Saturday, February 16, 2013

When Paradise Is Not Paved

So we just wrapped  up a week in El Nido on the northern tip of the Filipino island of Palawan. I've actually spent the last two days in an internal debate (no, not another Debbie against Debbie fight! Who will win?) about whether I think El Nido is worth a travel article.

Here's what I think. On the plus side, El Nido is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, up there with Positano or Guilin for its sheer beauty. Karsts -- jagged mountain of porous limestone that rise out of aquamarine waters and are surrounded by beaches with sand the consistency of talcum powder -- surround El Nido. Most tourists spend their days island hopping, choosing from one of four regular routes or scuba diving and snorkeling around these islands. We did both and it was very nice, if a tiny bit physically demanding. For me, the snorkeler, I had to deal with jellyfish, benign-looking creatures, most of them the size of my fist, but that inflicted tiny stings on my arms as I pushed past them in the water. 

And the water one day was choppy, which meant that swimming at the surface was a challenge, with waves breaking over my back and water getting in my tube, and so murky below that I couldn't see a whole lot.  But overall, it was still a treat to be swimming with the fish (in a nice way), taking the sun on a cute boat (and, bonus points, sharing that boat with a very cute French filmmaker with long hair and a tattoo on his ankle. We bonded over how much we both despised Gerard Depardieu).

The day of island hopping included visits to several gorgeous lagoons (and prompted me to order a very blue Blue Lagoon drink at dinner that night...friends will recognize my irrational love of themed drinks) and that was lovely. For a few moments, Bob and I even had one lagoon to ourselves until it was invaded by a group of life jacket-wearing Chinese tourists, but that's okay: they provided a certain amount of entertainment value too.  One young woman was lugging her tiny life jacket-wearing grandmother on her back, causing Joanna to theorize that the only way this family could convince grandma to spend her spring festival in the Philippines was to assure her they would take care of EVERYTHING.

And also in the plus column is the sheer warmth of Filipinos everywhere. We only met genuinely nice people who were willing to go out of their way to make us feel welcome. They rival the Thais for smiling all the time, as they walk down the street, when they see their friends.

And then there were the spectacular sunsets from our hotel, appropriately named Stunning Vistas. Each night, we'd sip a cocktail and watch the sun sink behind the karsts. One night the sky was magenta, another night peach, a third night the brilliance of the sky didn't reveal itself until after the sun had disappeared and it was as if the sun's spotlight was shining up from below into a sky decorated with wisps of fluffy clouds.

But there were, both literally and figuratively, rough edges to El Nido, starting with the bone-jarring five-hour ride from the airport in Puerto Princessa to El Nido, a ride that took us careening along curves and through unpaved roads. I may have said this already but I think that paving paradise just a little bit isn't such a bad idea. The ride to El Nido was in the dark, which I learned on the last day may have been slightly better than seeing by daylight that your driver has a habit of deciding to pass a vehicle on a blind curve or going up a hill. 

And the basic truth is that El Nido isn't ready for the hoards of tourists who descended. There just weren't enough restaurants, the local transportation constitutes bone-jarring (see a theme?) "tricycles," which are motorcycles outfitted with a carriage on the side that can hold three people in a very tight squeeze. The hotel we stayed at was basic. A hard bed, towels that were not changed for the duration, and, in the second room we got, no working ac. If you wanted coffee with breakfast, that was extra. If you wanted towels for the beach, you rented them.

And I have to admit that I'm spoiled by the food of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Filipino food is not that. We decided that ordering grilled fish was our best option, but many times, the restaurant had run out of the catch of the day.

And as for things like "easy" cliff hikes, see my previous post.

This sounds a little whiney. I guess the truth is that El Nido is geared more for backpackers than tourists who might want a soft chair, a good meal, or a Nutella crepe. If you go, expect beauty and perfect weather. But make sure you pick first, second, and third choices on the menu, and have a sense of humor. Of course, I always bring that.

No comments:

Post a Comment