Delightful Philippines – Around Coron (Palawan) 1/2
It’s a steep, short climb from the coast onto a ridge, then down through forest and there you are: Kayangan Lake. Locked in by towering black cliffs and with crystal clear water where fish and crustacea are seen moving about from afar.
We are totally alone at this sunny, magic place.
We take off and tiptoe over to sit on a submarine rock. The water is rather warm. Nahlee, my Thai wife, successfully starts to chase fish. I swim out into the lake. Around the corner and into the open, I spot other lagoons hemmed in by stark rocks, trees clinging to the show in incredible angles. The water tastes half soapy, half salty. Finally we climb back to the coast, soaking in more views of outlying rock islands. Our boat man and his buddies await us.
On Coron Island
This is on Coron island, in the far north of the Philippines’ remote Palawan province. Coron island has at least three spectacular lakes and eye-watering sand beaches too – but only a few very poor fishing settlements with I believe no electricity. So we can’t stay on Coron island. Instead, we spend that week on nearby Busuanga island in a town that’s also called Coron (like Coron island, but not on Coron island). Our lodge had brought us in contact with Mr Armandicillo, the boat man. He and his helper await us on Coron island’s rocky coastal wall, smoking cigarettes with the fee collectors. The indigenous people (looking about like impoverished Filipinos) are taken care of by the Tagbanua Foundation, and the entry fee of roughly 5 USD goes to them.
And there lies our banka, that Philippines style outrigger boat, mooring in the turquoise water like a pontooned spider, ready to take us to yet another sexy seaside destination.
Sure enough, soon we stop at the next picture perfect blue lagoon. But that's not all.
Through a hole in the towering jagged wall we swim into another, rock-walled lagoon full of fat blue water. Surrounded by sheer cliffs, and carried by a life vest from the boat, I could loll in the waters there for hours, getting comfortably numb, watching the swifts around the rocks, the silvery fish cruising the air on elegantly arched flight paths. It’s at least as spectacular as around El Nido 150 miles south, and definitely less touristy.
Next to me floats Nahlee, like me in a life vest. But for my South-East Asian wife the life vest isn’t pure convenience – she can’t swim at all, and so far in Thailand she hasn’t had much interest to ever venture out into the waters. Only here, in this stunning blue dream fluid, she couldn’t stop herself and follow me through the rock hole into secret lagoons.
Now she panics.
"Hans! I have to go back. I cannot feel the ground under my feet. What if the swim-vest breaks?"
"It will not break."
"I go back!"
Later we open our lunch pack on Balun beach, a beautiful boutique strip of sand on Coron island’s west face. It even sports a few bamboo chairs and a shadow roof – and the pleasure costs 2.50 USD per person, collected by the old couple that owns the beach.
This is our very first time in the provincial Philippines and the encounter with local Filipino food rather unpleasant. Our lunch pack from the lodge has a greasy omelette, sticky rice and rubbery fish. We had been warned, and Nahlee has brought her own chilli, but still it’s unpleasant.
I interview the boat man about the few very poor fishermen we saw in their ramshackle huts.
“They catch wild pigs and chicken in the island’s interior”, he says. “They get money from the Tagbanua Foundation, but they don’t care for better health or homes – they just drink it up.” According to the boat man, many of those indigenous people are illiterate. When they sell their fish to the traders of Busuanga island, they distinguish the bank notes by colours, not by the written numbers.
Many of their children don't go to school, says the boat man, because they are shy to appear with only torn clothing. Over on Culion island, there is a special school for them though which they can attend when they reach 15 or 18 years of age.
“They also roast their own, fresh coffee,” he says.
"Boat man, did you say they roast and brew their own fresh coffee?"
"Yes, they buy the beans on the market in Coron town, they can't live without their fresh coffee, and it's much better than Nescafe, I like it too."
"Boat man – we have to visit them tomorrow for breakfast!"
Like so many places in the Philippines, our lodge in Coron town only offers Nescafe and Lipton Tea in the morning. In the usual local style, they put a thermos with hot water on the table and then you brew your own instant coffee or bagged tea.
We have been fed up with this since the first morning. We both yearn for a potent caffeine fix. Yes, Euro life has even turned my bronze almond eyed spouse into a caffeine addict.
"Boat man, I'll pay any price to visit those locals who brew their own coffee!"
He agrees to take us there the next morning. On that next boat outing, he will also provide the lunch himself, so we don’t have to chew on another lunch pack from the lodge. Actually, we also don’t like the lodge’s breakfast food (dried dangit fish on rice for Nahlee, oily mushroom omelette for me, accompanied by the ever-repeating, broken Julio Iglesias CD). So we also order breakfast from the boat man, to be taken smack on the beach together with our locally brewed, feverishly anticipated caffeine whip. I also ask Mr Armandicillo to bring fresh milk for the coffee. He tries to convince me that milk isn’t needed, but I insist. He asks for a 17 USD advance to buy all food including coffee beans.
Ok so. He will pick us up next morning at 6 am.
Next morning at 5.50 AM my cell phone rings with a text message:
Boat man Coron
Good morning sir.
I wait for you here
at the lodge door.
See you soon.
Aboard a tricycle (tuktuk) we roar down to the pier. 30 boating minutes from Coron town on Busuanga island over to Coron island, and we reach an ugly muddy sand beach with a decrepit shack. Huge cliffs block the morning sun. An old, toothless couple approaches first. The boat man produces the coffee beans and they jump into action. They avoid any eye contact with me and even with Nahlee, who is constantly taken for a Filipina here.
