When we were still in the planning phases of our Big Trip, one of the things I researched most avidly was other travelers’ budgets and spending patterns. Travel guides are of limited use in this arena as everyone knows that they are out of date as soon as they’re published, and this is especially true when you’re working with one that you borrowed from the library that was published back in 2008. Of course, even when you find recent budget posts during your planning phases, unless you’re just a month or two out from your departure date, you shouldn’t be surprised when you’re on the ground and find that things are a little pricier than you thought they would be.
Like many travelers, we dealt with this uncertainty by setting ourselves a rough $100US/day budget—while we were in Asia, we expected we would routinely come in well under this number, which would hopefully make up for all the times in Europe—and Japan—when we would likely be hitting, or exceeding it, more often than not. It wasn’t until we made it to the Philippines, that we really saw this strategy come into play, as it was the first place we visited where we could say without any kind of qualifiers that everything was indeed very cheap. In China we struggled to keep below our daily budget, but in the Philippines, we sailed right under it most days without even thinking about it or feeling like we were depriving ourselves from taking the trip we wanted.
Even notoriously pricey activities like diving are not really that expensive in the Philippines: in El Nido, we did one day of diving with El Nido Marine Club in which we did three dives with a dive master, had lunch, full equipment rental and boat transfers all for the paltry amount of $70US per person. If you’re not a diver, you will not know whether that is a good price or not, but if you are, you’ll know you pretty much never see diving this cheap. We don’t have any pictures from that day because of our dead underwater camera (R.I.P. you bastard!), but it was a great day out and we were exceedingly pleased with our experience with El Nido Marine Club and cannot recommend them highly enough. They are owned and run by Filipinos, who are naturally incredibly warm and friendly, but also consummate professionals who are very knowledgeable about the area and have impeccable safety standards. If it were not for me contracting a raging head cold following our dives, we definitely would have signed up for more. El Nido Marine Club was one of those rare exceptions where you get far more than you pay for. But, as fate would have it, it wasn’t our sole time experiencing excellent value in El Nido.
Diving with blocked sinuses is a big no-no, so we found ourselves in the position of having way more money than we knew how to spend. You see, despite being a tourist hot spot, El Nido has no ATMs, so we had had to take out all the money we had thought we would need while in Puerto Princesa prior to our arrival. Thinking we would be spending plenty of time underwater, we had withdrawn a fair chunk of change and earmarked it for diving that we could no longer do. With all of these pesos burning a hole in our pocket and our time in the Philippines sadly coming to a close, we had to find another way to spend them!
The Alternative, to the rescue! One night while relaxing in one of their nests and enjoying the fabulous views of the bay, we noticed they offered island hopping tours to many of the surrounding attractions. This is not a unique service by any means in El Nido—it’s pretty much the thing to do here, and you can barely pass two consecutive shops without at least one of them offering some kind of island hopping tour. Competition is fierce and the market is saturated, but the general gist is that all of the tours are the same and they’re pretty much all the same price too; there are 4 itineraries (creatively named A, B, C, and D, with tours A and C being the most popular) and they all cost about $20US per person and include lunch; some of them will also include snorkel gear in the price too, so there is some benefit to shopping around. Needless to say, all of the tour A’s from all of the operators all follow the same schedule and hit the same spots so even if you miraculously wind up on a tour by yourself (highly unlikely), once you hit the star attractions, you’ll be with everyone else. Clearly this did not appeal to us, and we spent some time grilling operators trying to find out if any of them had tours that were less popular in the hopes that, though we might get to see lesser sights, we would at least have them to ourselves. That didn’t seem to be in the cards for us, so all things being equal, we decided we would do our island hopping tour with The Alternative because we figured that they were likely to have the best food out of all the operators.
When I saw a pamphlet mentioning the possibility of a two-day island hopping expedition that involved camping on your own island, we knew exactly how we would spend our extra cash. This tour was definitely more expensive than the standard tours, but then again, how often do you get to spend the night on a private island? Plus, we had been looking for something to splurge on and could think of nothing better, so we went for it and booked the tour.
