From traveling the world to business owners: How this El Nido glamping site came to be
Note: Mark Anthony-Villaflor and his wife Camille are travelers who have settled down in El Nido. Together, they own The Birdhouse El Nido, a boutique glamping hotel on Maremegmeg Beach. Below, Mark shares about how The Birdhouse came to be.
A place for the impossible to be possible
The journey has never been a conventional one for the two of us. We went from the 9-to-5 rat race in Shanghai to long-term full-time travel for 16-months before settling down in El Nido. Camille and I are an ordinary couple, seeking extraordinary experiences. Our method of travel was simple – step out of your door. Of course since those days in 2010 we’ve traveled a ton, stepping out of our door each day, expecting pleasant surprises to occur.
We met at a church that believed in the goodness of people, an abundance of grace, and the power to perform miracles. I have one eye and the thought that I could be healed of the blindness never crossed my mind. The community we had surrounded ourselves with were a broken, ragged bunch of people who were never told they had the power to make the lame walk. That’s exactly what I witnessed on one of my first days with my newly adopted brother and sisters. I laid hands on a man who had been shot, causing him to be paralyzed from the waist down. He got up, walked, and we cried. These “miracles” became daily occurrences. Camille had the same experiences seeing the legs of people afflicted with scoliosis grow, telling people in casts to take them off and walk on broken legs, and receiving word of individuals being healed of cancer after a gentle touch or a quick phone call.
We left a church that led us to be sin-conscious in the form of constant reminders to confess, be good (aren’t we already?), and change our ways. Instead, we became grace-conscious, receiving and moving with life and love. We grew into a deep intimate relationship, shared our vulnerabilities, and continue to verbalize our dreams… some of which would end up manifesting.
Not succumbing to the traditional two week honeymoon, we journeyed into what we called 365traveldates, committing ourselves to "travel in love, love in travel,” or what we call our honeymoon. We ended up extending our time on the road, what we thought would be a year of globetrotting until we nearly ran out of money. But plans change and in a marriage you navigate with your partner.
People see the product but never the process.
The process (well, some of it)
In the couple of years prior to our big journey we allocated roughly 40 to 50% of our earnings to investing (mainly real estate), roughly 40% in travel funds, and the rest in living expenses. The living expenses were a kept to a minimum, and a standard expatriate contract helped a ton as we were provided with insurance, flights home each year, and housing. We took on extra jobs working after hours and on weekends to help our lifestyle design.
So how did we get end up creating The Birdhouse El Nido after being unemployed for a year and a half?
First, rewind to the part where we we’re running out of money and we’re in Ecuador getting ready to go to Peru on a 30-hour bus ride. In between salsa classes in Cali, Colombia I had been interviewing with an international school in Austria in hopes of “ending” our trip in Europe before heading back to the motherland. I got offered a two-year contract to teach an an international school in a small town next to a lake, tucked away just minutes away the Alps. This meant that instead of making our way towards the southern tip of South America, we had to abruptly turn around to attend to visa matters in the US and the Philippines.
The first question I had was about the visa,t given that Camille was a Filipino citizen. They assured me it wouldn’t be an issue. It ended up being an issue.
While waiting for a number of documents to be processed we ended up traveling the Philippines, with stops in Dumaguete, Puerto Galera, Siquijor, Bicol, and El Nido! When we arrived to the Philippines, we received news that someone was interested in purchasing one of our condominiums that we had invested in prior to our trip. The temptation to leave it all and travel the world again crossed our minds but we ended up doing the adult thing and finding another place to invest in while we worked in Austria – or so we thought.
Our first visit to El Nido was in September 2015 which was more or less an open-ended trip. We had the idea that we would invest in Palawan, more specifically in San Vicente, as we heard of some development that would be happening. After some conversations with local business owners in El Nido we realized we weren’t priced out. We thought we couldn’t afford to invest in El Nido but soon found ourselves looking at different properties. Fortunately for us, our first deal never went through which brought us to a large mound of dirt in the form of a jungle nestled behind Las Cabanas Beach.
After traveling for a year and a half the last thing your parents may want to hear is that you’re settling down in a beach town. I honestly believed that our parents thought we were beach bumming, as they kept asking what we were doing and when we would be working again.
