Destinations

El Nido, Palawan: Postcard Perfect

The appeal of the province of Palawan may be mainly its being a largely untouched place. But as M.D. dela Cruz Tan discovers, there’s more to this place than meets the eye.

PHOTO BY O. ROMERO, COURTESY OF JINGJING ROMERO

The first time Australian D.J.M. Winters stepped on the shores of Miniloc Island, in El Nido, north of Palawan, to visit the country’s “Last Environmental Frontier,” as well as “check out what business ventures may be there,” he noted that “it was like stepping on a photograph come to life,” he says. “Everything seemed too good to be true. Palawan is almost surreal for its beauty.”

Winters’ amazement is understandable, what with Palawan long considered a land of clichés, at least as far as the image of a stereotypical tropical paradise is concerned. Sandy white beaches stretching for miles, incessantly kissed by the crystal clear waters that mirror the blue sky, or reflect rolling clouds as they pass, seemingly lovingly blown by the whistling wind, just as they make the tall palm trees by the beaches bend, dancing to a tune only they can hear – all of them are in Palawan. And so much more, actually.

“It most certainly is full of surprises,” Winters says.

RICH HISTORY

Not largely known is the province’s rich history, best exemplified by the antiquities that abound there. Underwater or on the ground, however, Palawan has something to offer everyone.

Named after the nests of swiftlets (the main ingredient in the world-famous Nido Soup), El Nido (Spanish for the nest) is a 50,000 hectare-town of 18 barangays populated by some 27,000 people “very overprotective about their settlement,” notes Winters. “Rightly so, though, what with the place’s ecological treasures – all deserving of superlatives, but all fragile, and seemingly always in threat.”

Among Winters’ “favorite occurrences that are bound to be reminisced time and again” include kayaking from island to island, “my concentration broken only by the flapping wings of sea hawks, sighting unseen preys as they circle limestone cliffs formed millions of years ago;” bird watching, especially since El Nido’s forests are home to over 100 species of birds, many of them endemic to Palawan; stargazing, “realizing how small we are in the scheme of things;” island hopping to “see that here, seeing beauty never stops;” and simply admiring nature, such as “observing the peculiar looking pitcher plants that, to better their chances of survival, evolved to hang ever so low, almost touching the waters as they dangle from the rocky cliffs, waiting for whatever it is that will get trapped in their cavernous carafes to sustain them,” Winters says. “Nature 101.”

Amazement is, indeed, everywhere in Palawan.

In Miniloc Island, right off the pier is a rich marine world teeming with life, so that those snorkeling are literally inundated by swimming groupers, fusiliers, parrot fish, and other fish species that are normally only seen in, say, Animal Planet. In Lagen Island, mangrove tours, especially before at the break of dawn, right before the sun starts bathing with golden color everything under it, wild birds, many of them migratory, fly from their nests, their graceful motions mirrored by the waters under them.

In Matinloc Island, there’s the not-so-secret Secret Beach, worth visiting for a “glimpse of the sense of total seclusion,” Winters says, even if it is only accessible by snorkeling through a small crack in the limestone walls that envelope it.

And then there are the Big and Small Lagoons, both welcome retreats, with their pristine waters seemingly contradicting the roughness of their source, the “unruly sea” right outside their confines. There, it’s a different world altogether, filled with rock formations that resemble elephant tusks, a praying Virgin Mary, the caped crusader Batman hiding behind some rocks, phallic idols – “whatever,” Winters says. “It’s more like a cloud, actually, wherein you see them as what you want them to be. Like a fantasy, you can tailor-fit it to suit what you want. El Nido’s cliffs are like that, too. A hark back to the times when nature was magical.”

LAND OF BOUNTY

No wonder, thus, that “I’m looking at staying here for good,” Winters says with a laugh. The same appeal has actually already made ”regular inhabitants out of many who visited Palawan,” says Mickey Castaño of Belcas Realty Corp., which “recognizes the place’s great potential.”

Enterprise Magazine earlier reported (Paradise Found, March 2006) that there are opportunities to buy beachfront properties, or even entire islands, in the various towns of Palawan – and all at very affordable prices. In El Nido, for example, lots sell for about P1,500 per square meter, while small islands can be bought for as low as P200 to P300 per square meter. Adds the online publication Offshore and Real Estate Quarterly (escapeartist.com), beachfront properties with a frontage of approximately 300 feet (90 meters), and a total area of under two hectares cost less than P175 per square foot – roughly equal to 20 US cents, or less than $2.25 per square meter.

“This makes it an ideal time to invest,” says Castaño, who stressed that there is, however, “an urgency in investing since local officials (recognize) that in order to preserve Palawan’s beauty, over-development should be avoided, (and so) only a limited number of developments are allowed.”

Again in El Nido, only 32 resort developments are allowed, “making it good for those who invest in the place, what with less competition, but, more importantly, preserving the place’s appeal, which is its largely untouched beauty,” Castaño says.

On the bangka (dinghy) that carried him from Miniloc Island to the pier right by the local airport, where some brightly-clad locals were singing farewell songs in the local Cuyunin language, Winters was already “in a nostalgic mood,” he says. “You just want the experience to last.”

As if catching himself from turning mawkish, he laughs. Palawan, Winters says with a hearty laugh, is cliché personified. “It’s almost poetic, I tell you. And even that (claim) is admittedly cliché, too. Just as I tell you you’ll keep coming back here once you’ve already been here.”

*First published in Outrage Magazine in January 2009; reprinted with permission.

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