Archive Page 2

25
Apr
15

U.S./Florida: Dry Tortugas Nat’l Park


As we were planning our Key West itinerary, we came across a stunning photo of a beach located at the Garden Key. We never knew that almost a hundred miles west of Key West there’s a place that is out of this world! Our minds were already framed on what to expect from the beaches on the Florida Keys that are located in the world’s third largest coral reef that makes the area excellent for diving and snorkeling. Key Largo, one of the keys, has even earned the title of the Diving Capital of the World. However, this means that because of the coral reefs filtering the waves before they reach the shores on the islands, there would be less pulverization of the sand so there are less fine, white sand beaches around the islands. That captivating scenery of the Dry Tortugas National Park’s South Swim Beach convinced us to make the place one of the major destinations that we will be visiting during our first trip to the Florida Keys.

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Situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the remotely located Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles west of Key West, Florida which is the southernmost city in the continental United States. It is composed of six pristine islands of which the Garden Key is the centerpiece island.  It is also where Fort Jefferson is located.  It is America’s third largest and most spectacular coastal fort.

 

reaching dry tortugas

Access to the Dry Tortugas National Park is only possible from Key West. You can fly to either Miami or Fort Lauderdale and take a scenic four-hour drive to Key West. You can also fly direct to Key West but I would not suggest this option because you will be missing the breathtaking views of the ending stretch of U.S. Route 1 that terminates at Key West. From Key West you can either take the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park which is exclusively offered by Yankee Freedom III  (US$190 per adult person for a return trip including breakfast and lunch) or you can take a sea plane which can be chartered at this link (US$299 for a half day tour or US$525 for a full day tour per adult person).

 

things to do at dry tortugas

We just opted for a full day tour so what I will be presenting here will just be activities for those who are on day tour, except for the camping tips.

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We took the ferry that left Key West at 8 a.m. and reached Dry Tortugas National Park at around 10:30 a.m. For the day tour you have exactly four and half hours to spend on the island. Upon arrival you can either join a free one-hour tour of Fort Jefferson or you can just do your own thing. We did the latter and we immediately went to South Swim Beach.

1. relaxing at South Swim Beach

South Swim Beach was my favorite place on the island. From the docking area, you can proceed to the left side and walk past the entrance to the massive fort for about 2 minutes and it will bring you  to what I consider the most picturesque area in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

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You move further south and walk past the amazing white sand beach.

 

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You will end up at this stone structure that also houses the helipad.

 

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From the stone structure, one can have this stunning scenery.  This area is also one of the designated snorkeling places.

 

 

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Visitors would spend most of their time just lazing on this white sand beach and swimming in the turquoise waters.

 

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From this beach, one can also chance upon sea planes passing by.

 

2. going around the fort via the moat wall

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From South Swim Beach you can start walking along the south moat wall and start going around the entire structure from outside.

 

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Then you will come across your first turn to the west moat wall.

 

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We took some photos on the west moat wall.

 

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And then on the east side as well.  It took us around 12 minutes to go around the fort via the moat wall.

 

3.  spending time at North Swim Beach

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Either by going the entire walkway along the moat wall outside the fort from South Swim Beach (described in the preceding section) or taking right from the docking area to the pathway (shown above), you will be led to the less crowded North Swim Beach.

 

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This beach is shorter, less crowded and less charming than South Swim Beach. Nevertheless, this beach also has crystal clear blue waters.

 

4. snorkeling & fishing

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As I have stated earlier the Florida Keys sits on the world’s third largest coral reef and it should just be fitting to do some snorkeling around designated areas in the island.  The protected waters are home to an array of extraordinary sea life. Snorkeling gears are provided free by the boat, Yankee Freedom III.

Fishing on Garden Key is also allowed at five designated areas. Fishing license is required unless you are under the age of 16 or a Florida senior resident over the age of 65.

 

5.  camping

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There is an option to camp on the island up to three nights and that’s what we wanted to do but we did not get camping slots anymore as they only limit the number of campers per day to around sixty-six campers at the eleven camp sites in the island.  So be sure to book in advance if you want to camp.

 

6. touring the inner side of the fort

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Welcome to Fort Jefferson.  This fort was 30 years in the making but was never finished.

 

DSC_5843This is harbor light as seen from the ground level.

 

DSC_5835This is the ground level of the fort from inside.

 

DSC_5832The ground level of the fort has walkways that lead to the entrance to the second level of the fort.

 

DSC_5844 DSC_5845Also on display at the ground level are the boats used by sailors.

 

DSC_5858This is a part of the second level.  Imagine, you are inside one of the largest brick structures in the western hemisphere. There are 15 million bricks that make up this enormous fort.

 

DSC_5857From the second level, the view of the inner part of the fort is just haunting.

 

DSC_5852 DSC_5856Glancing outside from the second level, the view of the blue-green sea is just calming to the eye.  If you have time, you can stay put at any of the windows overlooking the waters and read a book.

 

7. enjoying the view from the boat

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From the boat you can enjoy the view going to the adjacent Bush Key while having lunch.

 

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You can also enjoy views of the harbor light and part of the eastern part of the fort from the boat.

