Puerto Princesa and El Nido VacationMay 11, 2009
Not having gone on a honeymoon immediately after our wedding, we felt justified in spending for a week-long stay in Palawan.
After booking the tickets, we took the next step and planned the itinerary. Ideally I guess it should be the other way around, get the stops planned first before reserving tickets, but the tickets are already there so what the hell. With help from Google and folks gracious enough to share vacation stories, we decided to spend half our time in Puerto Princesa and half in El Nido.
I only had hotel reservations for the first night, and I intended to just look for accommodations for the succeeding nights when we got there. I also did not arrange for any airport pickups, so when we arrived Tuesday morning in Puerto Princesa, we headed straight for the tricycle queue. The tricycle driver, Mang Nonoy Manaay, inquired if we wanted to hire him as a city tour guide, so we had him give us a tour of the city in the afternoon. On the way to our hotel (Casa Linda Inn), he brought us to a nearby tourist agency to arrange tours for the Underground River and island hopping in Honda Bay. That set our schedule for the next three days.
It turned out that booking Mang Nonoy (and probably any airport tricycle driver for that matter) for a city tour was a great idea. City tours arranged through the agencies cost P600 per person, while his fee was a bit more than P600 for the two of us. Since we were his only customers, we got to decide how long we stayed in a location. The agency tours were conducted with vans in groups of ten, and had more or less the same itinerary as ours, so the tricycle trip was probably more cost-efficient, as well as more private, and in our view a better deal than the van tours.
Day 1: Puerto Princesa Day Tour
Stayed at: Casa Linda Inn (P900/night)
Lunch at: Ka Lui seafood restaurant (expensive and touristy)
Dinner at: Bilao at Palayok (expensive and touristy also)
Our first stop was the Crocodile farm, which aside from breeding crocs also housed a mini-zoo/nature walk. From the croc farm the next stop was the Mitra ranch, a rather nice place to go to for a picnic, probably. We only stayed for some pictures before heading to the next stop, Baker’s Hill. Baker’s hill housed a restaurant and a bakery whose specialty is hopia. There was a squid ball cart there that sold horrible gulaman, but the hopia was okay. Not much to do here except to eat or but bread. Our next stop was the butterfly garden, and we probably enjoyed this place the best. There were more butterflies here than the last butterfly garden I’ve been to (Sampaguita Gardens Resort in Aklan). After having our fill of butterflies here we were hustled off to the hot springs where soaked our legs for half an hour before going back to town. Mang Nonoy was rather proud of his city and he passed us by the Puerto Princesa baywalk and the nearby cathedral before dropping us off at a restaurant (Bilao at Palayok) for dinner.
Day 2: Underground River Tour (P1500/head for agency tours)
Stayed at: D’Lucky Garden Resort (P735/night)
Dinner at: Mang Inasal (best inasal place ever, cheaper than SMNE counterpart by P20 per chicken inasal meal)
Tours arranged through the agencies include free pick-up by van from our hotel, and it was a two-hour trip to Sabang pier, where boats ferry passengers to the Underground River entrance. Being early, we got to ride on the tour boat as soon we arrived at the entrance. We were seated at the very back of the tour boat, and in the underground river tours the person seated in front carried a large flashlight and was supposed to follow the instructions of the tour guide as to where the light should be pointed at, in order to see the rock formations. Unfortunately the guy in front of our boat was an idiot, and had a hard time following the instructions of our guide. He had trouble following simple directions, and by the time he got his bearings right, our boat had passed by the rock formation in question. He repeated this several times to the groans and smirks of the other passengers.
The province promotes the Underground River for the new7wonders.com survey, and banners urging people to vote for it on this survey can be found in almost all public areas in Puerto Princesa. I have to agree that the river is a breathtaking place and belongs to a different level of awesome, but I can’t say that I enjoyed the tour as much as I hoped I would. There are too many people, the tour was too short, and there really is nothing to do but to gawk at the surroundings. Going caving in Sagada was much more exciting for me. Also, by the time we got back to the mouth of the underground river, the number of tourists waiting for their turn grew to the point that there were long queues of people waiting for their turn. It’s best to get there early so as to beat the crowd.
