Swimming in the big lagoon at Miniloc island near El Nido

Extremely happy after swimming for 90 minutes alone in the Big Lagoon at Miniloc Island.

Nestled in the northernmost tip of the island of Palawan at the corner of Bacuit Bay facing the West China Sea, El Nido has over 50 beaches to comb. Featuring enchanting lagoons with tranquil turquoise-green water, caves that lead to hidden beaches, and diverse and wild scenery.

The islands around El Nido, on the Philippine island of Palawan, are famously known as the secret backpacker’s paradise that inspired the book and movie “The Beach.” Author Alex Garland, accounts say, wrote the book while backpacking for six months in Palawan.

A tropical wonderland, CNN calls it one of the world’s best travel destinations, marveling at its “powder-fine beaches and gin-clear waters” and “the stunning views of (its) karst limestone formations, empty lagoons, marble cliffs, prehistoric caves, and waterfalls.”

Day 1 – Puerto Princesa to El Nido

View of El Nido town from the cliffs.

View of El Nido town from the cliffs.

Rolling and careening and bobbing to and fro, we gradually make our way from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Any hopes of catching a moment of sleep during the bus trip were dashed immediately. The only available seats on the bus all had broken levers on them, so rather than staying fixed in the downward position, they hurtled back and forth between down and upright. As a result I was tossed and thrown constantly awkwardly from one position to another the entire night long. Add to the mix Palawan’s dicey and windy roads, and the whole experience felt like a thrill ride at Six Flags. I told my travel companion that I suspected the bus driver had just escaped from prison, the way he was driving. 

And so I’m sure you’ve heard what they say when it comes to the best laid plans of mice and men. I learned the hard way that just because a bus leaves at night, you should never assume it to be a “sleeper bus.” We arrived in El Nido, in a torpid state of half-awake, half-terrified, at 3:38 in the morning. I had assumed that we would leave the bus terminal in Puerto at 10pm, get a full 8 hours of sleep, and arrive at 6pm. But this prediction was far too optimistic. And so there we were, dumped off at the bus stop at a quarter to 4 in the morning. My companion asked a tricycle driver in Tagalog to take us to a budget inn. He took us down a deep alley of dirt to a place called “Egay’s Inn,” which looked nothing like a guest lodge. There was no lobby, and the entire place looked dirty and run down. But we had little in the way of alternative options; it was 4 am, we were exhausted and needed a place to lay our heads. The owner led us to a small and basic room with a fan but no air conditioning. 

In this entire town of El Nido electric power is only available in the evenings from 4pm – 6am. When our fan shut off we awoke immediately. My travel mate started rummaging through her belongings for a half hour to 45 minutes while I groaned that we should get some more sleep. I set my alarm for 9:30am and eventually, finally, she came back to bed and we were able to sleep for about another hour and a half more. 

Nacpan Beach

That morning I left to rent a motorbike, and we took off to explore the area around El Nido. Acting on a recommendation, we set a course for Nacpan beach. We had planned to stop at the Nag-Kalit Kalit waterfalls on the way, but ended up passing them by. The stretch of beach at Nacpan is one of the longest beaches I have seen, easily comparable to Florianopolis, Baja, and even our own Black’s Beach. It could easily take hours to walk from one end to the other. After riding the bike a ways up the beach, we disembarked and began walking to the far end, trying the best we could to keep out of the sun’s heat.

Running out of time and daylight, we returned to El Nido from Nacpan and continued directly to Corong-Corong, a little ways south of El Nido, to watch the sun set. The bugs here are big and aggressive, and as we sat on the beach we had to swat at them constantly. Although the sky was mostly covered with large rainclouds, the sky and sunset was magnificent nonetheless and presented us with a dazzling array of colors and cloud formations. We headed back to town for some dinner at the Artcafe, a trendy hipster-style boutique restaurant on the second floor of a building next to the town’s wharf. Nineteen years ago, in 1995, a lady from Switzerland met Tani, a local Filipino from El Nido, and some years later they had created this restaurant. At any rate, the food was delicious, and after the long day I devoured everything in short order. 

Day 2 – El Nido Island Tour

On Sunday we went on an island hopping tour in El Nido (Tour A). Christian was the 19 year-old tour leader, and I made friends with another crewman who answered to “Arnold.” Christian owned his own boat and was studying hotel and tourism management. He’s a good kid and he definitely has a bright future ahead of him. I hope to see him again when I re-visit El Nido.

