While heinous weather inundated most of the Philippine archipelago in the new year, I was fortunate enough to be “stuck” on seemingly the only island unaffected: Busuanga. I did endure a spattering of rain and inconveniently a cancelled boat trip due to the coast guard’s concerns about treacherous waves, but I was pleased not to be marooned to the confines of my guesthouse as tourists were elsewhere in the country. Busuanga is located in the west of the Philippines near Palawan and is commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as Coron. Coron is actually the name of the major town on Busuanga and also, confusingly, a protected island just off the coast. Most tourists stay in Coron Town and use it as a base to explore the interior of Busuanga, neighbouring islands in the Calamian Group and subaqueous attractions such as Japanese shipwrecks and coral reefs.
I flew to Busuanga on New Year’s Day and spent five nights on the island. The flight from Manila consisted of games and prizes for the passengers (the cabin crew were far too excited - it was a total snoozefest) and arrived half an hour early; slightly too punctual for the integrity of the schedule not to be questioned. I sat next to Frenchman Léo on the minivan into town, although it was one of those awkward situations where neither of us had the audacity to initiate conversation and we sat in silence. When I arrived in Coron Town, I inspected two hostels constructed on wooden stilts above the seawater. Despite romanticisms about such an arrangement in the tropics, the repugnant smell from the tepid water was grossly off-putting and I quickly opted for a guesthouse on land. In the afternoon, I climbed to the top of a viewpoint above Coron Town and again crossed paths with Léo, only on this occasion we properly met. Léo was holidaying from the tiresome and hierarchical realm of Japanese commerce in Tokyo and was also 26 – the first of what seemed like an eternity of backpackers I would met in the Philippines sharing the same age.
The coast guard cautiously cancelled all maritime journeys the following day as a typhoon raged across the south of the Philippines. With our island-hopping tour postponed, I resolved to explore the interior of Busuanga. I decided to attempt to hike to the summit of the island’s highest mountain, which I estimated could be achieved just prior to sunset. Within 10 minutes of walking out of the town centre, I was in a verdant countryside of lush pastures, palm trees, thick vegetation, muddy dirt roads and decaying houses. I had easily escaped the tourists hordes of Coron Town and only saw two other Westerners for three hours. I passed tiny villages with quaint Catholic churches and numerous smiling locals surprised to see a tourist travelling through on foot. I nearly missed the inconspicuous turn-off for the mountain, though fortunately a bunch of friendly children guided me in the right direction. However, I abandoned my plans near the base as a rain clouds suddenly obscured the peak, which would have rendered the ascent worthless. I continued walking to a beach frequented by Filipino families, but was unimpressed by the lack of sand and murky waters. En route, I was stopped by a group of boys playing basketball. Initially gobsmacked by my height, my stature was quickly superseded for their attention by the athleticism of an Israeli guy who could dunk. In the late afternoon, I rejuvenated my weary body at a thermal hot spring adjacent to the coast (alongside hundreds of other patrons). A statue of the Virgin Mary domineered over the main bathing area, which I thought was a rather intriguing sight since such settings in Southeast Asia would often feature a giant buddha.
Léo and I rendezvoused and joined a group tour of Coron Island by bangka, a Filipino wooden fishing vessel. Léo noted that aside from ourselves and two children, the rest of the group was entirely composed of Caucasian male and Filipina couples; an observation I was distressed to realise I was totally oblivious to. Not that there’s anything bizarre or inherently wrong about this type of dynamic, indeed all of the couples onboard seemed to be in happy and equal relationships with compatible ages. But the Philippines are brimming with unattractive middle-aged (or older) Caucasian males and their multi-decade younger Filipina girlfriends or wives, which is slightly difficult to understand. I suppose I shouldn’t judge though, I’m sure its all for love. With a flotilla of other bangkas, populated more so with tourists than travellers (I’m such a snob), plying the same route and adhering to the same schedule, the tour was characteristic somewhat of a theme park. Nevertheless, the attractions were very beautiful, and our guide was pleasingly a comical larrikin. Coron Island appears to be an impenetrable natural fortress, with imposing walls of charcoal limestone rising dramatically from the water. Narrow steps through the limestone pinnacles lead to two pristine aqua lakes. While we were permitted to “swim” in the lakes, we were required to wear life jackets. The incompetency of a few fools now compels everyone to wear those restrictive vests and be debilitated from swimming properly, which was very irritating. We next ventured to the Blue Lagoon, a spectacular turquoise lagoon surrounded completely by limestone walls aside from two narrow entry points. Contrary to our captain’s advice, the snorkelling in the lagoon was decent, with clusters of coral clinging to the deep limestone walls – especially in the areas absent of the orange tourist brigades. For lunch, the crew cooked an incredibly tasty and generous lunch on open-air grills at the back of the cramped boat. In the afternoon, we snorkelled in three locations off small islands between Busuanga and Coron, with reefs of varying qualities.
