Sunday, January 19, 2014

Puerto Princesa and El Nido, Palawan

One of the many spectacular views along El Nido Bay

Selina and I had the chance to visit Puerto Princesa and El Nido, Palawan for about a week (Jan 14 to 20, 2014). As luck would have it, there was a low pressure area or LPA percolating in Mindanao during our visit. Hence, the waves at Honda Bay (Puerto Princesa, Day 1) were stronger than it already is during this time of year, thereby limiting our island hopping (shortly after arriving at Puerto Princesa and freshening-up at La Belle Pension--I would recommend this place) to 2 islands; in particular, Luli Island and Cowrie Island. Normally, we would have been able to hop to 3 or 4 islands, including Pandan Island and Snake Island. In addition, the water was turbid, so our snorkeling and fish feeding at Luli Island were visually unsatisfactory. There were plenty of fish though (big and small), which reinforces an established and repeatable phenomenon--enforce a no-take zone (marine sanctuary) and the fish will multiply and grow.

Feeding fish at Luli Island

Snorkeling in turbid waters at Luli Island

As an aside, the tour guides are wondering why Snake Island has been off-limits to the public since the visit of upstart Willie Revillame about a year ago. Rumor has it that the island, which is thought to be public property, has been illegally sold to a private entity. Just can't seem to shake-off government corruption, even when you're just having fun in Palawan.

Another potentially interesting spot at Honda Bay is Pambato Reef, which also appears to be off-limits to the public at this time, allegedly to allow the corals and resident fish to recover from the onslaught of snorkeling tourists.

I did not see much snorkeling at Cowrie Island, so we just had lunch here, returned to La Belle Pension and proceeded to El Nido at around 4 p.m. Arrived at El Nido around 10 p.m. and I think that I don't want to make this road trip as a passenger in a van if I can help it. That said, I would take my Vulcan to Puerto Princesa and tour the whole island of Palawan when the opportunity arises. The nearly 300 kilometers of road was mostly concreted with about 40 minutes of "rough road" scattered throughout the trip. Makes you want to execute the government personnel who obstructed the proper completion of the construction project.

I don't care to remember the place we were billeted on our first overnight stay at El Nido. It was a dump but we were too tired to notice.

Day 2, El Nido. After a few exchanges with my tour organizer (including some expletives), we were transferred to Lolo Oyong Pension (I would recommend this place too). Our island hopping "Tour A" was canceled due to a gail warning and we proceeded to plan our scuba diving excursion as soon as the Coast Guard would allow vessels to leave the bay.

Day 3, El Nido. Scuba diving, 3 dives in all. In short, a disappointment due to turbid waters. Appears to be a combination of strong currents at El Nido during this time of year and "plankton season" (Jan to Feb at El Nido and presumably at most other bays throughout the Philippines). Hence, if you are visiting El Nido to scuba dive, don't come here on January or February. Ideal diving conditions are in April and May. It also appears the months from June to November provide decent diving conditions with underwater visibility reaching as much as 30 meters. Bottom line is, I screwed-up by scheduling a scuba diving trip to El Nido this January . . . which gives us an excuse to return.

Ayala-owned resort at Miniloc, El Nido
In the absence of scuba diving, the tropical island scenery around El Nido alone is worth the visit. Relatively small islands with limestone cliffs, thriving rainforests and, incidentally, some pretty high-priced beach resorts tucked in certain lagoons--like the Ayala-owned environmental-award winning resorts in Miniloc, Pangalusia and Lagen. One way of bypassing the unpleasant 5 to 6 hour road trip from Puerto Princesa is to fly directly to the El Nido Airport. It's relatively expensive though at the current rate of P6k per person one-way.

Day 4 at El Nido. Downtime. There were some extreme changes in water temperature during our dives the previous day, which left me a bit feverish. Spent most of the day resting. Signs of aging . . . much to my chagrin.

A note on the electricity situation in El Nido. Electricity service in the town of El Nido starts at around 2 p.m. and is turned-off at around 6 a.m.--a scenario that is as unacceptable (i.e., there should be electricity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as it is an "in your face" statement on the failure of Philippine government. Considering El Nido is a major tourist attraction in the Philippines and practically the closest town (approximately 50 kilometers) to the Malampaya natural gas offshore platform, from which the Philippine government derives billions of US dollars of proceeds from the sale of the said natural gas, there is no acceptable reason that there should be any gap in electricity service in the town of El Nido.

Day 5, El Nido to Puerto Princesa. The following day, we left El Nido at around 6 a.m. to return to Puerto Princesa (ETA around 12 noon; really don't like that road trip sitting in a van) and had a delightful seafood degustation lunch at KaLui's Restaurant. I specifically requested that my tuna steak be seared only, which turned out perfectly in light of the fresh catch. Thereafter, we proceeded to tour the City of Puerto Princesa, highlighted by our visit to the crocodile farm.

Day 6, Puerto Princesa. On our last day of touring, we visited the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Park--a must see about two hours drive from the city center. About a hundred De La Salle University students on tour arrived ahead of us, which kept us waiting longer than usual. But it was worth the wait. Approaching the bay where the subterranean river is located is like entering Jurassic Park--limestone cliffs jutting out of a tropical rainforest by the sea. Upon our arrival, we are met by macaque monkeys and large monitor lizards meandering without much regard for the throngs of human visitors. Folks, it doesn't get any better than this!

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