A Blast from the Past

Sunset view from the b&b

Summer has ended and before the full force of the monsoon season kicks in, my family went out of town over the weekend – a couple of hours’ drive- to Cavite, south of Metro Manila. For the first time D was the one who booked the place we were staying at AirBnB. When he said it was within the area of Puerto Azul, I readied myself to going back to memory lane.Entrance to Puerto Azul

You see, Puerto Azul used to be well known back in the 80s. Before Boracay, El Nido, Coron even became popular, this place was THE beach to go to. The last time I went to Puerto Azul was about 35 years ago – one summer weekend with my lola and the whole extended family from my mom’s side. Every year, when I was a child, lola would bring the whole gang out for a trip to the beach. I don’t know why Puerto Azul eventually lost its fame. I didn’t realize it still existed, until D brought it up.

Anyway, I was surprised the way to Puerto Azul was not at all congested. We drove uphill through a valley and for some minutes we were the only cars in a long stretch of a drive.

When we got there, security was tight. The guards had to call the owner of the b&b we were staying at to confirm our booking. As we drove to the villas, I noticed some patches of the road that needed repair, surrounded by overgrown grass. It was a bit charming, actually. Very natural, non-commercialized. And then we saw the rows of villas, and I thought they looked pretty.Home for the weekend

Our b&b was quite a spacious place. Three floors, a terrace overlooking the sea. Birds of different breeds were chirping (almost screaming) happily. My eyes feasted on the variety of  colors and sizes of the birds.Sunset view from the b&b

And because school had already started and the rains were becoming more frequent, we had the beach all to ourselves. The beach was not white sand, and not as fine as the sands of Boracay, but the waters were clear and that was enough. As I floated on my back and steadied my breathing, my eyes gazed at the moon (yes, it was there even though the sun had not even set yet), and I tried to make a connection with the present moment. The water felt so good, and for the brief moment I felt at peace. “When was the last time I swam in the ocean”, I recalled. “Shocking how time flies, was it really almost a year ago in El Nido? I should do this more often… I told myself last year I’d do it more often – why did I hold off?Rain, in the distancePlaying on the beach

That weekend trip was so refreshing, it was a good reminder to myself to stop and focus on what’s more important: family, nature, peace of mind. I made a deal with my cousin last weekend as we wrapped up our trip over lunch – We have to go to Caramoan, or Calaguas – any of the beaches in Bicol, that’s been in my bucket list forever. He smiled as he said Yes. It was fantastic.Almost sunset

 

 

Bicol Beaches, in a Heartbeat

Roadtrip

“If you were taking a road trip tomorrow, where would you go?”

I came across this question in my A Sentence A Day diary that a good friend gave me for my birthday a couple of years ago. The diary has different questions I get to respond to with a one-liner, and these questions repeat on the same date for three years. Reading through my answers for the previous year, not only do I get to appreciate how time flies, but more importantly I get to reflect how my thoughts and feelings evolve and change on these different points in time.

Today’s question is different: after writing my response, I took read through my entry for last year and realized my thoughts remained the same. In a heartbeat I wrote beaches in Bicol, Luzon’s southernmost province. I’ve only been to Bicol once, when D and I spent a weekend exploring the surrounding areas of the majestic (and notoriously shy) Mayon Volcano. Because we were there for only a couple of days, we were not able to go to the beautiful beaches nearby.

First on my list (which I wrote this same day last year) is Caramoan Islands. It’s an isolated, and undeveloped rugged paradise composed of a cluster of islands in Bicol’s Camarines Sur. Tourists of Caramoan compare this beautiful place with El Nido in Palawan.

This year, I’ve written down Calaguas Islands as my road trip dream destination. It’s about 325 kilometers (one way) drive from Manila to the province of Camarines Norte in Bicol. Some dub this group of islands as “the next Boracay” because of its fine white sand.

Same thoughts for the same question, for two years in a row. I’m still trying to convince D to drive to any of these destinations – he said not this summer as the beaches are already packed (The heat is ON!), and he said I might want to consider flying to Bicol instead.

However which way, I intend to go to Bicol, to either (or both) Caramoan or Calaguas. Definitely this year, first chance I get. I have faith. It’ll be awesome!

boat
an almost empty white sand beach

 

A Week in Bantayan

Sta Fe Bantayan

I’m not really a beach person, and I’d prefer to go to the mountains at any given time. However, this year, I had my fair share of the beach life: from learning how to surf in Baler, Quezon; to biking and discovering hidden beaches in El Nido, Palawan.

I was blessed with an opportunity to volunteer for a week in Bantayan, an island known for its white sand and crystal blue waters north of Cebu City. I was to support the preparation for the reopening of the SEACAMP.

So I packed light and flew from Manila to Cebu on a Monday morning. From Cebu, I commuted almost three hours by bus to Hagnaya port, passing along seaside towns and letting my mind wander and imagine how it would have felt like waking up each morning to the sound of waves and seagulls. The three hour ride almost felt like forever – I got off one town away from Hagnaya port because I shouldn’t have drank too much water before embarking a long ride (I realized that too late). I  took a tricycle to get to the port and hopped on a ferry to Sta. Fe, Bantayan. I got to the white house where I was to stay for a week at around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Yes, I spent my first day commuting.

