El Nido Lagen: The Living Rock

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Music plays in Lagen Island, non-stop. This music is not the usual bossa nova I am used to grooving with in seaside retreats I get sent to. Instead, it’s a song sung by birds that nest on an island of limestone cliffs as old as 250 million years.

During my nature walk at the beachfront and mangrove trail of Lagen with El Nido Resorts environmental officer Jamie Dichaves, I learned that this music continues to play there because among all of Bacuit Bay’s 45 islands and islets, Lagen has the densest forest. This allows for the highest probability of spotting wildlife such as hawksbill and green sea turtles, and yes, seeing and hearing birds of various kinds. While I did not spot any of the edible nest-making swiftlets called balinsasayaw–birds that build their nests in limestone crevices, from their own gummy saliva, and after which the town of El Nido (Spanish for “the nest”) derives its name–I was lucky to see the other kind of swiftlet that also populates Lagen. These dark and less elusive swiftlets sometimes build their twiggy nests in overhead lampshades lining Lagen’s docking area. The warmth of the lamps invite these birds to build their nests in these spots, explained Jamie, from whom I also learned that the edible kind of nest’s supposed healing properties are purely mythical. She also laughingly straightened out my instant-nido-soup misconceptions of how these expensive nests taste like. The nests are not lip-smacking good as I thought, but they do taste alright, she said, and are sweet.

Sunbirds dart from tree-to-tree, and sandpipers make that amusing, sort-of-amorous, up-and-down body motion as they cross the beach, as pointed out by Jamie. It’s as if the birds remind watchers, specifically couples, of how Lagen can be the perfect place for romance. Even while Lagen is a laidback business conference destination as well, couples remain to be a strong segment of the guest population. But these are mostly couples who are not content with just cuddling. Lagen is too lush for guests to simply be holding hands like Adam and Eve in Eden, to the tune of chirping birds. If anything, the birds’ songs are testaments to how life persists in the depths of Lagen’s forest, and how there is more to see within the breadth of the waters that embrace it.

A garden

Lagen’s iconic beachfront remains pristine as it was since the resort first opened in 1998. Despite the existence of stilted cottages on the beach, the water is still emerald and the sands creamy white. But a beach lover such as myself wishing for something unobstructed may not be satisfied with even a world renowned beachfront such as Lagen’s. The people behind the resort recognize this, which is why they have not stopped learning about the island to make sure they are showing their guests all that can be beheld about Lagen.

I and photographer Genie Arambulo took on one of Lagen’s featured activities, forest trekking. The trail can take as short as 30 minutes, or as long as an hour, to traverse. Marine sports guide Rowin Abin assured us that the trail is not steep, with only a couple of elevations and slopes, and with a clear footpath on rocks and tree roots, lined by ropes as handrails. Since Lagen’s beachfront is not wide enough for me to run through during sunrise, I welcomed the opportunity for a leisurely forest trek. What Rowin says to me next was just icing on the cake–the trail leads to Cove Two–one of Lagen’s many hidden beaches.

With just a few feet into the trail, Rowin halted us. He pointed to a tree called sahing with a bark that’s oozing with black sap. He instructed us to run a forefinger across the sap, and continue trekking by not minding the sticky sap now at the tip of each of our forefingers. It felt quite funny holding on to the rope railings while being careful not to get the thing pasted on my fingertip removed. I even caught Genie wiping hers on the strap of her bag. I asked Rowin if this was some part of a Palaweño forest entry ritual but he said “no”, laughingly telling us to just relax and trust.

As we went up to the trail’s highest point which we reached in sweats and chasing our breaths, Rowin asked us again to pause, look around at the grand antipolo trees and the cascading green vines, then put our fingers with the sap right under our noses. Only then did the weird black thing make sense. The sap, smelling like eucalyptus, refreshed us. Rowin said locals slice the bark of the sahing to harvest the sap, which is flammable and can be used in torches. He added that the sap is actually white as it first streams from the cut bark and only turns black after exposure to air. Inhaling the fragrant sap made the lush green view even more vivid, and very soon we were continuing again on the trek, occasionally followed by white butterflies that fluttered on ahead. These butterflies soon disappeared too into the creamy whiteness that greeted us at the end of the trail. We have reached the sands of Cove Two, lined with white, smooth coral bits and shells. At the right side of the cove is an imposing rock that was formerly taken up by professional rock climbers before neighboring Entalula Island was officially designated by El Nido Resorts as its rock climbing island. The cove can also be the site of set-up private dinners, upon request, while the adventurous can opt to have the cove as their take-off point for snorkeling and kayaking.

