When we left El Nido, it was with a certain mix of satisfaction – we were, proverbially, “gettin’ the hell outta Dodge” – and trepidation – was this potentially a case of “better the devil you kknow…?” While the town is immensely popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike, our stop there was exactly what I’ve said earlier – a necessary evil, and not one I relished. Despite our mutual love of London, Toronto, and a number other cities around the globe, we are not typically city people when we travel onn extended trips, nor are we beaten-path people, and our trip through Asia thus far had been entirely that.
We hopped in a van that took us a couple of hours down the highway to Roxas (“Ro-hass” – a good example of the many Spanish undertones evident in Filipino culture), where we were dropped at a bus depot and grabbed lunch while we waited for the next leg of our road trip to start. The name and exact ingredients of the barely-lukewarm beef stew/curry dish that we ate in the little bus station restaurant with the transgender waitress is still a mystery, but was probably one of the best dishes we had in the 12 days in the Philippines. You can almost always count on bus stations to reveal some secrets and Roxas was no exception. :) We waited for an hour or so for our jeepney: picture something that looks like a homemade stretch Hummer with a single long opening on each side for windows, an open back end, and the hood of a Model-T, and you’re just about there. It’s part Jeep, part bus, all uncomfortable… Our jeepney hit the road and almost immediately exited onto another one of those famous Filipino dirt tracks that make journeys oh-so-exciting.
An hour later, we neared Port Barton and the jeepney made a couple of rattling stops to let locals off at various spots. When I saw the sign for Elsa’s Place, our home for the next five days, I asked if they could stop to let us off, but was informed that no, we needed to wait until we got to the bus depot. By “bus depot,” they actually meant “let us drive 50 metres up ahead to a particular patch of dirt on the road.” We helped catch the bags as they were dropped (carefully) off the roof and we strolled back down the deserted dirt road and through the gate at Elsa’s.
Elsa’s has been open since 1979, making it a pioneer of the Port Barton guesthouse scene. It was pretty obvious that they’ve been at this for awhile. The bungalows, which were bamboo weave on the outside (making me immediately cautious about committing to staying there), were panelled with wood and stone inside, and were the nicest huts we stayed in during our Filipino leg of this trip (actually, probably one of the nicest guesthouses we stayed in since November, other than Sleep Eezy Cottages and Top Hill View Hotel, the latter of which carried nine times the price tag of Elsa’s). The expansive restaurant was made entirely of varnished wood, and the property was dotted with almost a dozen large wicker hammocks. Beverley, the one-woman show who controlled check-in/out, cleaning, and everything in the restaurant, spoke impeccable English and multi-tasks like a maniac. Oh, and the whole place was right on the beach, less than 10 feet from the tide lines. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we’d made the right choice. :)
We had five days on our hands (it would’ve been six, but by this point we had an inherent distrust of Cebu Pacific when it came to planning to get somewhere on schedule, so we decided to fly to Manila a day early, on the off-chance that our flight got cancelled or ran into trouble again), and we planned to fill it with books, beach, warm seawater, mangoes, hammocks, and maybe a splash – or six – of rum. This was the most time we’d spent settled in one location since we’d left Cornwall, so we had every intention of using it as a chance to get rested up for the busy few weeks ahead. It was easy to settle into a rhythm of waking by 8, having tea or breakfast in the restaurant, chatting to someone at home on FaceTime (when the Pope wasn’t on the move or the wifi wasn’t down for other reasons), finding a sunny (for me)/shady (for Rich) hammock to curl up in with our books, wandering through town to get lunch/snack/supper/sundowners. Tough. Life.
We were mindful of the jellyfish we’d seen around the Bacuit Archipelago, so asked a few questions about their presence in this bay and were told that yes, there are some, and heard that one backpacker had been stung a day or two earlier. On our first foray into the water, we were slightly alarmed to see a dark blue jellyfish, complete with short-but-streaming tentacles wash into the surf just a couple of feet beside us. I’m not someone who enjoys swimming in cloudy water (which the water in the bay was because we hadn’t made it far enough past the surf), so I found it unnerving to be in water that had confirmed jellyfish sightings and no other swimmers. Needless to say, our swim was brief. A number of swimmers took to the water in the days that followed, giving me some peace of mind, but it was worrisome to come so close to being stung on our first swim. While in the water, Rich contemplated calling out to some local kids playing on the beach to see if they wanted to come play – he was looking for some kids to toss around in the water, like in Laos. This then spawned the creation of names for “Southeast Asian Olympics” sports, most notable the Filipino Fling, the Toddler Slalom (created after one particularly successful slalom session, courtesy of a couple of three-foot-tall terrors changing their minds about where they were going while walking right in front of us, narrowly missing being trampled), and Jellyfish Dodging, with which we would later learn we needed more practise, due to some stealth specimens.
