El Nido, the Philippines: islands, lagoons, caves, white beaches, turquoise sea. AKA paradise!

I keep a tally of the countries and cities I have the pleasure of visiting (for the first time), and just the other week I had an interesting +1 in Southeast Asia – the Philippines: my 105th country. And Manila was, oh – I’ve lost count; it was around my 320th city in the world I’ve now been to.

We were lucky this time: we had a long weekend there before the business part of the trip, so we decided to check out the beautiful islands of El Nido and also the Mount Mayon volcano. And since island hopping in the Philippines takes quite a while on scheduled commercial flights, we opted for the much quicker option: helicopter! ->

The helipad is right within Manila’s main airport:

And we’re off. Here comes Manila – the aerial view…

The first thing to strike me was the standard of living poverty. The second – the way there’s poverty right next to relative opulence, but never the twain shall meet: you see the green (parks) and skyscrapers in the pic below? Those are in the well-to-do districts of the city. And, as we were told, entry into those districts is strictly controlled: special permits are needed, which are checked a full three (3!) times before admission can be granted! ->

Apparently public transportation isn’t the best here – mainly due to the hellish traffic jams in the city, which persist despite there being plenty of overpasses in the city:

As we near the ocean, we notice that the districts that line the coast are more upmarket. Would have liked to walk around them, but given the 35°С temperatures and burning sun – maybe not…

Plenty of small islands not far off the coast ->

Are they planning on extending the capital out into the ocean like Singapore? Interesting…

Plenty of fish-farming going on ->

// I hate the glare you get in photos taken from a helicopter. Just unavoidable, I guess (.

Clearly something’s being farmed in those submerged fields. I wonder what? ->

Onward we chopper…

This end of the island is flat, but soon enough mountains start appearing ->

We fly over the sea for quite a while, and then some islands appear on the horizon…

Which islands they are can be worked out by drawing a straight line on the map from Manila to El Nido ->

Now we’re talking! ->

If it weren’t for the darn reflections on the photos they’d be desktop-wallpaper candidates ->

Coming in to land! ->

Given that neither the internet nor the locals we spoke to could recommend highly enough the beauty of the island landscapes of El Nido, our expectations upon landing were through the roof. Would those expectations be met, we wondered?…

First up, some rocky landscapes that appeared familiar. I was sure I’d seen them before, but this was my first time here… But then I remembered – they resemble both the Vietnamese Ha Long rockinesses, and also those of both the Phi Islands and “James Bond Island” in Thailand, albeit a little smaller in scale ->

Even just getting to where we were headed brought us outstanding views…

Once we were near, we hopped off our motor boat and into kayaks to get to the lagoon…

…And not just any old lagoon, but “Big Lagoon” – the main feature here:

Alas, great beauty brings… a great many tourists (including us)! ->

Mercifully, it was busy on the water in just one spot; after we kayaked off a distance we were back to unpeopled paradisiacal Man with the Golden Gun scenes…

Ah – I spoke too soon. More tourists. Moreover – tourists with zero clue as to how to operate a kayak! ->

For me, however, it was hardly my first time kayaking ).

Just look at this turquoise water!

The cliffs all around – oh my grandiose! And once again I was reminded of other cliffs. First – the Shilin stone forest in China; second – the tsingy in Madagascar.

Left, right, left, right. On and on we paddle, enjoying both the scenery and the sun. Given the latter – factor-50 mandatory, as is a large-peaked hat ->

The best kayaks are the see-through ones! ->

At one point our guide attached his kayak to mine so we “don’t get separated” on the upcoming stretch ->

That upcoming stretch was a narrow chasm between cliff faces…

Woah! ->

The water took on more of an emerald hue ->

Then back to turquoise ->

The bizarre shapes and forms of the rock all around continued to astound ->

Here the rock is just like the tsingy in Madagascar!

As we were told in Madagascar, such rock constructions came about as a result of the effect of acid on sedimentary rock during a significant eruption. So the crazy chemicals that flew out of a volcano gnarled up the surrounding landscapes. Looks like the same thing happened here ->

Meanwhile we head back to our catamaran; ahead lay more islands to check out…

The clouds take on rocky-island forms here too ->

We arrive. Beautiful!

A photo for remembering the name ->

Refreshments here were a favorite of mine – fresh coconut juice ->

Fresh, green, and without the brown fur: a special sort of coconut ->

Tasty – yes. But dangerous too? Of course they will fall under the force of their own ripe weight eventually, but how frequent such falling is as a phenomenon is famously open to debate. In fact, a whole urban legend has grown up around “death by coconut”. Really!