Lunch was prepared by the tour guides, and the larger part of our tour group decided to try the Monkey trail going back to Sabang Beach. There were three of us in the group who didn’t care for the two-hour trek, so we took the boat ride back to Sabang beach to wait for the rest of our group to arrive, and spent the time swimming. We went back to Puerto Princesa when the hikers arrived, and transferred to another hotel courtesy of Mang Nonoy who helped us find another place to stay. Having paid in advance for a basic room the day before, I supposed that they still didn’t have the basic rooms available when we arrived which would explain why they rented us A HOUSE for the price of a basic room. GREAT DEAL!
Day 3: Honda Bay Island Hopping Tour (P1100/head for agency tours + P100 snorkel rent if you don’t bring your own)
Stayed at: D’Lucky Garden Resort
Dinner at: 7B Plates (expensive and touristy)
I like island hopping tours. I had been looking forward to this for the past two days, and I was disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be as great as I expected. It started out with the people we were sharing the tour package with. The third group we picked up was a conotic family of three who took forever to get out of their hotel, and were unapologetic with their tardiness when they finally boarded the van, and we still had to pick up another fashionably late young couple before we finally got moving.
Our first stop on our tour was the Pambato reef, where the main activity was snorkeling. There is no island here, but several rafts that are latched on to underwater ropes serve as staging areas for the snorkeling activities. Stupid me, I dropped my snorkel’s mouthpiece without noticing it, so while I was able to borrow a replacement, I had to cough up an additional P500 for the loss. Didn’t help my mood, but I was determined to have fun regardless. Snorkeling here made me realize that our biggest omission on this trip was an underwater cam, or even a water resistant one. We did have some great pics from this trip, but the best sights were left unphotographed. There were lots of corals and colorful fishes, and from here we headed to Snake Island.
Lunches are prepared at Snake Island by all tour guides, so there were a lot of people on the beach here. The water was shallow but there were a lot of people snorkeling. At first I thought that there couldn’t be too many fishes here because it was too close to land. Of course I was wrong, and there really were a bunch of fish swimming close to people and land. I brought some Skyflakes (the bread was sold out) to feed the fish with, but Dawn ate half of it, because she thought that the crackers were for her and not for the fish. We swam around until we were called for lunch, and afterwards we walked around and belatedly realized how long the island stretched on (forgetting that it is called Snake Island after all). We didn’t have time to walk to the end of the island because we had to leave for our last island stop.
Our last island stop was called Starfish Island for reasons not immediately obvious at first. The sand is here is rough and footwear had to be worn to avoiid injury. We spent most of our time here walking on the beach, admiring the mangroves and shells, before reaching the end of the island and finding out why it was called Starfish Island. It was like a starfish spawning pool on the end of the island where we ended up. We decided to try snorkeling when our boatman saw us and advised us to go further back to the end of the island, and then acted as our snorkeling guide. He brought a floatation device where Dawn and I held on, and he pulled us from one end of the island to another, allowing us to snorkel on the deeper (and more beautiful) parts. We had our best snorkeling there of the entire day. We headed back to the port and then to the town, and I wasn’t sure that we were able to visit all the islands on the tour because some of our companions had to catch a flight later that day. We probably spent less time on the tour than what is normal, so that part sucked. Back at our resort we rested and packed our bags for our long road trip the next day.
