The Road to El Nido (Is Not Paved with Anything) – Philippines – Day 4

I came in pursuit of sunsets.

I shouldn’t say that, I suppose, but a good portion of it wasn’t paved, and there certainly weren’t any gold-paved streets along the way.

Well, when I said we booked a van for the trip to El Nido, I should explain that we didn’t exactly get on the early van.

It ended up being the 11:00 AM run, so we had some waiting time in the morning at Banwa. Since the back porch of Banwa is pretty much the most amazing hangout in the world – not only do you meet people from all over, you have a full service drink/food bar available right there and very comfortable seating – it’s not the worst place to be stuck for a few hours. There was even a book exchange, if you so desired (I left one of my beach reads there for another lucky soul who might want to read a British chick lit book [Cupcakes at Carrington’s]), board games, and a ukeleli, which one of my traveling partners decided to try and play whilst we waited.

So far, we didn’t have a place to stay in El Nido, and after last night’s slow panic, we were now in a more stressed out mode. Sarah and Marco tried to get a SIM card and buy some minutes on their cell phone in order to call up certain hostels, especially since many of them did not have websites or email addresses. However, due to a misunderstanding (or, language barrier), they ended up with phone air time minutes that were only good for certain numbers and for only 24 hours. Odd.

Banwa’s back porch

The ultra-friendly staff at Banwa offered to help us in our hostel-search; however, after multiple calls, we could find no room at the inn. Or the next inn, for that matter, or the next one after that. Finally, the girl at the counter suggested a new place that had just opened up, a place like theirs. Perhaps they would have a place for us?

Bingo! They had three beds open that night along with five beds for the following two nights. Our travel-writer buddy, whom I mentioned a few posts back, was going to El Nido as well with her friend, and she figured she would follow us up there a few hours later. So, at least we had lodging for the night, which helped alleviate some of the stress of the upcoming 5-hour van ride.

Cat nappin’ 

It was a pleasant morning we passed having breakfast, coffee – oh, the delicious, frothy coffee with dark sugar and milk! – and fruit shakes whilst on the wait for our van to show up. I took delight in watching the many geckos waddle up the walls and the tent-like ceiling. They reminded me so much of the GEICO commercials from back in the States. The roosters were still going strong, the Filipino countryside equivalent of Shanghai’s perpetual car horn honking.

When our van arrived, about a half hour late, we piled in with tons of other people, and our bags were strapped unceremoniously to the roof of the van. I just prayed that we wouldn’t hit a bump and find out my dirty laundry was scattered up and down the road. That would be no good, let alone a hazard to other drivers if my socks and underwear were flying all around, hitting windshields.

Before we left town, I made one more pit stop for an ATM. There were no ATMs in El Nido, so we needed to bring as much cash as we could from Puerto Princesa. I went by three ATMs while the van waited for me, and none of them either took my card or were working. Awesome. I knew I would end up going, “Help me, I’m poor,” (name that movie!) by the end of this trip and holding out my hands like Oliver Twist to my trip mates.

I very gallantly took a jump seat by the van’s door, and I instantly began to regret that after only about a half hour of racecourse, high-speed, hair-pin turns. With nothing to support my head, it wobbled about like a bobble-head. I have never been so carsick in my life, and if it weren’t for putting my head against the seat in front of me, deep breaths, and two very hastily-taken dramamine, I would have been a right mess. And so would have everyone else in the van with me.

Transportation in the Philippines was interesting to say the least. When we would stop quickly in one of the small towns, some passengers would get off, and then we would pick up other people for certain legs of the trip. You never knew who you would have join the van ride, but you certainly couldn’t expect to have any legroom or extra space. It would be quickly filled by someone else the moment you stretched out your cramped muscles.

