Style/Travel DiariesVideo

Paddling on my ‘Ferrari’ through El Nido’s magical mangroves

Or, why traveling alone is good—especially now, in a marine protected area in your home country

Heading to quiet cove in the author's red 'Ferrari' Kayak

WITH all due respect to friends I travel with, my hands-down favorite mode of travel is solo. There’s nothing quite like experiencing things on your own and having adventures on your own terms, as I learned long ago. It was even recommended by my psychiatrist many years ago, and she was right.

Lonely Planet agrees with me. According to Emma Sparks in the article Going it alone: five benefits to solo female travel, “Travelling alone is the ultimate confidence boost, and the rewards can be game-changing for women. Lugging a heavy backpack from place to place…without a male companion or ‘safety in numbers’ can reveal strengths you never knew you had. You’ll also defy stereotypical gender norms in the process.”

I’m way beyond stereotypes; I’m just looking to keep my sanity.

So after my solo trip to Osaka and Kyoto, Japan, scheduled for 2020, was moved twice, then postponed indefinitely, since Japan has yet to reopen, I was getting a serious case of cabin fever in early 2021.

The view from Lagen water cottage balcony at sunset

That’s when I blew my Japan hotel and pocket money on a booking with Lagen Island Resort in El Nido, Palawan. I had been to El Nido, so I was sure I would be safe, comfortable, and preoccupied. That got postponed, too, thanks to another #$% surge. But finally, I reconfirmed my booking, and in the spirit of traveling in my own country first before heading abroad, I was on my way to Palawan last March 17.

Any paranoia was put to rest by the required RT-PCR test, the fact that El Nido resorts are not yet booking guests at full capacity (although they will, come April 1), and the added fact that they operated in a travel bubble: bookings were accepted only for Thursdays to Sundays, with the next Monday to Wednesday spent sanitizing the entire resort before the next group of guests arrived. Even activities and pool time had to be reserved, a brilliant way to keep the huge pool even more decongested, with no more than eight people allowed at a time, for a maximum of an hour.

The entire process was seamless, and although there were no other solo travelers in my batch, I never felt awkward or lonely (or maybe that comes with age). The AirSwift flight was on time, the transfers organized, and before long, I was in Lagen.

There are three other El Nido resorts (Pangulasian, Miniloc, and Apulit), but Lagen was the least expensive and, in my opinion, the coziest. There’s no big white beach—there’s top-of-the-line Pangulasian Island for that—but the entire resort is embraced by the famed, sheer million-year-old limestone cliffs where tiny swiftlets build their nests, hence the name of the municipality: El Nido.

The author gets her brain cleared up in El Nido.

I watched without a shred of FOMO as groups of life-jacketed guests took off for planned activities

Solo travel tip no. 1: Sleep as much as you want. It’s no longer about filling my days with things to do from dawn till dusk. In fact, I slept for 10 hours on my first night, after doing little more than stare out from the balcony of my lovely water cottage above Lagen’s little lagoon, and go for some relaxed kayaking and snorkeling. I watched without a shred of FOMO as groups of life-jacketed guests took off for planned activities. Don’t let anybody tell you that catching up on rest and doing nothing are a waste of time. There was cable TV, but I never watched anything. I brought a book, but I didn’t read a word.

Also, enjoy your room if it’s beautiful! I threw open my balcony doors and turned on the air-conditioner only when it got too hot. I spent every cocktail hour with a banana shake, gazing at the changing colors of a sky framed by big bougainvillea, from the balcony day bed. Isn’t it wonderful when the in-house shampoo and body gel are of such good quality, you don’t need to unpack yours?

Solo travel tip no. 2: Relish the alone time. I commandeered a red single-person kayak (henceforth appropriated for me by the friendly staff as my “Ferrari”) for an afternoon sail to nearby Cove 2, about 10 minutes away on calm water. This is where Lagen Island Resort brings its guests for quiet picnics, watching the sunset, and delightful snorkeling; imagine small schools of baby barracuda greeting you at the drop-off.

On day 1, I totally celebrated the solitude as my brain stopped working. Just having a small, pristine beach to myself, with only the sound of the waves, the wind, and the birds, was worth every hard-earned peso. On days 2 and 3, there were other people, but we managed to share the beach in peace, and a big bayawak (monitor lizard) dropped by to say hello. Oh, I did say hello to people, too—but conversations on solo trips are completely optional.