 

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The four and a half hours was really short and I wished we could have camped there for a day or two as I also wanted to experience sunsets and sunrises on the island. We left the Garden Key at exactly 3:00 p.m. and reached Key West after two and a half hours.

 

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This has been my best island experience so far in the U.S.A.!  The scenery was something I have never seen before.

 

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Above all, the beach was incredibly beautiful!

08
Mar
15

Peru: The Wonders of Machu Picchu


Machu Picchu is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization and it is one of Peru’s greatest man-made treasures having been preserved and untouched by the Spaniards when they came rumbling through South America. The ancient site has been voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. It has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

the trip to machu picchu

You can save a lot of time in visiting Machu Picchu if you fly direct to Cusco from some Central and South American cities thereby missing Lima which is actually too good to pass.  Otherwise, if you are coming in from the U.S. mainland, you need to fly to Lima first and then fly to Cusco like we did. (You can click here for my blog on colorful and bustling Lima.) You can either base yourself in Aguas Calientes area at the base of Machu Picchu or Cusco or the Sacred Valley which is two hours away from Machu Picchu. We stayed in a hotel in Cusco for a few days and we just allotted a whole day tour of Machu Picchu.

We left our hotel in Cusco very early in the morning for our 8 a.m. train ride to Aguas Calientes originating from Poroy train station, 30 minutes taxi ride away from the city central. We have arranged with our driver the day earlier at the Cusco airport for the taxi ride to Poroy.  The hotel staff in Cusco can also help you pre-book a taxi or get one on the spot.

DSC_0394Our train was on time for its departure.  For the train, you can choose between the cheaper Vistadome and the more expensive and luxurious Expedetion.  You can book train tickets directly at PeruRail website.

 

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Breakfast of pancakes and fruits with coffee or tea was served during the 112-km, 3-hour trip from Cusco to Aguas Calientes.  [As of this writing the 112-km trip has been divided into a combination of train and bus bimodal service from January 2015 to April 2015 only.]

 

DSC_0402 DSC_0411Through the train’s huge large and transparent windows and ceiling, we enjoyed the view on our way to Aguas Calientes.

 

 

arrival at aguas calientes

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Finally, we arrived at the Puente Ruinas train station at the end of the laid back town of Aguas Calientes.  You can opt to base yourself here for a few days if you want to explore more of the neighboring attractions like the Sunday Market.

We were greeted by the travel agency representative from whom we had bought bus tickets in advance.  We were led to the bus queue going up Machu Picchu. The bus is just one of the options for you to reach Machu Picchu from the train station. Another option would be to hike around 3km for around 45 mins up to Machu Picchu. Since we did not have much time, we  decided to take the one day tour and go up via the bus ride. The bus would leave every 10 minutes. The more adventurous travelers can join the 1-day or 3-day hike via the famous Inca Trail.

 

 

the ascent to machu picchu

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The view going up 7,970 feet above sea level was absolutely breathtaking and at the same time spine-chilling.  The winding roads do not have side protection and you could see the sceneries below directly from your bus seat.

 

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We arrived at the entrance of Machu Picchu after 20 minutes. We waited for our tour guide to call our names at the time we were scheduled to enter. When purchasing the entrance ticket, you would need to select the time of your entry to the site. Do not risk of getting no entrance tickets to Machu Picchu especially if you are only one a one-day tour so book in advance.  Take note that the number of visitors are limited per day at certain time allocations. You can book at this website.

 

 

the machu picchu ruins

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Our tour by the English-speaking guide started at the side of the ancient site overlooking a spectacular mountain range.

 

DSC_0454There were around 20 tourists with us. It was actually raining when we started the tour but as the tour guide told us, rain in Machu Picchu is just always passing and do not be disappointed as the skies will clear in a few minutes after a sudden rainfall. I suggest that you bring a disposable raincoat with you. There are also umbrellas being sold at the site entrance that you can use to protect yourself from both the sun and the rain.

 

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Machu Picchu was built in classic Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls.

 

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We then started to descend for a lower view of the ruins. I was actually starting to get bored halfway through the tour as I wanted to go up immediately to the highest point where the classic view of the site of the ruins could be taken.

 

 

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In a few minutes we started to go up.

 

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I was really awestruck at the ruins and the layout.

 

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Finally, the classic Machu Picchu shot!

 

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Machu Picchu ruins and myself.

 

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We were truly thankful for the excellent weather and safe travels.

 

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Alpacas abound in the area and they have been giving nature accent to the surroundings.

 

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And it was time to go and catch our train ride back to Cusco.

It was truly a dream come true for me to visit Machu Picchu.  The entire trip was challenging from planning to booking especially the connections from Lima to Cusco to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu but everything was indeed worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

04
Mar
15

Hungary : The Marvels of Budapest


Budapest is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and it certainly has its own unique charm.  Separated by the Danube River into the Buda and Pest areas, it is expected to mesmerize first time visitors.  Budapest appears even lovelier at night with the absolutely thrilling display of lights along the Danube River and beyond.

the train ride to budapest

DSC_2155Coming from a few days tour of Prague, we took a 9-hour overnight sleeper train to Budapest that left around midnight.  

 

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One has the options of two-in-a-room or four-in-a-room setup.  We got the two-in-a-room which has actually a bunk bed.

