a day or two in puerto princesa.

we slept most of the way to puerto princesa. six hours in an ice cold toyota van jam-packed with as many passengers as seat belts. you pay extra for air conditioned anything in the philippines, a luxury that we rarely opted for. this trip, however, we didn’t have a choice.

i bundled up in my blue patagonia puffy and tucked my freezing feet under ryan’s thigh. it’s so silly to think about being so layered in warmth when it was 100 degrees outside.

there is one surefire way to recognize where you are, traffic. as we pulled into puerto princesa, all the sudden there were cars again. lots of them. back in a city. a city named due to the sudden drop in its ocean shelf making it the perfect port for large ships. the princess of ports.

people come to puerto princesa to see palawan’s international treasure, the underground river. voted to be one of the new seven wonders of the world.

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we had been warned that we might not be able to book a tour to see it because of its popularity, the weather, and our limited timeframe.

pshhh. don’t always listen to people. that is one lesson travelers should learn. always try.

we hopped off the van with no plans. luckily, our tricycle driver had all the plans we needed. when we said we didn’t know where we needed him to take us, that we had no accommodation, he pulled out a small flyer advertising a local hotel. sure, why not.

we pulled up to the relatively cheap hotel close to the airport that he had recommended. it was probably the shittiest room i have ever paid to sleep in, but it had wifi, and it was just for one night, so we checked in too lazy and hungry to drive around town looking for a better room.

next, our tricycle man took us to book our underground river tour. i saw the hotel was offering the same tour.

“why should we book with your guy when we can book it here?”

he smiled and ensured that we would get a better deal. and indeed we did. we booked our tickets for 200 pesos less than everyone else. and, with proof that we were flying out the next evening, we were able to get on the early tour.

done and done. good thing we didn’t listen to those people telling us we wouldn’t be able to see the underground river.

the rest of the day was eating and napping and working and eating and sleeping. we had to be up at 5am the next day, ready for the tour van to pick us up and drive us the two hours to the launch point for the tour.

it’s a shame that you can’t experience the underground river without an organized tour. we arrived at the boarding dock with hundreds of other tourists. the tours had been closed for the past four days due to the weather. the day we went was the first day the water was calm enough to make the journey. this meant even more tourists than usual for the low season.

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vendors peddled their knockoff sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and waterproof sacks to the sea of foreigners crowded together waiting for their turn to climb aboard a rickety old outrigger-esque boat and head to the mouth of the underground river.

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we waited for our turn and then set out across the ocean waves. after we docked on shore, we climbed out onto the sand and walked the wooden, monkey-streaked path to the tour entry point.

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hurry up and wait. hurry up and wait. hurry up and wait. it is the way of all tourist activities.

but after we waited, we stepped into the front of a canoe decked out in fluorescent orange life vests and construction helmets. ryan held a car battery powered spotlight as our guide paddled us into the cave.

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if you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering what the hell it means to have an underground river. well, it’s basically a river that runs through a massive natural cave tunnel, and it is spectacular.

the ceiling is lined with bats and epic stalactites. they warn you to keep your mouth shut when you look up, and when bat guano landed on my hand, i was glad i had listened.

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there is something magical about caves. even when several canoes of tourists are floating within their walls, you can feel their power. this whole world existing in darkness, away from it all. the spotlight, our only means of seeing behind the black.

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i tuned out the tour guide as he pointed out different features and what they looked like. yes, that does look like the three wise man, but i really don’t care.

i care about the dank air coating my nostrils with every inhale and the echoing of the hidden waterfalls just waiting to be found. if only we had our own canoe; i would paddle the whole 8km of that underground river…

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wet tourists in el nido

if all airport experiences were even remotely close to flying the ITI private plane to el nido from manila, i would be a much happier traveler. a private terminal with assigned tables, snacks, and wooden boarding passes. wait staff that know your name and politely tell you when it’s your time to check in, which means no line waiting at all.

