The Changes in El Nido

The Changes in El Nido

A lot can change in five years. Five years ago I was drinking a lot, travelling southeast Asia on less than $20 a day with a boyfriend who was verbally abusive, and totally unconcerned with the future. I didn't like photography--in fact I was against it as it "took away from the moment". And overall I was less perceptive. I was less perceptive to the damage I was inflicting on my body and life, sure, but also to what was happening around me.

I travelled to El Nido in The Philippines alone in 2013, and what I didn't notice was that there were no actual buildings in the modern sense. There were a few western style restaurants that were overpriced for tourists (so I didn't go), and the places I did frequent were basically outside with a few lean-to walls placed around. The motorcycles attached to metal cages were falling apart, loud and wasteful. I didn't notice the poverty, or the potholes in half-assed roads. I didn't see the starving stray dogs or dirty babies. I don't even remember where I stayed. 

What I remembered instead were the beautiful beaches and the cheap coconuts that I could pour cheap rum in. I remembered the breath-taking archipelago that we sped through on exotic-looking boats and limestone mountains. Palm trees are imprinted in my mind and plentiful, brightly-colored fish seen through crystal clear waters. So when my and my best friend decided to go to The Philippines, I was adamant we go back to that undiscovered jewel, El Nido.

But it had been five years. And not only had El Nido changed, but I had too. That's the thing with travel--you see a place through your own, ever-changing eyes. Brianna from 2013 was a more naive girl, maybe a bit more adventurous, and probably had a way lower cleanliness standard. 

Now, we were in 2018. There were more hotels and far more restaurants. All the bartenders told us they had opened in the last few years. Instead of a couple of boats heading out for tours A, B, C, or D, there were hundreds of people trailing through the water in bright-orange life jackets for the same few places. Never in a million years did I think I would wait in line to crawl through a rock just to get back in line and go back out. Five years ago it was an adventure--every place was ours alone to explore without a schedule. I learned everyone's name on the boat because there were only a handful of us all at the edge of the world. We jumped out where places seemed interesting.  

Now, we had exactly 15 minutes at each spot. It was enough time to take pictures, prove we were there, and get back on the boat. The tour was still only $15, but now there were other items we "had" to buy, like foot protection and kayaks. For some reason, the deposit on snorkels was $20. Given that that's probably a decent amount of money for some of the locals, I stressed out trying to keep an eye on our pair.  Every where I turned someone wanted more money for something. Before I was a tourist with money, yes, but I could tell I was welcomed as a human-being. Now, I was a faceless westerner with deep pockets.

I felt horrible for bringing my friend back here on one of my glorified old memories, and thought maybe I can salvage the trip. I thought maybe it was Tour A that had the waterfall cave you could swim through, and the "secret" beach that exists just around some unassuming rock. When I was there last, my tour group frolicked around for an hour before I stretched out onto the white sand and took a nap in the sun. I described this place to my new tour guide and asked which tour it was on. "Ah that no longer in tour," he said. "It was sold to development. A resort is there now." For someone with basic English living with limited running water and electricity, it's telling that all Filipinos know the words "development" and "resort". 

Obviously, the Filipino people need to live, and feed their families, and deserve a better quality of life. Someone smarter than me can write the article on how white Western tourists have to stop complaining about a place being "ruined" because people other than them discovered it. I totally get it. But I feel the same way about El Nido as I do about the mall in my hometown. It's different now--more expensive, useless and odd stores have replaced old favorites, and it's layout totally disorients me these days. There are always people that will benefit from change. It's just not little old me, that likes things simple.

After the failure of Tour A, my friend and I headed to the airport just to find out that because of a volcano eruption our flight was delayed three days. So it turns out, just a half hour ride north of El Nido, is a place called Nacpan Beach. There's only a couple hotels, some cheap outdoor food stalls, super friendly and genuine locals, and beautiful beach as far as the eye can see....