Unlike many other island destinations in the Philippines, Palawan, thanks to its sheer length and breadth, still shimmers with the promise of discovery. At a whopping 14,650km2, it’s the country’s fifth-largest landmass, after Luzon, Mindanao, Samar and Negros. Two years ago, it took mountaineer and cyclist Romi Garduce and his team 13 days to pedal on bamboo bikes from the southernmost tip of the island all the way to El Nido on its northern end, mostly through unspoiled landscapes. The entire province, comprising other popular destinations such as Coron — popular for its wreck diving — and its capital Puerto Princesa, with its Unesco-listed subterranean river, logged a million tourist arrivals in 2017.
But the natural wonderland of El Nido is what a significant chunk of visitors to Palawan come for. It’s a place that’s difficult to describe without falling back on the well-worn signifiers of an island paradise: long stretches of shoreline where the waves gently lap your every worry away; limestone cliffs jutting out of the water; ancient bulwarks protecting secret lagoons, whose teal-colored waters are said to carry healing properties.
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During peak season, there could be a line of 10 or more bangka (outrigger boats) waiting their turn to enter a lagoon so their guests can kayak around, trying to get the perfect Instagram #beachplease shot. El Nido — which stretches from the surfer-beloved Duli beach down to Maremegmeg on the southwest coast, and Teneguiban down to Dewil along the less-explored eastern coast — is a big part of why Palawan is a near-constant presence in annual surveys of holiday destinations (Travel + Leisure magazine declared it the sixth-best island in the world this year).
I travel five hours from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, through the kind of incredibly green countryside that’s all but disappeared elsewhere, to find a municipality struggling to keep up with its popularity. It’s a lot busier than it used to be, with more resorts popping up to meet a steadily growing demand for more accommodations. In El Nido town, or Poblacion, which lies in the middle of the western coast, and where development is aggressively concentrated, navigating the streets has become an adventure in itself. There’s a lot of construction and demolition going on, thanks to measures hastily implemented in recent months to avoid a government-mandated island lockdown: beachfront establishments chopping off their façades to accommodate the 3m easement rule, illegal structures being torn down and other works intended to widen the roads.
But when it comes to cosmopolitan character, El Nido has a singular allure that gives it the edge over other tourist hotspots — indeed, many travelers have come to settle here and call this place home. Here, within walking distance of each other, you’ll find an Israeli- and Indian-owned falafel stand (called Falafel Restaurant); a Slovenian-owned pizza joint (Trattoria Altrove); a Ukrainian-owned craft brewery (Odessa Mama); and even a Japanese-owned ramen bar (Ramen Minami). There’s a kind of ad hoc, organic energy as well as a real sense of community, and along with the landscapes that grace this tropical paradise, it’s a big part of El Nido’s attraction.
Yet, however bustling it might have become, many of those who last visited the municipality five or 10 years ago tend to lament that things aren’t what they used to be. “El Nido was a sleepy fishing village with huts on mud floors scattered throughout the town,” recalls Trish Tagle, whose father was born here, and whose family owns Ipil Suites, one of the first quality accommodations to open in town. “It used to take more than 24 hours to get from Puerto Princesa to El Nido via jeepney with an overnight stop.”
Not so long ago, everyone made their living from the sea through fishing and electricity was sporadic, with daily outages occurring as recently as 2011. El Nido’s tourist era only really began a few decades ago, when it was “discovered” by a group of Japanese divers in 1979. Ten Knots Development Corporation would develop the high-end El Nido Resorts on the Bacuit archipelago throughout the ’80s and ’90s, while on the mainland, locals would rent out their rooms and eventually convert their residences into inns and lodges for backpackers. In those halcyon days before the social media-fueled travel revolution, you and your friends could be the only souls floating inside a lagoon, your shrieks of delight reverberating around the karst and echoing back to you.
That original feeling of discovering your own private paradise is what hotel owner Richmond Bicol holds on to and tries to re-create for his guests as he runs the new Lagun Hotel through its soft-opening phase. “Everyone should experience the small lagoon,” he says. “It’s magical.” Lagun can arrange a special tour that circumvents the standard tours by going to lesser-visited spots, such as Cadlao Island and the private Ipil Waterfront, or simply by arriving at the small lagoon an hour earlier, before the crowds. “That makes all the difference,” he says.
Richmond, who is originally from Manila, first came to El Nido in 2003 while he was based in Puerto Princesa. When the Underground River was named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2011, an influx of tourists followed, sparking a construction boom. He and his wife saw the opportunity to cater to the as-yet untapped Asian millennial market in El Nido, and found a piece of property just on the edge of town. Lagun is a 10-minute walk from the main beach, the jumping-off point for all the boat tours. But its stunning limestone cliff backdrop, best experienced from the hotel’s roof-deck pool, more than compensates for its lack of immediate beach access. The cliff is close enough for birdwatchers to spot the talusi, or Palawan hornbill, foraging among the trees, although sightings have been less common and are therefore considered a sign of good luck. Inside, the hotel’s highly Instagrammable interiors, by Istituto Marangoni-trained Filipino designer Cecil Ravelas, are designed to convey a colorful and warm “nest” theme, using local textiles and vernacular materials for furniture.
The Bicols weren’t the only ones who saw the need for more tourist infrastructure, and as they were constructing Lagun, they noticed a new establishment popping up every month. The Ayala Land-owned Lio Tourism Estate, an integrated resort community, opened in March 2017 on 325ha of prime land. As one of the new players in the El Nido landscape, Lio is a different beast altogether, a manicured environment with its own beachfront, hotels, restaurants and shops. Because it is privately owned, development is regulated, with as much as half of the property left wild. Structures cannot be built higher than the coconut trees and, needless to say, there’s not a single plastic straw or bag in sight.