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i haven’t ever been in an airport airline lounge, but i’d imagine it’s something like this minus the wooden boarding passes and lineless check-in.

the booking process is not quite as smooth though. email some random tourist shop in el nido five days before your desired departure date (and no earlier). they’ll let you know if there is space for you. might take a day of back and forth before you’ve secured your seat and paypal-ed the funds to them via internet still living in the 90s.

the small resort-owned plane is the only one that flies directly into el nido. you are welcomed to palawan with native lyrics singsonging into your ears as you once again indulge in free snacks.

well, maybe not free. the two hour flight costs about $100. if you live in america, this is pretty standard, but the other option is a $50 flight into puerto princesa and a dirt cheap six hour bus ride to el nido.

however, we stepped outside our cheap ass, dirt bagger ways this trip. we flew the fancy way. we paid $40/night for an ocean front view and a private bathroom and an army of ants to keep us company.

they warn you about monsoon season. we didn’t listen, and after a week of glorious sunshine and foreigner-free streets, we thought we’d totally lucked out. the slow season was treating us marvelously.

enter el nido.
our dose of reality (if you can call it that).

the earth was wet when we landed. it was still drizzling as our tricycle slowly navigated through puddled potholes the 15 minutes it took to get into town. into the small beach town on the northeast section of palawan. we checked in at rosanna’s without prior reservations, but not without a minimal amount of prior research.

he wanted beach, so i found him beach. immediately the hammock went up, and we were home for a few days.

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el nido is known for epic island hopping, decent scuba diving, and even some deep water soloing for us climbers. it is nestled between ocean and mountain. towering cliffs that teased us with their possibility and the smell of salty sweetness.

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we went for a wander and had a moment of shock as we passed tourist after tourist strolling the beach, aimlessly gazing at the bars and restaurants promoting their happy hour deals. we were no longer the only foreigners. we were one of them. we were one of many. i can imagine this tiny filipino gem gets pretty hopping in the busy season.

but that was not now. and i’m glad that was not now.
now was the monsoon season. and we soon found out what that meant.

beautiful afternoon thunderstorms that came out of nowhere and knocked over your “it’s five o’clock somewhere” seashore cocktails.

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perfectly timed sprints back to your hotel room that inevitably end up being unperfectly timed. shaggy wet hair dripping onto bare feet and framing our smiles.

we loved it.

rain pounding so loudly it made you listen. to nature. to each other. to nothing, and everything.

and then, we wanted to scuba dive.

as you might imagine, this weather doesn’t really lend itself to good diving conditions. we curled up in the hammock and read our course theory only to be told that we’d have to wait another day to go out on the boat. and another. and another.

since no boats could set sail, we rented a kayak to do a bit of our own island hopping. we (and by we i mean mostly ryan) paddled through the choppy waters from one island to the next. we rested on a small beach.

“i could live here.”
“look at all this treasure.”

i love this man. this man who sees a semi-deserted island covered in washed up trash and thinks he’s struck gold. this man who climbs up the first tree he can find and scopes out the lay of the land. this man who carries a giant piece of wood in from the waves and imagines what sort of furniture he can make from this waterlogged masterpiece. this man who can paddle us past the break and against the current and get us safely back to shore.

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safely back to local seafood and filipino fun.

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the people of the philippines are genuine. they smile and laugh. they are welcoming and accommodating. they tell us where to eat and what to see.

but we decide we must go.

i had it in my head that i wanted to complete my open water diving certification. no more looking in awe and envy at the photos from ryan’s latest pier dive. however, the weather really wasn’t participating in this endeavor. doesn’t mother nature care about my wants?!

i looked at a map. where could we go to escape the rain? north, south, east, west? the locals told us that it would be raining everywhere in the philippines.

but malaysia looked close. what about the weather in borneo?

on a whim, we booked flights. we spent our last evening strolling through corong corong (el nido’s neighbor) and enjoying beachside ceviche under a streetlamp… until the power went out.