 

It was not the most comfortable train ride I have taken.  Even though the beds were conducive for sleeping I was awake most of the time we were traveling because I am a light sleeper.

CSC_2182 DSC_2178Complimentary breakfast was served in the train as we were about to arrive in Budapest.

 

where we stayed in budapest

The final hotel selection was narrowed down to two Marriott properties: the Budapest Marriott Hotel along the Danube River and the highly-rated Boscolo Budapest Autograph Collection in the city center. We chose the Budapest Marriott because of its excellent location and more reasonable price. Indeed it was a very wise choice because the sweeping Danube River views from our room were just breathtaking especially at night.

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DSC_0766 DSC_0760It is the only hotel in Budapest offering magnificent river views from all of its 364 rooms.

The following are the views from our room taken at different times of the day. We could see the Chain Bridge and Buda Castle from our room!

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1546122_10202937812674883_987479911_nThe hotel is a short walking distance to three of Budapest’s top attractions Buda Castle, Chain Bridge and the Parliament.

 

 

the chain bridge

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The Chain Bridge, built in 1849, is the most famous Budapest bridge.  It is the icon of the city’s 19th century development. It is the nearest of the three major attractions near our hotel so we could just take a short walk to the bridge any time of the day.

 

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My favorite time spent at the bridge was around sunset until early evening when everything was beginning to light up and the sights in and around the bridge were just incredible.

 

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It was way more lovelier here at night with all the lights than at day time.

 

 

the buda castle quarter

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Walking along the Chain Bridge from the Pest side to the Buda side will lead you to the entrance to the Buda Castle Quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just a few steps off the bridge.  From here you would be taken up to the Buda Castle perched high above Castle Hill.

 

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The castle, seen here from the Danube Promenade, was first completed in 1265.

 

the parliament

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Around 15 minutes walk from Chain Bridge is the Hungarian Parliament, which is the third largest in the world. We tried to walk to it in the afternoon at the Pest side along the Danube Promenade and we only got this side shot as there was ongoing construction and most areas around it were off limits.

 

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At night we strolled once again along the banks of the Danube this time at the Buda side.  From afar the Margaret Bridge seemed like a lighted pathway to the Parliament.

 

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The front view of the Parliament was simply magnificent.

 

 

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We had a hard time taking a photo of the Parliament with ourselves but our cameras (flash settings and all) were not cooperating so we took this shot only using our mobile phone!

 

the banks of the danube

The entire stretch of the banks of the Danube in Budapest has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Again I like the river more at night with thousands of lights adorning its banks.

 

heroes’ square

CSC_0412A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Heroes’ Square can be found at the outbound end of another World Heritage Site, Andrassy Avenue.  It is one of the major squares in Budapest and it is noted for its iconic statue complex. The square has played an important part in contemporary Hungarian history and has been a host to many political events.

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The statues of the basement of the column depict the 7 Hungarian chieftains led by prince Arpad.

 

thermal baths

Bathe your cares away in the ‘City of Baths’. Hungary is a land of thermal springs, and Budapest remains the only capital city in the world that is rich in thermal waters with healing qualities. If you’re looking to kick back and relax over your holiday, Budapest is the place to be. 

Gellert-Baths-@-BudapestShown here is the Gellért Baths which are some of the most beautiful and elegant baths in Budapest. Its columned, Roman-style swimming pool may look familiar as it is the most photographed spa of Hungary. This was built between 1912 and 1918 in Art Nouveau style.

 

 

the gresham palace

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At the eastern end of the Chain Bridge over at the Pest side just adjacent to Széchenyi Square, an imposing building will truly get your attention.  A true example of Art Nouveau architecture, the Gresham Palace was completed in 1906 and now houses the Four Seasons Hotel Budapest Gresham Palace.

 

the gerbeaud confectionary

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Gerbeaud coffee house and patisserie in Vörösmarty tér continues to attract both a certain class of Hungarian as well as visitors from Vienna and elsewhere.

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It is one of the greatest and most traditional coffee houses in Europe.

 

 

buddha bar and restaurant

I always enjoy lounging at Buddha Bar locations whether it is for formal dinner or just simple drinks.

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I have loved their exciting menu of a mix of Asian flavors and French influence but this time I craved for beef goulash soup and Hungarian beer!

 

 

százéves

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I personally recommend százéves restaurants which are 100-year-old for those who are interested in history and who like to spend their meals in a pleasent atmosphere.

 

 

shopping

Whether it is souvenir item or maintstream shopping, everything was just a stone throw away from our hotel too!

DSC_0347Vorosmarty Square has a number of shopping locations and one of them is the newest glass mall in town.  The Hard Rock Cafe is also just adjacent to the mall.

 

 

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There are also a lot of small souvenir shops around the corner.  We chanced upon this extra pleasant Hungarian lady who told us that the residents of Budapest had a fund raising event for the victims of typhoon Haiyan when I told her that my family is from Leyte, the place hit hard by the typhoon.

 

metro & taxis

Budapest’s Millennium Underground is a World Heritage Site being the oldest in continental Europe.  It is currently in use and this mode of transportation took us to different places around Budapest.

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If you are in a hurry and do not have time to walk to a subway station, taxis can be a more expensive alternative but they are pretty safe.  The drivers are extra courteous too.