Actually, I myself once had a very close shave with a falling coconut. I was in China’s Hainan Province waiting by the side of the road for a car to pick us up, when suddenly – BANG! – a coconut fell from a great height to fall just a couple of meters to my right. It hit the asphalted pavement with such a force it lifted the dust all around. If it had been just two meters out I’d probably not be here in the Philippines writing this now! So, urban legend or no – I wasn’t taking any chances and kept myself away from overhanging branches of coconut trees ).

Next – we boarded our kayaks and headed onward; for we had further tourisms in store – of the cave variety…

Underneath that there rock installation are caves; not that you’d think so upon approach ->

Ah – here we go ->

Pint-sized, unassuming cave entrance, right? But inside… ->

Oh my grandiose! The island on which these caves are situated is called Cathedral Island, btw. Now I see why…

This is one of those places where mere photos don’t do it any justice: you need to see these caves in the flesh really. But if you’re not heading to El Nido any time soon, these here pics will have to do…

The caves are so enormous they don’t fit into a photo; only the vertical view can be captured adequately. Our heads of course were tilted upward a lot of the time, but doing so came with a curious, unexpected warning: keep your mouths shut, for something… from a bat could fall from up above and thereinto (and it won’t be too tasty)!

Again – the entrance conceals the inner gigantic proportions really well:

The color of the water becomes an even brighter shade of turquoise:

We didn’t stay in this cave long; out we came and onward on our tourism-till-you-drop day-out!…

Back on to the motorboat and off to the next cave. The views along the way simply stunning ->

We arrive…

It’s called Cudugnon Cave, and it’s here.

Another amazing cave, this one all velvety-caramelly and much dryer than the previous one.

Cudugnon has a second hall, which you need to paddle through the sea for a while to get to:

Getting inside is rather tricky; you need to squeeze through this here narrow passage. Not for the claustrophobic ->

Once inside, the water comes up to the knees. There’s also a somewhat unpleasant smell; given that the cave’s full of bats, we shuddered to think what it was )…

We enter the second hall of the second cave through yet another passage…

…Which contains crazy rock installations ->

But this can hardly be called a cave, since there are huge holes in its roof. Mini-canyon would be a better term…

But what’s it matter what it’s classified as? Still a splendid sight to behold (and all the more visible from the extra light from the sun through the “roof”->

We didn’t observe any stalactites/stalagmites here since the cave is mostly the result of erosion from the sea. However, there were karstic growths, which my travel companion NK was most impressed with. Here are a couple of her pics thereof taken from her smartphone ->

And that was that. Time to crawl out and be on our way again…

Out of the cave – and straight to a breezy beach, which was very welcome since it was hot and humid in the caves:


Next up – dessert: another small island with a small lagoon and a yellow-sand beach…

We pass mangroves upon arrival:

The island is called “Snake Island”, despite there being no snakes around here (as our guides informed us).

Actually, it’s not called Snake Island at all, but Vigan Island. The Snake is the sandbar, which ~resembles a snake and connects Vigan to the mainland:

And in the other direction – completely different colors:

More paradise!

In all we covered some 25 kilometers on the motor boat this day:

…And all of those 25 kilometers treated us to views like this:

But all caves and no beach make Eugene a dull boy, right? Well, actually – not normally. But on this occasion – yes. Some sandy kicking back time would be nice after all our kayaking-motorboating-caving. After all, we were in El Nido – known perhaps best for its gorgeous white/yellow-sand beaches…

The only problem: at low tide the coral is exposed – hardly suitable for bathing…

The hotels here range from basic to luxury; we were in this one here:

After checking in, we were told there’s a good path winds up to the highest point of the island – great for catching sunsets and sunrises. Perfect. Here’s the dawn:

…And here’s sundown ->

And here’s a sliver of the moon:

Curiously, each morning at precisely the same time a gang of monkeys would do a tour around the hotel rooms:

We were warned about the monkeys. Apparently they can open the sliding doors, so they should be locked at all times! ->

I guess sleeping out on that there bed on the large balcony isn’t an option, then?! ->

Another reason not to sleep out on the balcony! ->

We were assured that the snakes aren’t poisonous, but we didn’t check the veracity of those assurances:

In short – a perfect paradise!

Shame we couldn’t stay longer. But we had to be off on our next Philippine adventure – a volcano-flavored one…

All the photos from the Philippines are here.

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