January 10- 14, 2017: Puerto Princesa El Nido
I made my third trip to the Philippines with Leuk and Lili (my nephew and niece) as they were both on holiday. We spent 11 days in Puerto Princesa and El Nido in Palawan and Manila in Luzon.
Leuk and Lili took a Padi open-water diving course in Mabul, Malaysia over Christmas in 2015. They have had no chance to dive since. When I knew Leuk’s colleagues from his school in Kunming, China would be going to Manila on a study tour followed by a side trip to Puerto Princesa and El Nido in Palawan from January 10 to 15, I proposed we could join the side trip as I have never been to Palawan which is a popular diving destination. We would stay on in El Nido for a few days after the group left on January 14. We would return to Manila for two more nights.
Leuk’s school principal, Freddie, a Philipino arranged this Palawan trip for the group. We requested Freddie to arrange us to join his group and ask his agent to book our flight from El Nido to Manila. On January 8, Leuk got a brief message on the itinerary and cost without detail on accommodation, activities and our flight on January 18 from Palawan to Manila.
January 10 Tuesday: Hong Kong – Manila, Philippines – Puerto Princesa
As the flight would depart Hong Kong before 8am, we had to be at the airport around 6:30am. As I did not want to get up too early, I booked a taxi (HK$200) for 6am. It took us just half an hour to reach the airport.
We arrived in Manila on time but had to hang around in the airport till 3pm for our connecting flight to Puerto Princesa, capital of the province of Palawan. I looked around at the exchange rates at the airport (US$1 to about 49 Philippine Peso (P), 1 RMB to P6.8 and HK$1 to P6. As I thought the exchange rate outside the airport in Palawan might be similar or better, I did not change money at the airport. This turned out to be a grave mistake: the rate dropped to 1 RMB to P6.4 in Puerto Princesa and P6 in El Nido).
We were picked up by a driver at the airport who dropped us off at the Go Hotel. We were confused as Leuk was given a different hotel name. Luckily, all passengers on the flight to Manila had been given a free SIM card with data. Leuk immediately texted his girlfriend, Isabel who was with the group. She told us that we would be staying in Go Hotel. (We later learnt that the place the group stayed was in poor conditions and dirty. When Freddie discovered that our room could be cancelled without penalty, he cancelled our reservation). Go Hotel is a simple business hotel: we had a room without breakfast in for just under P2,000.
Around 6pm, we finally met up with Freddie and the group (Freddie, an retired Chinese lady, William from Brazil, Carla from Panama, Karla from El Salvador, her husband Joshua from Mexico and their 7-year-old daughter Mikaela and Leuk’s colleagues-Isabel, Faith and Mindy). After a buffet dinner, we were taken to a pier to board a small rowing boat for fireflies watching. Each boat takes three passengers. Our boatman first showed us the amazing glow of bio luminous plankton in the river when he moved his oar gently through the water. Then we were thrilled to find fireflies illuminating the mangroves on both sides of the river. It’s the first time I saw this magical phenomenon (I have seen fireflies in caves in New Zealand twice).
When I met Freddie, I asked him politely for a breakdown before I paid the agent. When I got the breakdown, I noted that the airfare from Puerto Princesa (not El Nido as I had requested) to Manila was over P3,000, the 3-day group tour to El Nido P5,500 pp, the airport transfer P500, bank transfer P800, agent fee P1,500 and two trips in Puerto Princesa P3,100 pp. Had I received the full itinerary with breakdown of cost and details well in advance, I would not have asked the agent to arrange the trip for three of us thus saving P7,000-9,000. The main saving would come from the airfare as other local agents were offering the same flight for less than P2,000 pp and the 3-day trip to El Nido would be around P4,000pp. The problem I encounter this time arises because I have asked Leuk’s friend to make arrangements for us trusting everything would be well taken care of. I normally would not commit till I have full details about a trip, I have let down my guard this time. I have learnt a lesson: if I arrange a trip through someone I know directly or indirectly, I would still press for full details before making a commitment. I should not feel embarrassed: it is not a sign of distrust in a friend/person.January 11 Wednesday: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
Carla had moved to Go Hotel at her own cost after spending a night with the group: she could not stand the poor conditions. While waiting for the bus to pick us up, we had a chat about the tour arrangement. Apparently, she was also dissatisfied with the lack of information and had asked the agent for a breakdown of cost.
Today, we visited the Subterranean River National Park, a World Heritage Site located in the Saint Paul Mountain Range about 50km north of Puerto Princesa. It features both surface karst features (pinnacles, shafts, dolines and limestone cliffs), as well as an extensive underground river system. The subterranean river is 8.2km long with several large chambers up to 120m wide and 60m high. It is the world’s longest navigable underground river. The sheer size of the cave through which the river flows through before reaching the South China Sea, spectacular rock stalactites and stalagmites formation are breathtaking and has been declared as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The presence of a large population of bats makes our boat ride in the dark even more mysterious.
