The Forgotten Philippines

Postcard-Perfect El Nido
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El Nido Town, Palawan Island, the Philippines — No bank. Only three phones. And a post office that is usually out of stamps.

Hidden lagoons, deep caves, mangroves and Technicolor reefs. The sun-soaked, deserted beaches are a given, but the sheer numberof them and the turquoise surf are enough to titillate even a Southern Cal sand snob.

After a grueling 20-hour trip north from central Palawan, I stepped off the bus in remote El Nido, snorkel in hand, ready to bob around in far-flung bays, eat through tubes of sunscreen, wolf down fresh fish and cold San Miguels and lead a drowsy Robinson Crusoe-like existence.

This little town is a Filipino boondocks perched on the edge of the dramatic Bacuit Archipelago, a 96,000-hectare marine reserve where the gin-clear clarity of the water means snorkelers and divers can spot manta rays or sharks 30 meters away.

A friend told me about El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago, knowing that I had grown tired of traveling and sought a time-out, somewhere to waste a few days doing nothing in particular, but not a place where recreation is limited to sloshing on Ban De Soleil Mega Tan and throwing back pina coladas on a beach.

This is not like Boracay, he said, with its bikinis and bars, nor is it a U.S. Navy-less Subic Bay, with its bars and, well, bars. El Nido is another paradise, like so many others, but it has tics: it's friendly like Andy Griffith, but tinged with the schizophrenia and comic oddity of New York's East Village.

Perfect.

The scenario here is that people come to El Nido for the archipelago, then stumble across a few surprises, like Gloria. She's the husky Filipino/Filipina who leads the town's lone lounge act. Standing under a rack of pink stagelights, she sways her XXL hips and weights her voice to a sultry slur:

"It's goood to touch the greeeen, green graassss of hoOOOooooome."

To see a drag queen ...

"Down the road I walk with myyyy sweet Mary"

Woozily crooning Claude Putnam, Jr. ...

"Hair of gold, lips like cherries"

In a Filipino boondocks ...

"It's goood to touch the greeeen, green graassss of hoOOOooooome."

"It's goood to touch the greeeen, green graassss of hoOOOooooome."

Is the comic oddity I'm talking about.

Gloria bounced to our table as her band —"The Survivors" — noodled through a ghastly transition. "Hi there! Do you need any more drinks?" She was something to take in, a true roadside attraction — the queen of frizzy hair and the king of campiness, an artist paying her dues in a nearly empty bar. We chatted briefly as her band tried to bridge from country folk to heavy metal — a White Snake melody, I think — but it was too much and our eardrums began to collapse. "No thanks on the drinks Gloria." We made a polite, but hurried exit.

Over the next few days, between trips to the nearby islands, I explored the town and ferreted out its more eccentric residents.

I found Willy, the wily and somewhat crotchety German divemaster of Bacuit Divers. Gloria Fernandez, (no relation) who runs an ever-expanding quasi-empire of beachfront bungalows and whose penchant for make-up keeps Mary Kay alive. And Bowie the boatman, who rides wild in"Stallion," one of Gloria's outrigger banca boats.

There's also the banana lady on Rizal Street.

"Where are you from," she asked.

"America."

"America! I have a son there. California. I don't remember the place, but he likes it. You don't look American."

"Born in New York."

"Are you married?"

Hmmmmm.

The next day I saw Gloria at the same banana stand, where I had just been asked for the third time if I was married.

"Hey baby, you coming again tonight," she asked.

"Maybe. I haven't thought that far ahead. I'm still snowed in by last night's San Miguels."

"Ooohhhh, you must! I have friends coming, all the way from Ma-nila!"

Oh, oh, oh ... head pain. She squeals the city-name with the nails-on-chalkboard velocity of a cheerleader. It really is too early in the morning, and she is head to toe in .

"I can't. I'm, uh, having dinner with some friends."

"Oooooooo."

I left her with the banana lady and turned a quick corner to find Bowie and the "Stallion." I was headed out again for my final day in the archipelago. As I walked, my head pounded. " Twenty pesos (45 cents) is too cheap for beer," I grumbled aloud. Wait 'til unabashed tourism discovers this place, then it'll be a respectable $1.50 and people like me won't be boondoggled into sitting at beachside bars slurring the words to Jimmy Buffett songs when it's well after midnight.

I found Bowie on the north end of the beach, standing near four tourists whom I met a few days earlier. After several attempts, he started the engine and steered Stallion into the building swells of the South China Sea.

By noon, he had whisked us down three deserted beaches, through two coral gardens and in and out of several nooks and lagoons. We landed on yet another deserted beach and the group spread out again. Bowie grabbed his speargun, mask and snorkel and waded into the crystalline water. I followed.

Losing track of Bowie, I swam with Joel and Jeremy, a couple of Canadians, hunting for black and silver tip reef sharks and diving deeply to observe a school of meter-long bumphead parrotfish. Bowie suddenly appeared to my right, then swam quickly past. His lunch preparations looked like it had led to the demise of several red snapper and was about to doom another that flitted by.

Stringing along his earlier kills, he leveled his speargun and sank 10 feet, sizing up the target. I plunged after him; I had never seen anybody use a speargun before.

Seconds later, I saw the fish. Then Bowie spotted it. I smiled; Bowie smiled back. The snapper scowled. It just made the lunch menu.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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