On the morning of our departure, we met our personal guide, Balong, and our boat captain, Apo, and set off into the bay, bright & early. Our first stop of the day was Small Lagoon, which, despite the early hour was practically overflowing with people. From our boat, the water looked crystal clear, but proved to be anything but once we were actually submerged and swimming about in our snorkeling gear, as all the agitation from the many visitors to the lagoon ensured that silt and sand were constantly being kicked up. It’s safe to say that we visited Small Lagoon under some of the worst possible conditions, but even so, it was really beautiful and we found some refuge in a little cave that had been formed in the limestone — a cave which most of the Filipinos in their lifejackets were too timid to venture into. We floated about lazily on our backs, staring up at the snatches of cloudless sky we could glimpse through the peephole that had formed at the apex of the cave and cursed ourselves once again for being without our camera…
Having enjoyed our time at Small Lagoon but wanting a little bit more privacy, we jetted off to Big Lagoon. The waterway leading to the lagoon proper was too shallow for our boat, so we got out and walked up to its mouth, marveling at how some rather determined clown fish had made homes in clusters of anemone in just 1 foot of water, and spotted some rather impressive sea urchins flecked with luminescent freckles, as well. We splashed about quite happily at the entrance to the lagoon, enjoying the cool water and solitude, posing for pictures, and simply enjoying the unspoiled natural beauty that surrounded us. The only travelers at Big Lagoon were touring it via kayak, and they very generously offered to let us take a quick tour in it telling us that the interior of the lagoon was far too magnificent to miss. Their generosity was well appreciated as, with nothing but the sound of our paddles dipping into the water echoing around us, our tour around the lagoon truly felt as though we were paddling straight into the heart of a primordial paradise.
Of course, as a reminder that were still on this mortal plane and not actually in a fairy tale with a slightly adventurous bent, we hit a rock on our way out of the lagoon, which broke the boat’s engine propeller straight off! Thankfully, pros that they were, Apo and Balong dove right in and were able to get the boat back in working order after just a few minutes. Good thing too, because it was time for lunch on a private beach!
The ride to the beach gave us time to really pause and soak in our beautiful surroundings. The landscape of the Bacuit archipelago is ridiculously stunning—everywhere you look, you see jagged limestone peaks scattered out on the horizon, their dark harshness forming a searing juxtaposition against the water, which is impossibly blue and so serene. Whenever I see sights like this, I feel deep within me just how unimaginably old the earth really is: to me, the limestone summits are towering testaments to the solidity of the land as they have withstood the ravages of time and weather. It’s hard to imagine that anything else on the face of the earth could ever compare to this, could ever hope to be more beautiful, and it was instantly and undeniably clear to us that El Nido’s greatest charms are the ones found above the surface of the waves.
Upon reaching the beach, we did some snorkeling while waiting for our lunch to be prepared. Happily, the small pocket of coral offshore was healthy and colorful and some of the nicest in the area. It was patrolled by a massive triggerfish who got our pulses racing, but thankfully, wasn’t feeling territorial and let us paddle by without issue. We collapsed back on the beach absolutely famished and tucked into our amazing lunch that looked big enough for six people but was decadently all for us. We glutted ourselves on freshly caught grilled fish, barbecue chicken, potato salad, cucumber salad, and of course, a hearty helping of rice. Just as we had expected from The Alternative, lunch on the beach was a veritable feast and finger-licking good!
Fully sated, I think we were both craving a post-lunch nap, but it was time to head to Snake Island, called thus because the island touches a narrow and sinuous sandbar that looks like the lithe body of a snake. The sandbar extends all the way to a mangrove cluster, and when the tides are right you can traverse between the two and look as though you are walking on water. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to emulate Jesus just this once, so we strolled across to check out the mangroves, before heading back to the island where we made the short hike up to its very top. were joined on our hike by Balong, who pointed out various interesting flora to us (like pitcher plants!), and two resident puppies who intermittently guided and frolicked with us. Other than that, the island was completely abandoned and we were reminded that we were squarely in the center of paradise, a fact only emphasized by the amazing 360º panorama of the area we were rewarded with at the peak.
As the sky began to darken, we got back in our banka and made our way to the campsite for the night. In a day jammed full of beautiful beaches, this nicest one of the lot, and it was gloriously ALL OURS! Laughing, we plunged out of the boat directly into the waves that beat against the shore. Wriggling our toes in the silky soft sand, we threw ourselves against them, trusting them to carry us back to our home for the night.
Gamboling in the waves, we saw a second boat dock at the beach and disgorge six people. We naturally assumed that some other visitors had booked a tour similar to ours and we would have to share our private paradise after all. That notion was quickly shattered however, when we realized that all of the new arrivals were staff that would be tending to us that evening. That’s right, our package got us a private boat tour of the most beautiful islands on the planet AND the opportunity to sleep on one of them where you will then be waited on by a staff of eight people. That is madness.
