The Paradox of Paradise

How El Nido’s most prized natural attractions demonstrate the importance of natural heritage

Images and Words Sibyl Layag

American Standard

As I weave in and out of the tiny streets of El Nido, an irresistible force pries my gaze away from where I am heading and towards the surrounding karst formations, high and imposing, piercing the sky as it always has for thousands of years. I imagine how the waters of Palawan, the gentle rainwater from above, weave in and out of the tiny crevices in the limestone, influenced by irresistible forces. I imagine how the crevices metamorphose into gaping holes, into abysses, into entire landscapes that have now been enchanting people from all over the world.

Still transfixed by the beauty of the karst islands dotting Bacuit Bay, I found that the feeling I get from contemplating them is similar to the feeling I get when I look up at the night sky: I feel infinitesimal in the face of the ancient and the immense. But then, when I think of trickling water, flowing against old limestone formations several feet high, I tend to remember that I am among the town’s many visitors, trickling into El Nido, increasing in number as years pass. Are there crevices we are turning into abysses?

We arrived in El Nido a little bit careworn, as the five-hour journey we expected unceremoniously

stretched itself into seven hours, and felt more like an eternity. We arrived before dawn broke, and the silent town was enveloped in darkness—no flashing neon lights, no cars stuck in traffic, no karaoke machines wailing in the night. Still, we looked around: we could make out the faint outlines of the karst cliffs flanking the town like sentinels. “This must look so beautiful in the light,” I told my partner.

From a cliff, a view of Nacpan Beach and its “twin” Calitang Beach, usually used for docking outriggers. In Nacpan Beach, the water is warm with a reasonable depth, and the sand is as fine as can be, making it perhaps the best swimming beach in El Nido.

We could make out the faint outlines of the karst cliffs flanking the town like sentinels. “This must look so beautiful in the light,” I told my partner.

Sure enough, we woke up, and the first thing we saw as we looked out our window was an enormous karst cliff, sparsely covered with green and beaming in the sunlight. The view accompanied us during our entire stay. Throughout the trip we placed ourselves under the mercy of nature: allowing the rain to engulf us as we cross the foot of a mountain, trusting in the sturdiness of thick vines and sharp rocks as we clung to them while climbing up a waterfall, letting the clear azure waters buoy us (and our life vests) as we swam across picturesque lagoons. Belying its reputation as a popular tourist destination, El Nido’s quietness struck us as pleasantly unusual. Other than the profusion of foreigners, quirky restaurants, colorful outriggers and tour agencies lining the streets, it seemed like any other sleepy seaside town. The tricycle drivers might ask if you want a ride, but they don’t insist. There are no noisy vendors selling their wares, nor are there annoying tour agents plying you with their services. This presented quite a contrast to Puerto Princesa, which is definitely not as metropolitan as Makati or Cebu, but is every bit the provincial city—noisy, vivacious, convenient. After a serene three days in El Nido, we returned to the capital, but we didn’t stay long. We went straight to what we came for: the famous Underground River.

There is no shortage of karst formations in Palawan. This one greets visitors of the Underground River in Puerto Princesa.

It’s funny how nature can toy with one’s imaginations. Inside the cave, the different permutations of how stalactites and stalagmites form gave way to such images as the Virgin Mary, the face of Jesus, a woman’s figure, and a variety of garden vegetables. If the images are ignored, however, the sheer irregularity of the shapes is enough to fascinate. The mineral deposits and even the guano are enough to awe. I was mesmerized by the mere glint on the eroded stone, and I realized why our ancestors chose not to plumb the depths of the cave. Our guide said it was because they thought the cave housed supernatural elements. Indeed, in the face of such marvels, one cannot help but dissolve into breathless reverence.

We see paradise with our own eyes, and we revel in it, but does our mere presence diminish it?

There is something to be said about the preservation of natural heritage. The concept does not exist because natural wonders are bestowed upon us; it is because their mere presence is proof that there are forces bigger than all of us. And so, in a roundabout way, heritage cannot exist without humanity. Similarly, paradise can be such a paradoxical concept. We see paradise with our own eyes, and we revel in it, but does our mere presence diminish it? If there are no eyes to see and appreciate its beauty, is a place still a paradise? Does paradise equal tranquil, untouched or unadulterated? Sometimes paradise can be felt in the warmth and hospitality of locals, or the wild abandon of youth partying thenight away; maybe it’s all in the attitude, or maybe it’s purely what the place means to each and every one of its visitors. Perhaps paradise is really what we make of it, after all. •

Sibyl Layag is a bookworm and a traveler, an animal lover and a beach enthusiast. Although now a straight-edge business news reporter, her first love is writing features, and so sometimes her verbosity cannot be helped. She was formerly the assistant editor of BluPrint, an architecture and design magazine.

Originally published in Kanto No. 1, 2015. Edits were made to update the story.

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