On the top of many travellers bucket lists is the spectacular rice terraces of Banaue in North Luzon and the beautiful El Nido on Palawan Island, in the Philippines. We wanted to hit them both.
First we visited Banaue, and did a hike through the Unesco site of Batad. The hike was surprisingly challenging and a welcome workout up and down many natural stairs in the end leading to a nice waterfall.
We visited in November and therefore the rice growing season in the north was over, the terraces were filled with water still but the photos during growing season are much greener and more captivating. Never the less it was great to see and inspiring when you take into account they were built more than 2000 years ago with no machinery.
The food in banaue is basic and there are not very many guest houses or restaurants. I think this is due to the fact that bus loads of tourists and day trippers do not come all the way to Banaue since the journey takes about 9 hours by bus in total to reach it from Manilla, on a good day. We ate local purple rice with steamed camote (a local sweet potato) for dinner and were fully satisfied and ready to hike the following day.
The bus times leaving Banaue are a bit strange but the companies feel as though there is the least amount of traffic and therefore it is a safer journey. We left Banaue at 7pm and arrived in Manilla around 4am. I’m not sure what everybody else on the bus does at this time but we decided to head straight to the airport. It was my first experience with arriving at the airport without a ticket or concrete destination in mind. I day dreamed (or possibly fell asleep considering I had been up all night) about movies where they ask for the next flight out to anywhere and everything falls into place effortlessly. Of course the only airlines with sales offices in Manilla terminal 3 are located on opposite sides of the large building. We priced flights at both but realized that if we wanted to prepay our baggage and save money we had to do so four hours before the flight left. That ex’ed out any flight in the near future and we ended up booking the cheapest flight to Puerto Princessa, Palawan at 6pm that night. After spending 14 hours at the airport and ingesting a few litres of smoothies we arrived at the gate ready to board. Of course, the plane was delayed a few more hours after this but we did finally arrive.
Puerto Princessa is more of a transfer point for travellers going on to El Nido. We spent a few nights here before ourselves heading north. Northern Palawan has some of the most spectacular islands and lime stone cliffs I have ever seen. Many compare the islands around El Nido to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam but with tropical turquoise waters, less pollution, and less ship traffic.
We went on an island hopping tour like every other tourist and visited some secluded beaches, ‘hidden bays’, and lagoons! The water was such an amazing colour and we lucked out with pure sun all day. The boat men even cooked us a vegetable stir-fry special along with the rice, fruit, and vegetables available on the traditional lunch buffet.
I would have to say though the highlight of our trip to El Nido, and probably even the whole Philippines was renting a kayak and exploring by ourselves for the day. We rented a kayak with two snorkels for 500php ($12) for the full day, packed a lunch, and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. A local fisherman on the beach had let us know that the island we could see directly in front of us should take about 15 minutes to reach, but we had our eyes on Helicopter Island. Quite a bit further away, we were warned only to attempt it if we were advanced kayakers. Well, we have kayaked a couple times before together so thats advanced right?
I probably should have clued in when it took us almost 35 minutes to reach the ’15 minute’ island due to strong currents but we had the whole day ahead of us and continued on. We took some breaks at deserted patches of beach we found along the coast line before digging into our longest stretch of open water towards Helicopter Island. Finally the island seemed to be getting closer and we pushed hard to reach it before our tired arms gave out. We enjoyed lunch without a single tourist or person in sight and hopped in the inviting waters to do some snorkelling and splashing around.
Having no idea what time it was or how long we had been out we decided it felt like a good time to head back. The journey back was gruesome to say the least, I have not had to physically and emotionally push myself that hard since training for a half marathon the year before. The current under water seemed to want to push our kayak right back to where we started if we ever tried to take a break for even one-second. The waves were quite high and constantly filling the kayak with water so much so my whole body felt like it was shrivelling up like a prune. At times it felt like we were kayaking on a treadmill and making zero progress whatsoever but of course we made it back after a few hours straight of paddling against the current.
Was it hard? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Being the only boat of any kind surrounded by such dramatic landscape is a wonderful feeling….and hey, in the end its just another example that travelling in the Philippines is never as easy as it looks.
Seeing is believing, have a look at our youtube video which explores Palawan in all of its beauty. Don't forget to subscribe to my channel to see related content on travel, budgeting, planning, and more destinations to add to your bucket list!