Our first stop was at the 7 Commandos beach, where I got on a small raft with a paddle and explored some of the caves near the beach. Tried to play volleyball with the crew but, as it was a Sunday, there was nobody on the island to lend us a ball.

View of 7 Commandos beach in the distance.

View of 7 Commandos beach in the distance.

30 minutes later we came to Miniloc, the island that inspired the movie “The Beach.” We waded into the shallow waters of the “Big Lagoon.” The rest of the group stayed in the shallow waters to snorkel, but I decided to swim across the length of the lagoon. It was an experience I will never forget. Peeled off from the rest of the group, I navigated the lengths of the pool to myself. Rain fell down from thunderclouds in the heavens it made the place seem all the more forbidden and exotic. I swam across the one side and climbed up onto the rock. There were evil-looking sea urchins all around me, and I felt extremely fortunate to have avoided them. A needle in my spine or foot is not a souvenir I was looking to collect 🙂

I dove back into the water and floated belly-up in the middle of the lagoon, staring up at the limestone cliffs all around me, and my and pulse quickened and my imagination started racing. I felt as though I had been re-born. Perhaps it provided a kindling that my adventurous soul, too long stifled by the dull monotony of every day existence, so desperately needed. I felt alive, unbound, and free. I describe moments like these as “peak experiences” where one truly feels alive in the present moment, and each noise, every ray of light, or drop of water that falls is magnified and amplified as it tickles and entices the senses. I will never forget my experience swimming alone through that lagoon.

I swam back to the group and after some more snorkeling, we had lunch. On the boat the they often played house and techno music, and the crew and I had fun doing some crazy dances together, and shared a lot of laughs. I can’t speak highly enough of the crew of the boat, and I will miss them, especially Christian and Arnold. I regret that I didn’t take any photos with them, or exchange contact information.

Lunch was the usual affair of mostly fish and meat, although there was an abundance of yellow watermelon and bananas. Since I eat virtually no meat, I accounted for at least 80% of the fruit. After lunch we went to the small lagoon, which although impressive in its own right, wasn’t as memorable an experience as the pools were packed with throngs of tourists. Packing so many people into such an exotic and forbidden place really dampens the experience. The people act like they’re at SeaWorld and don’t truly appreciate the special magnificence and grandeur of such a location.

Entranceway to the small lagoon at Miniloc island.

Entranceway to the small lagoon at Miniloc island.

The fish here will come up and bite you on the legs and feet if you don’t keep kicking. They don’t bite hard enough to hurt, it might sting slightly, but the sensation is strong enough to startle you. I got bit a couple of times. After a short swim I climbed between a crack within rocks and ended up in a small cave, where just a few trickles of light made their way between the narrow fissures. After a few minutes I left and swam to the far end of the lagoon, where at last I could spend some time alone away from the packs of tourists and truly soak in the moment and the majesty of nature all around me. Below me were rainbow-colored fish, the most magnificent I have ever seen.

I must have been a while because when I swam back Arnold told me that they had been waiting for me. We both started swimming back to the boat, and I fancied racing him back, to compare his swimming skills with my own. But on the way back I cut myself a couple of times on the shallow reef, including a fairly significant gash on my foot, and had to slow down. 

We climbed back onto the boat and visited our last two stops, the secret lagoon and its adjacent beach. The spaces here were narrow and the cliffs extended high, perhaps as tall as a 60-story building. There was a small hut with thatched roof on the beach, just before the cliffs. Sitting in the shallow water taking it all in, I was struck by an awesome sense of wonder. The tantalizing touch of forbidden mystery ensnared me once more and tickled the deep nether regions of my imagination.

The "secret beach"

The “secret beach”

Something started to awake inside me, a sense of something primal and basic. Here in this place that was so far removed from the cares and politics of the world. Could I live in such a place and be content? All I knew is that I wanted to stay longer, but the boat was leaving, and unable to make such a heavy decision that day, I had no choice but to return back to the boat, back to the world I knew.

All in all, we had basically done the “tourist circuit” over those two days, but it was still well worth it. Again… I wish I could have stayed longer. But it was back to Manila for me, back to the world of wifi and modern conveniences, and hard work to maintain this wonderful dream that we call life.