Birds’ Nest Soup & Other Island Specialties

“Island hopping, mum-surrrr?”
This phrase is chirped quite often on the islands of the Philippines. The first part of the sentence is spoken because, what else could you possibly want to do here? The second is a general address spoken by touts. Ma’am- Sir is a simple, polite mix of ma’am and sir.

We had arrived in Boracay, The Philippines’ token tourist destination, and were taking in the powder sugar beaches and Blue Curaçao water that swirls and gently breaks upon them.

Indeed we were interested in island hopping and as it turns out, we had many locals competing to take us on their double outrigger boats- an icon of Boracay. These sailboats are called paraw and are made of wood and bamboo with a large sail to send them zipping across the clear water at the speed of the wind.

After agreeing on a price of 500 pesos for the day, amounting to $25, the scrawny, sun-tanned local boosted me up on the hand-tied net seat and Jason helped push us out to sea. We set sail from White Beach. It’s hard to believe anything else could be as breathtaking. In fact, it was so beautiful that it was almost cliché. Every picture snapped looked effortlessly perfect, making it oddly boring to be the photographer.

Our first stop island hopping in Boracay

After 15 minutes of sailing, we stopped at a remote beach where we bought a Boracay specialty, Tanduay rum, and an American specialty, a bottle of Coke. We toasted and sipped as we lounged on the outrigger’s netting over the water. We snorkeled, swimming faster when seeing a sea snake, and then glided past beach restaurants and  jungle bars on the back side of Boracay, one of which we later visited for the Full Moon Party.

Our time in Boracay really consisted of unplugging and relaxing from the previous 2 weeks of wedding partying and in reality, the last 18 months of wedding planning. It was a common occurrence to be lounging on the beach and start laughing about something humorous that had happened at our wedding in Mexico or our reception in Michigan. We have so many fond memories with our loved ones that it was good to contemplate on everything that had just happened and let it all soak in along with the sun and salty air.

But after 6 massages in total, we were as relaxed as cooked spaghetti noodles and revved up for an adventure. Palawan, voted top 20 destinations in the world this year by National Geographic, is west of Boracay and is the natural choice for outdoor enthusiasts. We stayed in the main city of Puerta Princessa for one night, exploring the underground river caves, and then bussed a long, cramped 6 hours to El Nido, the northern wonderland of the island.

Tour map of Bacuit Archipelago- Palawan (Click map to enlarge.)

When standing on the beach in El Nido, one can view giant rock formations rising from lush green islands, clear, peaceful lagoons and many fish and birds that must be among the happiest in the world. Because there are so many places to explore off the coast of El Nido, there are four set eight-hour island hopping tours, no matter which tour company is booked. On Tour A, the lagoons of Miniloc island are deep-water swimming pools surrounded by karst rock formations.

Beware of the black fish who like to bite snorkelers! These guys definitely gave the place an element of surprise, so I kept kicking my fins as if I were in a cardio class at the gym! When I felt confident no fish were swimming nearby, I looked up at the ancient walls surrounding us. This is where the cave swiftlet species live so I glanced around for their distinctive nests, made from sticky saliva instead of twigs and leaves. Our guide pointed out where locals scale the cliffs to collect these birds’ nests in the dry season. With their treasures, they carefully climb down the jagged rocks, and the nest is transported from its perch on the high ledge to a boiling pot of chicken stock. This  often fed to the elderly, sick or pregnant women in the village because of its believed healing properties. A birds’ nest collector can earn 1,000 pesos for a nest- a great deal of money considering the usual salary of a local restaurant server is 150 pesos a day, or just under $4.

Lunch was served on the beach and consisted of grilled pork, rice and a tomato onion salad made from our tour guide’s garden produce. We combed through millions of tiny shells, choosing a few for necklaces we want to make and snorkeled again in the reefs off the shore.

Upon returning to El Nido, we were pleased to see the electricity was back on, since it shuts off from 6 am to 2 pm every day. Cold showers were the only option at our beautiful beach-front hostel, The Alternative, but with the humid weather, they would have been our choice anyway.

The "birds' nest" deck at The Alternative hostel in El Nido, Palawan.

El Nido is filled with a few fun, laid-back restaurants which are set up right on the sand. We followed the live music and walked down the beach for crab and beer at Sea Slugs Restaurant.

A view from El Nido's beach

Although Boracay and Palawan are very different, they both are must-sees when backpacking around the Philippines. As a last note, don’t believe the hype: Some will tell you not to visit Boracay. We had been warned that it was too touristy and ruined, but we noticed that due to the diligence of the locals, it’s not trashed or overbuilt as are some other beaches in South East Asia. There are campaigns everywhere to keep the island clean and there is no smoking allowed on the beach front. (This is probably due to the cigarette butt litter that would ensure.)  We were pleased to see that this white beach will remain this way as long as tourists and locals alike keep acting responsibly.

See more photos, coming soon,  in our Philippines photo album.

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