Solo travel tip no. 3: Enjoy nature, please. Leave the gadgets in your room. Sure, I messaged friends, posted on social media, and even showed up for our weekly Saturday night barkada FaceTime—but I left the phone in my room most of the time, except to take pictures. (Note: Bring a dry bag for the phone, as plastic bags are not allowed in El Nido; I forgot my dry bag, so I had to make do with a Ziploc, which is awful.) This is when my heart broke, seeing kids with iPads watching cartoons—CARTOONS—while nature unfolded in front of them in all her glory. Then again, the adults weren’t much better. On day 2 in Cove 2, a woman in a white bathing suit walked up and down the beach while on a call, dissing someone for all the world to hear, in a voice loud enough to scare the swiftlets away. In the resort, a fellow (whose firm would apparently collapse without him) held a very loud telephone business meeting by the pool. I seriously told management that the good signal was both a boon and a bane. And yup—it’s the humans who seriously f—k up paradise.

I kayaked close to the sheer cliffs and saw watermarks from ocean rises and falls from generations ago

Meanwhile, without a phone, one could gaze at a sky with changing colors, a sunset, the sun’s light reflecting on the water, or even the tiny critters in the white sand. I kayaked close to the sheer cliffs and saw watermarks from ocean rises and falls over generations, imprinted on the rocks. I even got a good look at the little scaffolding used by birds’ nest collectors who scale the limestone walls to collect this delicacy.

Just off the resort’s activity center, the snorkeling is also great, with schools of fish accustomed to visiting humans literally swimming in your face. After all, the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, which covers 36,000 ha of land and 54,000 ha of waters, was established in 1998, and has been submitted for inclusion among Unesco’s World Heritage Sites.

The lush Aberawan mangroves

Corollary to the above, I also discovered another delight which must be mentioned. El Nido’s assistant manager for environment and sustainability, Hanniel Almasco, took me to see some gorgeous mangroves. A few were in Cove 3, where a boardwalk built to pass through the mangrove forest had been damaged by Typhoon Odette and had yet to be reconstructed. Another 20 minutes away was Barangay Aberawan, home to 70 ha of tall, beautiful mangrove trees lining meandering waterways. The University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute had estimated a density of some 2,500 mangrove propagules per hectare, Hanniel told me—and that’s a lot. Plus, these weren’t the bushes you see in most small mangrove areas; here, the giant trees rose some 15 feet high, with sturdy roots, growing so thick you could hardly see through them.

The damaged boardwalk through Cove 3’s mangrove forest

Most Filipino tourists don’t quite realize the value of mangroves. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre marks July 26 every year as the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, “a day to celebrate the vital role that mangroves play for nature and the well-being of coastal communities throughout the world.” They are nurseries for fish, the best natural barriers against storms and waves, and sources of wood for small communities for building and cooking.

No thanks, however, to land conversion for aquaculture, farm land, and coastal development, as well as the pollution and population pressure that come with them, mangroves are endangered. A quarter of the world’s mangroves have been lost in the past 40 years, which means a great number of birds, fish, and other species have lost their habitat and “nursery” where they mature into adulthood.

Losing mangroves means imperiled livelihoods, impeded economic growth, declining human security, and an unstable quality of life for the archipelago’s predominantly coastal populations

Losing mangroves means imperiled livelihoods, impeded economic growth, declining human security, and an unstable quality of life for the Philippine archipelago’s predominantly coastal populations. And no, these are not the people who can come to El Nido.

UNEP lists five reasons why mangroves should be protected. They are a specialized, evolved tropical forest that thrives in heat, mud, and salt water. They help mitigate climate change, so people and nature can develop resilience. They are hotspots of biodiversity, hosting a wealth of species. They are vital for millions of people, who rely on them for food and wood. Finally, they have huge economic and social value, a source of goods and services estimated at US$33,000–57,000 per hectare per year in developing countries.

Even without the stats, however, even a simple sail through the mangroves to breathe the impossibly clean air, listen to the birds and insects, and revel in the eye-soothing greenery is enough to refresh the mind and soul. Ultimate tip: Do this in a kayak, and if you can, do this alone. You may be surprised what you bring back.

Check out this video for a sail through Aberawan’s mangroves in El Nido:

Read more:

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Thresher sharks welcome me back in Malapascua—and how

I needed this dive trip to Bohol—as much as Bohol needed me

About author


She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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