We were told that the thing to do in this part of Palawan was to go wreck diving, island hopping and snorkeling. Cecilia and her family wanted to do the wreck dives so they went a day earlier to get that done with before the rest of us arrived. We all decided we were going to snorkel around the different spots of Coron island, visit the former leper colony of Culion for some history, and just experience Coron town.
To get to this northern part of Palawan, we flew into Busuanga, which is a short 40-minute plane ride from Manila.
Coron "town" is a small fishing town located in the southeast part of Busuanga, while Coron "island" is a separate island right across Coron "town". I know it can be a bit confusing, but it's clearer when you see it on this map below.
On the southernmost part of the biggest island, that hollow dot is Coron Town and across it is Coron Island.
Friends of ours who have been to Coron told us to hire a boat, buy fresh seafood in the market (to be cooked by the boatmen) for lunch, and set off for the snorkeling spots. Sounded simple and very doable. But since we also wanted to have a local person with us while we were there, I emailed Gabby Malvar, domestic editor-at-large of Travelife magazine, for a guide we could contact in Coron.
He emailed right back "Rannie Dulay is the best guide in Coron. He will be able to help you with everything, from the island tours (provide boats and be a personal guide) and other particulars. Hope you and your family have a blast".
We actually did what our friends told us to do but, as Gabby suggested, we had Rannie arrange all the details--the boat, the food, the suggested stops (plus the take-home lobster at the end of the trip!). Unfortunately Rannie couldn't join us himself as he was one of the macro-photography dive guides sponsored by the Dept. of Tourism and the Philippine Commission for Sport Scuba Diving, assigned to dive with some international macro photographers in Coron that same weekend! Instead, he assigned to us his "proteges" Garri and Miguel, for the duration of our stay in Coron.
This map shows the sites which are open to visitors, not our route. We visited five sites.
There are many areas in Coron island to explore but Rannie shortlisted the sites for us because we only allotted one full day to do this --"we'll visit Kayangan Lake ( Hall of Fame awardee as the cleanest lake in the Philippines), Twin Lagoon, Twin Peaks, Banol or Atuwayan Beach, and secret places, like lagoons and coral gardens."
Lunch break in Banol beach
From the short meetings we had with Rannie each evening in our hotel, I learned that Gabby found Rannie through an article on the internet. Gabby's own meeting with Rannie produced this wonderful adventure that was documented in an issue of Travelife last year. No doubt Rannie is the man to know in Coron for kayak exploring and adventure travel, and here we were bothering him with our simple island-hopping tour!
Having chatted late into the night with the girls, I had a hard time getting up the next morning. And between chatting over breakfast again, we got off to a late start. Our first site was Skeleton Wreck, where a small fragment of a sunken boat lies in shallow waters. I think we were supposed to stay here for only thirty minutes but we took our time and before long, it was lunch time!
We had grilled fish, grilled chops, eggplant salad and vegetable curry (not on my plate) for lunch, all freshly cooked right in our banca over a simple makeshift grill.
After a relaxed lunch at Banol beach, we went to "Coral Garden" with amazing coral "tables" again in shallow waters. We were told to swim where the reef drops off so we wouldn't be too near the fragile corals. I worry that inexperienced swimmers might kick the corals with their fins and in a few years, all these corals might be gone!
From the coral garden we motored ten minutes away to another shallow swimming area which had a beautiful wall dive spot right next to it. I sat this one out on the boat and watched the kids jump from the prow of the banca, get up, jump in again, get up, jump in again, get up...I got exhausted just watching them!
"Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim" awarded to them by the Philippine government in 1998.
Because of their Ancestral Domain Rights, the Tagbanuas have been able to control tourism in the area. Nothing can be built on Coron Island, and each site visit has an "entrance fee" ranging from P100 to P200. They ask that you respect the sites by not littering and by keeping noise to a minimum so that birds that nest in the cliffs don't get bothered. For centuries the Tagbanuas have scaled these limestone cliffs to gather the edible birds' nests which they in turn sell to Chinese traders. This is one of their main sources of income. Their goal is to preserve the ecosystem and lifestyle which they are accustomed, and not to have their sacred ancestral land overtaken by tourism.
I don't know how the Tagbanuas collect the entrance fees--whether it's through the boat association or if it's an informal arrangement between the boatmen and the tribe as I didn't see any money changing hands. Maybe our boatmen paid the guys on the beach while we were busy snorkeling--I wasn't really paying attention. Our rate with our guides included the "site fees" so we didn't have to bother with handling money at each stop.
Next we were off to Twin Lagoon, one of the more popular sites in the island. Just look at all the boats that were there ahead of us. Too bad I couldn't bring my camera to the other side of the lagoon which was the main attraction. The lagoon can only be accessed when the tide is low and a portal opens up for a few hours.
Here is an aerial shot of Twin Lagoon which I got off a Coron resort's site...
Our final stop was Kayangan Lake which we purposely scheduled at the end of the day to avoid the crowds. We were told that Kayangan Lake is a Hall of Fame awardee as the cleanest lake in the Philippines and is quite popular. To get there, you have to climb about 120 steep steps going up, and then down an equal number of steps. We were the last people there and had the place all to ourselves for about an hour.
The lake has brackish water and has some marine life in the form of needlefish and slugs. We caught a little shrimp and kept it in a bottle with a baby needlefish for a few minutes. As we were setting them free...
Chomping the poor fish! Bad shrimp!
At the highest point of the steps leading to Kayangan Lake is the place where this iconic shot of Coron is taken!
We all took our own shots, posing in front of these limestone cliffs and the sea. It reminded be a lot of Halong Bay in Vietnam, but the water in Halong Bay can't compare to the crystal clear and clean waters of Palawan.
Halong Bay in Vietnam
After finally having our fill of the island's sites, it was time to call it a day and to head back to Coron town.
We headed back as the sun was sinking into the hills, the clear sky a gentle wash of cobalt blue with a little burst of cadmium orange. When we arrived at the pier, it was 'hallmark-stationery' dusk.
We were surrounded by magnificent sights from the time we we woke up til the time day turned into night. I don't think there is a better way to spend a beautiful summer day. We had just the right amount of activity mixed with just hanging out.
Our country is truly beautiful, and am so glad to have experienced a part of Coron Island. Like the Tagbanuas, I hope it stays like this forever.
Thanks Garri and Miguel for taking good care of us!