Flying into El Nido was as dreamy as it sounds. As the plane slowly made its descent, we peered through the window and saw several green islands with pearl white coastlines surrounded by turquoise waters. The afternoon sun cast a golden sheen on the beaches and coconut trees below us, painting an all too perfect image, like a scene from one of Julio Cortazar’s stories.
We got off the plane and boarded a modified jeepney to two gazebo-like structures, less than a hundred meters away. A bamboo bench with a thatched roof stood in the middle, waiting for our luggage. We were welcomed by a group of older women, gaily serenading us with folk songs. A few steps away was a lone tree and a carabao resting under its shade, completely unperturbed by the activity nearby.
While some passengers were fetched by vans ready to take them to the wharf for their boat rides to Miniloc and Lagen, the rest of us boarded tricycles bound for the town center. Soon as the plane took off, everyone, the vans and trykes, trailed out of the airport, past a dusty stretch of road and drove across one end of the tarmac before getting on the highway. This was certainly no Boracay or Phi Phi Island. I smiled in relief, while clutching my backpack on the bumpy tricycle ride, my face already half caked in dust.
The next five days rolled by unhurriedly. Days were spent hopping from one paradise island to the next, swimming through caves, snorkeling in shallow reefs, paddleboarding inside the big and small lagoons, picnicking on grilled the day’s catch, while staring at the endless blue waters and tree-covered islands, reading and dozing on the quiet beach in Marimegmeg, and watching the dramatic sunsets from Corong-Corong and Dolarog beach.
Twelve years ago, I remember how these beaches and lagoons were virtually empty. Miniloc was just enchanting, the town center a sleepy beachtown. It was easy to imagine how Alex Garland found inspiration in these islands while writing The Beach.
Now, with better roads from Puerto Princesa to the northern part of Palawan, and the additional flights to El Nido everyday, there has clearly been a lot more tourist activity. At one of the beaches we went to, we found maybe eight other boats unloading guests, and a few more on their way to the next island. Some evenings, most beachside restaurants were full, so we had to wait for a table. But the crowd was never pushy and the wait, just another chance to talk about how the day had gone better than planned.
The languid pace and laidback vibe had remained. We silently paddled by ourselves inside the small lagoon, and later found a strip of beach on Cadlao Island, almost completely secluded except for a friendly dog and only one other boat at the far end of the beach. This was still the El Nido I fell in love with years ago.
It was the New Year’s weekend when we went this time. The main beach in the middle of the town was packed in the mornings, when everyone got on their boats for the day’s island hopping, and at sundown until late into the night, when the beach was filled with plastic tables and chairs. At night when the tide was high, the water reached some of the tables but no one really minded. We walked from one bar to the next, trying different food every night. We realized how small El Nido was when we noticed that the Italians at the next table were the same faces we saw at one of the islands earlier that day.
On New Year’s Eve, the entire beach was packed with tourists and locals. It was a windy and cloudy night yet everyone was out to welcome the New Year on the beach. The crowd kept growing, spilling into the already soaked shoreline. We didn’t hear any countdown but knew it was time when a modest show of fireworks lit up the cloudy sky. With caipiroskas in hand, we toasted to the New Year, and to the beginning of a dream that was El Nido.