El Nido Island Hopping – Take Two

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El Nido is the bustling, tourist filled gateway to the wonderful Bacuit Archipelago. Everyday tens and tens of bangkas load up passengers to explore the incredible limestone cliffs, secret coves and powder beaches of the islands surrounding the bay. We were reliably tipped off that of the four tours available tour A and C were the most impressive. Tour C was the next on our list and second time around we were much more relaxed in the morning about finding our group and embarking. The only way to describe the process and booking system is pure chaos with no one really knowing where they are going, what they need and who they are going with. We were moved groups twice and led up and down the beach before eventually being slotted in with 9 others. We were relieved to be in a small group, having seen boats crammed with 30plus guests.

Having had bad weather and winds yesterday, the sea was rough and choppy today and wading to the boat in chest high water with our bags held high above our heads and the waves slapping up against us was pretty dicey. I just can’t see that happening in the uk, where you are soaked through before you’ve even started. We had a nice group on the boat who all helped each other out as we chucked our bags on board and clambered up the side ladder of the boat that was constantly heaving up and down with the ebb and flow of the swells.

Once aboard we sailed out of the bay in the glorious sunshine to our first stop. The scenery is incredibly grand. Limestone karst cliffs soaring out of azure seas in every direction. There was a reef preventing the boat bringing us directly to our first stop so we had to anchor in the deep and clamber over. We’d been warned that reef shoes were a good idea but quite frankly they were a necessity. The skipper on the boat casually mentioned that there are reef snakes, urchins and stonefish and to be careful with the sharp coral.

Having no idea just how strong the current was we jumped in. Huge waves crashed over us, throwing us about as we tried scramble over the reef. The terrain under foot was ridiculously tough to navigate with huge boulders and sharp rocks jutting out at all angles. Just when we felt like we were making progress a wave would draw us violently back across the reef and spit us out. There is no way we’d choose to do this had we known what an ordeal it would be. People were gradually making it across one by one, coughing and spluttering as they made it onto the beach to assess their coral cuts and scrapes. Even as strong swimmers and relatively fit people we massively struggled, both suffering with cut knees and bruised legs.

Thankfully the actual beach and lagoon that we’d fought to get to was worth the pain. The channel of pure white sand and gorgeous crystalline water led to a stunning tiny beach and cove.

Just as we were relaxing someone pointed out a sea snake in the shallows and I lost my mind. I hate snakes and have been dreading any encounters, especially in the sea because we’ve been told how highly venomous they are. This snake was right at the shore, sunbathing in only 15cm of water. He was about a meter long and black with white rings. As more people gathered around to see the spectacle he buried himself in the sand and within a minute was completely invisible to us. This made me fret even more, worrying how many more snakes they were that we were potentially standing on. He did resurface, only to then dive headfirst into the sand to bury deeper.

We were all reluctant to leave the beach, knowing that we had to face the trauma of the reef again to get back on board but there was no option. The skipper and tour guide watched us with great amusement as we eventually clambered back on board to tend to our wounds.

The second stop was for lunch on Tapitutan Island. Unfortunately we had to brave some very rough waters to get here. The waves were insanely choppy and our boat was all over the place. We’d be lifted up and then smack down as waves crashed into the boat, soaking us. We were sailing head on into the wind before a precarious turn into the Tapitutan straits which was mercifully sheltered and protected, offering us a gentler journey.

The guys on the boat are so resourceful and talented, navigating tricky waters and cooking a full BBQ on the back of the boat. We had a whole fish, loads of prawns and some tasty pork belly, served with rice and dipping sauce. It was really delicious.

We stayed in this spot for an hour and snorkelled. The coral is sadly damaged in a lot of these places, probably due to the unchecked rise in tourism and trips like ours (!), but there was still plenty to see. We found a family of clownfish hiding amongst the coral and blue lipped clams.

Once back on the boat we headed for our final stop called helicopter island. There was a lovely wild beach with lush green jungle.

This was supposed to be a good spot for snorkelling but the waves had churned up the sand so much that visibility was poor. It was amazing for swimming though. Just a few meters from the shore, the ground just drops off and it gets incredibly deep. It’s this change in heights that creates such crazy powerful waves that sucked me in when I wasn’t concentrating and spat me out on the shore. I lost my snorkel and mask and ended up with half the beach in my hair. Thankfully the snorkel was washed up further down the beach and I didn’t have to sheepishly go back on the boat empty handed.

We headed back to El Nido in the afternoon and shared some sunset drinks with Alex and Michelle, a lovely couple that we met on the boat.

A few sundowners turned into dinner and wine and then evolved into night caps which then escalated to full party. Plenty of fun and a terrible hangover on tropical heat. Eek!

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