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.
The sight of giraffes moving together across the plain in a slow gallop is indescribable, and the chance to feed them — priceless. The giraffes headed for the gazebo as if to meet us, knowing that it was feeding time.
The Calauit guide took a few leaves and held it close to her face. With precision targeting, the giraffe aimed for the leaves and the guide was unscathed. I wasn’t as brave, so I took a leafy branch and held it out with two hands. A giraffe bent down to chew off the leaves with its strong jaws. It felt as if we were having a tug of war. Now I know how trees in the savannah feel like.
We moved to the middle of the fields to get closer to the shy zebras, walking backwards so that the zebras would not feel threatened. We got our wanted snapshots and moved on to visit the crocodiles, porcupines, wild boars, a python, an eagle and a civet cat in the mini zoo.
A Snorkeller’s Delight
After lunch on the sandy Debotunay Island, we sailed for another hour to the Coral Garden, where every inch of the ocean floor was filled with various colourful hard and soft corals. I donned my snorkelling mask and hung onto a lifesaver that Anthony pulled across the water, as it alternated between warm and cold currents. He would stop every few moments to identify fishes and corals. I spied a small barracuda hiding low and was oddly fixated on it until our time was up at the ‘garden’.
There are a dozen wrecks around Coron Bay, mainly Japanese vessels sunk on 24 September 1944 by US dive bombers, making Coron one of the world’s best sites for wreck dives. Three of the wrecks can also be accessed by snorkellers. We swam from Coral Garden to the nearby Lusong Gunboat, one of the smallest and most shallow Japanese wrecks. It was so close to the surface that our feet seemed almost touching it. We were surrounded by a kaleidoscope of fishes as we fed them with bread.
On the way back to town, we had another boat-cooked snack – warm caramelised banana. With the sea spray in our faces, we found proof that salted caramel on banana can be quite delightful!
It was sundown by the time we reached town, still too early for dinner. Time to freshen up and let down our hair (to let it dry)! Coron Town has little nightlife to speak of, but Helldivers Bar is the closest you can get to drinks in a mini-museum of diving, aviation and finds from shipwrecks.
I heard that there were PHP20 mango shakes nearby and made a mental note to look for it later. Philippine mangoes are among the sweetest varieties, and dried mangoes are popular exports. Mango shake is a favourite drink amongst beachgoers and tourists alike (including yours truly).
The following day was solely devoted to more island hopping. Siete Pecados, made of seven limestone rocks, was our first snorkelling stop. There were a lot of dead corals in this area following years of dynamite fishing, but the practice has ended and life is slowly returning to the coral beds. It was also here that I was able to convince my mom to go snorkelling—a small victory for me, as she had not done it the previous day or ever in her life.
The highlight of the day was swimming underneath a natural bridge into Twin Lagoon. Inside, the high limestone walls seemed like fortress from the outside world. We wore our life jackets and swam a few hundred metres into the peaceful lagoon, where there was a gentle current and a magnificent view which we admired from the floating kubo (thatched-roof hut) in its centre.
After another flavourful boat-cooked lunch (only the crabs were prepared in advance) on one of the tiny beaches around the island, we snorkelled at another wreck. Although still relatively small compared to the other shipwrecks, Skeleton Wreck is bigger and deeper than Lusong Gunboat. The bottom of the wreck was in the dark abyss, which divers disappeared into as we snorkelled.
We ended our island hopping with stops at Balinsasayaw Reef (named after the bird whose highly valued nest is made into soup) for more snorkelling, and CYC Beach to chill out while watching locals play beach football.
With one morning left in Coron, my mom and I combed the market for souvenirs. Upon entering the wet section, I was surprised to see a preacher raising his voice on a microphone, a Bible on a stand before him. I wasn’t sure whether his sermon was getting through to his audience of butchers and fishmongers who were busy with the day’s sales, but it was an amusing strategy to spread the word of God.
With sea creature-shaped keychains and cashew barquiron (filled rolled wafer) in hand, I went back and forth the streets of Coron in search of the cheap mango shake but in vain, so I settled for the more expensive one at Bistro Coron.
My mom and I left Busuanga itching to spend another day touring more lakes and islands. Considering we had not even seen the most famous sights in the Calamian group—Kayangan Lake, Barracuda Lake, Banol Beach, Black Island, Banana Island, Culion Island, among others—I have more than enough reasons to return. Rumour has it that some of the best areas are still closed by the Tagbanuas and we may not be able to see them in this lifetime. To view the sunset up Mt Tapyas and dive the other wrecks if I ever get a diver’s license are on my list. And no, I’m not giving up on the PHP 20 mango shake just yet!
GETTING THERE Busuanga can be reached by sea and air from Manila. AirAsia flies to Clark, two hours away from Manila, from various destinations. For flight information and the lowest fares, go to www.airasia.com.
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