Lunch was a stop in Roxas, on Rizal Street. The “resto-bar” (a popular combination of the two words I’ve only seen on Palawan) had some cold dishes and rice on offer, so I picked out a prawn dish, rice, and really sweet lime juice. The view was the best part of the resto-bar. It was situated right on the water, with a terraced dock set out and away from it. The water was so crystal blue and the sky so clear that I could have rested there for ages. It was tranquil; it was peaceful.

“Everyone back in the van!”


We still had two more hours to go. So far, the road was paved, and now that I felt renewed – and had scored a seat by the window with some more head support so I wasn’t bouncing around like a beach ball – I could take in the gorgeous views up and around every bend. We’d climb up high and see the expanse of the sea glittering invitingly below us, or we’d whip quickly around a corner to see a row of woven homes interspersed with palms and vibrant flowers. Suddenly, a lump of mountains would appear, hazy, shaded by paints of blue, gray, and silver, and brushing the clouds rolling by. I soaked it in; when would I ever have another opportunity like this?, I wondered.

One hour left to go, and suddenly, the road just … disappeared? We were squealing around corners of gravel, and the dust coated our eyes, throats, and mouths. I felt like all I could taste was dirt and the Coke Light I was trying to drink that entire time. The bumpier it got, the closer we were to El Nido. Every now and then, when the road would be paved again, it almost felt odd that we weren’t being tossed around like boatmen on an angry, stormy sea.

About a half hour out of town, we suddenly saw the bay that surrounded El Nido, with only the barest glimpses of the buildings near the shoreline. We kept winding up and down and around until FINALLY we pulled into the bus/van station outside of El Nido.

After securing our bags from the top of the van – thankfully, my luggage was still in one piece, just a bit dusty – we found a tricycle to take us to our hostel – the triple B, as we called it. The driver had some idea of where we were going, though I could see that he was a bit – unsure. However, El Nido is by no means a large metropolis, so someone had to know where this place was, right?

We cycled into El Nido, which was bustling with tourists as the sun went down over the water and behind the mountains. The driver told us that most of the time, half or more of the town’s population were tourists. That’s pretty intense.

I watched the sheer cliffs as they rose up on either side of the town, looming high above us as we puttered around the streets, crammed with people, still looking for our hostel. Finally, he stopped outside a shop, which happened to have a sign for our place. But, that was not the hostel. After much conversation with a local girl, she finally said she could take us to the hostel.

Now, I don’t have a backpack. I have a rolling suitcase. Dragging that up and down pocked roads, around chickens, fish-stands, potholes, tricycles, and school kids, was not ideal. I thought the wheels would fall off in no time. Case and point, I needed to get a backpack if I truly wanted to backpack around Asia. But, as I was following slowly behind Marco and Sarah, I received some very curious looks from spectators. I kept rapping, “They see me rollin’, they hatin’…”

After many twists and turns, we found ourselves being led through the residential section of town, sort of away from the main drag where all the tourists and shops were. Through a fence that functioned as a chicken coop of sorts, we found our hostel.

I was sort of thinking, “this couldn’t be it” as I surveyed the outside of it. I was rather worried that it would be a combination of “Bate’s Motel” and Hostel mixed into one C Grade horror film. The backpacker’s hostel was a basic (“rustic” in euphemistic terms) accommodation. With all the tourists around El Nido, the place’s owner decided to turn his home into a hostel. He put extra bunkbeds in what used to be the family room, and it looked like he’d added on an extra large room for backpackers. Highly enterprising. I definitely could give him props for that. But, what we had in terms of a place to sleep was luxury compared to finding that his room was downstairs and that his bed was a straw mat on the concrete floor. Puts everything into a rather glaring perspective the moment I started to think that this was a bit too rustic for me. But, new experiences were key here. I had it made compared to having no place to stay or having to sleep on the hard floor.

