Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Rooming with creatures in El Nido: My Nat Geo moments

It’s paradise, but paradise isn’t a city

View of the sunset en route to Maremegmeg Resort

Happy island hoppers, clockwise: Melie, John, Kakai, Joy, and the author

Additional photos by Joy Chadwick and Melie Cruz

We were all gazing out from the tuk-tuk trundling down to Corong-Corong’s widened main road from Karuna El Nido Villas when I shrieked.

“What happened?!” asked Joy and Melie in unison.

“I saw a lizard disappear into the side of the road,” I said, pointing in its direction.

Ahas po yun. Lagi sila nandito pero maliit naman po sila,” interjected the tuk-tuk driver.

I shrieked again. We’d walked the path the previous night to head down to dinner at Belle Vita, a quaint restaurant on the beach accessible only through an unpaved alley from the main road.

Nature and city folk make an odd pair. Viewing nature from a distance, urbanites tend to romanticize it, but become terrified when they get up close. Blame the concrete walls, traffic, and potted plants. Yet, early in June, making peace with slithering (or crackling) animals was necessary for us to enjoy our pandemic-derailed birthday celebration in El Nido.

Breakfast with a view

Encountering critters was inevitable, since Karuna is on a hill. Mosquitos followed us everywhere and we tried to drive them away with repellents. The tokay geckos came at night, their cracklings bouncing eerily off the walls in and out of the villa. I last heard that low, staccato sound decades ago, and it seemed to follow my every movement.  Karuna’s “guidebook” explains that the noisy, insect-munching tokay geckos are not dangerous, although they are very territorial, marking their area with poop. Housekeeping would clean up the mess that resembled rat droppings, in the kitchenette or bathroom the next morning, assured management. Mayflies were absent, appearing only if there was a full moon or before rain.

But we overlooked the creatures’ presence, pleased as we were with so many things, beginning with the open-concept bathroom with rainforest shower and the streaming services. Taraw cliff framed against clear skies and sun was an Instagram-perfect view. The crickets’ symphonic chorus was a welcome accompaniment to the restaurant. Watching an index finger-size millipede crawling from end to end was an awesome Nat Geo moment.

Watching an index finger-size millipede crawling from end to end was an awesome Nat Geo moment

Dragonflies skimming over the infinity pool hurled us back to our grade school days, hovering as we planted rice in the JASMS “farm.” Then there was the cerulean sea dotted with catamarans, speedboats, and yachts, which we gazed at while waiting for our breakfast of pancakes and chicken tocino.

Sunset on Lio Beach

Outside Karuna, wading through the clear, cool waters of Lio Beach soothed my frayed spirit; watching the sun set beyond the horizon signaled a glimmer of things positive to come.

That Melie’s friend, Kakai, saw her Instagram post was serendipity. The consultant and occasional baker-cook was based in Puerto Princesa for six years, operating an Air BnB, which she closed when the pandemic hit. She moved to El Nido three years ago, exploring it on weekends with her cat-loving Belgian husband.

Kakai directed us to the best food in town: Belle Vita’s al tartufo pasta and Clay Kitchen’s thin-crust pizza

Kakai directed us to the best food in town: Belle Vita’s al tartufo pasta and Clay Kitchen’s thin-crust pizza and moist chocolate cake. (We three discovered Punta Playa’s paella negra on our own.)

She also organized our island-hopping tour, dealing with the nitty-gritty of it—i.e., registration with the Coast Guard, food, speedboat rental, etc.

Ski lift being constructed to ferry guests to the top at Lihim Resorts

Wine trove at Lihim Resorts

First on the itinerary was getting a whiff of the well-heeled’s vacation home in Bacuit Bay. Lihim Resorts opened in December 2021 after three years of construction work, said Kakai.

Arriving in the resort by speedboat is best unless you’re fine with enduring a jolty tuk-tuk ride through the mangrove route. It costs at least P45,000 a night to stay in one of the nipa hut-inspired villas fitted with a Four Seasons-standard mattress, various streaming services, and a freestanding bathtub. And its dedicated butlers can buy your fishballs from the employees’ cafeteria if you desire. Walking is the way to the villas for now, but a modified “ski lift” to ferry guests housed in the hilltop villas is underway.

Most regular tourists come to eat and—fingers crossed—get a mini tour. Verdict: The baby pan de sal, Spanish bread, and pan de coco in a basket were a unique touch, but their halo-halo needed improvement. The wine cellar was the most impressive of our mini tour. At a cool 22 degrees Celsius, and surrounded by walls of bottles and several methuselahs of champagne, the cozy cellar was perfect for hiding from the world.

Contracting amoebiasis is the last thing you’d expect while in El Nido, but the possibility hounds tourists

Baked lobster

Paella negra

Lunch was at Binangkolan beach on Taputan island after snorkeling off Cadlao Island. A security guard protected Taputan—the farthest isle west of Palawan—against illegal activities and intruders, together with two dogs and a cat. He could leave the island only every two weeks, and so our two boatmen, they said, visited him often. Surmising he was out patrolling because the kayak wasn’t at its usual place, the two hurried to the hut to cook the mussels we brought with us. Meanwhile, we arranged the baked lobster with lemon butter, varieties of cheese, home-made crackers, chutney, and white wine on the long table.

Boarding the Le Selangane to chase the sunset

Hours later, we boarded Le Selangane for Vellago Resort on 7 Commandos Beach to catch the sunset. Every floor of its bar was warm, but the view from the top was mesmerizing, and made people-watching fun. We sped towards Maremegmeg Beach around 6 pm to catch the bright orange and golden tapestry of rays before darkness fell on us.

Contracting amoebiasis is the last thing you’d expect to happen while in El Nido, but the possibility hounds tourists like a black cloud. Rodge from Karuna’s restaurant agreed wholeheartedly with our plan to bring bottled water for our island-hopping. It’d help us avoid coming back ill, he said.

Guests downed by amoebiasis after their island-hopping tour is a problem, as well as getting it while staying in hotels, as El Nido hotel reviews in Google have underscored. The situation leaves tour operators, hotel owners, and tourists wondering if something is amiss in paradise.

But the brochure El Nido–Our Safe Haven says otherwise, with efforts of the local government to protect guests and the island from degradation clearly outlined. For example, the P200 ecotourism development fee collected from guests funds the local government’s tourism and environmental projects. Establishments have marked garbage bins for easy disposal, and single-use plastic is banned. Then there are the city’s Protected Area Management Office imposition of a quota on lagoon visitors and a P200 fee per person for the “management of big lagoon, small lagoon, and secret beach.”

Water shortage and power outage are problems that tourists have to contend with, too. We had water, and when an outage happened, back-up generators were humming within minutes, but which, warned Karuna, “couldn’t be turned on for 24 hours straight.”

To say El Nido is beautiful is an understatement. It’s paradise. It’s a haven for people wanting a temporary leave from the world. The sun, sea, and piña colada help one forget momentarily how difficult life is. But this paradise is fragile, and to keep it from reaching its breaking point, compromises are a must. It begins with us tourists accepting that paradise isn’t a city, and that the slithering and crackling creatures are roommates.

About author


She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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