Excuse me while I ask for your help one more time. Please take a look at this link and help Kevin make the world a better place 🙂 Please read below before you get to our island paradise story.
Please note – if you didn’t get a chance to read about Kevin’s new volunteer position, please take a minute to view my Generosity page and CLICK HERE. I’m starting my journey back to San Francisco in about three weeks, so it’s getting close. Even if you’ve just enjoyed our blog, a small donation will really help out. Just $10 will get me a night in a dorm room in Tajikistan and help keep me out of debt. I hope it’s not too much to ask. Thanks!
We arrived in the Philippines ready for some beach time and relaxation. I realize that many of you will ask – well haven’t the other 7 months been relaxing? Well in terms of travel – not really. Don’t get me wrong we have had some relaxing moments but overall India was a challenge, Nepal was … well a lot of hiking, Borneo was all about the animals… We have moved a lot! Covered 1000’s of miles, slept in some rather undesirable locations, eaten cheap, taken dangerous buses overcrowded with people but of course also experienced wonders, met incredible people, eaten some delicious food and have some amazing memories. But the Philippines? Well it’s known for the most beautiful beaches in the world, with over 7000 islands there is a plethora of coastline and our plan was to explore just the tiniest bit. We were looking forward to unpacking our bags for a couple of days – settling down, relaxing and getting to know the towns we were in. Since it’s low season there are some pretty incredible deals to be found – lucky us! Plus with the end of our adventure drawing near, with Kevin’s volunteer position coming up in just 2 weeks and reality about to come crashing down on both of our heads we figured a bit of R&R before reality sounded like a great idea!
Our first stop was in the tiny port town of Port Barton, on the east coast of the island of Palawan. We stayed here at Hummingbird’s – 2 small oceanfront bungalows rented out by a toothless granny who was the sweetest lady EVER! For a mere $10 a night we had oceanfront views and coffee delivered to our porch ever morning. We stayed here for 4 nights before I heard about the Coconut Garden Island Resort. This place was incredible – a 45 minute boat ride out of Port Barton and we landed on what seemed to be our own private island. We were the only guests at the resort and were lucky enough to be upgraded from our longhouse accommodation to our private bungalow ($15/night – yeah! What a deal!!). The owners are a Swiss/Filipina couple so the food was amazing and … did I mention we were the only ones there? 😉 Incredible. We spent our days snorkeling in the crystal clear waters – I mean the water is so clear that even without a mask you can see the fish swimming 20 feet underneath you! WOW! There were also hammocks strategically placed around the resort so we could laze away the rest of our days reading our books and snoozing. I have to say … lest you wonder why we ever left … that there were sandflies during the days … they were kept at bay as long as there were ocean breezes but when they died down – YOWZA – run for your life!
After Port Barton we got lucky and booked a last minute trip from El Nido to Coron on a traditional Filipino sailing boat. It would be us plus 18 other intrepid travelers and the 8 man crew – we would be island hopping from El Nido through the Bacuit Archipelago up to Coron town for 5 days/4 nights. We were going to be sleeping on a different island each night in open air huts along the way. Though it was officially the monsoon season and they warned us about the possibility of rain and thus having to alter our trip due to weather – we had the most incredible sunny days the entire time – with the tiniest bit of drizzle on our last day as we were ending our trip.
As we left El Nido to start our trip we met the crew and the mascot dog named Amo or Boss. He was an awesome little dog who loved to swim and got excited each time we moored the boat as he knew it was time to go on the kayak and swim. As we left the busy port of El Nido we maneuvered through the limestone islands of the Bacuit Archipelago (an area named for its most beautiful beaches by Travel and Leisure magazine) and they are not wrong! Imagine seeing island after island with white sand beaches, no inhabitants, coconut trees and crystal clear turquoise waters! WOW! We would stop each day at various snorkeling spots where all of us would jump into the water and marvel at the beautiful coral and fish along the way.