The bathroom was on the first floor, and that was a bathroom/shower/toilet combination. The toilet was flushed by means of a bucket and a scoop. The shower was a cold trickle, but that would be just fine with me after a day spent in the hot sun. It surprised me that, given my very Western sensibilities, that I was just fine with everything. I looked at it as a change from the norm, something that I would remember always. Besides, I wouldn’t have as much to write about if I’d stayed in five-star places all along, and it’s a character builder. You met some extraordinary people, and you found out interesting things about yourself. I found myself to be extremely adaptable, despite thinking that I could never do anything like this. And, I was looking forward to not being a spoilt American traveler, though I have to say, we’d stayed in some dicy motels in the American South during our road trip adventures, so I was a tiny bit prepared for anything thrown my way.

After dropping off our luggage, it was our goal to see if we could secure a place on the beach for at least one of the nights we were in El Nido. I was happy enough to walk on the beach, collect shells, and watch the sun go down and make beautiful colors appear on the horizon. The air was fresh and clear, and the sky was turning indigo. Dusky. Gorgeous.

This was the first time I picked up a purple-backed cowrie shell, and I was surprised by the find. I had never seen one wash up on the shore before, and it wasn’t long until I had a nice cache of them.

After scouring several hostels on the beach, we finally were able to get a family room for five at Rovic’s Pension on the beach. Now, it was dinner time, and we wanted to eat on the beach. Sea Slugs looked hoppin’, so we stole a seat that happened to be on hilly part of the beach, meaning that it was starting to slope through to the water. Just as our drinks arrived, I felt my chair just start to…tumble…over. And it had nothing to do with the cervezas, I promise. It was all nature.


Art Cafe

I hit the sand like a sack of sweet potatoes. I just gave up and rolled over. I mean, I wasn’t going to grab the table and send it flying too. It was inevitable. I just accepted it.

The waiter apologized profusely and helped me up, but I was having a good time laughing. I mean, it was hilarious to take a tumble into the sand while everyone merely looked on. Dinner and a show, dinner and a show.

After having a delicious seafood supper and listening to the gush of waves on the shore as the tide crept ever closer to us, we had to go find internet so we could email the other two people joining us in El Nido the next day. Unfortunately, the internet was down all over town, so we couldn’t send an email to save our lives. We tried at the Art Cafe, which is the huge tourist hangout in El Nido, but they too were internet-deprived. Ah, such is life in an isolated town that only had electricity from 3 PM – 6 AM.

“You must say, ‘I love

The big thing to arrange was our diving/snorkeling adventure the next day. We figured this all out at the Padi dive shop, and I was pretty psyched to go snorkeling again. While Marco and Sarah sorted that out and tried to find internet, I found a very busy crepe shop right by the beach walk. I went for the honey, banana, and calamansi (tiny, tart lime) crepe, and it was utterly amazing. The perfect treat after a long (and dusty!) ride from Puerto Princesa. Absolutely wonderful.

If it weren’t for the hot temperatures and tropical flavors, I’d be right back in Paris again, on a cold walk along the Seine, enjoying a hot, well-made Nutella and banana crepe for the first time. And, it brought back a good line from a movie (name it!): “You must say ‘I love crepes.'” I think I entertained the Chinese couple in line next to me with that movie quote and with my insanely bad French accent.

Tucked up tightly with my
mosquito netting!

Tired and ready for bed, we ventured back to our hostel – with some local help, considering it was dark and we really hadn’t paid much attention to its location earlier. A group of guys kept offering us homemade rum, but yeah, we had to pass on that. I bet it was some crazy bathtub rum, and I’d seen too many episodes of Moonshiners when I was home over Christmas break to really be tempted by that experience.

We settled in to our hostel, and I got the joy of tucking in my mosquito-netting nice and tight around me. However, as I tried to get to sleep, there was the problem of the street fiesta that was blasting loud and crazy music…right next door to the hostel. It was blasting in through the open windows and jarring us from sleep. Good thing I had packed ear plugs, which helped to filter out SOME of the music. Again, I could have gone a day when I didn’t have to listen to “Gangnam Style” four times in one night.

Gratuitous sunset shot.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

But, you learn to have a good sense of humor through it all.

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