Léo pressured me into signing up for diving the next day, which was exactly the motivation I required. While I travelled to the Philippines with the intention of diving, I was still reluctant because of my concerns about controlling my buoyancy (which I certainly did not master when I did an Open-Water PADI course nearly 5 years ago in Egypt). Confidence quickly restored after a refresher dive with an excellent and attentive instructor, as I surprisingly had no difficulties with buoyancy and recollected the safety protocols. Léo, and Austrian Marie, both unlicensed “discovery” divers, had a slightly more negligent instructor who regularly failed to monitor their locations and led them to depths far beyond what PADI would recommend. No deaths or injuries at least. Along with German Ireen and a Uruguayan couple, we went on a full-day boat trip featuring three dives, including two at Japanese shipwrecks. Almost two dozen Japanese war vessels were sunk by US air strikes in September 1944 and now rest in Coron Bay. The first shipwreck we dived at is one of the largest in the area and covered in interesting corals and sea anemones. It was a surreal experience to swim around a vast decaying structure symbolic of death and destruction that is simultaneously a facilitator for new life. At the second shipwreck, we were surprisingly led inside the vessel by our guides, through the hollow passages and cargo holds. This experience was peaceful and serene, rather than dark and foreboding as initially anticipated. We dived to depths of around 20-23 metres and passed large schools of fish, seahorses, parrotfish and puffer fish. Diving provides a unique and humbling ability to move in literally every direction, so after a brilliant day underwater I was unsure why I had taken so long to return to the sport.
Léo, Marie, Ireen and I hired a bangka the next day and went on another boat tour of the islands near Busuanga in magnificent sunny weather. My time in Busuanga was the beginning of the longest consecutive period I can remember spending in coastal areas, so I was determined to develop a comprehensive tan. Unfortunately, my torso’s lily white Irish skin and lackadaisical application of sunscreen were no match for the unforgiving Filipino sun, resulting in the rapid transformation of my back into a gnarly crimson canvas. I snorkelled in an area just off Coron Island carpeted with sea urchins and fragments of coral (obviously with a life jacket on). We next returned to the Blue Lagoon, where the colours were even more vivid than the previous day with the penetration of sun rays. We spent most of the afternoon on a small island in Coron Bay and enjoyed almost exclusive solitude on a pristine beach and wood-fired pizzas bought from an Italian-owned pizzeria in Coron Town.
The only genuinely WOW-factor dish I tasted in the Philippines was at a restaurant in Coron Town that was stilted above (not exactly pristine) seawater. Kinilaw consists of raw fish (typically tuna) marinated in vinegar, chilli, garlic, ginger, onions and pepper. Similar to ceviche, it provides a rare burst of flavour in the otherwise bland Filipino culinary repertoire. In Coron, I began dabbling with the traditional Filipino breakfast of garlic rice and fried egg with longganiza (sweet Chinese sausage), fried corned beef or fried milk fish, though was quickly tired of waking up to such greasiness. Nothing however compares on the greasiness scale to sisig, one of the most popular dishes in the country. Sisig is a sizzling plate of diced pork (more fat than flesh) served with sweet mayonnaise, calamansi (a local citrus fruit smaller than a lime) and a raw egg on top. Delicious, but definitely a contender for the most unhealthy dish on earth I have tried. Slightly more suitable to the hot, humid and coastal environment is inihaw na pusit, which is squid stuffed with a sweet onion mixture and barbecued.
I was exceedingly fortunate to arrive in Busuanga precisely when the rest of the Philippines endured harrowing weather and Busuanga avoided most of it. Shipwreck diving was definitely the highlight of my visit, although I also really enjoyed island hopping with an interesting bunch of people.
That’s all for now,