into your flight to enter the country. Although we certainly didn’t plan on overstaying the 30-day tourist visa and bumming around the Philippines for months on end, we learnt the hard way and had to scramble to buy departure tickets in the airport, with the check-in counter closure looming. If you don’t know exactly when you’d actually like to leave the Philippines, simply buy a more expensive though fully refundable ticket. This allows you to appease airlines and customs officials for entry, while still giving the flexibility to cancel and change the dates of your onward travel once you’re in the country. Caution – it’s important to be clear in the ticketing policies of any airline you purchase from, otherwise you may be stuck with a very costly ticket that can’t be amended. Ouch.
Prepare for unexpected weather. Irrespective of what ‘season’ it is, different regions can be hit with severe storms and flooding seemingly at any time of the year. As luck would have it, we opted out of including Cebu on our itinerary, only to meet travellers who had been stranded or had to change plans last minute due to weather issues there at the exact same time we would have gone. The drizzle that followed us for days on Boracay was uncharacteristic of January weather, but try telling that to Mother Nature. The implication is as much for your attitude (be flexible) as it is for your luggage (waterproof covers on backpacks, and rain jackets and gear are a must).
Get a local SIM card. Wifi is a rarity in some areas (El Nido!), and it will be FAR easier to text or call most tour operators and accommodation than trying to bum use of a cell phone off of locals or employ carrier pigeons. Local carriers offer cheap introductory deals with free text between users on the same network and often free unlimited Facebook data (but not free general Internet browsing).
Recognize travel time. I certainly took this for granted when first developing my ‘wish list’ of places to travel to within the Philippines. It’s 7,000 islands folks! Flights nearly always connect through Manila or Cebu, ferries are often 7-27 hours (when not delayed by weather), and lengthy bumpy bus rides dominate your travel options. As such, set realistic expectations on how much ground you can cover during a one or two week vacation. Consider clustering your travel: Start with Manila which offers an enviable food scene, from which you venture North to the Banaue/Batad rice terraces and explore the rest of Luzon‘s rich archeological history. In the centre of the country, Cebu City, Bohol and a flight to Boracay & Kalibo (for Ati Atihan) are reasonably close to one another. You can expect a mix of culture, the famed chocolate hills and Tarsier monkey sanctuary as well as beach time and festivals if visiting in January. In the West, Palawan is a huge island with tons of natural beauty to discover working up from Tabon Caves near Quezon to Honda Bay, then Sabang‘s underground river towards El Nido, and finally scuba diving in Coron off the North Shore. From Coron you’re expected to ferry back to Manila for onward travel.
While booking flights, budget carrier Cebu Pacific Air seems to offer the greatest flight frequency and most competitive prices. For buses, several small operators run on different islands. If in Palawan, we’re big fans of Daytripper Palawan for quality vehicles and great customer service. For sense check on timing and modes of transportation across the Philippines, consider Rome2Rio as a resource.
Vegetarians beware. Nearly every specialty dish we discovered in the Philippines (with the exception of sugar ladened halo halo dessert) seems to feature (fried) pork. Exceptional meat based curries, fresh seafood, BBQ chicken, sausages, and deep fried pork crackling dominate the menu. Although not impossible for vegetarians to enjoy a trip to the Philippines, it certainly makes eating at local restaurants a challenge.
Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. This comes as no surprise to those who have travelled Asia before. With the exception of metered taxis in Manila, you must strongly negotiate when it comes to tricycle drivers in more remote regions as well as shops where no fixed price is posted. For transport, make sure the price you’re quoted is for all passengers combined, not “per person”. Also critical to ensure the driver actually knows where to go. Why? They will almost always accept a fare and then consult others on the road as needed to find your destination, with varying degrees of success.
I’m a firm believer that honesty is generally the best policy. However, when it comes to bargaining for goods I see more of a grey area. I’m sure many honest business owners are genuinely curious to know where I’m from and where I’m staying. However saying Canada, America, Australia, or naming one of the higher end accommodations or resorts in town can often illicit higher prices given wealth perceptions from those countries. In these situations consider naming the capital city of the country you’re travelling in, and claiming you are an expat teacher there. For instance, being an “English teacher in Manila, staying with friends just outside of town” may save you.
El Nido travel photos provided by Madeline Burch.