This area, I am sorry to say, has been massively over fished since the 1980s and the fishing industry is on the verge of collapse. The local people used to live exclusively from fishing and were completely self-sustaining on their islands. Now there are no longer enough fish for them to live off of so people have turned to the land – unfortunately they are using the slash and burn way. Meaning they burn down the jungle to plant a crop of rice or bananas or whatever but with this way of doing things the ground is no longer fertile for another 4-5 years so another piece of land gets burned down. As you can guess, this is not sustainable, Tao Philippines (the company we went with) are trying to educate the local villages on the importance of permaculture and using the land in a sustainable way before it’s all gone.
In any case, I am happy to say that in the areas we visited, though lacking in bigger fish, we found the coral was still in pristine condition. To be honest, it was some of the most beautiful and healthy coral that I have seen! It is a rare sight nowadays … I have to wonder will there be any left in 20 years?
Ok, enough doom and gloom, let’s get back to paradise! On our first night we moored the boat in a pristine and uninhabited bay. Our bamboo huts were located on the hillside overlooking the turquoise water with jungle peaks behind us. It seemed like we were on The Beach (from the book by Alex Garland) it was spectacular! After we were all installed in our huts and had put up our mosquito nets and put our mattresses down, we heard the crew yelling ‘Jungle Juice’. Well that sounded intriguing – and boy! It was good. A mix of calamansi lime (these tiny local limes), pineapple juice and local rum– can you say yum?! Delish and potent J This was our sundowner drink daily during our trip and it never got old, a little heart burny but not old.
On a side note, the best deal on rum we have ever found anywhere in the world is here in the Philippines – you can get a 1 liter bottle of rum for $1.25 – can you believe it??? We couldn’t!
Later that night, as our huts didn’t have bathrooms – actually they didn’t really have walls either … I headed down to the bathrooms. When I got down to the beach I looked up at the stars and I was stunned. The amount of stars that I could see in this forgotten place was out of this world (literally 😉 The Milky Way was a bright streak across the sky and the longer I looked the more stars became visible. It was mind boggling and made me feel insignificant …. we really are just a tiny blue dot. I will miss being able to see the stars when I am back in San Diego, back in the urban jungle. I bet there are millions of people on Earth who have never really seen a night sky bursting with stars. Put it on your bucket list people! It is a sight to see!
The next morning the Chef was up and cooking breakfast. He made the most incredible dishes every day with a presentation to rival that of any fancy kitchen in the world. All of the ingredients were local, organic and ohhh so good! For every meal we had local fruit – mango, pineapple, yellow and red watermelon. He would prepare red rice (more nutritious then white rice and affectionately called “Filipino power”), some kind of coconut veggie curry, local fish and salad. I will tell you, we ate better on this trip then we have in a very long time! Each meal was a piece of art – created with love, imagination and was 100% farm to table.
The second day was much like the first, sailing around the Bacuit Archipelago, snorkeling, lounging, eating, dozing. We arrived at our second night’s base camp which was the Tao Farm. This is where all the staff training takes place, where the produce grown and livestock raised. This is where they train the villagers on different crafts from sewing, to making vinegar to learning massage. We chose this company because of how much they support the local communities along the way, teaching them how to make different items the company can use (i.e they were currently experimenting with vinegar manufacturing and one of their secret ingredients in their cuisine was cashew fruit vinegar). They also have built 18 new schools, nurseries and have a sustainable pig husbandry program going on. After baby pigs are born and are weaned they give them to local villagers to feed and raise. When they are old enough the company buys them back – in this way they are sure that they are organically fed and sustainably raised and the money goes back to the villagers. They also hire boys from the villages who don’t have money to go to school and train them for 2 years before assigning them to one of the tourist boats. They do not build a new boat until a new team is trained and ready to crew the boat. After the destruction caused by the last typhoon to hit the area, a permaculture farm was started where they raise 30% of the food used to feed the tourists on the boats and the staff – they hope to bring that up to 100% within the next 5-6 years.
That night at the farm we had two surprises, free massages for everyone (WHAT?!?) and a 7 course tasting menu!! After a group bucket shower by the local fresh water well – yes it’s true! All 18 of us really gathered by the well whilst our group leader poured buckets of water on us. We lathered up using the locally made lemongrass coconut soap and shampoo. (For those of you who are more dirty minded … we were all wearing bathing suits.) After the shower, massage and copious jungle juice we were all feeling jolly and our 7 course dinner began. They had an open format kitchen so we could see the chefs cooking over the open fire (no gas ranges or ovens here!). The team made an extraordinary meal for us, each course outdoing the once before with the grand finale of a scrumptious banana dessert. WOW! We were feeling good after that!
