After two months on Koh Tao, new certifications, and new friends, it was time to leave and travel to another island to visit other dive friends. Our timeline happen to coincide with Hillary and Rylan’s so we were able to meet back up in Bangkok before we all went our separate ways. They had been traveling Cambodia and Vietnam and were now headed home, which is always an interesting time. There’s bit of excitement at seeing family and friends and eating tastes of home (like crab rangoon, no joke Hillary’s number one food goal even she’d been surrounded by all this amazing Asian food, she just wanted cheap American Chinese food), but also sadness that the trip is over. There’s also the onset of exhaustion both with the emotion of leaving and the knowledge of how long the trek is to get home…an eight hour layover in the Beijing airport, yuck. Needless to say, it made Ian and me very happy that we’re not there yet, that we’re just hopping over to another cool place to continue the adventure.
You might remember last year, by total coincidence, a guy I had met my first time on Tao (well, actually in Malaysia doing a visa run) but never kept in touch with put a message on Facebook saying he was living in Sri Lanka for a month working at a dive shop, which is how Ian and I eventually spent so much time in Unawatuna. We became very close with Martin and his girlfriend Charli; it was so crazy to reconnect with someone I had only met briefly so long ago, but to be welcomed wholeheartedly like we’ve been close friends all these years. But hey, that’s traveling! Anyways, it turned out that Sri Lanka wasn’t the best fit PLUS they were given the opportunity to open up their own dive shop in the Philippines. Fast forward a bit and voila, they’re living in El Nido on the island of Palawan in the Philippines and their dive shop had just (and by just, I mean days before we arrived) finished construction! This is now country number three Martin and I have met up in spanning four years. Very cool.
El Nido wasn’t what Ian and I expected. We thought it would be full of posh hotels with white awnings and well-manicured landscaping, beaches lined with sunbeds and umbrellas, and restaurants offering beachfront candle-lit tables. What we found was just about the exact opposite. El Nido is definitely a tourist destination, but it’s also very much a local town. There are a couple fancier looking hotels, but mainly it has guesthouses and homestays with modest rooms. And while some people did try to sit out on the main beach, it was lined with either local fishing boats or tour boats waiting to take people to the islands. The restaurants were in fact beachside, and thankfully even the fancier ones were laidback and chill the way you’d want it on a tropical island. It was a bit of a shock to have our idea of a place be so SO wrong, that it took us nearly a full day to get our vision to catch up to reality. When we did however, we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be in such a beautiful place.
To get to El Nido you have to take a six-hour bus ride from the airport through tropical green rolling countryside dotted with flowering trees and plants that occasionally gives you peeks of blue ocean. Once you come up and over the final hill with El Nido town below you, you look out to the ocean to see massive limestone formations everywhere. At some points, so many so that it looks like one continuous mountain range off in the distance, instead of the many little islands or rocks. The islands themselves look like the quintessential deserted island ringed with a sandy beach, palm trees leaning out over the water, and ocean that goes from a clear turquoise color to deep blue. And while town can sometimes be a bit dusty and crowded and smelly, it’s not developed to an inch of its life, as so many beautiful beach towns are.
Part of the reason for this is that there seems to be a cap on what tourists can pay while visiting El Nido. This isn’t for lack of want, there are just very few ways to get money out in El Nido. As in, there’s one ATM that usually doesn’t work for foreign cards or doesn’t have money in it, or sketchy fake transactions at the local pawn shop or gas station that somehow allows you to receive cash. Martin and Charli said that because of this, New Year’s, which is meant to be a busy time, was dead, because no tourists could get any money, so they left. Maybe it’s because of this that the town has been able to slow its own development (not sure if they think that’s good or bad), and preserve its vibe as a local place not just a resort town. Depending on the local view El Nido may never be in danger of this, but we could both see it happening very easily. There are new resorts and buildings going up everywhere, and if they can find a way to give tourists the money they want to spend—and have reliable electricity, instead of the nightly electrical outages that left us wide awake and sweating—then maybe it will blow up. It was interesting to be in a place where we could tell that if we came back in 5, 10 or 20 years it would be a whole different world. And while in five years it might have a few more of those conveniences that are nice (like ATMs and electricity), in 10 it could be ruined. We’ll see.
Martin and Charli welcomed us in the most seamless way possible. They had secured a room for us, gave us a bike and a phone to use while we were there, and signed us all up for an island tour friends of theirs had organized for the next day. Island tours are how visitors can get to all those limestone formations off the coast of El Nido, taking a small boat for the day and going from one perfect beach to the next. But after stopping at the first island for a delicious barbeque they cooked on the boat, and drinking a couple beers and laying in the hammock, we were all too lazy and never made it to the next islands. Luckily we didn’t miss out on seeing the others as we dived off many of them in the following weeks. Friends of ours from Tao had been planning to visit El Nido to visit friends of theirs the same dates as us, so they came diving with us as well. It was really cool to continue connecting different worlds of people in new places. The diving was beautiful…well the first couple dives weren’t the best visibility, but the marine life blew us away even then, so that the next time we went diving in crystal clear vis it was truly stunning. El Nido was great for finding all the small little critters that hide in the coral or camouflage with the sand. We saw seahorses, flying gurnards, flabellina nudibranchs, an octopus, a fighting peacock mantis shrimp, jellyfish, frogfish, and of course all the beautiful reef fish and coral formations we had heard about.
While we went with the intention of helping Martin and Charli with customers at the dive center, we realized that it was probably still a bit early on in the opening process for them to really need us. Since Ian and I were just fun diving and not taking customers out, this gave us some freedom to try out a couple new aspects of diving. Under Martin’s direction, we were able to try side-mount diving. Normally when we dive the tank straps to our BCD (the jacket) on our back. With side-mount, you wear a kind of body harness that has a small bladder in the back, used for buoyancy, and the tank clips on to the sides, totally free of your back. This is great for wreck or cave divers as they can unclip part of the tank and swing it around in front of them, which allows them to squeeze through smaller spaces. Ian took to it immediately, loving the freedom of motion and lightness he felt. When I tried I was over weighted which made for a challenging dive, and since it didn’t really do much for me anyways, I had a go at underwater photography. Our underwater pictures and videos so far have been taken using our GoPro (thanks Wes and Joanne!) which has been so fun. However there’s no screen to see what you’re taking a photo of, and no ability to zoom or play with lens settings. So borrowing Martin and Charli’s underwater camera was a whole new experience and I loved it.
Even though we were lucky and able to get some money out of the ATM (I seriously think it came down to having a small local bank card), we started to run low on money and realized it was better to leave after a couple weeks, instead of the full month we had intended on. Lucky we left too because I was starting my own hunger strike. The Filipino food, Ian had warned me, was not known for being particularly good. And while the boat barbeques were great when we were diving, and we found a great bakery to get some breakfast at, the rest of the food was kind of fatty and mushy and lacking seasoning. I accidentally got way too dehydrated one day and tried to eat some local food which just resulting in feeling sicker, so after that all food seemed to lose its appeal. I ended up on a mainly water and bread diet until we left, which was only four days later.
Regardless of the bad food, El Nido was beautiful; the people, the diving, the scenery, and we will be happy to go back and visit Martin and Charli in the years to come. But for now, we made our way back to Bangkok to do some laundry, EAT, and plan our next step. On to backpacking Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos!