There are other things to expect while traveling in El Nido, aside from the stunning islands, magical lagoons, otherworldly underwater landscape, and pristine beaches.
Even though I am in the business of promoting Palawan, I’m just not going to hide the cultural realities or photoshop a picture just to attract more travelers. Or just in fear of disappointing the uber-defensive and tribalistic locals around here. The worst thing that can happen is that my clients arrive and find out they’d been lied to. The last thing I want is a whiny group of travelers who have been fed with unrealistic expectations by the internet.
When you plan your trip into the unknown, or in the developing world, you can’t help but imagine the good and the bad sides of it. It’s all part of traveling. Facing your ‘discomfort zone’ is part of the unlearning and learning experience. Just try to look at it this way, the worst thing during your travel is still way better than the worst day at your job. You’ll have way more opportunities of getting new perspectives on the road than when you are riding the hamster wheel.
Here are some of the things that may annoy you while traveling in El Nido.
Touts at the Bus Terminal and Everywhere
As soon as you get off the cramped van or bus, expect that you will be surrounded by tricycle drivers trying to make you notice them so bad. There will be people trying to offer you motorbike rentals as you walk around El Nido town. Expect that there will always be someone trying to sell you something whether it’s an island-hopping tour or a trip to somewhere. Touts are seen as an annoyance, but to their families, they are only trying to make a living. It is way easier to get annoyed than to understand the real reason behind. In the developing world, touts make the travel industry go around. They are part of your travel experience whether you like it or not. It’s fine to be on guard or snub them straight away while traveling in El Nido but not too much that you sacrifice genuine local interactions.
There’s Always Something Under Construction
Nowadays, El Nido feels like it is always under construction. Surely, El Nido looks way better before because you won’t see a construction site almost at every corner. It was still in its pristine state. I do believe that some places in this world deserve to remain the same. However, the system just didn’t do it justice. As mass tourism proliferates, so are the business opportunists. Both foreigners and locals from other cities see the big profit opportunity from this used-to-be humble fishing village. They come to El Nido to build yet another towering hotel or yet another posh resort. Sure, most people believe that this development is for the betterment of the local economy, but at what cost really? Will it be sustainable in the long run to let massive infrastructures occupy the lands, driving the human beings, trees, and animals out?
Undeveloped Roads on the Outskirts of El Nido Town
Just when I thought that tourism industry drives the economy, I still wonder, where does the eco fee go? That is a rhetorical question by the way. It’s not for the roads I reckon, otherwise, kids wouldn’t be walking on the mud on the way to school during rainy days. Away from the glorious El Nido town, hidden from the eyes of the tourists, are villages with endless muddy roads. Those turn into dusty roads during sunny days. Quite a pain if you are looking to ride a motorbike to explore the outskirts of El Nido. There’s also the shockingly still undeveloped part of the main highway between the El Nido town and Lio, though I have high hopes for this now. It appears that some roads are only meant to be fixed during the heaviest of rain. I want to move on from the ‘it is the way it is’ typical third-world thinking to actually aim for a massive change once and for all.
Crowded Lagoons and Islands
Thanks to mass tourism, things are not the way it used to be anymore and I’m sure the other tourist spots around the world are the same. Sometimes, the pictures on the internet don’t match the reality. Sure, the lagoons are magical and the islands are still stunning, just expect a sea of people. A sea of people in their orange life vests happily floating around or hordes of backpackers with their beer bottles on a party boat. It is better to book a more personalized tour with a sustainable tour operator that combines the best of the El Nido island-hopping tour packages and takes you to special spots away from the annoying crowd.
The Annoying Traffic in Town
Let me guess, there are now many ‘Dayo’ in El Nido contributing to the increasing population and traffic. The locals are notorious for blaming the outsiders for everything. 6 years ago, El Nido was still quite a peaceful walkable town. You won’t see that many motorbikes or tricycles causing traffic. And not many backpackers contributing to the traffic either (yes, they are not an exemption!). Thanks to the promise of mass tourism, people come to stay and make profits. It turns out, it’s not only me, the hotel and resort owners, and foreign and local investors, people from other provinces get a fair share too. Nothing’s wrong with finding ‘the American dream’ in this town. However, if the government can’t regulate the number of tricycles or the number of people giving birth by the minute, this way of ‘making a living’ will no longer be sustainable in the grand scheme of things. The locals should move on from living their present-focused lives to actually learning how to ‘see beyond the moment’ if we are to preserve our beloved El Nido for the future generation.
Bacuit Bay is Now Filled with Boats
I know it does not make sense to compare then and now because things change inevitably anyway. However, like I said, there are just things that I wish will stay the same. You can agree that Bacuit Bay was way more pleasing to the eyes without a lot of boats docked in there. It seems that everyone wants to have a boat these days – big boats, small boats, speedboats, it does not matter. Boats contribute to the air pollution too. But the sky’s the limit here as long as there’s profit. It’s all part of ‘making a living’ and all the justification with it. It is not going to be sustainable in the long run. The local government should set limits, or stop profiting from it too, God knows what. People no longer need to buy more boats when they can just hire those who already have, and those who already have need not have more. Why do people always have to wait for a crisis before actually making a grand change?
Regular Power Outages
Expect power outages whether it’s summer or rainy season. Power outages have become part of the daily life here in El Nido, even the locals themselves are tired of complaining about their own complaining. Most of the hotels and resorts have generators though, and I’m sure you’ll be spending more time outdoors anyway. Recently, the power company attempted to fix the lines even when it wasn’t raining. Wow, I was quite amazed as most people here only try to fix things just when it’s inconvenient. As a resident, I’m going to keep my hopes up for some more future improvement.
Getting Overcharged as a Tourist
There’s such a thing called ‘white tax charge’, it’s one of the ways the people in the developing world try to correct an ‘inequality.’ They think that it is socially acceptable to overcharge because the price of things you pay for are nothing compared to when you are in your own country. This gives them a sense of justification with personal gain. Instead of getting mad at the realities of the third-world, and blaming locals as always, you can probably focus more on avoiding getting overcharged. In this way, you don’t perpetuate this phenomenon yourself and you keep your sanity intact while traveling in El Nido. For example, don’t blatantly show off your privilege, or your willingness to pay a lot of money just because you have it. Just go for visible fixed prices, find out the real price of products and services, or try not to look flashy however difficult. Though definitely not all, you will usually find the tricycle drivers and some vendors charging you more especially when you are seen as a walking goldmine. It is not entirely their fault though, it is much more complicated to explain the whole politics behind it. Though this may not make you feel better, even the locals from other cities are getting overcharged as well. So don’t think, even for a second, that you are special.
Expensive Food by Third-World Standards
If you are not earning enough from being a wage slave or serving the tourists here in El Nido, there’s no chance you can regularly eat out or even afford the food in the restaurants. This place is a tourist trap. Those in the food business usually target the tourist, not the mere locals who are earning peanuts day to day. Aside from the expats and pensioners, the elite locals who moved to El Nido are able to dine in these restaurants too. Anyway, those who have money can go to some fancy pizzeria, French restaurant or coffee shops in town.
The price of goods here is increasing rapidly and so are the price of the meals. Even the “Turo Turo” or small eateries are more expensive in El Nido than anywhere else in the Philippines. Most tourists don’t really mind spending on some good food as the prices may look normal to them. However, for those who have traveled somewhere else cheap, they can agree that the food in El Nido can be quite pricey.
The Diminishing Authentic Experiences
Here’s the thing, some westerners who are traveling in this part of the world crave for the so-called ‘authentic experiences‘ without even realizing that they themselves, their system, the politicians they’ve voted for, their civilization, contributed to the diminishing return. Surprise, it’s not only the west that is becoming more evolved over time. Don’t expect that the locals in El Nido are still living off fishing or coconuts or are still noble savages living in harmony with nature. Some people now rely on instant noodles or corned beef for dinner. The most important thing is that they have preserved their village ties and are still happy beings not living in isolation with modern conveniences.
There are now many foreigners coming here to extract profits from the local economy, trying to integrate and diversify by building posh restaurants, European-inspired hostels, and corporate dive centers, or organizing ‘party boats’ catering to those who want to drown their emptiness by drinking Red Horse instead of staring at the magical lagoons. It’s funny that in a western country, all of this is called ‘diversity’, in a non-western country, it’s called cultural imperialism.
Travelers Who Are Misbehaving and Disrespectful
I was about to organize a pub crawl but I was put off after hearing a rumor about an intoxicated couple having sex in front of everyone in Nacpan beach. I just feel like I don’t want to associate my small company with a party. I’m quite aware that this kind of shameless misbehavior is also happening in El Nido town. I think this act just says a lot about the people. The modern society has completely desensitized them. Unfortunately, El Nido is resorting to the likes of Bali and Ko Phi Phi. Sure, some people are free to do their thing, I’m not against their liberty. There’s just an appropriate place for their wild antics and misbehavior, their own countries perhaps?
The Lack of Customer Service in Some Establishments
Whenever you try to buy something, it appears like the staff are bothered and are not quite happy to sell you something. And if the thing you are looking for is not available, you won’t hear any alternative offers. A no is a no, back to their cell phone time, or staring into the abyss time or their feminine chitchat time. I even heard that they are even more hostile to the beautiful ones. I understand that their wages might not be enough to force smiles out of them. The ‘you get what you pay for’ adage works all the time in the third-world tourist spots. I’m not trying to be entitled but this kind of customer service is sometimes downright annoying. Well, you can always go to some fancy restaurants or expensive shops for a chance to be greeted with a smile. As always, lower your expectations.
Karen is the local expert and itinerary specialist of Palawan AlterNATIVE. When she’s not traveling, she likes to immerse herself in a good book or blog about her life. Parts geek, parts scuba diver. Her other obsessions include things-to-do lists, cycling, solitude, and cryptocurrency. She currently lives with her cat in El Nido.