We ended up purchasing the property in November 2015. While we were in due diligence mode, Camille and I had long discussions as to whether or not we would even continue waiting for the visa or have a go at setting up a hotel in the Philippines. We had really imagined living in Europe and traveling through the countryside, past vineyards, skiing on the Alps, celebrating Octoberfest in Germany, and having a completely foreign experience. However, that dream was slowly slipping away. The school year had started and we were still processing papers for the visa. The school moved my start date to November then to December. Camille was able to secure a tourist visa but was told she couldn’t get it transferred to a dependent visa in Austria. They explained that she would have to go back to the Philippines and wait 3 to 6 months for the visa to be approved. The last thing we wanted was to be separated from each other for months at a time, we’d done that already before getting married, and we’d just come off an epic honeymoon being together 24/7 for about 500 dates.
So the option we chose was to fulfill one of our many dreams, this one in the form of creating a hotel. Great idea, considering we had just been unemployed for a year and a half, had minimum funds, knew nothing about construction, and had to run business. But then again, what was the worst that could happen? When we ended up telling ourselves and verbalizing to others that we would transform the travel industry. We’ve continue to proclaim this and so far we’re on our way to that transformation… More on that later.
What do we even know?
On December 2015 we dug a big hole in the side of our hill. A couple days later we realized we had no idea how to create a proper mountainside foundation, so it was back to the drawing board. We ended up finding a local contractor who would end up leaving us before the project was completely finished. We continued the digging in February 2016 and turned this patch of jungle into a construction site.
For some perspective, it’s important to note that Camille is an interior designer. We ended up living in a hotel during construction. We’d lived in Shanghai in an apartment given to us by my employer, we’d bought houses and condos as investments, and had just been living out of our suitcases while traveling the world, and we still didn’t have a place we called “home." We desperately yearned for this. During our time working I continued to insist on the need to invest with a longer-term outlook versus buying our own home which wouldn’t be occupied, as we were still overseas.
Camille has designed other people’s homes, other people’s restaurants, and other people’s hotels. She was eager for a project she could call her own. We wanted to create a space for us to start a family but because of our unconventional way of living we were a bit off in our plans of doing so.
While we lived in Shanghai she ran a small baking operation out of our home kitchen as a way to feed her passion and save for our trip. Camille loves food, she loves cooking, she loves serving, her heart is filled with joy when she can create a space for people to put up their feet at the end a long day and have a delicious meal.
In the 6 months of construction we managed to convince my cousin Karen Bersabe, to come out and help us run things. She was incredible! A conversation in December 2015 went something like this: “Hey, Camille and I are going to build a hotel in El Nido and will need some help. Leave your high paying Manila job and come here to help us without any job security because we really don’t know what we’re doing. Also, know that we’re gonna change the travel industry, but again, we’re really not sure how.” A few months later, she came, clueless as to how she would make a living. She ended up living in the same room as us for 3 months. That’s a small space for a married couple and their cousin.
In the process we created our own family and ended up adopting Batman and Robin, too stray dogs who would accompany us up to our construction site each day. Batman missed our move-in day and we couldn’t find him for a couple weeks. Robin settled in with us but had to share his space a couple weeks later with a stray cat, Catman, who quickly became a boss.
That wasn’t the end of Batman though. Him and Robin made a few little ones, two of which we kept, Pakwan and Turtle. They are now just over a year old.
After a few delays and many hiccups, we finally moved into an unfinished home on July 28, 2017. It was rainy season, our plumber had screwed up the piping on our water source, and we were fortunate enough to have a couple of buckets to catch rainwater from the roof for showers. For electricity, we had a faulty generator and had no lights or running electricity. Sitting in our bedroom, on our hilltop home, we looked up at our roof and saw it filled with fireflies. This was our first night! It didn’t matter that it wasn’t perfect (though in reality it really was) it was our home and we slept next to each other knowing it wouldn’t be like this forever, and it wasn’t.
A month later on September 3, 2016 we hosted our first guests. Slowly but surely, more came and affirmed us about what we weren’t ever sure of. We had a mindset of “this might not work so we might as well try it!" In the time since we opened up our home, which we call the "mother nest,” we’ve hosted people from all over the world.
Ignorance and naivety brought us here
We went up on a hill, looked out over Bacuit Bay and said, “We’re going to change the travel industry.” Initially, we thought it would be with the introduction of proper glamping in the Philippines. After traveling for such a long time, we knew 3 things were important for the weary traveler – a comfy bed to lay your head on, a delicious meal, and gracious hosts. We are still learning, but generally speaking, we believe we’ve ticked off those boxes. The conversation started moving towards the idea that glamping was simply a fad, the Philippines is a culture of trends and in 5 or 10 years this may not be relevant in the travel industry.
