Solo Backpacking: El Nido, Philippines for the first time
Thursday, January 1, 1970
“Six-hour land travel. This ‘one-on-one’ time off with ~myself~ is a pain in the arse. Literally”, I thought as I was sitting in the passenger seat of a van service, with 9 other (starving) travelers, on our fourth hour on the road.
“Are we there yet?”, I asked the driver nicely.
“We’re near the stop-over, ma’am”, he replied.
After having our late dinner, we paved the road once again. Out of curiosity, the van driver asked me, “Excuse me, ma’am, by the way, why are you travelling alone? Exploring El Nido is better when you have someone to share it with.”
Why should I visit El Nido?
Palawan is the largest province in the Philippines in terms of total area of jurisdiction. It has been dubbed as the ‘Best Island in the World’ for two years by Travel & Leisure magazine, and was voted no. 1 island in the world by Conde Nast. Palawan has some of the best underwater sites to snorkel and scuba dive in the world. El Nido heightens the contrast between the mundane and the sublime.
“Hmmm, I have no idea either. All I’m sure of is I’ve been wanting to do this and I’ve always wanted to go. A dream since I was a kid, really. And I believe now is the perfect timing, *kuya.”
(*In the Philippines, “kuya” is a Filipino term used as a sign of respect to an older male.)
How to get to El Nido
To be brutally honest, 6-7 hours on a strange sometimes bumpy-slash-most of the time dark road in the middle of the night with 10 other people from around the world for the first time by myself wasn’t rainbows and butterflies. There was seriously a time when my patience was about to run out, to which I had to sleep off instead. It was only the beginning anyway, and I believed it’s going to be worth it.
It’s 12 midnight. I woke up to our driver’s tired yet joyful voice announcing, “GOOD EVENING, EVERYONE! I’M PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE THAT WE HAVE ARRIVED. I’M WISHING YOU ALL A VERY NICE STAY. THANK YOU.” He dropped everyone off their respective hotels, and then dropped me off the hostel, together with 2 foreign girls (Ireland); one was very irritated because I forgot to withdraw money in the airport so I had to ask our driver to help me find an ATM machine on our way. The three of us are friends now, don’t worry!
(NOTE: It was only in 2016 when some banks started to generate ATM machines. There is also a useful alternative method just in case for some reason the ATM in El Nido is not working. So don’t panic! But you know, better safe than sorry! Make sure you have cash with you prior travelling to the island!)
MANILA – PUERTO PRINCESA – EL NIDO / MANILA – EL NIDO
Manila Airport to Puerto Princesa International Airport
Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Air Asia
Transportation from Puerto Princesa (Puerto Princesa International Airport) to El Nido (Town):
• You can book van service transfers online or ask the hotel/hostel staff to arrange it, they will gladly do it for you. Sometimes, it comes with their Island Tour packages. Sometimes, if you’re really, really lucky, it’s for free.
• Or you may prefer taking a bus for a cheaper price, and longer hours on the road for less than PHP 500.00
• Well, if you’re just being spontaneous, worry not! There are vans going to El Nido right outside Puerto Princesa airport. It will cost you less than PHP 1,000.00 (Just like what I did)
(NOTE: The van service driver will drop everyone off your respective hotels/hostels, so make sure to inform him where you are going to stay.)
Manila Airport to Lio Airport
Transportation from El Nido (Lio Airport) to El Nido (Town):
• If you don’t have all the time in the world, you may choose to fly straight to El Nido (Lio Airport) from Manila and vice versa. You can take a 20-minute tricycle ride going to El Nido. Or check with your accommodation if they can organize your pick up.
TOUCHDOWN EL NIDO!
I checked in at Our Melting Pot Hostel. First thing the front desk admin asked was my nationality. Not my name. I replied, “Hello, I’m Alaizza. I’m Filipina” and asked a few things regarding tours & activities, and apologized for booking on short notice, in straight *Tagalog. She was surprised and happily told me, “Wow, you are very brave for a young lady. We don’t get to meet a lot of filipina solo travelers here in El Nido. You’re the second one, and we’re very pleased to have you, this way please–”
(*Tagalog is the basis of the Filipino national language.)
Of course, I was very flattered. What a way to end my first night in El Nido–OH WAIT, WHAT?! D*MN RIGHT, I MADE IT!
I stayed at Our Melting Pot Hostel, also known as OMP. I booked my bed in a 8-bed mixed dorm room for PHP500.00/night, while waiting for my flight to board, via their Facebook page. One of the best things about OMP was they respond very fast. No hassle.
I entered the mixed dorm room and introduced myself (to my roomies!!!). Some of the girls (America) have also just arrived that evening and were about to sleep. The boys (Germany & Italy) were heading out to have some drinks at Pukka Bar and invited me, which I had to decline. I reminded myself I was there to have some time alone, not to party, or even socialize. I know. Stop looking at me like that. I know I could’ve just booked my own hotel room if I wanted some time off and peace of mind. Backpacking for Dummies 101.