 

 

Our stay in Budapest was a memorable one and we were blessed with the best winter weather we could have imagined. The Hungarian capital offers much to everyone. For me, the best ones are along the Danube River so I will end with Katonam’s stunning panoramic photo of Budapest.

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02
Mar
15

Philippines : PP Underground River


The Ultimate Underground River

Welcome to Palawan, the Philippines’ last frontier and home to the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR), recently voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature and also one of the World Heritage Sites in the country.
CSC_0231It is the world’s longest navigable underground river at 8.2 kilometers with a lot of amazing natural structures inside.

 

Monkeys, large monitor lizards, and squirrels find their niche on the beach near the cave.

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DSC_0207Avoid carrying plastic bags in the open as the monkeys tend to think they are food items and they could grab them. Otherwise they are harmless unless you touch them.
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At the cave’s opening, a lagoon with clear waters is framed by ancient trees growing right to the water’s edge.



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Up to 10 persons are allowed in a boat.  If you opt to have more privacy during the boat tour, you can nicely request the tour operators ahead of time to have your group take the entire boat.  This would also depend on the crowd waiting.  Our group of 5 people was allowed to take the entire boat.

 

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Upon entering the cave, the only light that you would have is the headlight of the boatman/tour guide. Unless you have your own powerful light, it is very difficult to rely on the boatman’s headlight for sights that you would like to capture on camera.  Most of the time even camera flash is not enough.  As we did not bring our own light, I tried my best to capture the sceneries where the headlight was currently focused.

 

Here are some of the things we captured:
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A female fish head with eyeliner.

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Tom and Jerry.
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Lady in boots and a panda.
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A giant garlic.
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The biggest chamber of the underground river is known as the cathedral which is halfway into the tour. (Credits to Geb Bunado for the cathedral photo.)
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Here you can find the giant candle among other statues.

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You can also spot Pegasus resting.

 

 

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You will then pass through the “highway”.

 

Normally, some few more meters after passing through the highway the tour will end.  However, if you request the boatman/tour guide to take you to the sea cow fossil, then it would be another mile beyond the normal tour route.  And we did exactly that!
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We were able to see the recently discovered fossil of the 20 million year old Sirenia, commonly know today as the Sea cow or Dugong, of the Miocene period which is plastered on a limestone wall.  This became the highlight of the underground river tour. On the way back, you will pass the same route that you had earlier and you will have another chance to take those photos again.

 


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Finally, we were out of the cave.
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It was an experience of a lifetime with my parents and friends visiting this natural wonder right in our home country.

 

 

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Goodbye PPUR!

 

I would like to share some things to consider when visiting PPUR.

 

when to go

To avoid extremely choppy boat rides, you need to visit the Underground River from December until May.

 

how to go

PPUR can only be reached via Palawan’s capital Puerto Princesa.  Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air and Air Asia have one-hour flights from Manila to this laid back capital city that is the jump off point to many of Palawan’s other natural attractions like Honday Bay, El Nido, Taytay, Tabon and San Vicente.  You can check my blog here on the best places to go in Palawan.

From Puerto Princesa, there are a lot of vans that would take you from the airport to Sabang Beach in less than 2 hours.  From Sabang Beach terminal, a short walk away is the port where boats are docked that would take you to PPUR.  You need to get a ticket ahead of time as there is a limited number of visitors allowed per day. There are packages from travel agencies that would offer the PPUR tour for 1,200 pesos including the van from the airport to Sabang and back. You also need a licensed tour guide to go with you.  At the port you need to wait for your name or your group’s name to be called when you’re ready for boarding the boat.  The entire PPUR tour starting from the Sabang Beach port and back could be done in around 2 hours.
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This is the area where boats would load the passengers going to the Underground River.

 

 

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This is the future plan for the Sabang Wharf.

 

what to do

Sabang Beach is the gateway to the natural wonder.  You can either base yourself in Puerto Princesa or stay for one or two nights in Sabang Beach.  The few things you can do around Sabang Beach is to visit the Underground River, hang out at the quiet beach or ride the nearby zipline. If you are checked in at the two major resorts in Sabang Beach, they have a lot of resort facilities that you can use. I prefer staying just one or two nights in Sabang Beach because I would rather go back to Puerto Princesa area and spend time in nicer Dos Palmas in Honday Bay with almost the same rate.
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This is Sabang Beach right in front of the resort where we stayed which is discussed next.

 

where to stay and eat

If you opt to stay around Sabang Beach for a while and just want a really simple place to stay, you can select from the many inexpensive lodging houses lining the beach.  If you want a nicer place to stay, you can choose between the area’s only two major resorts, Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa and Daluyon Mountain & Beach Resort, a few steps away from each other.

 

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I have chosen Daluyon because of its more natural feel, native charm, eco-friendliness and slightly cheaper price than Sheridan.

 

 

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The air-conditioned rooms are all sea-facing and they are simply amazing where you can open the doors and windows for a more relaxed and airy feel.

 

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Cabana 102 was perfect for us.  They also have a three-bedroom suite that can accommodate 6 persons with private pool and dining area.

 

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Its common adult and kiddie pools at the back of the resort have the mountain view.

 

Sheridan is more contemporary.