The most interesting aspect of Lio is Kalye Artisano, an artist village and handicrafts center that exudes a distinct Filipino boho-island vibe — indigenous with a touch of voodoo — selling the works of Palawan artists as well as souvenir items, handmade jewelry and soaps. Local fashion is on display, with Paloma Urquijo Zobel’s ethnic-chic clothing line Piopio, and beach-friendly wraps made by the women weavers of the Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation. Besides shopping, there will be a co-working space, a hostel and a restaurant with chef Chele Gonzalez of Gallery by Chele — formerly called Gallery Vask, it’s an upscale restaurant in trendy Bonifacio Global City whose menu is designed around locally sourced ingredients. Kalye Artisano also hosts artist-led workshops and regular block parties — culture-centric activities for visitors, locals and transplants alike who are looking for things to do beyond the beach.
The newly opened Jungle Bar and Café, an extension of the Piopio brand, shows just what Paloma and her mom Bea Zobel Jr are trying to create in the village, and Lio in general. Jungle Bar’s cocktail menu uses local ingredients in inventive and sometimes traditional ways — herbs, fruits and flowers all grown on their organic farm in Taytay, or picked along Lio’s jungle trails. Spices like turmeric, black pepper, ginger and butterfly pea flowers perk up drinks that are both refreshing and relatively healthy.
“That’s how we philosophize the growing of Piopio, using what’s available here,” says Rambie Lim, who heads the company’s community support. “When we develop projects, we look into what local farmers can offer, and try to support and enhance their technologies, because we want to include the community in this boom.” Partnering with indigenous communities and local craftspeople so they are not left behind is the kind of growth that seeks to strike a balance between tourism and sustainability, and Lio’s presence should help to establish best practices in the resort industry.
As land value surges, however, hotels are setting up shop further south. The newly opened Maremegmeg Beach Club is found one cove past Corong-Corong, on a beach known interchangeably as Maremegmeg or Las Cabanas that’s famous for its sunset views and great vibe. At one end, a zipline takes thrill-seekers 750m across the sea to a small island called Depeldet, which also has a beautiful reef. The Beach Club’s laid-back luxury will appeal to eco-minded design enthusiasts and seasoned travelers “living their best beach life”, as their social media accounts might declare. Custom-made Machuca tiles inspired by Palawan tribal script, and abaca rugs, bed runners and throw pillows woven with the ethnic Batak motif, are just some of the design touches that highlight Filipino craftsmanship. Next door to the Beach Club, the Discovery World group is finishing a 120-room resort and 50-shop commercial complex called Vanilla Beach, which will again alter the character of the area, as well as
“From the beginning, we knew building this resort was going to have a major environmental impact,” says Ditchay Roxas, a partner of the Maremegmeg Beach Club, which has beach-view villas built vertically along the slope and an extra-long infinity pool beneath them. To mitigate the impact on the coast, Ditchay explains that even before she and her colleagues started thinking about design and all the fun stuff, they had to address the issues of erosion and sewage. They erected several layers of retaining walls to prevent landslides, and installed their own sewage treatment system, since the town presently lacks the capacity to handle the amount of sludge produced in El Nido daily.
In fact, this is the biggest environmental problem the area faces today, according to the local government. A centralized sewage treatment plant is in the works and scheduled to be fully operational by 2020. In the meantime, the more responsible hotel operators install their own treatment plants, but many negligent establishments are still discharging their waste out to the sea. Business owners are also compelled to supply their own power through solar panels or generators, and manage their own waste recycling — basic necessities which should be borne by the local government.
“I used to be against tourism. I’ve lived in Palawan for so long, and I thought that tourists would ruin the whole place,” says Ditchay, who also owns the highly rated La Terrasse restaurant in Puerto Princesa. “But you realize that tourism helps to save and preserve the area. People come because they want to see something natural. When you take care of the environment, you take care of your capital.”
We are down by the Beach Bar, right in the center of Maremegmeg, socializing and watching the sun go down in a blaze of glory as chef Diggy Alvarez turns up the beats. Guests, mostly foreigners, lounge on recliners or sip wine under the shade of a tree. The transition to the more languid part of the day seems so integral to the island experience, but soon, beach chairs and umbrellas might be banned. Drinking alcohol on the beach might be outlawed too, so I savor this moment like it’s the last sundowner I’ll ever have.
Using the recent rehabilitation of Boracay as the template, other coastal destinations are pre-emptively striking to contain the degradation that years of unregulated tourism have wrought — starting off by banning plastic and enforcing laws which are already in place. Trish Tagle concurs, and adds that education is key when it comes to getting every stakeholder on the same page. “Currently, everyone is working in silos to remedy their individual issues,” she says. “We just need to talk and listen, and put El Nido and the environment first. Then I think everything else will align.”
This clear-eyed sense of what counts — of the natural environment as a bankable commodity, without which there can be no local tourist economy to speak of — adds a tinge of hopefulness to the incredible beauty of the sunset as I take a long sip of my blue drink. The idea of paradise, one that’s pristine and untouched, may be forever lost. But what El Nido stands to gain is a notion of paradise that respects the balance of human and nature, of culture and progress, and of what we can exploit and what must be left alone.
Hair and makeup: Renen Bautista
Styling: Anne Arguelles
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This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Smile magazine.