Palawan province south of the Philippine capital has enamoured many an adventurer with its famed Underground River, Tubbataha Reef and exclusive resorts in El Nido. On the northern tip of the province, the Calamian group of islands beckons to travellers willing to forego luxury comforts for unspoilt natural beauty. It is here, on these sparsely populated islands, that I found myself smitten by the homeland I am only beginning to explore.
Words & Photography: Abby Yao
It’s clichéd but often true – you know more places in other countries than in your own. Being born in the second largest archipelago in the world, I didn’t feel a need to go island hopping… until I started meeting foreign tourists who had seen more of the Philippines than I have. If they came so far and found the journey worthy of every long bus, train or boat ride, surely there’s no harm in finding out what they have been raving about.
I also missed my mom, whom I had not seen for almost half a year. To hit two birds with one stone, I went from Manila to Busuanga, the largest of the Calamian Islands, for a bonding trip with mother dearest.
A Calamianes Primer
But first, a bit of geography to avoid confusion. Coron Town on Busuanga Island is ruled by motorised tricycles, vans and SUVs. Here, small inns and dive shops crowd the mouth of the marina filled with outrigger boats. Along the narrow streets, I could hear the din of generators during the intermittent power outages alternating between streets. Despite the challenges of limited power supply, the once-sleepy town is waking up as word of Coron’s wonders spreads amongst divers and backpackers.
Next door to Busuanga is the island of Coron, under the stewardship of the Tagbanua people who count Coron as part of their ancestral domain. The limestone island has rocky outcroppings and sandy beaches, like its neighbour El Nido. But the numerous World War II wreck dives and its laidback charm set the Calamianes apart from the rest.
We started our exploration with a tricycle tour of Coron town. After stopping for photos at the marina, church, town hall and basketball court (this is the hoop-obsessed Philippines after all), the tricycle made the climb to Mount Tapyas. My mom, who is approaching retirement age, had no intention to climb the 700 steps up, so I hurried up the concrete steps leading to the summit alone as darkness fell. The lights along the way were not turned on so when a light drizzle fell, I took it as a sign for me to head down even if I was only able to climb up 233 steps. But I managed to glimpse a view of the surrounding islands – an astounding view that made the hike worth every step.
The last stop for the day was Maquinit Hot Spring. The ride to the spring, through dark and occasionally rough roads, seemed like the longest 15 minutes of my life. I prayed that the tricycle would not break down because I could imagine wild animals coming at us from behind the trees. It was a relief to arrive and dip my hands into the warm spring waters. As I walked the perimeter of the pools, I noticed two Japanese girls in their swimwear, lounging in the semi-darkness without a care in the world. What a gift to find bliss in the middle of nowhere.
The following morning, a van picked us up at the lodge, earlier than the pre-arranged 3:30 am call time. At the boat station in the wee hours of the morning, the tide was so low that everyone on the boat had to stand at the prow to keep the hull from hitting the bottom of the shallow jetty.
After the three-and-a-half-hour journey between limestone islands, we slipped between the mangroves to Calauit Island for a close encounter with wildlife. In 1976, under the directive of then President Ferdinand Marcos, Calauit became a reserve for eight species of African animals, of which five species remain. The giraffes and zebras we saw were born on the island and roam the grasslands freely alongside Calamian deer.