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The resort has a really huge pool.

 

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If you like a modern place to stay then Sheridan would suit your needs.  Since our breakfast at Daluyon was complimentary, we tried having our lunch at Sheridan one time and the food was good.

 

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We also had some afternoon drinks at Sheridan too. There are other smaller and cheaper restaurants lining the shore that are alternative dining options and we enjoyed them too!

If you have any questions about this trip, you can leave me a message in the comment section with your email or you can email me directly at eaniban@yahoo.com.
01
Mar
15

U.S.: A Winter Experience


Living through an entire winter season is basically a new experience for me. Being a tropical guy who loves warm weather and goes for gorgeous tropical beaches, moving to the U.S. northeast was a big switch for me.  I have never actually stayed long in places during winter visits unlike my recent stay in New England where I have lived with snow storms and all. Nevertheless, this winter experience is an unforgettable moment for me and it came after one of New England’s most colorful fall seasons yet featured in another blog.

Here are some memorable winter snap shots taken in New England and nearby New York.

 

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Snow came late this season but it came with a force with the first major snow storm dropping almost 30 inches of snow around New England.

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Time to shovel and turn on the snow blowers!

On sunny days, the neighborhood is indeed an enjoyable sight as we roam around seeing the colorful houses amidst the snow-covered lawns.

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And sunset time is lovely too.

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NEW YORK

A recent snow storm dumped almost a foot of snow in New York City and it was just timely as the following day we had a business transaction in the big city giving us the chance to stroll along Times Square, Midtown and Central Park.

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Our first stop was Bryant Park where the Winter Village is also located.

 

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We then briefly stopped at Herald Square.

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Our last stop was the captivatingly beautiful Central Park and we spent our time there until sunset.

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Then it was dark in Central Park.

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The Empire State building’s spire was lit up as we bade the big city goodnight.

22
Dec
14

Peru: Bustling Lima


With almost 9 million inhabitants, Lima is Peru’s bustling megacapital.  We stayed in the city just for a few days and blitzed right past it on our way back from Cusco and Machu Picchu but during the short stay it captivated me through its colorful squares and historic buildings (lovely both during the day and at night), its warm people and exotic food.

PLACES TO SEE

Lima’s urban section has a mind-boggling land area of 300 square miles but one should not worry as the city’s main attractions are clustered together on certain areas and they would just be walking distance or a short drive away from each other. As with other big cities, there are dangerous areas that a visitor must avoid. The very helpful and nice cab drivers warned us of the few places that tourists should not venture into especially streets in the city center. The following places that we visited were definitely safe and they were just beautiful.

Plaza de Armas  

It was easy to fall in love with the city’s main square.  On its four sides, are interesting monuments to behold. Also known as Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Armas is at the heart of the Historic Center of Lima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was the only site in Lima where I took photos at both day and night.

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The Cathedral of Lima is an immense Roman Catholic baroque church on Plaza Armas’ east side.

 

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It was built in 1564 and it was designed by Francisco Pizzaro who conquered the Incas, founded Lima and whose tomb is inside the church.

 

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The church has undergone extensive repairs twice due to damages from earthquakes.

 

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Adjacent to the cathedral to its left is the Archbishop’s Palace, the residence of the cardinal of Peru and the archbishop of Lima.

 

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Moving counterclockwise from the Archbishop’s Palace, to the north of Plaza Mayor is the Government Palace also known as House of Pizzaro.  It was the house of the government headquarters when erected in 1535.

 

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It is recognizable by the large wrought iron fence that surrounds the building.

 

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At night, the Government Palace is lit up to contribute to the dazzling display of lights around and inside Plaza Mayor.

 

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The whole plaza becomes magical at night with all the structures lighted up and with horse drawn carriages and open trains plying around the area.

 

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This is the Archbishop’s Palace at night.

 

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To the west and south of Plaza Mayor are the Municipal Palace and Palace of the Union.

 

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At the western side of the plaza in front of the Municipal Palace is the Fountain of Viceroy Garcia Sarmiento de Sotomayor Count of Salavatierra.

 

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A night visit of Plaza Mayor is a must when in Lima.

 

Jiron de la Union 

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Although it has lost its aristocratic charm through the years, Jiron de la Union is still Downtown Lima’s most colorful and most important boulevard.

 

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Located at the Historic Center of Lima it connects Plaza Mayor with Plaza San Martin.

 

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Boutiques and stores for window-shopping, restaurants and cafes for bar-hoppers line up at either side of the street and throngs of people stroll by the lively thoroughfare.

 

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Along Jiron de la Union are classic buildings that still retained their original functions like churches…..

 

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…or those now serving for contemporary use like malls.

 

Plaza San Martin

Walking southwest along Jiron de la Union from Plaza de Armas, one will reach Plaza San Martin.

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The monument at its center was built to give honor to Peru’s liberator, José de San Martín, an Argentine general and the prime leader of the southern part of South America’s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire.

 

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The Plaza San Martin is surrounded by well preserved Republican buildings influenced by the French architectural style typical in Lima at the beginning of the 20th century. 

 

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Just opposite the square you find the old, famous and most elegant hotel in Lima, the Gran Hotel Bolivar.

 

Church of San Francisco  

Around three blocks walk away from Plaza Mayor is Church of San Francisco.

