Open your Lonely Planet guidebook to the Philippines and flip to the chapter on Palawan. “This is the hidden Philippines”, it says. “The undiscovered Philippines. The untouched Philippines.” The florid prose goes on and on as it waxes effusive about the pristine coral reefs, the untamed wilderness, the myriad of dazzling white sand beaches, all of it hidden in plain sight and just waiting for someone to discover them. This is paradise distilled down to its purest form, its most basic parts. At its core, the Philippines is very much a country that exists for explorers—forget the “beaten path”, you’ll be lucky to find a bushwhacked trail—and if you believe the hype, then Palawan is the adventurous heart beating at its very core. It is the final frontier.
Before you even arrive on the island, you will experience doubts and misgivings. After weeks of having been amongst just a handful of fellow foreigners, it is a shock to the system when you reach the airport and find yourself choked by a crowd of Europeans. As you queue to board the plane, you note that, unlike everywhere else you have been, at least three quarters of the passengers are Caucasian. Although you are geographically about as far from it as you could possibly be, for a moment, you feel as though you are actually witnessing the polar north under the light of the midnight sun: their whiteness is positively blinding and stretches out as though to the horizon, as far as the eye can see.
At some point in every traveler’s journey, you come to realize that guidebooks are something of a crock. This is your moment.
Puerto Princesa, the capital of and gateway to the rest of the province does little to improve the situation. After five weeks in the Philippines, you have become about as inured to the country’s cities as someone born in the west is likely ever to do. You are used to the growl of traffic, the poverty, the rancid smell of coconut fry oil, and the griminess that proves inescapable. And yet, Puerto Princesa is still a shock to the system, managing to feel like a podunk backwater town but still somehow incredibly slummy. There is little more than one road that runs straight through town, lined with restaurants, bars, and homes that are really shacks; it is shocking that of all places, this city has been bestowed with traffic lights, which seem woefully misplaced. As your trike driver wends through narrow back alleys in search of your guesthouse, you think that maybe he has made a mistake when he stops in front of dilapidated building with garbage strewn around its front porch in lieu of a garden. It has come highly recommended in your travel guide and for $12 U.S. per night, you get a private double room with a fan and a shared bathroom. The fan barely works, but it is no bother as the clapboard siding on the house has rather sizeable gaps between the slats, allowing through the occasional breeze heady with the rancid stench of rotting fish or trash, depending on the direction of the wind. It is far from glamorous, but you are leaving in the morning and the city is spread out just enough that it is not worth the effort to look for something less reminiscent of a drug den.
Perhaps this is why your arrival in El Nido is a relief, albeit an unceremonious one. Your minivan deposits you at the bus station, located several kilometers outside of town. You are just slightly more than 200 kilometers north of where you woke up this morning, but the journey to get here has taken 6 hours and was filled with low-budget covers of easy listening hits from the ’80s. The roads were some of the worst you have encountered in the country, but other than that, the trip was pretty much in keeping with what you have encountered elsewhere (and honestly, the van was nicer than some of the buses you have taken and mercifully chicken-free). The truth is that no matter the distance, it always seems to take about half a day to get from one place to another in the Philippines. The best thing you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
In some ways, El Nido is more primitive than your last stop, with electricity only kicking on at 2 pm and running until 6 am, with frequent rolling blackouts in between. WiFi is available when the power is on, though on most days, the speeds are such that it is generally only good for checking email. But you are not in El Nido to sit in front of your computer. Once more your guidebook claims that El Nido is a grim, awful little concrete jungle whose only saving grace is its position, right on the rim of the Bacuit Archipelago, home of those famed virgin beaches dotted amongst pellucid aquamarine water ringed by rugged limestone peaks.
And yet, you like El Nido quite a lot. It’s swarming with foreigners like ants in a sugarbowl, but that can’t detract from the fact that the place is seriously laid back and legitimately pretty charming… and not even in the kind of way where you have to qualify it! The snarl of traffic recedes to a gentle hum, and that characteristic friendliness you have come to associate with the Philippines still abounds in spades. Though the bulk of the strip in El Nido has been designed to cater to a foreign market filled as it is with dive shops, international restaurants—there is at least one place that makes dubious claims of offering Mexican food, but on the other end of the spectrum, another place offers pizza straight from a wood-oven that is some of the best you’ve tasted outside of Italy—and accommodation options to suit nearly any budget. The city doesn’t exactly sparkle, but it feels manageable and even kind of quaint, and everywhere you turn you catch sight of vertiginous craggy crests that make you feel as though you are in the shadow of a slumbering giant.
El Nido is the last place you expected to like, and yet you fall into life here fairly effortlessly over the course of a week. But one question continues to nag you: does Palawan deserve its moniker of the final frontier?
Its rugged beauty is undeniable, not overstated in the least, and at times life does feel a bit more stripped down and back to basics than other places. Then again, you’re not exactly roughing it in El Nido, intermittent electricity not withstanding: the only reason you’ll camp on a beach here is if you pay for the privilege of doing so on your own private island, or if all other lodging options are booked out, as sometimes happens during the high season. In light of that, it’s less surprising that this is the one place you have set foot in the Philippines where Westerners easily outnumber the locals and tourism has clearly become its bread & butter. Road conditions are still sufficiently rough that traveling around the island remains enough of a hassle that certainly some travelers are dissuaded from making the journey. But as more money pours into the island, roadwork will pick up the pace, and it’s only a matter of time before the masses overcome even this obstacle.
For now, Palawan remains largely untouched but definitely not undiscovered. There is piece of paradise there waiting for you, just know that when you find it, you may just have to share.