A young man – "he can read", the boat man boasts proudly – does most of the work. He roasts the beans on a pan over the open fire. Nahlee and I watch closely, just to inhale that smell. He pours a lot of sugar right over the roasting coffee beans and keeps stirring to receive a thick black beans caramel sauce. This petrifies into a pitch black block of bitumen and is ground in a wooden mortar. The mortar base has already been heated over the fire to remove humidity. The powder travels into a pot with water, boiling over the open fire.
Meanwhile the boat helper has built up our breakfast on a wooden board in the sand: rice, fish, salad, drinking water, fruit.
And now – the first steaming hot coffee goes into the cups and into our mouths! Bitter-sweet delirium!
The boat man grabs a coffee, lights a cigarette and plants himself firmly into the sand. "Fresh coffee and cigarette", he jubilees into the crystal clear Palawan morning air – "my kind of breakfast!"
"And what great islands view to boot", I chime in. But that doesn't interest the boat man at all.
The local family drinks their coffee from huge plastic jugs holding at least half a liter. They refuse to take some of our delicious breakfast food. But they happily accept the sugary pastries the boat man selected for them in Coron town on our behalf. Before departing, Nahlee walks around and distributes small change among the family.
Our next stop is Sangat Island, uninhabited except for one midrange bungalow business. The uninviting cottages start from 65 USD/night with full board. As we step on land a resort manager hurries by.
"But you may not walk on the resort's lawn and around the bungalows," he declares with a grim face. "You can walk on the sand beach only!"
This means we will get no shadow. It's 11.30 a.m.
"Oh", I say, "this means we could not reach your restaurant. Can't we go to your restaurant?"
"Oh, sure you can go to our restaurant and enjoy lunch there", he chirps.
As we stroll along the water line, Nahlee and I discuss the coffee we had with the locals.
"That was so delicious", she raves.
"Yes", I say – "but funny, I completely forgot to put the milk in!"
Yes, I had had a hard time to get the boat man to buy fresh milk, and I saw the milk container in his plastic bag. But then, on the beach, I didn't ask for it. I guess as the coffee contained so much sugar I didn't feel the need for milk. Just as the boat man had said, but I had refused to believe.
Our tiny banka boat had been rocking hard on the waves and the wind seems to be getting stronger every minute. "We can't continue to Calumbuyan island", announces the boat man now. So we will find shelter at an empty beach around Sangat for another home made lunch and then return to our base at Coron town on Busuanga island.
On the way around Sangat island we pass a pearl farm where a sign declares a 10 knots speed limit. Then we land at Gun Boat Beach. A Japanese war ship had been bombed down here by US planes at the end of WW II; many Japanese soldiers must have died. It's a prime dive site now and actually a dive boat moors there right now, about 100 meters from our beach post. We hear the oxygen bottles hissing.
I don't tell Nahlee about the dead soldiers, as my Thai wife would worry about ghosts.
But then, a big sign announces "GUN BOAT ".
"Why is that called GUN BOAT", asks Nahlee with a suspecting voice?
"Just a name, dear."
Over the fire, our boat man produces another great meal. The fish is filled with tamarind leaves picked right there, then grilled. The veggies get cooked, not fried, just as we requested. Rice and salad again. And Nahlee shrieks with joy – the boat man brought chilis, and of the best variety.
With a half sour face Mr Armandicillo produces the milk box: "You ordered this for the morning coffee, but I told you you don't need it."
"Why, I will drink it after lunch, that's great too. Thanks for bringing it!"
This food is so much better than the hotel's lunch pack – simple, fresh, crisp, healthy, delightful. We finish it off with oranges and, of course, Nestlé Fresh All-Natural Cow's Milk with a 55 pesos price sticker from Coron town market. Then we snore away in tree shadow. On later days in this culinary waste land of the Philippines we ponder booking more boat trips with Mr Armandicillo just to get a reasonable lunch made.
As it's still very windy we head for a coastal return route – through a channel cut into the mangroves forest. In this narrow lane the water is only knee deep. The boat helper has to jump out and drag us, while the boss pokes the ground with a bamboo pole. Then we meet another boat that got stuck and both bankas get all entangled with their outrigger planks. They have to heave the boats around. Finally, out of the channel and close to the coast, but in more open water, we gain speed again. The wind still blows so strong that we get thoroughly soaked. The boat man gestures to keep our bags with camera and money in the dry machine room.
We don't go straight back to town and the lodge. Two miles on is the public Makinit hot springs pool with a pier out into the sea. So around five pm, after a fantastic day trip, the boat man drops us right at the hot springs. These are slightly seedy, the underwater stone seats overgrown by slimy greenery. But you hang out there in the open in hot water and watch the sun go down between hills and sea. It's also on the companion slide show to this article.
Those boat trip days are sensual days. Rocking through splashy water, salty wind and blazing sun, swimming in fresh and salt water, sleeping and eating fresh food in the sand, chilling in hot springs in all natural surroundings until after dark. We return home by tricycle (tuktuk), but our lodge beds are useless wobbly sags. I join Nahlee under the hot shower and carry on what had started at the hot spring anyway. In the steaming cabin we end up with one of those blitzes you'd re-run on your deathbed.
Oh, you made me want a coffee fix!!!