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we walked home along the dark street. we took a tricycle to our door. we packed our backpacks.

today, el nido.
tomorrow, puerto princesa.
then, onto malaysia.

manila, zambales, bolinao, and buses.

IMG_8016we spend a lot of our time on buses. right now, we are on a 7-8 hour journey from bolinao back to manila. this time we have air conditioning, but we’re not picky. hop on the first bus we find going to our desired destination. sometimes crammed with locals. sometimes a flat tire. sometimes televisions playing cheesy action flicks. they all will get you there eventually.

for a dollar or so, we get a panoramic view of the lush green landscape surrounding us. the rolling hills. the sprawling fields. the weaving waters. homes and food stands built a few feet from the main road just strong enough to withstand the weather. maybe.

it’s “monsoon season” in the philippines right now, but we have only experienced the occasional afternoon shower and evening lightning show. it’s generally about 90-100 degrees with humidity that makes it absolutely useless to shower.

we embrace the heat. we embrace the solitude.

the low season has made this journey rather tourist free. my tall stature and fair skin stands out amongst the filipinos. i am an anonymous celebrity. famous only by association with a faraway land. all i can do is smile and keep going.

i try to learn the language. i always try to learn the language. there are broken bits of spanish mixed into their words, leftovers of the spanish reign. this makes it easier for me to understand, but still the only phrase i’ve mastered so far is “thank you,” that is enough. enough to show an effort. enough to acknowledge that i am a visitor. enough to appreciate this beautiful collection of islands. salamat.

there are over 7,000 islands in the philippines. we have three weeks.

since the main airport is in manila, we start there. on the island of luzon. we head west to zambales to chase down some surf. it’s not exactly surf season, but after a solo adventure, ryan managed to find a decent beach break off a nearby headland.

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we quickly moved from our crystal beach hut in san narciso…

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…down to another beachfront hut in pundaquit, but not before taking a few photos with the filipino soap opera stars filming at our accomodation. be sure to check them out in “pangako sa iyo” (i promise to you) on ABS CBN. #nextbigthing

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without any preemptive planning, we cram into a tricycle (the preferred local means of transportation) and rock up to pundaquit to find most hotels closed for the low season.

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one local points our tricycle driver to one place. closed. another local points our tricycle driver to another place. closed. we eventually find a sleepy resort with an open hut awaiting us. perfection.

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with electricity, a fan, and decent wifi, i am all set. my mobile office has found its new home. for two days. just enough time to catch up on work and track down a couple longboards to give “magic left” a go.

back in our element. away from the city chaos of manila. away from the mall of asia.

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away from all day rush hour traffic. now the only traffic was about ten other surfers waiting for the next set to roll in.

the days are short here. i rise early to get unpopulated wifi and take in the morning’s coolness. soon the sun will burn bright, and the next adventure will begin.

three buses later, we reach our next destination, bolinao. had it not been for my mother’s timeshare points getting us a cheap weeklong stay in this quiet fisherman’s town, we probably would never have ventured this far north. but we did. and it was breathtaking.

an empty all-inclusive resort with comfy beds and mediocre food. have you ever had 20 staff members there just to wait on you? someone to bring you towels. someone to bring you purified drinking water. someone to give you a massage on the beach. someone to make you cocktails. someone to prepare your meals. it’s weird.

but we took advantage of our resort stay and soaked up the local sights. walked along the beach and took a dip in the enchanted cave.

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hired a boat to tour the 100 islands national park near alaminos city. snorkeled with giant clams and swam into a bat-filled cave.

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kneeled in the saint james the great parish church built in 1609 and whispered salamat.

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sipped down some chicken lomi at adora’s restaurant. and of course, lounged by the pool and ordered a ton of room service.

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then we decided to leave two days early.

we are not resort people at heart. we are adventurers. we are bus riders. and so we ride the bus back to manila to board a puddle jumper to fly us across the sea to our next island, palawan.