Monday, May 13, 2013

Return to Coron: A Liveaboard Kind of Day

Coron - Kayangan View of the Entrance Karst III
Grand entrance to Kayangan
I've seen and marveled at these karsts before, floating on an emerald sea that even a stormy day in 2007 cannot obscure.   Fastforward six years later, these towering limestone behemoths still awe me.  I've seen the karsts of Halong Bay in Vietnam while riding a junk some  years back and biases aside, while I find the Halong limestone formations as impressive, the sea here in Coron and elsewhere in Palawan is so much clearer, so much so that from a plane, one can see all the way to the relative shallows, the darker hues hinting at their varying depths.

Just one mind-boggling fact: of the country's 7,107 islands, 1,780 can be found in Palawan while some 50 of these islets are in Coron.  Surrounded by so much water, it is almost impossible to visit without so much getting into the water or at the very least, drink in the wonderful scenery and get your feet wet, literally.
Coron - Ferdz Waiting for the Boat at Kayangan
Parking -- It's more fun in the Philippines
Going around town, we've noticed not a few shops and tricycles advertising rock-bottom-priced island-hop and diving tour group packages.  Ah, that must explain the number of foreign visitors in our lodge and the town's shops.  Even as repeat visitors, it's hard to be blase about the place, difficult to just go through the motions and not be awed anew, no matter if we were scheduled to go on yet another "standard" island-hop tour.

First stop: Kayangan.  We started a bit late by our standards (photographers normally wake up ahead of the sunrise but on this occasion, I've allowed myself some slack), a little past 9am, waiting for two other passengers who canceled at the last minute.  That means we had the boat to ourselves which is not a bad idea, sort of like being on a liveaboard even for just a day.  Our first stop is at Kayangan lake.  We arrived early enough, ahead of the crowds.  There's a reason why this is the first stop in the itinerary; our guide tells us that the hike up the cliff to the familiar vantage point by the cave and the descent to the lake on the other side can be demanding for some guests.  Putting it first means "fresher legs" can take the hike and guests can still enjoy the dip.

The wooden walkway was different nay better from before -- smoother but at the same time less slippery, with seating and backrests even for those not inclined to swim.  There were  about two dozen guests already there, enjoying the clean refreshment this early in the trip, some marveling at the clear-as-crystal water, others perhaps wiping away the sleepiness or inebriation of the day before. 
Coron - Kayangan Karsts and Vegetation
Beautiful karsts
Next stop:  Banul.  The standard tour allows for an average of 40 minutes to an hour per stop.  By the time we left Kayangan past 10am, the entrance to the lagoon was clogged with boats and tourists eager to test their legs on the steep incline for a chance to swim in the lake.  We decided to stay ahead of the crowds and went to Banul by 11 for an early lunch, docking near one of the dining cottages that abut the water. 
Coron - Banul Floating on Water II
Lunch stopover at Banul
The menu was simple but inspired -- fresh fish grilled onboard (courtesy of our multi-tasking boatman), inihaw na baboy (grilled pork), lato (seaweed), talong with sibuyas at kamatis (grilled eggplant with onions and tomatoes), and steamed alimasag (crabs) washed down with ice-cold Coke.  This kind of fare makes kamayan (eating by hand) de rigeur, the better to get to the meat of the crabs and savor the sweetish taste only freshly-caught seafood can offer.  To stave off the lunch-induced sleepiness and hotness of midday, I take a dip while our boatman and guide dozed off.
Coron - Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks
Mini-stops:  Twin Peaks, CYC beach and Balinsasayaw.  Post-lunch, we head off to Twin Peaks, a limestone formation with twin "peaks" standing by its lonesome in a calm sea.  A short sail away, we go to CYC beach found on an island fringed by mangroves and a white sand beach.   The tide was peaking when we visited but walking on the small stretch of exposed shore, the fine white sand felt cool to the feet.  Made us think it would be a good idea to bring tent and provisions and camp here for the night, perhaps see the mangroves at low tide and enjoy the island sans the boatloads of tourists.  Maybe next time.

Venturing close to the private resort of Balinsasayaw, we dock at a floating station on top of a reef awash with marine life.  While our guide and my travel buddy snorkeled the shallows, I surveyed the scenery and observed the fishes through the opening at the floor of the raft.  The papag (bamboo seats) could serve either as a good place to nap or eat.  Before long, the tourists we left behind in Kayangan and Banul caught up with us, the tranquility broken by the boisterous shrieks of guests excited to launch into the water.
Coron - Balinsasayaw Floating Dock
Afloat at sea near Balinsasayaw
Epilogue -- cooling down at Twin Lagoons.  The final stop is at the Twin Lagoon.  At past 3pm, it is crowded by boats and visitors like a replay of the scene in Kayangan first thing in the morning.   There are two lagoons linked by a passageway submerged during high tide.  The inner lagoon is a sight to see -- deep water that goes down to over 20 meters, sheltered and enclosed by towering cliffs dotted by greens and reds (flame trees in full bloom at this time of the year).  Paddling at mid-afternoon, the water is cool in most places but warm where the sunlight shines through, a soothing conclusion to a day of island-hopping before heading back to town.

Postscript.  I know that it's standard for tour operators to promote 3-day, 2-night trips but I think this is nowhere enough to barely scratch the surface especially for first-time visitors.  It's customary for the day trips to conclude at 4pm or earlier while there is still light but it feels bitin (short).  Understandably, extensions will cost extra.  But I've experienced coming home from Banul on one occasion and Calauit on another day well after dark and both experiences were just swell.  Anyway, coming back early to the town means having the time to wash off the saltwater from our swimming gear and pack our stuff as we are heading to Culion the next day.

Info:  Coron Ecolodge can arrange tours for the hotel's guests.  For more info/to book, visit www.coronecolodge.com or call 0906 4556090 (Globe) or 0919 2048824 (Smart)

Getting to Coron:  Turboprop 72-seater planes of Cebu Pacific (www.cebupacificair.com) and Airphil (www.flypalexpress.com) ply the Manila-Busuanga route; travel time: less than one hour; fare varies according to airline and proximity of booking to travel date.  Alternatively, 2Go ferries (formerly WG&A Superferry) will ply the Manila-Puerto Princesa-Coron route, travel time: approximately 18 hours; promo fare is P1,200 (around US$27-30); visit travel.2go.com.ph

Culion - Immaculada Concepcion at Night
Next on Lagal[og]:  Culion: Like Seeing the Starry Skies with a New Set of Eyes

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