LTE signal was weak, so I braced myself for a week without internet – I took it as a sign that I should just be one with nature. After dinner, we would have a short quiet stroll at the beach, and later on I would get to sleep early because it would be lights out at around 9 o’clock. For the first two days it was daunting but I eventually got the hang of it.

Before I get carried away with my memories, do you know what this shell is? My friend, Nadine and I saw heaps of this while we were walking along the shore. They have a star shape embossed on them, and they’re pretty delicate, really. They easily break, like eggshells. I think they’re so pretty.

Delicate little shell
Very delicate thin coated shell

What I loved about Bantayan are: the white sand, the singing and gliding birds, halo-halo, fresh air, clear waters, and the colorful picturesque sunsets.

hammock view
View from the hammock, Bantayan, Cebu

One night, just after sundown, we went to the beach to see the ‘dancing fish’. One of our hosts lit his flashlight and let the skim over the water. Lo and behold, hundreds of fish jumped up towards the light as the beam passed them – they looked like they were dancing indeed! Our host told us that it was a way the fish communicates back to them, as the stretch of sea in front of the SEACAMP is a marine-protected area. The fish were dancing to say thank you for protecting our home. While I watched that phenomenon, I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Who would have thought something so simple could be so powerful as to touch my stoic heart.

At the SEACAMP, I was able to learn and practice composting, which I later on applied at home. We planted malunggay trees, experienced fetching water from a well, fed fish in the kois, and prepared the newly built school. We also recycled plastic waste by grinding them. Later on they would be mixed with cement and be converted into what would become fish homes (I forget what they’re called). We saw the marine protected area up close when we got on a glass-bottomed boat. I am truly inspired by SEACAMP’s efforts to protect the environment.

I got to know some of the locals and my heart leaps knowing that they love Bantayan so much and would do all that they can to preserve it.

Church in Bantayan
Catholic church in Bantayan – Took me about 40 minutes (and 30 pesos) to get to the town by commute. The church is right smack in the middle of the plaza of Bantayan. 

Take Me Back to El Nido

Secret Beach

“I’m moving, I’m coming. Can you hear what I hear? It’s calling you, my dear, out of reach. Take me to my beach. I can hear it calling you. I’m coming, not drowning swimming closer to you.” – All Saints, Pure Shores

Yes, the beaches of El Nido had been calling me for years. I have always been keen on going, but I was just waiting for the right time – in other words, a seat sale. You see, direct flights between Manila and El Nido are usually expensive, and as far as I know there is only 1 airline (AirSwift) that flies direct. A cheaper alternative is flying to Puerto Princesa in Palawan, which is 230 kilometers away from El Nido. From Puerto Princesa, it would be another 5 to 9 hours’ land travel to El Nido.  So when earlier this year AirSwift announced a limited offer seat sale, I immediately booked tickets.

Sunblock, shades, and swimsuits in my backpack, I excitedly went to NAIA Terminal 4 for our weekend getaway. The flight to El Nido was smooth and took less than an hour. El Nido airport was a charm on its own. It was simple, clean and had a modern Asian architecture.

Airswift
AirSwift airlines at El Nido airport

Day 1: Getting around by motorbike

Public transportation in El Nido can be quite expensive, especially if one wants to roam the different beaches. For us to get to our Corong Corong beachfront bungalow from the airport, we paid 300 pesos (US$6) for a 30 minute ride. When I was doing my research, I read that daily rental of tricycles to be able to get around El Nido can cost up to P1,500 (US$30).

It’s good that my husband is an adventurer, and whenever we go to beaches in the Philippines the first item on his list is to rent a motorbike. We have done this in Batanes and Baler and he is comfortable getting lost and finding our way (so as long as we have enough gas left in the tank!). We rented a motorbike for 500 pesos for a day, and headed off to our 3 main beach destinations.

BikeElNido
The bike we rented to explore El Nido, Day 1

Nacpan Beach

Nacpan is 20 kilometers north of El Nido town proper. It is a beautiful 4 km long white sand beach that has a “twin” called Calitang Beach. Prior to our trip, I have read several raves from tourists citing Nacpan as the most beautiful beach in the world for them.

The beach was almost empty that afternoon. There are several restaurants next to the parking space. We had lunch at the Mad Monkey hostel and bar, where we had a nice view of the beach and the coconut trees. Everyone in the restaurant was friendly and relaxed. At the bar, there was a ‘Pacquiao Punch (Do It For Your Country) contest’ that looked like fun – they had a running tally of which guests from what country had the most number of shots. I wish we could drop by at night and join in on the party, if only Nacpan just wasn’t so far away. At that time, the country leading the ‘contest’ was Canada….

Duli Beach

Next stop was Duli Beach, considered to be a surfer’s destination in El Nido because of the huge waves. This is by far, the most beautiful and secluded beach for me in El Nido, and we had the long stretch of white sand lined with coconut trees all to ourselves.