Day 4: Road trip to El Nido and our first day there
Stayed at: Intalula Resort (so new it was still under construction when we checked-in) – P1250 for beachside fan rooms, pwedeng tumawad
Dinner at: A nearby carinderia (tipid time)
We had to wake up early to catch the morning shuttle rides to El Nido. We arranged for trusty Mang Nonoy to pick us up at 5:00AM, and we were able to catch a shuttle that left almost immediately when we arrived at the terminal. We shared the ride with a Filipino couple (the dude worked for LTFRB, funny how government employees like us have their vacation at El Nido, it kind of breaks the stereotype) and a Portuguese couple (the girl was the hottest foreigner I’ve seen on that trip). There was a brief stopover for breakfast at Roxas town, halfway to El Nido. After Roxas the cemented road gave way to rough dirt roads all the way to El Nido, and we arrived at the seaside town at around half-past noon. I just asked the tricycle driver to drop us at any resort with vacancies, and found ourselves at a rather nice Filipino-owned resort. The owner, Mang Henry was very nice, almost paternal with his dealings with us. He helped us arrange for island tours for the next two days that we’ll spend there.
There were island tour agencies just outside the resort, and island hopping tours have been grouped into four tours, A to D. Realizing that we don’t have enough time to try out all the tours, we decided to just go for A and B. Instead of booking a tour with the agencies though, Mang Henry helped us arrange a tour with a boatman, bypassing the agencies entirely. He recommended Mang Rodolfo (his boat is named Princess Pinky), and we tried to book his boat exclusively. We were expecting a higher quote but he just booked the standard rates (P600/head for tour A, P650/head for tour B, and this includes meals for both days). IT WAS A GREAT DEAL! Even Mang Henry the resort owner couldn’t believe his quotations and tried to make sure that those were his rates for an exclusive tour, but he insisted that he was sure. He did raise his tour B rates to P900/head, which we had no problems with as the posted rates for hiring boats exclusively were at P2200, so we’re still getting a good deal. Still cheaper compared to the less spectacular Honday Bay tour.
We spent the hottest part of day resting at the resort, where there was no electricty until 2PM. Apparently El Nido town only has power from 2PM to 6AM the next day. When the day cooled down a bit we went to the beach for a stroll and swim. With our room just beside the beach, we also spent the evening sitting on a mat on the sand before going to bed.
Day 5: El Nido Island Tour A
Dinner at: Art Cafe (Not my type of place, caters mostly to foreigners. We were the only Filipino customers there. The people were nice though.)
We were picked up early on the beachfront by Mang Rodolfo, and having the boat to ourselves, we were probably the earliest to leave the town for a tour. We went to the following places:
- Small Lagoon, Miniloc Island. This is the best place I have been to during our whole stay there. The entrance to the lagoon was too small for the boat, and we had to snorkel/swim to the entrance to get to see the lagoon. It was a long swim to get to the other side, and going towards the middle of the lagoon the corals disappeared into a sheer 30-foot drop into nothingness, and despite the clear water the floor was not visible. At the end of the lagoon there was a small cave that we entered, before going back and around the lagoon and heading back to the boat. Near the entrance of the lagoon there already was what seemed to be three families worth of noisy people (apparently also from Manila) flailing about the water, and I was suddenly thankful that we booked a whole boat and set off early before everyone else. I don’t think large groups would have enough time to explore the lagoon as we did.
- Big Lagoon, Miniloc Island. No snorkeling here as the water is too deep for swimming. Just a boat run around the lagoon before heading off elsewhere.
- Secret Lagoon. A private island where a short walk along the coastline brought us to what looked like a cave entrance, but one that goes into a small lagoon. Inside was a small boat for rowing around the lagoon.
- Simezu Island. We had lunch here, along with other island tourists. Lunch was delicious roasted chicken and the freshly caught tulingan. There was also good snorkeling here, and there were lots of fishes. We fed the fishes here with pan de sal that we brought along.
- Payong-payong beach. Larger groups of tourists had their lunch here, so there were a lot of boats when we arrived. We just snorkeled here, and some of the prettiest corals we saw were from here. Dawn and I also saw a bright blue sea snake, and clams.