Oh, and let’s not forget the bottle of wine. Within a blink of an eye, we were set before a roaring fire and had yet another amazing feast placed in front of us, all the better to soak up the complementary booze that was included in our package. As we nibbled on grilled pork steaks, chicken cacciatore, curried rice and cucumber salad, we chatted with Apo, our boatman, and tried to entice the staff to share our wine with us. They all politely but firmly declined, saying it was against the rules, before scurrying off to their quarters. Truth be told, as decadent as all of this sounds (and it really was), we both felt just a shade uncomfortable about having all these people running about waiting on us hand and foot, treating us like royalty. It’s nice to be pampered, but this went above and beyond: at one point, one of the staff asked us if we’d like anything else to drink and when we said we’d each have a beer, he jumped in the boat and sped off to the other side of the island so he could get our drinks. That’s right, he sailed 4 km, just to get us TWO BEERS. Madness!
Slightly sloshed and very sleepy, we climbed into our rustic little hut and were swiftly lulled to sleep by the gentle crashing of the waves that were just feet from our bed. We only woke once during the night when the pitter-patter of rain on our roof forced us to roll down the siding to our breezy sleeping platform.
In the morning, we found a delicious breakfast of omelets, pancakes and fresh fruit waiting for us. We ate as slowly as we could, savoring every bite, as not only was this some of the best food we had been treated to in the Philippines, but we knew once we were done, we would have to pack up and say farewell to our little island.
All too soon, we were settling into the boat, which ferried us away for our second day of island hopping. The first stops of the day were two more private beaches owned by The Alternative: one houses their Nipa Hut “camp” site which is a step up from where we slept, as you get a private cabin, while the other is still under construction and will feature an entire two-story house replete with electricity, kitchen, and A/C once it is completed… as well as rogue monkeys from a neighboring beach whose daring we witnessed during their attempts to grapple across the rocky outcroppings on the shore in order to scope out the construction site. This wasn’t our first time encountering monkeys on our trip, but when the thrill of seeing wild monkeys leaves me, then I’ll know it’s time to go home! One of the beaches featured a huge limestone cave that is rumored to have once been filled with human bones and treasure, but is presently filled only with bats. After scarpering around the cave for a bit taking goofy photos, we got to snorkel in the sheltered reef and feed the fish, which were out in abundance. With Apo leading the way, we spotted some batfish, triggerfish, needlefish, and my very first barracuda!
Our final stop of the day was by far the very best beach of the entire outing, and possibly the entire Philippines. It looked like it had been ripped straight out of a heavily photoshopped travel brochure and featured sand nearly as white as snow. We felt as though we had well and truly arrived, finally having found the beach we knew had existed somewhere scattered amongst the thousand of islands that make up this country. We spent our last few hours simply admiring the beach and snorkeling the shoals in search of turtles. Though we were not successful in our quest, we were still rewarded with the freshest of coconuts, which we watched being plucked from a tree high above our heads.
Everyone who heads to the Philippines does so with the belief that beautiful beaches are plentiful. The truth, however, is that the best beaches in the Philippines are not low-hanging fruit: you need to invest a bit more of your time and your money to find them; for us, this meant taking a private tour, and the rewards were well worth it. Yes, we paid more for the experience, but we received so much more in return as a result. Things that are easily reached in the Philippines are generally overrun and under-preserved, but if you are willing to do just a little bit more than the average tourist, you cannot possibly imagine the splendors that await you.
We arrived back in El Nido tired but utterly content, knowing that our splurge money had been spent in the best possible way. The area around El Nido is so gorgeous that it would be hard to have a visit go sour on you, even if you did go with one of the cookie-cutter tours. But, in this instance, I’m just so happy that we decided to do something a little bit different, something a little above and beyond, and were willing to invest in a truly special adventure. Sometimes you look back on a situation and are plagued with regrets about all the things you would change if you could go back in time and do it all over again, but this was the complete opposite of that. Our two-day island-hopping extravaganza was one of those times where even in retrospect we give ourselves a pat on the back for having made exactly the right choice.
Of course, you came to this article wanting to know how you can spend $100US while in the Philippines. Now it’s time for me to pull the rug out from under you when I reveal that this whole amazing expedition won’t even cost you $100US a day. No, incredibly, our entire expedition only cost us $85 a day!
• A private boat with captain
• A private tour guide
• All the island hopping you can cram into two days
• A private island on which to sleep
• Three amazing feasts
• A bottle of wine
• A staff of 6 who will wait on you hand and foot
• The adventure of a lifetime
So as not to have you feel like I’ve misled you, however, if you’re dead set on spending a cool $100, make sure you tip the staff and crew who took such good care of you (a $5 tip is considered extremely generous in this part of the world) and then go get a pizza at Altrove. That’s what we did and if you do the same, we think you’ll agree that your money couldn’t have been better spent!