Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Round the World Trip: Palawan Islands

Friday we flew to the Palawan Islands, a collection of over 1,700 islands an hour west of Manila. I hadn’t heard of the Palawans until late 2012 – initially, Bali was going to be our first stop on the trip. But the movie The Bourne Legacy ended with a panoramic shot of the main characters sailing among some beautiful islands in the Philippines and I had to find out where it was. Sharon and I decided we’d go there instead of Bali. I knew I wanted to also travel around the islands and a search turned up one company that offered such an experience: Tao Expeditions. We booked a five-day trip leaving from the town of El Nido, which is at the northernmost tip of the biggest island in the Palawans.

Our flight landed in Puerta Princessa, the capital of Palawan, and we climbed in a van for the five hour drive north to El Nido. Our van was a twelve seater. Three people who had also booked the van didn’t show up. We were grateful they missed it since it would have been extremely cramped for such a long drive. Counting ourselves lucky, the van pulled onto the road and the trip began.

But after no more than fifteen minutes we pulled to the side of the road and picked up a few people. One of the new passengers was a woman carrying a potted orchid and a bag of live goldfish. I jumped in the front seat next to the driver so I’d actually have room to stretch my legs a bit.

After a minute the driver, who was in his fifties, turned on dance music. Very loud dance music. I wasn’t going to be able to take it for the entire ride and put on my noise-canceling headphones, which reduced the volume to your standard college rave level. Fortunately, he skipped over some of the tracks on the CD and then turned it off.

The first time he passed traffic on a turn I clenched my jaw and pushed my foot into the floor of the van, looking for a brake pad that wasn’t there. Passing on turns turned out to be a regular feature of his driving. Despite this potentially fatal habit he would give a courtesy beep when approaching someone walking along the side of the road or passing a motorbike to let them know we were approaching. This began to get annoying since we passed people every few minutes. He’d also honk at people walking on the opposite side of the road walking towards us who had clearly seen our approaching van of mayhem. All of Palawan had ample notice that we were coming.

Nonetheless, we made progress. One hour ticked away. Then two hours. Then three. We stopped for snacks and a bathroom break. Four hours passed. We stopped by the side of the road and randomly picked up two more people, who squeezed their way into the van. I lost my monopoly on the front seat and was now sharing it with one of these people. More ear drum busting dance music was played, but the driver noticed me put on my headphones in response and turned the volume down.

As we neared El Nido the paved road ended and a gravel road began. We slowed our pace. This was adding insult to the injury of being crammed together. Then froad construction started. They were only building one lane at a time, so one side of the road would sport a new cement surface for a couple hundred meters, raised a good foot higher than the other side of the road which just had gravel and dirt.

At one point there was no ramp onto the new raised road, so the only option was to use the gravel lane – this essentially created a two-lane road on a single gravel lane that curved out of sight and had no flagmen working to manage traffic. We pushed forward. Sure enough a large bus lumbered into view, heading right for us. We pulled as much to the side of the road as possible and the bus eked by. The journey continued. Finally, around 7:00 we rolled into El Nido. We were unceremoniously dropped at a market at the edge of town. Sharon and I got our luggage and hopped into a tuk-tuk to continue on to our hotel.

El Nido is a small beach town protected from wind and waves by giant karst towers that the area is famous for. It’s maybe half a mile wide and only a few blocks deep. The roads are dirt. Most of buildings serve the tourist trade in some way: hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourism agencies. The water just beyond the beach was crowded with bangkas – traditional Filipino fishing boats, many of which are now used to cart tourists around. We had dinner at a beachside restaurant where we could pick the fish we wanted and watch them grill it and then turned in for the night.

We only had one full day in El Nido before our trip on Tao so we booked a day trip. Everyone offered the same day tours, which were simply labeled A, B, C, or D. We went on tour A. The scenery was amazing as our bangka left El Nido and turned a corner out of the bay – pillars of black rock jutted out from turquoise water; white sand beaches peaked out from protected inlets.

We stopped in several different places throughout the day and spent most of our time in the ocean, swimming around in the warm water or snorkeling to see the coral. We had an amazing midday lunch on an empty beach. Our crew of three grilled pork, chicken, and fresh tuna and served this up along with salad and some fruit for dessert. It was a fantastic way to spend the day.

Back on shore we treated ourselves to pizza for dinner since we knew we’d be eating lots of fish for the duration of the Tao trip….

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