Over the course of Saturday, it became clear that there was something going on in town – there seemed to be a fair bit of foot traffic two streets back from the beach (there are only 3 main roads in Port Barton) and we could hear someone speaking over a mic periodically throughout the day, but it became more frequent as the day wore on. We decided to go check it out and discovered that there was a major basketball tournament going on. We stopped to watch a game after dinner and ended up joining about 300 other spectators. The game was a good one – two of the best teams in the region – and the shots were clean, so I started cheering the teams on. The first time I applauded a particularly impressive shot, no one around me joined. I thought I must be cheering for the wrong team. So I applauded a great play made by the opposing team… by myself. Turns out no one cheered at all, despite the fact that one of the better players on the court was from Port Barton. Made for a very strange game atmostphere! We stayed for a little while longer – I kept applauding – but when it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be an engaging audience, we headed home. These two party animals were pretty consistently in bed by 10pm. :)
We booked yet another boat trip for Sunday, this time to Paradise Island, German Island, Twin Reef, and a second reef whose name wasn’t really clear (I suspect it doesn’t have an actual name and is just named for the island that it’s near). Ben, a weathered middle-aged man with a small frame and a shy smile, was our captain this time around and we joined him on the Arvin Joy under some pretty ominous skies. A boatman for 34 years, I get the feeling he’s seen a lot of change in his trade and his town during those three decades.
Our first stop was Twin Reef, which boasted awesome coral formations – in between the usual stag, brain, and fan coral, we also saw some gorgeous specimens that looked like deep green cabbage patches and bright orange pot-bellied cyclinders. Because we weren’t near an island, there’s no boats to pole ashore, so the coral here was vibrant and well-inhabited with hundreds of colourful fish. We stopped at Paradise Island for lunch and some swimmming. The skies had looked pretty threatening and let loose with a few rain drops while we waited for food, but the storm, which had lurked just beyond us and whose arrival had seemed imminent since the morning, stayed at bay for the entire day and we actually enjoyed sunny skies immediately overhead all day. Ben, like most boatmen, is a dab hand with charcoal, and he proceeded to cook up a feast of tuna steaks – more than we could ever eat, as usual – and a tomato/cucumber salad topped with some sliced onion; he also offered up buko: a young coconut, served with the top hacked off and a straw popped in the middle so that we could have some fresh coconut water. I’ve never actually tried coconut water, so this was a first for me (and for Rich); can’t say I loved it, but it was palatable (maybe it’s better when it’s cold?). We grabbed our nut (ahem) and hopped back in the boat for the ride over to German Island, where we spent a large portion of the afternoon swimming and sunbathing alongside a dozen other travellers. I was most looking forward to German Island (so-called because a German man lived there alone for seven years) because it boasts a sea turtle nesting ground and turtles had been seen there only a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, there were no turtle sightings, but we did have fun watching some of the boatmen take an interest in an 11 month-old little girl. Filipinos love children, especially babies; seeing these rough-and-rugged men reduced to grins and chuckles by a little German baby was too funny. Our final stop was another coral reef that, combined with Twin Reef, produced our most impressive snorkelling experience thus far. I’ve described the colours before, but seeing so many fish and in such variety was so much fun. Our second reef came with a few added surprises, not all of which were pleasant. The first was the presence of more jellyfish. The sneaky part: the little suckers were invisible. We could feel the stings – imagine large invisible needles being jabbed into your skin while swimming, and potentially getting caught in your swimming bottoms – but couldn’t figure out where the nasty buggers were. They weren’t leaving marks, so we figured that they couldn’t be serious, but they were painful nonetheless. It got bad enough that we both contemplated heading back to the boat, but we decided to press on – and, as always, ended up glad that we did. The second surprise was a banded sea snake sighting. Had it not been for the fact that this beautiful blue-and-black striped creature was tucked up against some coral off of which it was feeding six or so feet below me, I think I would have been far less calm about this sighting because I find sea snakes a little terrifying. As it was, I kept a pretty close eye on it until we were well clear of the area, but it was an awesome sighting. Our final surprise was the discovery that, just a little past where we saw the snake, the sea floor dropped away and the reef descended into the darkness of deep open water. Spooky, magical, and pretty darn cool. I’m used to seeing walls from the comfort of scuba gear; it’s haunting to hit the edge of one when you can’t drop down and see what’s there.
Our final two days passed in a bit of a book-hammock-beach haze, and that’s just what we were after. We had plans to swim on day four, but early that afternoon, Rich managed to stub his toe and rip the entire nail off, which put the kybosh on swimming plans (which was fine – my hammock was still comfy!).
When the time came to head for Puerto Princesa to catch our (free!) flight to Manila, we hopped in a jam-packed van for a trip that mixed go-kart and Gravitron as we careened around bends with enough force that my arms felt like they were pinned to the seat. One more trike ride – to the airport, this time – and we were on our way to Manila. Our time in Palawan was over.
There are a few important details about Port Barton that anyone considering a visit should know: 1) There’s no ATM there (or in El Nido – that’s REALLY important because you’ll need to plan ahead if planning those two stops in succession); 2) There’s no daytime power but, depending on where you stay, your hut may have power sporadically through the day like ours did; 3) The wifi is wildly unpredictable (but it does exist, contrary to what we’d read) so don’t plan on getting any crucial online work done while you’re there (thankfully, I had already scheduled video conferences for after our visit); 4) Plan your accommodation or you’ll be left to join the daily backpacker parade down the beach, stopping at each and every door until you find someone with a spare room – there were days when I wasn’t sure that this would happen for some of those poor souls; 5) Don’t forget to put sunscreen on your bum on boat trip days. Ask me how I know. :P
Every country we’ve visited has had one particular stand-out spot (or more, in the case of Cambodia); something that helps to adhere that specific destination to our memories. For the Philippines, Port Barton was it. From the very minute we arrived in town in our brightly-painted “Lion King” jeepney, something about this little town with a population hovering around 5000 clicked with me.
Grateful for: mangoes!; hammocks; moisturiser