A Rendezvous with Nature: Island Hopping in El Nido

Location: El Nido, Palawan, The Philippines

My original plan for El Nido was to rent a kayak from a local, grab a mosquito net, a hammock, some snacks, a lighter, and a knife, and take off into the wilderness for a few days by my lonesome. You know, Survivor Man style. I wasn’t concerned about my very real lack of survivor skills. I just wanted some me-time to bond with the nature of my ancestors.

But instead (and probably for the best), my friends (two fellow backpackers I’d spent some time with in Vietnam and had decided to meet up with here in the Philippines) convinced me that it would make a lot more sense to go on one of the two-day island-hopping tours run by a local company. And we ended up buying our passage on a little outrigger through the owner of our hostel, who just needed a 12-hour notice so she could prepare enough groceries for the trip. It seemed less organized than the larger “booze cruise” type tours I’d seen drunken tourists stumbling off in the evening. I hoped I would still get my fill of one-on-one-the-Philippines-and-Cassia time.

The next morning, just after dawn, I made my way to the beach and boarded the So’fia Roux, a slender black and white vessel with spindly red balance beams that stretched out to either side. Altogether, my friends and I had brought with us eight bottles of rum, two shot glasses, and five plastic containers of mango juice for chaser. We counted eight passengers and two crew members in total and a couple of the guys debated whether we had enough alcohol. I rolled my eyes. The captain and his first mate gave us questionable glances when they saw how much liquor we had. They were both young; the captain was only 18 and his first mate looked even younger. They also both seemed stoned, moving slowly and smiling sheepishly at us when we asked questions. When the captain took off his sunglasses, his eyes were totally bloodshot. 

And so I set off to visit Palawan’s tropical paradise islands, watching our little boat cut a foamy white path through the surf and the tin-and-palm-frond rooftops of El Nido disappear into the distance.

The first stop was to a quiet beach where the captain pulled the outrigger all the way up to the shore. The water was crystal clear, a dazzling bay with pale, soft sands. The first mate dumped a handful of snorkel masks and breathing tubes onto the deck. I snagged one and leapt into the water, just missing a nearly-invisible, fist-sized jellyfish with my toes.  

Once in the water, I found myself submerged in a wonderland of colorful coral, sea urchins, and brightly patterned reef fish. I floated in circles, mesmerized by the little ecosystems created by separate bunches of coral. I thought I could just stay here for the whole day, spotting different creatures. One of my fellow tour goers tapped me on the shoulder, breaking my trance.  

When I reached the surface, he asked if I wanted to see something really cool. He told me that I’d have to be careful; we were going deeper into the water and the area was filled with stinging jellyfish, but it was worth it. I followed him past the reef, into the cerulean emptiness. As we swam further, I saw a strange, moving shape in the distance. It looked almost like a silver-white phantom shadow bobbing through the water. I felt the electric prickles of invisible stingers on my arms, shoulders, and stomach as I paddled out, but I was too intrigued to turn back. As I came closer, I realized the shape was actually a massive school of fish attacking two giant jellyfish corpses suspended in the water. The fish glittered as they dove at the thick, opaque meat and tore off bits.

I stayed out there just watching this feeding frenzy, allowing myself to be stung repeatedly all over my body. The annoying pings were worth the show; I felt like I was participating in one of the Blue Planet episodes I’d re-watched so often in my college dorm room when I was supposed to be studying.  

The ocean sights only got better from there. We visited the Blue Lagoon, a shallow bay between sharp, craggy rock islands. The bottom, which you could see clearly from the boat, was covered in dark, pointy-spindled sea urchins. Several members of the group kept asking the captain if they could jump in, and at first, he wouldn’t allow it. But once the other boats left the area, and we were alone and sheltered from sight by the cliffs, everyone took turns diving in and doing flips from the helm and bobbing around in the flat water. 

Even lunch was spectacular. The captain and first mate grilled a whole fish, thick slabs of pork and chicken, and vegetables on an ashy stovetop above the propeller and we feasted on it all while docked at another snorkeling area. After lunch, we swam through a long, thin passage and into several dark caves. The pitch tone the water took in the dark was spooky, but beautiful.