I am glad to have a chance to visit this wonder of nature. But my tourist experience was marred by three things. First, we were told to wait in the lobby at 7am. I got up at 6:30am before seeing Freddie’s message about an one-hour delay. Second, when we arrived at the pier, it started to rain. The pier was packed with people and we had to wait for an hour in a rain shelter for a boat. As the Park Authority only allows 2,000 visitors a day, tour operators and the authority should have made better arrangements. Operators can get a time slot for their groups in advance and bring them to the pier 15 minutes before the boat departure. I spent less than an hour inside the cave travelling but felt the whole day was wasted! As I am a time-conscious person and serious professional tourist, I hate wasting my precious time. Third, the boat crossing the bay to the beach where the National Park is located is powered by very noisy engine. I hope the authority can do something about noise pollution which spoils the scenic boat ride.
I was dropped off at the Go Hotel around 4pm while the guide would take the group to a souvenir shop for shopping. I was under the impression that I would be picked up for a group dinner. It turned out that the dinner was not included and the driver left after dropping the group in the harbour with plenty of local eateries. As a result, I did not take a taxi to join Leuk and Lili who had to take a tuk tuk back to the hotel after dinner. I can only conclude that our guide is unprofessional and the arrangements are messy!
January 12 Thursday: Puerto Princesa – El Nido
We were supposed to depart at 8am. The group was late again and we had to wait for half an hour. Bad habits or poor organisation? El Nido is about 230km north of Puerto Princesa. We arrived in El Nido after 2pm. Leuk, Lili and I stayed in Cliffton Guesthouse while the group stayed in a pension with two rooms and two toilets. Our room is small with only a double bed. Leuk had to sleep on a mattress on the floor. Had we booked our own accommodation, we would have paid P2,000-2,500 for a decent room with breakfast for three in a guesthouse or P4,000 – 5,000 in a hotel. (Anyway, we moved to Lady Grace Guesthouse nearby for three nights after the group left. We paid P2,000 for a decent room with a double bed, a single bed and toilet. The breakfast in a family run restaurant is also much better)
El Nido comprising 45 islands and islets, is a popular destination known for its sandy beaches, lagoons, fascinating 250 million year-old limestone cliffs and four archeological sites. It also boasts 888 species of fish, 2,645 hectares of mangrove and beautiful corals. It offers major activities such as island hopping, snorkeling, diving and kayaking.
As there was no organised activity in the afternoon, Freddie suggested the group take a tuk-tuk to the Los Cabanas Beach for lunch and swimming. We together with Isabel, Carla and Karla’s family spent the whole afternoon there and watched sunset before returning to the guesthouse.
We love seafood. I asked a local for recommendations on seafood restaurants and followed his advice. We had a big jet fish for P1,500: half of it was steamed and the other half grilled. But it’s too big and the meat was tough. We should have stuck with groupers which cost P200-400 depending on size. We also had garlic prawns which were excellent and clams in soup which were so-so. Isabel joined us and four of us had a delicious dinner for about P2,300.
January 13 Friday: Island Hopping- Tour A, El Nido
There are hundreds of agencies offering four island hopping tours namely Tour A, B, C and D. Today, the agent booked us on Tour A that took us to the Small Lagoon which is fun. We kayaked to the lagoon which is picturesque with limestone cliffs, clear water, fish and corals.
The second stop was the Secret Lagoon which is accessible through a tiny rocky hole. The water inside the lagoon is muddy and shallow.
Then we stopped in the Shimizu Island for lunch and snorkelling. A pretty spot with good snorkelling!
In the afternoon, we went to the Big Lagoon which is not as interesting and pretty as the Small Lagoon. The last stop was the Seven Commando Beach. We snorkelled again for about 20 minutes. Someone had seen a turtle but I saw little marine life apart from a couple of clown fish, some soft and hard coral.
In the evening, we went to a popular seafood restaurant by the beach. We had a kilo of big prawns and two groupers for about P1,700. Excellent value and tasty! After dinner, Isabel brought us gelato (ice-cream made by an Italian who has settled down in El Nido).
January 14 Saturday: Island Hopping-Tour B, El Nido
Today we visited five spots on the Tour B itinerary. We began at Pinabuyutan which was pretty and quiet.
Then the boat moved to the Snake Island where we walked up some 50m to reach a view point. Then we waded across a sandbar to reach another island with lots of mangrove. As I only had my swimming suit on, I was badly bitten by sandflies. My skin remains itchy a month later.
In the afternoon, we visited the Cudugnon Cave which is a sacred burial site. There are two enormous caves which are awesome.
The next stop was Cathedral Cave created by erosion. The boat moved as close to the entrance as possible in order to give us a glimpse of the awesome cave inside.
The last stop was Entalula Island. Owing to dim sunlight, I found the corals not colourful. The number and types of fish I saw underwater were not impressive.
After the trip, Leuk, Lili and I moved to Lady Grace Guesthouse which has only four rooms. At 6pm, Leuk said good-bye to Isabel and his colleagues who would be returning to Puerto Princesa that evening and fly back to China via Manila the following day.
Today, I had seafood with Leuk and Lili as Isabel had gone. We tried another restaurant by the beach and had a nice dinner with a steamed grouper, a lobster and fried noodles for P1,500.