El Nido doesn't have a lot to offer out-of-work marketing copywriters - this level of natural beauty means there’s just no need to spin or exaggerate so the choice across town is simple - Tour A, Tour B, Tour C or, you’ve guessed it, Tour D. Any attempt at a discussion of which one was “better” than the other was quickly derailed by a cocktail menu, a plate of food, or an interesting looking local walking by - don’t come to El Nido planning to write a PhD thesis people. The tours all take in what, for most, is the reason for getting this far - the Bacuit Archipelago, a collection of 40+ vertically-inclined limestone islands dropped into the South China Sea within a dozen miles of the coast.
8.30am then, Art Cafe Tour C - those few, slightly uneasy moments when you size up your tour buddies for the day. The Travel Gods smiled and pulled a Jack and an Ace from the blackjack deck; our fellow travellers would be Tracey and James - from Scotland via Shanghai - and Tom and Dong - from Shanghai via Shanghai. Nice people and great company.
All four tours are variations on a single theme - a slim Filipino bangka outrigger boat criss-crosses the islands from perfect beach to hidden lagoon, delivering great snorkelling at every stop (turtle spotting as you float over a reef’s edge never gets boring) with a simple lunch of barbecued fresh fish, cold rice, salad and fruit to divide the day. All this was as expected, but there were neat little surprises as well - on Matinloc, a Catholic shrine is hidden amongst the cliffs, a statue of Jesus revealing itself out of nowhere as you approach the tiny beach, behind which sits an open-sided cupola for services as well as an underground museum detailing the shrine’s history, whilst a rocky scramble up to a grotto gives a great view of the reef falling away into the depths.
Running ahead of schedule, our captain snuck in an extra stop on Helicopter Island, arriving just as the late afternoon light collided perfectly with the landscape to create a cliche-defining tropical beach vista - lush green palm trees, blinding white sand and electric blue water. This is Grade A, 2400 SAT-score tourism and I happily lounged in the shallows drinking a warm, super-sugary bottle of the local Fanta handed down from the boat by a smiling guide, trying to categorise the experience.
I’m not that well travelled, but have had the privilege of being on trips where it took hard work to get the money shot - there IS nothing to compare with seeing the sun rise onto Ama Dablam’s North East face from 6000m, especially after a fortnight of hard trekking and altitude-induced vomiting for some - the euphoria you feel and share with your companions then is Do Not Delete, top-ten stuff. This was different. Cruising the Bacuits is “tourism” in its purest form - the ultimate in instant gratification - it takes no effort, yet gives up so much. The area is pristine, relatively underdeveloped and uncrowded, and there is no sense of being ripped off, or played, or messed with by the operators - unsure of the local tipping etiquette we screwed up on day one but the same (untipped) boat crew gave us the same, exceptional service on the second day (and did nicely out of us tipwise!).
Northern Palawan gets a lot of comparisons with Halong Bay in Vietnam. I’ve never been, so shouldn’t comment, except the Halong posts I’ve seen talk about dodgy operators, scams and bait-and-switch tours. If that’s true, then the Bacuits win, hands down...
- We booked through Art Cafe both days and received exceptional service with a real attention to detail that’s lacking on so many tourist experiences in SE Asia.
- By the end of my three days I’d learned that there is some variable pricing of the tours around town so if you can get a block of four of you together, you will get the best price. However, some of the boats did look a bit scraggy, so pick carefully. Ours had comfy seating, good sun shading and a brilliant crew.
- At the top end of the scale is Tao Philippines, who make a big deal about not following the “Tour A,B,C,D” pattern, so if you’ve got the cash might be worth a look. Only lack of time stopped me from arriving on Palawan on their Coron-El Nido trip, which looks superb.