Day 1: El Nido to Tao Retreat via Helicopter Beach, Pasandigan Cave and Cadlao Lagoon. Never go back, they say. My last visit to El Nido six months before had already taken on the warm glow of nostalgia – spiky edges of truth and reality smoothed off by happy hour cocktail-laced memories of a new place, easy living and great company. But now - meh - not quite perfection – El Nido is changing, and quickly. The journey up from Puerta Princesa definitely faster than last time as road improvements to the National Highway continue – less bumps, but a less-memorable journey, from the perspective of an excited tourist like me, not a local of course.
An overpriced, under-enjoyable room at The Alternative is home for one night and a personal first - being woken by floor polish fumes seeping into my room from the bar next door is OK when you're paying crap money for a crap room, but less than awesome at 900PHP (no breakfast, broken shower). There's lots to love about the Philippines, but value-for-money accommodation doesn't get close to that list. Still, not here for the town this time, or even the daytrip-perfect islands scattered within sight of the Art Cafe's balcony. Tao Philippines mine a healthy niche in Palawan's tourism ecosystem and their lodestone is a five day "open expedition" shuttling between El Nido and Coron – that’s the real reason I was back in this barangay.
After a burst of busy indolence at the Tao office just off the beach - “let’s get another couple of bottles of rum, just in case" - it was out to where our cruise liner, Aurora, sat moored. The largest of the Tao fleet, and with 12 guests on this trip pretty much full, Aurora is a tourist-friendly take on the traditional local Bangka outrigger design – top-heavy looking with a rough-floored sundeck, a handful of loungers and a basic but spotless marine toilet. On board with the guests were head guide Zaza and guide Olly, our Captain Lito and his assistant, chef Ann and crew guys Den Den and Adrian. They're a friendly bunch, with a strong customer care ethos - you can trick yourself into thinking this is a back-to-basics adventure trip, but the bottom line is you're being VERY well looked after by people working damn hard from dawn to past dusk.
Fellow travellers for the journey North to Coron were a typical cross-section for an adventure tourism trip like this; not quite a mini United Nations, but a nice slice of experiences and differing perspectives - French, German, Danish, Zimbabwean, South African and British, topped out with a pair of very chic Parisian ladies who'd abandoned husbands and families for un peu d'aventure en Asie du Sud Est.
First stop for Aurora is Helicopter Beach – cliche-perfect during my last visit, all dry season late-afternoon light giving Oscar-winning natural cinematography – but reduced today to mere half-decent TV movie by low cloud and squally showers. An hour or so later we maybe nudged a Golden Globe nomination with Pasandigan Cave – swim through into a cool, dark enclosure where stream meets sea, variable salinity giving a fuzzy, dreamlike look to everything through the mask.
The day kept flipping between sun and cloud with our third destination, Cadlao Lagoon, slotting nicely into one of the bright, shiny windows – turqouise shallows encircled by the Bacuit's signature towering karsts, a day camp for fishermen nestled in the deepest corner. Everyone had paid a 200php marine park fee before leaving El Nido, but it's never quite clear where the money goes or how much good, if any, it does. From Cadlao there was just time for a brief stop mid-channel to pick up some sashimi via handlines before, chased by the coming twilight, camp beckoned – the Tao Retreat on the West of Cadlao and a first taste of the night-time routine. Aurora moors offshore and guests either swim, kayak ashore or wait for Hector, Aurora's dinky motor-canoe, to ferry them in.
Home for tonight is a former fishing village gradually being renovated by Tao – a cluster of open-sided huts sitting on stilts a few feet above ground just off the beach. There's no electricity and no running water, but a hand-pump means tropical showers are a welcome relief, whilst after sunset light comes either from San Miguel bottles stuffed with oily rags or more efficient, if less atmospheric, headtorches. Bamboo sleeping platforms in nipa-roofed huts are allocated, and the crew busy themselves transporting comfy sleeping mats ashore, over which they'll hang roomy box mosquito nets. All you have to do each morning is pack your own flour sack pillowcase and sheet sleeping bag into the supplied linen sack, then keep these with you for the duration.
The most important object to make its way onshore each evening, balanced precariously across Hector’s narrow hull, is a large blue coolbox – Ice, beer, vodka, gin, and lots and lots of Tanduay rum. At £1 a bottle it’s cheaper than Evian and surprisingly smooth considering its cost – mixed with Coke, Sprite and industrial-size tins of Del Monte pineapple juice - what more do you need? Dinner is grilled fish, vegetables and rice, then the ipod speakers are cranked up as the Tanduay goes down...
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