I have to admit, I thought all of Lagen was contained in the cove where we came from before we crossed the forest to reach Cove Two. And this was just Cove Two. In one sunset boat ride around Lagen, Rowin and Jamie even pointed me to a Cove Three and Cove Four which appear equally beautiful and may be worth exploring by guests in the future. Even the green painted wooden quarters of staff at the strictly off-limits Cove Zero, lit golden against black limestones, gleaming like forbidden fruit, tease for a closer look.

Man’s creation, man’s rest

The first thing that struck me when I first entered my cottage called the Forest Room were the swiftlet figurines woven from coconut leaves, laid on top of the beds. Finely crafted by locals, it’s a simple token that manifests El Nido Resorts’ commitment in involving the community in its progress. In all of the El Nido Resorts–which include Lagen Island, Miniloc Island, Apulit Island and the newly opened Pangulasian Island –90 percent of everything is locally crafted, either made in El Nido town or in other Palawan towns.

El Nido Resorts is also planning to set up a hospitality institution to further train its staff. This is apart from the nature training course already provided. I often caught Jamie joking with a few of the staff who are yet to earn the turtle-pin badge on their shirts, signifying that one has completed the course. “Dapat pagong na ‘yan (That should already be a turtle),” she cheerfully encouraged them.

In September 2012, after nearly 15 years of operation, Lagen Island took a break and closed for its first ever major renovation. This resulted to new and improved facilities: library, spa center, kids’ activity room, boardroom and conference room. Previous to this, Ayala Land’s 2010 entry into a joint venture with Asian Conservation Co., which owns El Nido Resorts through subsidiaries under the Ten Knots Group, has already begun a series of changes that are sensitive to the modern needs of guests without compromising the natural environment. Wi-fi services were introduced, televisions were installed and the clubhouse restaurant was redesigned, all in response to guest requests. According to Lagen’s resort manager Carmel Santos-Panelo, who has been serving in Lagen for eight years and was even married on the island, one of the next major changes we can expect is the installation of renewable energy devices, to make life in Lagen even more sustainable.

As to the accommodations of Lagen which has set the standards for Philippine resorts, its Forest Rooms, Forest Suites and Water Cottages remain uniformly designed to reflect the relaxing, natural feel that Lagen Island is known for. These suites, despite their modern amenities, are all classically unassuming–plain white cotton sheets on plump white beds, surrounded by native weavings, brown wood and earthy hues. No need for frills and excesses in these suites; the people manning Lagen know that as much as it can be pleasurable to stay in bed, their guests will not be able to resist the lure of the outdoors.

Caressing a snake

Along with Rowin’s recommendations on what islands are best to go to at certain times of the day for island hopping, I picked our all-white sand choices: Pinagbuyutan Island with pockets of beaches perfect for picnic lunches, Dibuluan Island which is Lagen Island’s designated beach club and diving-snorkeling haven, the farther Entalula Island which is Miniloc Island Resort’s designated beach club and El Nido’s rock-climbing go-to spot, and Vigan Island which is also called Snake Island by locals. Of all these Lagen neighbors where we made our stop, Snake Island was the most mesmerizing.

As soon as our boat was approaching the island, I can already see a few people crossing a submerged sandbar that juts out of the island’s beach to reach another patch of beach at the Palawan mainland. It looked like people were walking on water. And just as our boat finally reached the sandbar, just as I yearned to take that Christlike stroll across the sea, Rowin halts me again. Not yet, he said, not until I have hiked up the top of the island and seen the sandbar from there, to best appreciate its snake-like curves before high tide comes.

I think I did not hike any height as fast as I did that Vigan Island hilltop. Rowin, ever dutiful, told us about the pitcher plants and ironwood that grew in the island as we made our ascent, but I was hardly listening anymore. I reached the top, clicked a few shots in my camera, then went down quickly, even overcoming my usual discomfort at descents, forgetting my fear of falling.

And before Rowin could halt me again, before the final boat call that takes us back to the music of Lagen, I took as many steps as I can towards that unnamed, naked mainland beach, where the long, white, shimmery snake leads.

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