As we made our way between islands, everyone took turns sitting on the helm. I thought this was the most incredible view: out of the ocean all around grew sharp stony cliffs speckled with green forest, and when I sat at the very tip, barely hanging onto the slippery wood below me, it felt like I was flying across the waves, just me and the sea. The water was so clear that the shadows of sting rays, turtles, and coral were all visible even deep below me. I sat there in silent amazement, the salty breeze caressing my cheeks, dipping my feet in the ocean, and enjoying the natural beauty of the Philippines.

After a full day of island hopping and drinking (everyone took a double shot after each destination), sunlight began to fade and smoky gray clouds filled the sky. The captain pursed his lips in concern as he told everyone a storm was coming. We needed to get to Helicopter Island, where we would stay for the night in tents on the beach. When we were in sight of the island, the rain began to fall, at first as a soft drizzle, and then as a heavy, pounding storm with fat droplets that stung when they broke against my skin. And of course (as it goes in life), when one thing goes wrong, everything does. Still about a mile or two away from shore, the boat’s engine cut out. We were dead in the water. The captain and his first mate tried to restart it, sweating, their hands reaching deep into the crevices of the engine below deck, and even enlisting the help of several stronger passengers to pull the motor’s manual-rope-start.  

However, nothing worked. People grew restless and began doing flips off the helm and into the ocean, the splashing around in the rain.

“No, no, no! Don’t jump! Sharks!” The captain warned everyone, waving his arms frantically.

But a half hour and no progress with the engine later, the storm worsening, lightning flashing across the sky and thunder bellowing, things were looking bad. We kept dumping water out of the cloth tarps that covered the deck. The boat spun in slow circles. Then someone had the idea that we could push ourselves to shore, sharks be damned. That was all it took; within moments, everyone, myself included, had leapt off the deck and was holding onto the red beams, paddling together with a level of teamwork that would impress an Olympic rowing team.  

The captain called out for us to get back into the boat at first, but then gave up when he saw how quickly we were headed toward land.

My heart pounded as I swam, blinking back rain, keeping my eyes focused on the shore. I tried not to think about what could be in the depths below me. The sky had dimmed even more and the water had lost its clarity. Everything held a shade of purple, the tones of twilight. We had to hurry before it got completely dark. But the salt water kept me warmer than when I was shivering on the boat, clutching my sarong to me, and it felt genuinely good being able to help after watching the crew struggle with the engine for so long. Soon, I found myself laughing and my friends laughing with me, as strange as the entire situation was.  

A couple hundred feet from shore, the engine finally picked back up, the metallic chortle of grinding gears inducing cheers. But we were already so close to the beach that everyone just swam in.  

That night, on a deserted island far away from the rest of humanity, I ate hot pata (crispy pork) cooked on a bonfire under a thatched, open shelter, and drank red-gold rum on the sand. Soon the rain and clouds cleared, leaving the sky magically empty except for millions of brilliant, twinkling stars. I swam below them in the shallow waters, smiling to myself. As I reminisced all of the incredible sights I’d seen that day, I knew I’d never been prouder to be Filipino. The Philippines was beautiful in a way unlike any other Asian country, or any country at all, that I’d ever been to and I could call myself one of its own.  

The next morning, just past a cloudy, pink-and-yellow dawn, everyone loaded back up on the boat and we took off for more island activities. Because we left so early, the beaches we visited were empty except for us; it felt like we were discovering it all for the first time. We swam through underwater tunnels, leapt off sharp, rocky cliffs, snorkeled in more coral reefs, and lounged on white sand beaches.  

We also visited an abandoned monastery on a hidden island, my favorite spot on the whole trip. As the boat approached, a skinny dog sauntered out to the cement dock and watched us arrive. A crumbling white church with dirty statues of angels with empty eyes and broken wings sat in the middle of an otherwise bare plot. And behind this stood the monks’ old living quarters. I wandered barefoot through the abandoned three-story mansion, whose ripped out doors, empty bunk bed frames, smashed furniture, shattered windows, and flooded basement gave off an unearthly creepiness.

I even climbed up a metal grate leaning against the top floor deck to reach the rooftop, which overlooked the whole island. From there, you could see tip of the highest cliff on the island, a sharp, twisted black rock that had once carried a shiny metal cross as an emblem of faith above the glowing sea view. But now the steel stand of the cross had failed, and it bent over across the top of the rock, like an elderly man too weary to stand on his own, leaning on a wall for support.  


·       Two-day tour, food and shelter included: $50

·       All-You-Can-Drink Rum: $5