One morning at the end of summer, Marga Jalandoni put on her pink helmet and hopped on her bike at her family’s Pandan Villas resort, and rode for about five minutes to a part of Lio Estate in El Nido, Palawan.
A 325-hectare tourism estate by Ayala Land, Lio has earmarked 55% of the area for development and 45% for carbon forests, and green, open spaces. The estate is bounded by El Nido Bay in the west and mountains in the east. You can hike, bike, swim, snorkel, dive, have vegan or gourmet meals, and a night out without ever leaving Lio.
Or, like Marga, you can plant trees when you’re here.
On this particular patch of open land, the trees are young and sparse, and the path is paved with upcycled bricks made from plastic and glass. It’s not quite a forest…yet. But it will be soon because the passage of time is just too fleeting in a place like El Nido.
Twenty-three-year-old Marga dismounted her motorbike and picked up a shovel to plant coconut and star apple trees. When the trees mature, they will attract more birds on their branches and squirrels too. Luckily for us, a couple of guys who tend the area had already dug holes in the ground as the soil was still soft from yesterday’s rain and this morning’s drizzle.
The tree planting by Pandan Villas guests is an initiative of Turista.ph, the first-ever social travel, content sharing booking app locally developed and designed by Filipinos. Whenever a traveler books through the app, a tree is planted by Turista.ph.
All these mindful choices keep the forest walkable because somebody kept his job of keeping the path clear; the café remains open and the farmer continues tilling his land because guests chose local.
Turista.ph founder Francinne Roque San Juan is passionate about two things: the environment and sustainable travel because both have a domino effect that impacts everyone in the community.
A guest who chooses to stay at Pandan Villas, who walks over to Kalye Artisano for an amazing breakfast at Islas Makinas (the locally smoked Palawan bacon alone is worth it), who eats lunch at the lovely beachfront restaurant Yoga Tayo, and books a boat for island hopping is helping sustain the island’s efforts to protect itself—despite or because of tourists.
All these little, mindful choices keep the forest walkable because somebody kept his job of keeping the path clear; the café that serves horchata remains open, and the farmer that plants the rice continues tilling his land.
Marga and Francine planted six trees between them. When the soil was patted back to the ground and little pennants were tied to the branches, Marga hopped on her bike again and rode off (she had to see about her laundry).
Maybe along the way she would spot a few friends and stop for a chat—people who, like herself, uprooted their lives from Manila or abroad, and settled into the Lio community, where millennial-age entrepreneurs are building more thoughtful, more mindful businesses.
“When my dad was building Pandan Villas, he really wanted it to be for families who want a home away from home; for it to feel like a staycation but on an island that’s a little bit more private and luxurious than most others.
There is the surrounding environment that inspires this way of life: there’s the deep blue sea teeming with marine life and an emerald lagoon where you can kayak as slow or as fast as the sun is setting.
A casually posh island home
Pandan Villas has the feel of your rich aunt’s house where you went on vacation every summer as a child and never wanted your parents to pick you up when it was time to go back to school.
But it’s better because it’s in one of the most beautiful islands in the world—and you’re no longer a child and you can actually afford a vacation out of your own pocket. In fact, you can book your parents to one of their wonderful villas.
The simplicity of the resort’s design maximizes the property size. Four spacious villas, two on each side, flank the path from the small gate that leads to the reception. Each villa has a swimming pool, an open-space ground floor with comfortable sofas, a dining table and a fully equipped kitchen.
The space is bordered by elephant ear plants whose huge leaves are the size of a coffee table, some ferns, and vines. It’s so relaxing to look at these greens when you’re in the pool or lounging in the living room with friends. Upstairs, there are two bedrooms. The master with a king bed and another with two twin beds, each with its own bathroom.
A private chef can cook your meals, just book at the reception ahead of time and they will go to the market for your ingredients. It’s like paluto—they do the cooking in the resort’s kitchen, and you do the eating in your villa.
“When my dad was building Pandan Villas, he really wanted it to be for families who want a home away from home; for it to feel like a staycation but on an island that’s a little bit more private and luxurious than most other beaches in the Philippines,” Marga said.
Marga said that El Nido town has a lot of hotels that cater to solo travelers and couples, but not a whole lot of choices for families. “Most hotels have either a king bed or two twin beds, so families have to book two rooms. In a villa, it’s an all-in-one package. You have the space for yourselves.”
The beach is also just a few minutes’ walk from Pandan Villas and the best route is through the forest. For people who are starved of green spaces, it’s a nice respite from the heat and concrete (it’s a few degrees cooler because of the canopy the trees provide).
The best way to experience the stunning Cadlao Lagoon—sometimes turquoise, sometimes emerald—is by kayaking. A tour company like Bellita Tours takes tourists to the lagoon and then rents kayaks from the boatmen. It’s quite a sight seeing the rows of empty kayaks being pulled by a single kayaker approaching the boats.
There is something about El Nido’s limestone cliffs that quiets your soul. Maybe it’s the knowledge that these were formed millions of years ago without help or interference from humans, making them even more beautiful in your head. And when you see their reflection on the water’s surface, or a single colorful kayak gliding through the entrance of the lagoon, the cliffs just take your breath away.
No wonder El Nido is the country’s most awarded island. It is also among Turista.ph’s top destinations because people here understand what slow travel is and what the app is trying to do by partnering with companies that have the same values.
When it’s low tide, you can swim from the beach next to the lagoon through a narrow entrance. It feels like suddenly you’re in a whole new place. The water temperature is slightly different, the cliff formations are different and, if not for a stereo blasting from a skeletal structure built by an infamous resort, it would have been perfectly peaceful.
But even that can’t take away the feeling that you were here for a reason and at the perfect moment.