To get to 'El Nido' Amelia and I had to take a banca from Coron. We'd heard mostly terrible things about the journey, but we didn't really have any other option.
In total the boat journey took six hours, but we struck lucky with the conditions, the sea was as flat as a millpond. We only encountered one issue during our trip, and that was getting from the banca to the shore - unfortunately the tide was out so the banca was unable to get close enough to the beach. A first group of Filipinos boarded the banca's small lifeboat, whilst us wary foreigners watched on. There were far too many of them crammed in, the water looked as if it was almost spilling over the sides!
We waited and waited and waited for the lifeboat to return. It never returned. Instead a local fishing boat arrived to transfer us to the beach. Climbing from the banca's outrigger to the tiny fishing boat with our big heavy rucksacks and day bags was risky to say the least. But we did it without getting the slightest bit wet!
We got to the shore about ten minutes later. During our journey to the shore we saw the lifeboat being towed by the means of another helpful fishing boat.
Getting from where we were dropped ('San Fernando') to El Nido proved easy enough - a minibus was waiting just off the beach to take us on a fairly uncomfortable hours ride.
It was dark by the time we got to El Nido bus terminal, so with a fairly sore posterior from the unsealed roads, we took a tricycle to the town in search of a bed for the night.
As usual, we hadn't booked any accommodation, but trusting the local tricycle drivers to find us somewhere is now our normal process. There are many guesthouses in El Nido, but finding a guesthouse with a vacancy proved challenging. After almost exhausting our tricycle driver's knowledge of budget accommodation we found a place called 'Bacuit Lodge'. They were in the midst of a power-cut when we arrived at 7pm, or a 'brown-out' as they call. The town is often without power, but it's supposed to be reliable during the hours of 4pm and 6am. The only room they had available was a family room with four beds at a fairly steep rate, but after a fair bit of haggling, I managed to get the cost down to a sensible amount.
Feeling fairly travel worn, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at an eatery down the road, before going back to hit the hay.
For me, the next day was a bit of a write off. I'd had a night of going to and from the toilet. It seemed I'd caught the stomach bug Amelia had had the day before.
While I was confined to a day of staying close to the toilet and trying to keep hydrated, Amelia spent some time looking around the local tour offices, for information on the local sights and activities. The main attraction for us and most others is spending a day or two island hopping.
Most of the day Amelia looked after me by supplying me with a steady stream of plain food, consisting of boiled rice and a banana and some plain crackers.
By mid afternoon 'things' were settling, so I decided to risk it and venture out with Amelia, so we could book onto a boat for island hopping the following day (and have some alcohol to kill off the bugs).
For dinner, as my stomach felt good enough to accept something a bit more flavoursome, we decided to treat ourselves and share a pizza at an Italian restaurant (which had caught our eye the previous evening). Then back to bed for a good nights sleep.
The banca departed at 9am for a day island hopping (route a). The banca was pretty much full, with 22 of us in total. Looking around at the quantity of other boats, it looked like it would be a day of trying to avoid the crowds.
Our first stop was to a beach just out of the cove, about half an hour away. Upon our approach we noticed a lot of jellyfish, ranging in size, but some looked at least a metre in diameter! The beach was named 'Seven Commando Beach', (apparently named after seven Japanese soldiers that were stranded there after WWII). It was a pristine white beach that we stayed on for the duration, as needless to say we were not too keen for a swim!
The second destination was at 'Big Lagoon'. The name doesn't exactly sell it, but it was jaw droppingly beautiful. Approaching the lagoon, we went through a corridor of gravity defying karst formation, and into the crystal clear lagoon - a breeding ground for crustaceans and fishes. Apparently this area was used as a backdrop for scene(s) in the film 'The Bourne Legacy' and also filming some of the 'Survivor' series.
After some snorkelling around the entrance of Big Lagoon we went for lunch. Lunch was on an island called 'Entalula' not actually a destination on the itinerary, but the island we were meant to have lunch on was jam packed, so the captain adjusted our course. I think we were all grateful for this change of direction, as the lunch spot was on a nice quiet stretch of white sandy beach enclosed by huge limestone walls. The crew prepared a huge spread of various seafood, meats, vegetables and rice. With all of our stomachs very much content, we spent some time relaxing and digesting before boarding the banca for our next stop, 'Secret Lagoon'.
During the trip we made friends with two friendly Filipino girls in their late teens. Like many Asian tourists we've met, they were either non swimmers or not very confident with their abilities. Because of this, they (along with many others), wore fluorescent orange life jackets and held onto liferings, which the guides used to tow them around. As you can imagine, in some places, we had to use a smidgen of imagination to see past the glow of orange, and find the paradise retreating behind.