The next days flowed in much the same manner, snorkeling, nap, food, deserted island to sleep. As we made our way out of the Bacuit archipelago and started to make our way up to Coron town on Busuanga Island. We had to make a channel crossing and were blessed with flat waters, no wind and perfect weather. We were blessed on our 3rd night with the most beautiful sunset I have seen in a very long time – it went on and on as the colors blended from flaming oranges to dusky rose and finally the stars appeared. All the while a lightning storm was going off on the horizon – pretty amazing!
And we sailed, and we snorkeled and we read. On our final night we slept in one of the original base camps – a family rents out part of their land and the huts were installed there. This was modern by comparison with an actual shower head shower though with very little pressure (It’s the little things….), a basketball court and a karaoke bar (de rigueur in most Filipino towns). That night they had a pig roast, Lechon – a local delicacy, they roasted the whole pig over the fire for 3 hours, someone suggested naming it though that idea was quickly squashed. Though Kevin and I are mostly vegetarian, sometimes you just have to appreciate what’s there and try the local food. I did silently thank the piggy for its sacrifice but I admit I am happy that I tried it – not something you get every day! Once again, the jungle juice flowed and it was time for some karaoke. Everyone sang a song (or 3) and we partied it up and celebrated a successful voyage. Our fellow travelers were made up of Canadians, Dutch, Brits on honeymoon, Argentinians, a Filipino-American family from San Mateo, us and 2 cute dogs – Betty and Amo, who made the trip so much better. As we sailed into our final port of Coron town we were so glad to have done this trip – it was a blessing to see these islands from a local point of view and go places where all of the day trips never get to. In the end though, I have to admit that we were also pretty glad to get to our guesthouse and take a real shower. J
Our stay in Coron Town was brief. We stayed here for 3 days just to be able to dive the WWII wrecks. This place is famous for these dive sites. It’s really cheap too at $60 for 3 dives including equipment, lunch and a beer … crazy cheap really! In any case we dove the Akitsushima, the Taiei Maru and Lusong. Three incredible WW2 wrecks. The Akitsushima was a seaplane tender built for the Japanese Imperial Army. She is 376 feet in length and now lies at a depth of 37meters depth on her side. She was sunk by the Americans in September of 1944. We were able to penetrate these wrecks which is an out of this world experience. The light filters through the cracks in the hull as you make your way through the insides of the wreck. Schools of glass fish huddle in dark corners glowing as our torches light hit them. It is an eerie feeling thinking of the people who lived on this ship and how many stories and history are on board. The coral on the top of the wreck was gorgeous showing how a tragedy can be turned into a work of art by nature in 75 years. Our second wreck the Taiei Maru was a petrol tanker – she lies in a perfectly upright position. This one was also hit by a bomb but remained floating for another 3 weeks before a second round of American bombers hit her again. The bow was almost completely broken off in the bombing but we were able to penetrate the rest of the wreck. Some of the glass in the portholes was still intact making beams of light appear inside the darkness. We had flashlights with us as much of the wreck was in complete darkness. We dove through the various rooms, through doorways and up into the bridge. The coral on the top of the wreck was gorgeous showing how a tragedy can be turned into a work of art by nature in 75 years. It’s a very cool feeling to dive through history.
After our dives we decided it was time to head back toward El Nido. Kevin’s flight is scheduled for July 6th from Puerto Princesa on Palawan so we thought it was safer to be on the same island in case of storms causing the ferries to be cancelled. We decided on the local ferry known as a Bangka. We got up early to catch a tricycle, the local mode of transport, which is a motorbike with a side car, and got stuck in a local parade that seemed to span for miles. Batons, drums, flutes and even the mayor walked by. We barely caught our ferry, which lucky for us was practically empty, so we were able to stretch out and enjoy the scenery for our 8 hour trip. We arrived back in El Nido safe and sound for the final leg of Kevin’s journey.