Our pivot came after a series of issues with electricity and water. Much of the Las Cabanas beach area has no electricity from the government and most establishments run on generators which are used as backups to power outages not as primary sources for hotels.
In addition, water is an issue in El Nido. Many hotels, homes, and establishments continue to run out of clean water during summer (these days even before summer) as water sources quickly dry out. Because of the influx in tourism, these are growing issues (though not necessarily concerns for people here). On one of our earliest days of operation we had 13 guests and no water going up. We ended up carrying buckets of water for each guest for 13 showers, 13 toilet flushes (likely more), and water for washing dishes and cleaning up in the Mother Nest. Note that we are 200 steps up the hill. That week I lost about 5 kilos and gained a new respect for water. If we knew how difficult this would have been, we would have likely never built The Birdhouse. Ignorance and naivety brought us here.
Eco is economical and ecological
We didn’t want to be helpful, we wanted to be transformational. In some ways we’ve failed to do so. While our development was small we created a negative impact on our environment, we had business problems that needed solving, and we weren’t entirely sure how to go about these challenges.
The decision to hire an environmental consultant came easy when we put up a hammock in the Mother Nest, providing a suitable setting for permaculture designer Shyo Sayajon. Initially he helped provide a risk analaysis of the property and articulated some challenges regarding our blindspots. He proposed and established permaculture structures on the property to help with our water and waste management and created steps towards a more climate resilient property. He also led a volunteer program centered around an organic garden. Together we attempted dialogue with all of our neighbors to create a more ecologically sound area. We are now starting to reach out to social entrepreneurs, local business owners and non-profits groups to continues the conversation. In the process of our consultation with Shyo we redefined eco to mean both economical and ecological. Many of the solutions to our challenges were just that – eco.
This past year we finally got our home back by finishing construction of The Nesting Table our in-house restaurant. While it’s not the top most structure we believe it has some of the best views in El Nido. In addition, we built two more nests and have found ourselves catering to many honeymooners. In the past two months we’ve seen photos of from different types of weddings including Jewish, Indian, Filipino, and Chilean.
With the busyness of running a hotel and restaurant we decided to start El Nido Yoga. When we initially started we were the only daily classes going but since then we’ve seen a steady growth in the El Nido yoga community. We try to find balance in ourselves before trying to help out the imbalance and contradictions of this town.
El Nido continues to break our hearts
Most recently, we started a magazine called ESTEL Magazine, which seeks to represent Eco-Sustainable Tourism El Nido. However, El Nido is nowhere near a sustainable model for tourism so the acronym sits as Eat, Sleep, Tour, El Nido.
The love story continues with a wider narrative, featuring a town we are growing in love with. Just like any love story, there are struggles. And, while El Nido continues to break our hearts in the form of developments’ lack of respect for the environment, we continue to believe we have a say in its future. We came here as an end to our honeymoon and love journey, but also as a way to continue lifestyle designing.
Every day we see challenges – cultural, environmental, with local governments, with irresponsible development, and with tourists who are unaware of the impact of their vacation. Too often people have a romantic notion of social entrepreneurship. We see the glaring issues that need to be addressed and hope to be part of the discussion to mend the brokenness of what continues to happen. It’s a difficult process and most people simply see the beauty but never the destruction of El Nido. This is a glimpse into our process but not entirely El Nido’s viewpoint. Hopefully, a peek into this can bring out more love moves from local government, from non-profit organizations, and from co-players in the private sector. As we’ve always said we are only ordinary people, seeking extraordinary experiences. Just as The Birdhouse was hatched out love and nurtured with care we hope the same will be done for El Nido. – Rappler.com
Mark is a one-eyed Filipino-American that is the happy owner of Pepper, a French bulldog. He is married to his lovely wife Camille.
His heart beats to the pulse of the Philippines but he has lived in South Korea, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and China. He is a former international school educator and an entrepreneurial backpacker. He is 1/2 of 365traveldates.com.
After chasing the sun around the world for over 500 travel dates he and his wife have settled down in El Nido, Palawan and are the owners of a glamping hotel called The Birdhouse.