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You will pass by colorful buildings and stores along the way.  This is still part of the Historic Center of Lima.

 

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The Church of San Francisco is one of the best preserved colonial churches in Lima. Most people go to San Francisco, however, for its catacombs. The catacombs were actually part of Lima’s original cemeteries, which were built under churches. Tour guides say an estimated 75,000 bodies are buried under San Francisco alone, and many of the remains are exposed, stacked in strange patterns in circular stone pits. A catacomb tour is not for the the claustrophobic so we did not do this tour.

 

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The church can be easily recognized with the swarm of pigeons on the patio out front.

 

Miraflores/Lancomar

Along the seawalk in the Miraflores district is Larcomar, a multilevel, modern entertainment, food and shopping megacomplex that caters to most tastes.

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Larcomar cannot be easily seen as the entire complex is built into a cliffside, underneath Miraflores — the entrance across the street from the JW Marriott hotel; take the stairs down just before you get to the cliff’s edge.

 

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Larcomar has breathtaking ocean views, which you can enjoy from numerous restaurants offering Peruvian fare, as well as several American franchises serving everything from doughnuts to ribs.

 

 

WHERE WE STAYED

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We chose Hotel Antigua Milaflores, a reasonably-priced, quaint and very charming inn in one of Lima’s nicest suburbs, Miraflores. It is located near Lima’s best restaurants, vibrant nightlife, finest shopping, charming parks and beautiful oceanfront boardwalk.  It is a short 25-min cab ride to the Historic Center of Lima.

 

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The tasteful decor of the hotel’s ground floor lobbies welcomes everyone into this elegant hotel.

 

 

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At the far end of the hotel is its own restaurant offering a great selection of beverages, breakfast options, Peruvian dishes, coffee and deserts.

 

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The restaurant is not a bad option if one does not feel dining outside the hotel anymore.

 

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We were given a very spacious Colonial room with charming decor.

 

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I loved the handcrafted wooden furniture and the free and very fast wifi.

 

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The view from our room was the fountain in the middle of a tiny garden. Staying at this hotel was a respite from the generic “glass and steel” hotel experience.

 

 

GOURMET EXPERIENCE

Recently, Lima has been riding a wave of growing fame for its gustatory pleasures. You must not leave Lima without tasting its signature dish, ceviche.

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Ceviche is a tangy plate of raw fish marinated in lime juice and ajíes, or hot chili peppers. The mouth-watering dish is the star of Peru’s culinary repertoire. Limeños crowd lunch-only neighborhood holes-in-the-wall (cevicherías) for their ceviche fix and the best can be found in Miraflores.

 

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An appetizing ‘lomo saltado’ (sauteed beef tenderloin) is one of the most typical dishes of Peruvian creole food. It is prepared with chunks of beef tenderloin marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, peppers and other spices.

 

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Lima’s cultural marriages – a mix of Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese – is reflected in its culinary fusion. Limeño cuisine encompasses spicy creole dishes, Nikkei (2nd-generation Japanese), and chifa (a Peruvian twist on Chinese).

 

DSC_0587The long Pacific coast is notable less for its beaches than the endless bounty of fresh seafood that makes it to markets and restaurant tables.

 

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Lastly, like Peruvian coffee, Lima was flavorful.  I have to taste it to prove it. Its aroma, acidity and body play in harmony so that no one element predominates at the expense of another. It’s a city shrouded in history, gloriously messy and full of aesthetic delights. Thank God we did not miss it!

 

 

 
18
Dec
14

Philippines : The Best of Palawan


My love affair with Palawan started late.  Before I stepped on what is considered as the Philippines’ last frontier, I was frisking on the beaches of the more famous islands in Asia and the Caribbean. I was practically ignoring a spectacular island right at home that could easily trump all the other islands in the world with its diverse natural beauty, underwater and above water.  In 2011, I finally visited one of Palawan’s famous destinations, Coron Island, and I could vividly remember tears in my eyes as the plane was about to land at Busuanga airport as I was overwhelmed seeing a stunning display of nature from above. After that I became resolute on visiting more of the numerous jaw-dropping sites in one of the world’s most breathtaking islands. After Coron, I then visited El Nido, San Vicente, Honday Bay, Sabang Beach and the Underground River. I have always wanted to go back and explore more.

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Travel + Leisure readers voted Palawan as the best island in 2013 (click here).  In the following year, Conde Nast Traveler readers voted Palawan as the top island in the  world (click here).  The island, located on the western part of the Philippines, is truly getting international attention lately and I am torn between sad and joyous.  Sad because the island’s current popularity could bring in throngs of visitors that could possibly lead to environmental decay of the area if utmost care is not given; joyous because my country is in the spotlight and tourism would boom which is good for the economy. Oh yes, the Philippines probably need more tourists as it is still getting less than 5 million visitors each year, a pathetic figure compared with that of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

With everything said, I am presenting this article to showcase the best I have seen (and to be seen) in the island of Palawan arranged below based on geographical area.