- Seven Commandos beach. This beach was part of the mainland, and was the last stop for all Tours A. We met some teachers from Ateneo de Davao who were here on a Lakbay Guro program, We weren’t sure at first if they were teachers, but since they were all female, of different ages, and hesitant to follow directions (we kept pointing them to a stair, they always insisted on the steep trail), we recognized the signs and pegged them for being teachers. Coincidentally, Dawn had a student in her advisory class who was also a student of some of these teachers.
After washing up and resting for a bit, we decided to explore the town, and ended up at the Art Cafe while looking for fruit shakes. It was too fancy for our tastes, but the pizza was and the milk shakes were great. They didn’t seem to be used to customers asking for free water though.
Day 6: El Nido Island Tour B
Dinner at: The same nearby carinderia
There was much less people going on the second tour compared to the previous day, and we shared the following places with a few foreigners:
- Pangulasian Island. Apparently there used to be a resort here that got burned down and was never rebuilt. We didn’t dock on the island, but the boat was instead tied to buoy near some corals for some great snorkeling. This place had the most number of fish I’ve seen. We floated around the boat, fed fishes, and gawked at the colorful fishes there for an hour before leaving for the next stop.
- Snake Island. I have no idea how many islands are named Snake Islands, and this incarnation of the name had no swimming areas, because apparently there are too many jellyfishes. There is a viewpost on the top of the island where the “tail” of the snake can be seen (a submerged sandbar that is supposed to be above water on low tide).
- Codugnon Cave. Caves are interesting places, but they always smell like guano. We also had lunch on a nearby beach which we had all to ourselves. There were still a lot of jellyfishes so we weren’t able to swim. The beach beside the cave was ok though, and I saw some swordfishes (I think) while snorkeling there.
- An unnamed sandbar. I’m always amazed by sandbars. We walked around the sandbar twice, took some photos, and watched as Manong Rodolfo and his assistants gathered small clams by scraping up the sand.
- Cathedral Cave. Just a pass by the entrance, no stopping or anything interesting.
- Pinagbuyutan Island. The beach was chock-full of dead jellyfish with lots more in the water. The beach looked like a scene from a jellyfish version of the invasion scene of Saving Private Ryan.
There was less swimming and snorkeling here compared to the previous tour, but the quality of snorkeling in Pangulasian was better, and the cave and sandbar were interesting and pretty places. We finished up the day by swimming on the beach beside our resort, and spending the evening on the beachside.
Day 7: Road Trip back to Puerto Princesa
Stayed at: Audissie Pension (P800/night, just beside Baywalk) – not a bad place to stay, but unfortunately the worst place we stayed at while in Palawan
Dinner at: Mang Inasal (now walkable from where we stayed)
We arranged to be picked up by the shuttle from our resort, and we left El Nido town at around 8AM. Slept through most of the trip, and had a lunch stopover at some Thai canteen in Roxas. I forgot the name of the place but their chicken curry was very good. When we arrived at Puerto Princesa around 1:30PM, Mang Nonoy was already there to pick us up and help us find a new place to stay. We checked-in and dropped of our stuff before going with Mang Nonoy to the market to buy honey for my mom and other souvenirs. We spent the rest of the day in the pension house before going out for dinner. I guess if we booked a late afternoon flight on this day, we wouldn’t have to find another place to spend the night. We really didn’t do much and just prepared for our flight back to Manila the next day.
Day 8: Back to Quezon City
The flight back was delayed by around 3 hours. Sadly, as much as we missed our home and sleeping on our bed, we had to repack our bags for Bataan the next day for our job with Lexi on the Alstom youth camp.
Extra Contact Information:
Mang Nonoy Manaay, Puerto Princesa tricycle driver extraordinaire – +639097578359
3Bs Tours, Agency for Puerto Princesa tours – +639192404041
Arnel, Dispatcher of shuttle from El Nido to PPS – +639296225974 (for reservations)