There’s a place, just outside of the main town, where you’ll see something that will make your heart will catch in your chest.
I heard about it first from the guesthouse owner. It was the first place she recommended to me when I arrived in El Nido, a tiny fishing town on the Filipino island Palawan. ‘Hire a trike and go out to Las Cabanas for the sunset one day, and take your friends.’
Yeah, sunsets, ok, whatever. It felt like a tired filler suggestion from a guidebook, so we weren’t worried about missing our chance to see it – after all, it was bound to happen a few more times.
Instead, we went snorkelling, hopping on boats for tours around the archipelago, swimming in green lagoons and listening to the birdsong of the jungle. I met a jungle boy, a personification of the island in dark skin and dark hair, with one of those lean summer bodies made for climbing coconut trees and diving through waves. But in the group we were travelling with, there was never a moment alone. When the lot of us weren’t exploring the islands of the Bacuit Archipelago, we spent days just circumnavigating the same two main streets, from cafe to beach to massage to fruit shake to nap to dinner to party and back again.
El Nido is just one of those little beach towns that lends itself to repetition.
Adequately distracted by the rest of the island’s offerings, we didn’t get around to Las Cabanas until our very last night. At the last moment, we hired a few trikes to take us there, just a ten minute drive away, which dropped us off at a nondescript curve in the road. It wasn’t until the driver pointed that we saw a thin dirt track running into the jungle.
Down the path, we walked through the trees, over two tiny rivers crossed by tiny plank bridges, past cows lowing between coconut trees, mired in an expanse of green island jungle until – suddenly – the trees opened around us and spit us right back out onto the beach.
And the expanse of the Bacuit Archipelago lay waiting before us.
Limestone islands, rising abruptly from the water, were scattered in the distance. While we’d been in the forest, the sun had deepened enough to change the colours around us to technicolour versions of themselves – the sand was now dark gold, the trees glowing green, and the water and sky an electric blue.
I was starting to think the guesthouse owner was onto something, here.
To our left were a few huts in the trees, part of the resort for which the beach takes its name, so we walked past the first bend, then the second, until we were away from the few other people on the beach. We stopped where the bay opened fully, left our bags under a few coconut trees and waded out into the water. It was shallow, just up to our calves, and we walked until the shore shrunk to a strip and the expanse of the bay opened around us like a jaw.
From there, we waited.
The sun began to hit the horizon. It was just about that time. As the fringes of the clouds began to catch the last few rays of light, a slow glow of orange spread over the islands in the horizon, and the sea turned to silver beneath our feet.
In the distance, casting ripples, a man in the silhouette of a long dugout canoe was paddling home.
I think we spoke. But I can’t for the life of me remember what we said.
Suddenly, faster than we could notice, the sun finally disappeared behind the cliffs on the horizon, and night arrived with the force of a lightning bolt. Gone were the hazy tones of orange and pink over the landscape, replaced instead with a deep, arresting blue. That blue soaked into everything – the water, the clouds, the island silhouettes. There was a vibrancy in that blue, an urgency.
It wanted us to shut up, stand still, and just watch.
We stood there for a long, long time. And even when the first person turned back, and then the second, I couldn’t quite find the will to move my feet.
One person waited for me. The jungle boy. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was taking a picture of me, watching those colours. And when I finally turned around, he was there. The others had gone.
I smiled. I think they knew not to wait up for us.
It was the last night. And the whole island was glowing.