Unfortunately the Secret Lagoon was far from secret! Even from a distance we could see a line of people queuing to get in. To gain access to the not so secret lagoon, we had to clamber through a short tunnel of slippery rocks, avoiding our heads on the ceiling of sharp limestone in the process. Once in, we were happy to see the guides had implemented a system of 'one in, one out' and I don't know if it was just good timing, but at one point it was just me, Amelia and the two Filipino girls - Paola and Kat.
Our last, and probably least location on the itinerary was 'Small Lagoon'. To get to the small lagoon we had an eight hundred metre swim, encountering aggressive damsel fish and small jellyfish on the way. Luckily the jellyfish stings weren't too painful, just an initial sting (which can be fairly painful if it catches you on the lip!) and an after affect of itchiness occurs. The lagoon was as described.. small. But there was a cool dark cave we found on our swim back to the banca.
Even though, at times, the tour was a bit too busy for our liking we had great fun, so much so that when we got back on dry land we booked onto another day of island hopping (route c) for the following day.
After a quick shower and freshen up, we went to the beach front for a free cocktail - courtesy of the tour office we booked our trips through. Then to another bar down the beach to drink a beer and watch sunset, it's a tough life!
Dinner was at an eatery Amelia discovered during my day on the toilet. We ate chicken curry and 'batchoy' - a pork and liver soup that had a very pungent taste of fermented fish sauce (not nice). Knowing we would have another long day ahead of us, we didn't stay out long that night.
Our next day of island hopping started around the same time. On our way to the beach we grabbed some cakes and avocado shake for breakfast, from a very popular bakery in El Nido called 'Midtown Bakery'. The banana cake and doughnut were very good!
Amelia and I were delighted to see we were only two of eight on our trip that day. The banca was slightly different to the day before - it even had a small upper deck area. Being first on board as I swam to the banca, whilst the others waited for a kayak transfer, meant I claimed the upper deck for Amelia, I and a German guy called 'Kevin' we'd met that morning.
Our first stop of the day was on 'Helicopter Island', another aptly named island, you could see from a distance it looked like just that, a helicopter, well the top half of one without the rotor blades anyway.
The island was busy when we arrived, but it seemed the crew had timed it well, as it wasn't long before the swarms of orange life jackets dispersed. Amelia and I, joined by Kevin, went off snorkelling, the visibility was great. However, as before there were plenty of jellyfish to try and dodge. Amongst other marine life we saw a giant barracuda, which didn't seem to mind us following it for a while.
The crew were trying there best to adapt our schedule to avoid the crowds. Our next stop was an added extra, not appearing on the itinerary of route c - 'Cadlao Bay'.
Cadlao bay was another snorkelling spot, but this time when we arrived we were literally the only boat there. It was a beautiful spot and so peaceful. Amelia and I, after a short snorkel, decided to take the opportunity to jump in off the bow of the banca. The bow stood fairly tall, I'd say around two metres, so it was a nice jump or dive into the crystal clear waters below.
Lunch was on the boat, and much like the the day before. Although unlike the previous lunch, we had yellow watermelon for dessert - a bit sweeter than normal watermelon.
Feeling very full after a very substantial lunch, we swam around to a hidden beach named... you guessed it - 'Hidden Beach'. The beach was almost deserted, apart from one boat which apparently (according to our guide) had illegally parked his boat on the pristine white sands. We spent a short while here letting our food digest, before attempting handstands in the shallow waters. I was pretty useless, but along with the guide, Amelia soon mastered the handstands.
The Filipinos love a siesta, a tradition they've taken and made sure to keep hold of from there time under Spanish rule. Always wanting to experience cultures and traditions in each country we visit, we thought it was only right, as to not offend, to 'participate'. So during our fairly long boat ride to our next destination, we took a nice nap in our VIP area on the upper deck.
'Secret Beach' another matter-of-factly named spot was similar (in terms of entry) to the Secret Lagoon from the previous day, but this time we could swim through. At high tide you would actually have to dive down to gain access to this hidden gem - where author 'Alex Garland' took inspiration from to write the book 'The Beach'.
We spent a long time lazing around at the hidden beach, and for a lot of that it was just our group.
The final spot was at a viewpoint above a shrine called 'Matinloc Shrine'. It was a brilliant way to end our trip and time here in El Nido. The viewpoint provided a fantastic vantage point over 'Baquit Bay'.
The next day we got up at the crack of dawn to catch a minibus to 'Port Barton'...