Charms of Philippine island washed out by typhoon
07/06/2016 - 07/10/2016 81 °F
So, here it was, an island of natural beauty and stunning seascapes. After the urban ugliness of Manila, I was really looking forward to this part of the trip. My AirSwift flight on a 40-seat propeller plane went smoothly. The tiny airline flies three times a day to El Nido, the town in the Bacuit Archipelago where I'd be staying. After a puzzling pause upon arrival, a fleet of tricycles arrived to pick up the passengers and distribute them to various hotels. A tricycle is a motorbike with a two wheeled, covered sidecar seating 2-3 people. It is the taxi of El Nido. The road was dirt -- well, mud, actually -- with a large number of standing puddles my driver had to slow down to splash through or detour around.
That should have been my first clue as to what awaited me on my four nights on Palawan. In one word: rain. To give it a name, Typhoon Butchoy was currently cruising past the north end of the Philippines, pulling in torrential thunderstorms and scattering them in an arc across the country. My first brush with Butchoy was the previous afternoon when I went walking, then wading, in Manila. My second brush was on the tricycle ride to my hotel, when a driving rain partially soaked me despite pulling out my ran jacket and cowering behind it. After transferring from one tricycle to my hotel's private one in town, I arrived after about 30 minutes at the Golden Monkey Inn -- a small resort located a mile from or so out of town on a similarly muddy, rutted road.
I had reserved a Seaview Suite, and my private balcony did indeed look out on a lovely view of El Nido's bay. The next day, I discovered it looked out upon the construction of a new hotel building going on about 15 yards beneath me. The sounds of hammering, sawing, and pounding nails into the tin roofs killed any relaxation I might have felt looking out at rain falling upon the jungle and sea. My island tour of various scenic spots had been cancelled for the day due to the typhoon's after effects. The rain hammered down every hour or so from the relentless gray skies. I retreated inside to read some, but what's the point of visiting an idyllic, tropical location if you're going to spend it in your air conditioned hotel room? Eventually, the rains let up enough for me to explore the resort a little. I noticed the beachfront cabins that I thought I had rented were unoccupied. In fact, other than me, the entire resort was empty of guests. The staff let me switch to one of the cabins, which were identical in amenities, but a tad smaller. The construction was going on behind me, now, and my balcony looked out directly onto the ocean with nothing intervening. Even more gorgeous...well, except for the gray skies and driving rain every couple hours!
View from the private balcony of my beachfront cabin
Eventually, the rain seemed to let up enough for me to take a chance and explore along the ocean front a little. I ended up walking all the way into town along the rocks and beach. It was a much better and more scenic walk than yesterday's plod along the muddy, jungle path. I was able to take some really nice photos of the sun peaking out and shining upon the water. The tide was out, and locals were wading ankle deep more than a hundred yards from the shoreline, foraging among the tide pools. Once in town, I confirmed my reservation for the island tour -- what I was hoping wold be the highlight of the trip -- had been pushed back till tomorrow. El Nido has a definite backpacker vibe, with most of the visitors in their 20s or 30s. Families are sprinkled in here and there, too. It seemed about half Asian and half Western visitors, with the locals nearly outnumbered by the travelers.
The beach is lined with restaurants and bars advertising happy hour, many with rooms for rent, as well. Reggae blared out of more than one bar, and there was a lot of San Miguel (Philippine's national brewery) being consumed. I had dinner, and of course, just as I began the walk back to my resort, the rains came down again. It was too dark for walking amidst the rocks of the shoreline, so I squished along on the muddy jungle path again, illuminating my way with the flashlight app on my phone. My reasons for staying outside of town were looking less and less sound, now, especially in the rainy season. Internet is weak to nonexistent on Palawan, so I couldn't upload photos or update my blog -- my usual evening activities when I travel. As I climbed into bed, the rains came down harder and the wind began to howl. I immediately noticed one huge difference between the suite (which was in a multistory building) and the cabin (which had its own tin roof). The cacophony of rain, branches, and coconuts hammering on the roof made it difficult to fall asleep. It was a new experience, for sure, but one that made a light sleeper like me wake up numerous times during the night.
Checking with the tour company the next morning, the island hopping tour was canceled yet again. So, what to do today? While the thunderstorms lashed the island, I read some. After a few hours, the weather broke a little. I could use the 3G on my Philippine SIM card intermittently. The forecast was for three hours of clouds before the next aquatic lashing by Typhoon Butchoy. My guidebook recommended Las Cabanas Beach, a short 15-minute tricycle ride from El Nido. It was a good choice, and the sun actually came out for a bit while I was there. The beach had too many huge rocks mixed in here and there for me to really spend a lot of time wading in the water. Plus the waves churned up the seaweed and floor to make the water more muddy-colored than crystal blue. However, the jungle-clad slopes all around, the palm trees leaning over the beach, and the sound of the surf was just what my spirits needed. I craved a burger at a tiki bar overlooking the beach, but the wait was long, and the skies began to darken as it neared the three hour window between thunderstorms. I decided to postpone it for an early dinner in town, and beat the rush the ensuing rain would likely bring for the waiting tricycles. It was a good call. About halfway back into town, the wind picked up, locals began to scurry, and finally the skies opened up and whipped bucket loads of rain. I found a second story restaurant overlooking the street, and watched locals, travelers, and traffic dodge the rain beneath me. This was definitely not the nature I'd come to Palawan to admire. But as I fell asleep that night listening to what sounded like a hurricane roaring, it was impressive nonetheless.
Las Cabanas Beach
My last morning began as the other three, with news that the Coast Guard had again cancelled the island tours for today. So, it was official. I would not see the beauty of the Bacuit Archipelago, and I'd spent my airfare and hotel money to see an extremely watered down version of Palawan's sights. So, what to do on my final full day? I chose to rent a kayak from my resort. My guidebook said that many travelers paddle across the bay to the giant green hump of Cadlao Island on their own. I asked, and they said it was an hour's paddle. If I were an experienced kayaker, or had the company of others or guides, I might have risked it. However, the idea of getting halfway across and having a storm blow in was too scary for me. My friend Keith would probably have done it, but despite my boldness in exploring countries off the beaten path of most travelers, I am too cautious at heart. I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I'm also flat-out terrified of sharks. And I'd probably have a heart attack if I was out on the open water and saw a fin slicing the water. So, instead I paddled along the coastline for about an hour and a half -- never more than about 100 yards offshore. It was a scenic vantage point, and I'm glad I did it. The only sea life I saw were a half dozen flying fish startled by my paddling. The skies remained overcast, and no gray clouds threatened. My butt soaked, my back and arms a bit sore, I happily pulled into my hotel and surrendered the kayak, vest, and paddle.
Worldwidemike takes to the sea and is NOT eaten by sharks!
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering El Nido, enjoying some San Miguel's, and waiting for the Altrove -- the best meal on Palawan to open up at 5 pm. In retrospect, I would discourage anyone from visiting Palawan during its rainy season. You essentially miss the whole reason for coming. It would be like visiting Vatican City when St. Peter's was closed. Come during its dry season or don't come at all. I spent a lot of time in my hotel room in Palawan -- more than I ever had on previous vacations. I wanted a vacation amidst nature's beauty, not a "stay-cation" reading books in a hotel room. Typhoon Butchoy saw that I spent more time with my feet propped up on the balcony than hiking, swimming, or snorkeling in a tropical paradise.