It is northeast of Nacpan, 14 kilometers away. It was not easy to access. We stopped several times to ask for directions, and the dirt road was narrow. Because we drove through rough roads, it took us 30 minutes by motorbike.  Driving to this paradise alone was an adventure, and I’m happy we braved through almost crashing through the mud because this beach was just awesome!

Duli
We had the beach all to ourselves!

We hung out inside a ‘kubo’ (Filipino word for ‘hut) and drank juice from a freshly picked coconut.  We got to chat with a regular surfer and he said that the best months to surf are from November to April.  I hope that Duli Beach will not be commercialized – its raw beauty is astounding as it is.

Marimegmeg Beach

After heading back to our B&B in Corong Corong and resting for an hour, we headed out again for late afternoon drinks and dinner. The locals referred us to go to Las Cabanas for a perfect view of the sunset. We learned that Las Cabanas is also called Marimegmeg Beach, just a few hundred meters away from where we were staying. It was a downhill hike from where we were parked. There were many bars and restaurants in the area, and the Sun Bar caught our interest because of the lively vibe and good music. Everyone secured a spot facing the sea while enjoying their drinks. The sunset, I must say, was spectacular. Vibrant colors of pink, violet, orange, and yellow filled the sky – it’s the picture perfect sunset, like the ones I try hard to paint (but have never succeeded in completing yet).

Beachsunset
Sunset at the Las Cabanas beach

Day 2: Island Tour – Tour C

Island tours are popular in El Nido. Below are the most popular tours, along with the price per person at the time I was there:

Tour A (P1,200 or US$22) – a 7-hour tour with the following destinations: Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island , and 7 Commando Beach

Tour B: (P1,300 or US$24) – a 7-hour tour with the following destinations: Snake Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Beach, Cudugnon Cave and a snorkeling activity

Tour C: (P1,400 or US$26) – a 7-hour tour with the following destinations: Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Star Beach, and Hidden Beach

The tours include buffet lunch, snorkeling equipment and bottled water for drinking. I asked the locals what tour they recommend, and most of them answered Tour C. So, yep, that’s what I signed up for.

On Day 2, my husband and I were picked up from our B&B and we headed to Bacuit Bay at the El Nido town. This is where our tour commenced from. There were several boats filled with tourists like us, and most of them were headed out for Tours A and B. Our boat for Tour C only had 4 pairs of guests – which was good because we were not crowded. For safety, were all required to wear our life vests at all times.

Helicopter Island got its name because the island was shaped like a helicopter. Its real name is Dilumacad Island. We spent about 20 minutes snorkeling here. The water was clear and I saw a lot of fish. After snorkeling, I had fresh coconut juice. It was so refreshing!

All 8 of us in the boat opted to skip Matinloc shrine as it required a bit of a hike and additional payment. So we hung out on the Star Beach, and snorkeled some more while our tour guide and captain cooked lunch. We had a sumptuous meal on the boat (and I had another fresh coconut juice, because I just couldn’t get enough of it).

For the Secret Beach and Hidden Beach, we swam in deep water about a hundred meters to get to the beach. The beach could have been beautiful if not for the big crowd – turned out they’re not so secret after all. It pained me to see some of the tourists step on the corals of the Hidden Beach. I wish this part of the tour could be skipped altogether to preserve the corals.

Boodle Fight Restaurant (and B&B)

After the 7 hour trip, we headed to our new B&B at the Boodle Fight Resto & Bar. They offered a simple room with private bath and WIFI, and their food options from the restaurant were yummy. The owners of this B&B were very helpful and friendly. They are located along the main road of Corong Corong and was close to other restaurants and establishments. I found my kombucha drink at an organic store close to the B&B. What I liked about the store is they promoted recycling, and asked for me to return my bottle after I finished my drink.

Day 3: Lio Beach

On our last day, we rented a tricycle to get to the El Nido airport. Our driver was kind enough to let us stop over at the Lio Beach which was close to the airport, while he waited at the parking lot. Lio was more commercialized, but was empty at that time. There were several restaurants in the resort, and this is so far only place I have been to in El Nido that accepted credit card payments for our quick lunch.

Lio
Lio Beach and pier

Everything I’ve written so far are the good things about El Nido, right? If I’m asked what are the cons of going to El Nido, I can only think of 2: sand flies and the looming commercialization. First, the sand flies, which I realized only on Day 3 (via the signs at Lio Beach). I noticed bug bites at the end of Days 1 and 2 and thought all along they were mosquito bites and they were soooo itchy. As for the looming commercialization, I say this because I saw some ongoing construction on the island. In Nacpan and Duli Beach, we were asked for parking fee and ‘entrance’ fee by locals. The price was not the issue, it was just fishy for me because they did not issue any receipts at all. I don’t know what those ‘fees’ were for, really.

As for the majority of our El Nido trip, I can say, hand on my heart, that it truly is more fun in the Philippines. I can’t wait to go back to this beautiful place, and I wish that its beauty and simplicity will be preserved. It would break my heart if it becomes another Boracay. I hope not.

To book with AirSwift, check out their website at https://air-swift.com/. To book a room with Boodle Fight Resto & Bar, check out their Facebook page here. And lastly, for more information on Duli Beach, check out their Facebook page here.