Things to do
- Pukka Bar is the only reggae bar in town. This bar is good if you want late night drinks and a fun time with other travelers. They serve cheap food and drinks. They have live bands, and is located right on the beach.
- El Nido Boutique & Artcafe has a very nice atmosphere and good service. The menu has lots to choose from.
So anyway, I put my backpack down, refreshed a little, and then went outside the hostel. I was observing and having coffee & cigarettes while planning my entire stay in my head. Everything had been spontaneous; from buying plane tickets to searching for accomodation last minute.
I mean, I should at least figure out what I really want to do while I was there, right? I should plan my life ahead like the person that I am. In silence, I watched people coming and going. People passing by. People passing through. People having the best time of their lives, or at least trying to – whether drunk or sober.
“Or maybe not. I’ll just enjoy every moment as it comes instead”, I have decided and asked myself, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”
I swear, I slept like a baby. Aside from waking up late (7 in the morning is considered late), and finding out that my roommates already had (free. Thanks, OMP) breakfast upstairs — I woke up to a very beautiful morning the next day and was literally in awe. God, it was paradise. Such a stunner!!! Mind you, beautiful is an understatement.
I was never a morning person so I was never fond of having breakfast. I finished my coffee, then I inquired at the front desk if I could climb Taraw Cliff. Unfortunately, it rained a little for a few minutes early in the morning so I was advised not to push through as it can be very dangerous, and nobody was going anyway, even tour guides. They told me to try island hopping instead and recommended Island Tour A.
- Our Melting Pot Hostel also offers island hopping tours, motorcycle rentals, tour guided Taraw cliff trekking, van service transfers to/from Puerto Princesa, plus some other island tours, etc. You don’t have to worry about a single thing. All you have to do is ask. (P.S. I loved OMP so much that I felt the need to cancel my stay in another hostel which I considered at first. They even helped me cancel my booking. Heehee! And I’m not being paid to promote them, by the way)
- Island hopping tour packages range between PHP 1,000.00 – PHP 1,500.00, lunch and safety gears included. Each island hopping tour goes to about 5-7 different islands, starting from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, although it may vary depending weather conditions. Snorkeling masks and kayaks are also available for rent.
NOTE: You will really get sun-kissed/burnt out there so don’t forget to bring sunscreen! I had golden-tanned skin for almost 2 months. I loved it, though. So much.
I did Tour A, and then Tour C the next day. I wasn’t planning of doing another island hopping tour the next day but I guess fate and the universe had other plans for me, which turned out to be SUPERB! I’d really love to discuss more about El Nido’s island hopping tours in detail, but I realized words will not suffice. Go, see for yourself! I can assure you, whichever island hopping tour you choose is going to be really, really amazing, exciting and worth it! Also, every island tour package consists of free sumptuous lunch by the sea on one of the islands. Besides the majestic deep marine chert, massive limestone islands here & there and powder-fine beaches, you will surely be amazed on how the boatmen cook and prepare food for at least 15 pax on the boat! Then, voila!
Remember when I said I went to El Nido to have alone time so I could get some peace of mind? Yeah, me neither. Lol. Kidding aside, prior this trip I asked the universe for a much needed space & peace of mind, and have received it–though, I was never by myself in El Nido. I have realized that I was not, I am not, and will never be alone. We are loved, so much that no matter where we are, whatever batshit crazy things we do, even at our worst, mostly when we are lost, especially when we feel empty inside—the universe will provide. Always.
I decided to follow my heart and just go to my childhood dream destination one day; with limited money and no itinerary. And had been provided with safety, security, and strength. It’s true, all you have to do is to follow your gut and trust the universe that it will all work out. I was blessed to have met so many beautiful people from around the world in a short span of time I was out there. Some days were more exciting than the others, some we danced the night away, every day well-spent.
I will never forget those nights by the beach, drinking cheap alcohol with my newly found friends, sharing our stories and learning different perspectives. I always find it fascinating that whatever you do or whoever you used to be, the people you meet while travelling will never ever judge you. You just click. You have this unexplainable connection that lasts a lifetime. And it makes my heart happy knowing that I still have them until now.
I will never get tired of sharing stories about the teachers I met on one of the island hopping tours and the things I have learned from them; about the professional cyclist who taught me to never give up on love no matter how far and long it takes; about the locals and boatmen and their love for El Nido; about the long-term travellers and their longing for home; about the spontaneity of backpackers and what’s inside their bags; about the guy who told me to be brave enough to lead the path my way; especially that one person – that person who has been travelling for 10 years and made me realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a first-timer or had been to 128 countries to be called “well-travelled”–travelling is not a competition, there are no rules. (More about their stories on my next post!)
El Nido felt a lot like home. Soul recognition.
Here’s to the days when you go anyway!