What could be nicer than spending Christmas in the warmth of the Philippines rather than freezing in sub zero temperatures in Beijing? If ever there is a no-brainer, this has to be it. And this year your favourite blogger has been to Busuanga island in the Calamian group of islands in the north of Palawan province.
The main town on Busuanga is Coron, confusingly located facing Coron Island, which is a mere 15 minutes boat ride away. Just in case you forget where you are, there is a Hollywood style notice on one of the hills proclaiming the place to one and all.
Busuanga Island is the second largest island in the province after Palawan island itself. It’s located about 310 km southwest of Manila and halfway between the islands of Mindoro and Palawan with the South China Sea located to the west. It’s fast developing as a major tourist destination, with scenic island beaches, wreck diving, river cruising in mangrove-laden forests, kayaking, hiking… well you name it. There are numerous islands surrounding it (with more than 1,000 islands in the Calamianes, actually) with white beaches and clear blue waters - perfect for snorkelling or scuba diving.
By all accounts, it’s very much quieter than the more (in)famous Boracay, though down by the port there is a short street in which I counted at least four karaoke / videoke bars – including one that caters specifically for senior citizens. Hmmm… I wonder if I would qualify?
The place is also being discovered by the Chinese and Arabs. In fact there is a new resort development way out of town owned by a Bahraini conglomerate that caters to the latter with halal food and shisha, among other things. As for the Chinese, well I assume the Oriental Lodging House has them in its sites. (And there was I thinking I’d have a few days away from Mao-morabilia.)
The highest point on the island is Mt. Tapyas – reachable by a 30-minute trek from the town proper, up a staircase of 100 steps (or more, depending on which web site you read – but unfortunately I don’t have the time this trip to actually find out!). At the top is a spacious viewing platform with a giant cross from which you can get spectacular views.
Despite its relative remoteness, you can get most of life’s essentials on the island from little shops and stalls dotted all over the place, though not surprisingly prices are somewhat higher than in the main conurbations of the Phils.
In 1902 Coron became registered as a town, officially having its name changed from Peñon de Coron (ie Crag of Coron) to Coron. In 1947, large scale deep sea fishing was introduced and the town experienced a major increase in population. But it still remains a small, quaint fishing town.
But for how much longer? In the past decade, there has been a rapid influx of scuba divers and other tourists, making tourism the major industry player in Coron today. And it’s not hard to see why.
In September 1944, a fleet of Japanese ships hiding in the harbour were sunk by the US navy. The Japanese had occupied the manganese mines, hence their presence in the natural harbour. As a result, there are twelve well preserved underwater shipwrecks surrounded with coral reef – truly a scuba paradise. Forbes Traveler Magazine lists Coron as one of the top 10 best scuba sites in the world; and nowadays it is one of the most visited destinations for wreck diving in the Philippines. The dive sites are found as shallow as 10-30 feet and as deep as 120-140 feet. Most are in the range of about 60-80 feet.
The waters are crystal clear and usually calm, with almost no current. As well as scuba diving, there are excellent snorkelling opportunities, with underwater visibility extending to 80 feet.
If you visit the Helldivers Bar – part of the Sea Dive Resort, you won’t be surprised to discover a whole load of memorabilia taken from the sea bed.
The best way to explore the islands of Coron Bay is with a bangka, or outrigger boat. They come in all sizes but are basically long and thin and the hull is made of marine plywood and painted with a number of coatings of epoxy paint. Normally each has two outriggers made of bamboo (known locally as katig) which act as very efficient stabilisers, and they are fitted with inboard engines.
First on every island-hopper’s agenda is the island of Coron - a 15 minute boat ride from the town of Coron itself, where dramatic limestone walls tower up out of the water. A reef protects the entrance to coves. Coron Island is home to 7 lakes but only two can be visited.
The island is undoubtedly the area's primary eco-tour destination for tourists. It’s the ancestral domain of an indigenous tribe called the Tagbanuas who manage the island in a sustainable way and keep outsiders offshore at night. As you berth at Coron, one of the first things you see is a large notice board proclaiming the rights of the Tagbanuas.
We have many sacred sites in our domain such as caves, forest, lakes, beach and the territories of the giant octopus, it reads. We regard our sacred sites with reverence and an innate sense of oneness with it. We keep our thoughts, speech and action pure and virtuous within our sacred sites. We are the caretakers of our environment in maintaining the richness and diversity of biological life for the welfare of present and future generations.
Within minutes we are greeted by an ape that is no doubt looking for a bit of freebie food. It sits watching us as we pass on by to the main attraction that a number of others have also come along to see…
As already mentioned, Coron Island has seven lakes, the most famous of which is the nationally-acclaimed “cleanest lake in the Philippines”, recognized as such for the last 5 consecutive years - the Kayangan Lake.
Every visitor has to pay 200 pesos (about £3), payable to the indigenous Tagbanua Foundation, to get there; and then climb a tortuous staircase up over a limestone rise, and down the other side.
The water is warm and slightly brackish, though it still counts as a freshwater lake, albeit that there must be some underwater connections to the outside sea since the fish are abundant, darting across the coral formations.
But the fish never get very big and with so many visitors to the lake every day they are not in the slightest bit scared off by human activity.
Another island, “just around the corner” from Coron Island is Cagbatan, better known as CYC Island; and this is where everyone seems to come for a beach picnic. With its pure white sand and blue waters, it’s not hard to see why.
This is one of the few islands around here where mangroves (known locally as bakawan) dominate the area. Some of the root formations are amazing even if the tops of these trees are somewhat underwhelming in comparison.
CYC Island is also used by many dive operators as a training site location, due to its shallow sandy shoreline that only tapers off to the depths ever so slowly.
It’s just as you would imagine yourself to be starring in some castaway film or TV series. Now, who is that handsome fellow staring out to shore?
Wake up! Wake up! Uh oh… could this have been a dream all along? No, dear blog reader. This is the Philippines!