1.  TUBBATAHA REEF 

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tubbataha Reef has a higher density of marine species than any other place on earth.  It is the undisputed jewel of the spectacular Coral Triangle with its unbelievable biodiversity. The reef provides shelter for more than 25% of all known marine species including 7,000 species of fish and 400 species of coral.  This is a must visit for scuba divers. Please click here to read one of the blogs on Tubbataha Reef. Photo c/o http://www.jajajajamby.com

 

2.  LINAPACAN 

Scott SporlederSituated between the Coron and El Nido, Linapacan is the least known of the three destinations but its remote location and pure state earned it the world’s clearest waters.  Please click here for more details.

 

3.  CORON & OUTLYING ISLANDS

Coron is known for its stunning underwater sceneries especially its scuba and wreck diving sites.  And that is not all, Coron is blessed with islands boasting of world-class white sand beaches, lagoons and lakes. Somebody wrote: “Ominous walls of jungle-covered black karst erupt from the surrounding turquoise seas. Jagged and spectacular, Coron Island is the ultimate karst showpiece. As mountainous as Yangshuo, as labyrinthine as the Stone Forest, mid-ocean like Halong or Pang Nga, and as razor-edged as the spiky tsingy of Madagascar, Coron trumps them all. The place is pure magic.”

Please see my blogs on Coron here and another one here.

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Malcapuya Island – For me this island has the best beach in the Philippines for now. It can be reached via a 2-hour boat ride from Coron town.  It is pristine, lovely, unadulterated, tranquil.  The underwater scenery is also spectacular. One of the reasons why it maintains its natural beauty is that no boats are allowed to dock on its shores. The docking area is located at a rocky area at the back of the island a few minutes walk to the main beach.

 

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Huma Island – One of the newer private-island resorts to open in Palawan is Huma Island Resort occupying the entire island. With over the water villas each with private jacuzzi, the resort offers a Maldives-like atmosphere. Photo c/o Huma Island Resort.

 

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Kayangan Lake – Reputed to be the cleanest lake in Asia, Kayangan Lake has clear waters with visibility several meters deep. A short climb to the top of the mountain brings you to a picturesque view that is uniquely depicting Coron.  That usual photo (not shown here) is actually not Kayangan Lake (shown above) yet but  just the waterway one will be passing on the way to Kayangan Lake’s entrance.

 

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Ariara Island – Ariara Island is a private-island retreat for the high-spirited individuals accommodating up to 18 guests of the same group on the island at any given time. It was #1 in a Vogue UK list of top holiday destinations for being the most decadent for group holidays.  Please check here for the article. Visit http://www.ariaraisland.com.

 

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Lake Barracuda – Lake Barracuda is one of Coron’s primary attractions. It is of more interest to divers for its unique layers of fresh, salt and brackish water and dramatic temperature shifts, which can reach as high as 38°C. It’s accessible by a short but tricky 25m climb over a jagged rocky wall that ends directly in the water.

 

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Bulog Dos IslandThis is a neighboring island of Malcapuya.  The tiny castaway island became easily an option for me as a location of an intimate beach wedding and so I thought.  The emerald waters surrounding it caught my attention.

 

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Banana Island – Just next to Bulog Dos and across Malcapuya Island is Banana Island which is usually more crowded as there are a number of lodging options in the island.

 

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Banol Beach – This is a popular stop for island tours during lunch.  With spectacular limestone formation and crystal clear waters this is one of the paradise islands nearer to Coron town.

 

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Black Island – A long boat ride from Coron town will bring you to an island that has almost everything you want in a beach destination – wide stretch of shimmering white sand, crystal clear waters, coral reefs, ship wrecks, limestone cliffs, and even a cave that has a natural pool.

 

 

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Calauit Island – If you want an African safari experience in the Philippines then visit Calauit Island Safari Park. In the 1970s around a hundred of eight species of African animals were brought to this island  and they have thrived since then and have been the main attraction of the eco-tourism destination.  It is a 4-hour land and sea travel from Coron town to this island.

 

 

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Maquinit Hot Spring – Located in the main island of Coron the unique saltwater hot spring is a familiar stop for the city tour.  With water temperature going as high as 42 degrees C, it is always indeed a therapeutic immersion in the hot waters of the spring that is emptied through to the seas from the man-made pool enclosure.

 

 

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Dimakya Island (Club Paradise) – One of the older and exclusive places to stay near Coron is Club Paradise. Aside from the luxurious resort, there are plenty of options for island hopping destinations. It is also near Calauit Island which is a 2-hour boat ride away.

 

 

4.  EL NIDO & BACUIT BAY

If Coron boasts of world-class underwater sceneries, El Nido presents a spectacular over the water views with its endless and majestic limestone formations and gorgeous beaches. The number of islands  with their own amazing little beaches rivals that of Coron and I find them better too because they are not too spread out and can be easily reached in less than an hour from each other.  Even the mainland has kilometers of pristine beaches.  Please click here for one of my blogs on El Nido  for more details on traveling to the paradise destination. For a set of pictures during my second visit, you can click here.

 

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Big and Small Lagoons – You get off the boat unto the clear waters around the Small Lagoon and you swim inside the lagoon that leads to an exciting cave.  The Big Lagoon (pictured) is more spectacular as the shallow clear waters are always inviting but no one is allowed to get off the boat.

 

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Entalula Island – The white sand beaches on this island are probably the best that I have seen in El Nido.  Some areas are for private use by El Nido Resorts and some can be used by the public.

 

02. Pangulasian Island - Resort Aerial View

Pangulasian Island – The private island has been named by Travel + Leisure as one of the best places to travel in 2014 (click here for the article).  The flagship property of El Nido Resorts is in Pangulasian Island.  It is easily the most luxurious resort in El Nido.  Other El Nido Resorts properties are in Miniloc and Lagen islands.  Please visit http://www.elnidoresorts.com/elnido/

 

 

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Snake IslandOne of the most unique topographies in El Nido is Snake Island’s white sand beach that crawls and sways from one island to another depending on the tide.  I have seen sand bars that go right from the island out into the open seas. This one connects an island to the mainland.

 

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Secret Beach – This is said to be the inspiration of Alex Garland’s book, The Beach, which was made into a movie and was shot in Thailand with Leonardo Decaprio as the lead star.  Alex visited El Nido years ago and was captivated by the “secret” beach. Indeed, it would have been a secret until after some locals found the beach by entering the small opening beneath the towering limestone formations in this part of Matinloc Island.  The small opening can be hazardous during monsoon season as the waves could pound you to the sides of sharp rocks. 

 

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Helicopter Island –  There are finer and whiter sand that I could find somewhere else but this beach has a certain alluring character that I could not explain.  One reason could be the wide shore the beach has. Probably another reason could be the clear celurian waters surrounding the island. Another reason is the stunning view of Bacuit Bay especially the rugged topography of its neigboring Cadlao Island.

 

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Corong-Corong Beach – This beach in the mainland is probably the best place to watch sunset in El Nido.

 

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Pinagbuyutan Island – Towering over Bacuit Bay, Pinagbuyutan Island is easily the most recognizable structure in the area.  This was the site of Survivor Israel during my first visit to El Nido and it was off limits to visitors. The second time I was in El Nido, it was not occupied anymore and I had a grand time enjoying its beaches which some parts were rocky and some parts were just soft, white sand.

 

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Nacpan Beach – I just recently discovered Nacpan Beach during my recent trip to El Nido and it was a beach-y revelation after traveling on rough roads for several miles from El Nido town.  A pristine, long beach with very few beach resorts,  I easily fell in love with this beach in the mainland.  We owned it for a few hours!

 

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Matinloc Island Shrine View – This island actually contains three famous El Nido sites:  Secret Beach (presented earlier), Talisay Beach and Matinloc Shrine. Above the shrine, a steep cemented stairs led up to a vantage point that has incredible views of the bay and the neighboring islands.

 

5.  HONDA BAY & AREFFERCI ISLAND

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Arefferci Island is one of the beautiful islands scattered on Honda Bay and the only one having a resort. It is where the private Dos Palmas Resort is located. You can visit the resort’s website here or you can browse through my photos here. Another notable attraction in Honda Bay is Snake Island with its amazing sandbar but it has gone private and it is not open to the public anymore.

 

6.   UNDERGROUND RIVER & SABANG BEACH

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The Puerto Princesa Underground River has been voted as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature.  Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site it is the world’s longest navigable underground river. Lately, a fossil of the 20 million year old Sirenia, commonly know today as the Sea cow or Dugong, of the Miocene period is plastered on one of its limestone walls. We were blessed to have our Palawan-based friends to arrange for us to go beyond the normal tourist route and we were able to see up close the 20 million years old fossil. You can click here for my Underground River article. I have also created a photo collection here of the 7 New Wonders of Nature that I have visited and that includes the Underground River.

 

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Sabang Beach is the gateway to the Underground River.  It is the perfect place to base for a few days before or after a visit to the Underground River.  With two major resorts and more than a dozen small lodging, there is no shortage of rooms along the gorgeous beach. For a quick preview of a Sabang Beach experience, you can click here.

 

7.  SAN VICENTE

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This is one of the most remote places that I have visited in the Philippines, probably second only to Palaui Island in Cagayan province. No electricity and no hotels and we had to go through kilometers of rough road traveling from Puerto Princesa. The town is located between Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa and El Nido. We took a 4-hour trip to the town of Taytay and then a one and a half ride to the town of San Vicente. There are few places that offer home stay. San Vicente’s gem is Long Beach, a 14-km stretch of virgin beach considered the country’s longest. The area is so pure that we encountered dragonflies and dolphins along the beach when we were hiking half of its length.  The nearby Capari Resort, less than an hour by motorcycle, is indeed an option if you want contemporary lodging.  For photos of San Vicente, you can click here.

 

 

8.  PAMALICAN ISLAND (AMANPULO)

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A part of the Aman resorts chain, the high-end Amanpulo is the sole occupant in the island of Pamalican in Cuyo Archipelago.  Having its own air strip, it is only accessible by turbo-prop from Manila. With its 40 private villas spread out, some having its own private access to its own beach, the resort atmosphere is indeed tranquil and secluded. You might find yourself in the company of British royalty and Hollywood celebrities having a grand time. The island of Pamalican is surrounded by soft, white sand beaches and unspoiled coral reefs. You can check out a blog on Amanpulo by clicking here.

 

Did I miss your favorite destinations in Palawan?  Please let me know in the comments section below.

 

 

 

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Map of Palawan, Philippines




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