Explore the Calamianes: an unspoilt tropical treasure

Explore gorgeous sailing routes, appreciate the beauty of unspoilt nature, and give yourself the ultimate tropical island experience at the Calamianes

A two-day traverse of the Calamian Islands’ western waters takes travelers on a gorgeous sailing route, past dozens of little landmasses and through some classic tropical island experiences. Swimming with sea turtles? Check. Sleeping under the stars? Check. Losing sense of time? Check.

Crystalline, emerald water everywhere

8am

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

The engine shuddes to life, sending massive vibrations throughout our wooden boat as it slowly begins to move. We are at the northern end of Busuanga in Palawan, and I am leading a group of travelers on a two-day journey through the water on a two-day journey through the waters of the Calamianes group of islands. Still groggy from our early start to the day, we are nevertheless excited about this trip. Our route will take us through the mini-archipelago’s remote western side — an area that sees few of the region’s one million or so annual tourists. Here we intend to visit some of the nearby islets, before making our way south to Coron Island where our journey will end.

We are well prepared for this tour. Our main form of transport is the seagoing equivalent of a camper van: a Calamianes Expeditions & Ecotours expedition boat — an oversized wooden catamaran that comes equipped with an outdoor kitchen, a toilet and a second-floor viewing deck. With a mini-fleet of kayaks strapped to its outriggers, this vehicle will also serve as a mother ship for our water- borne excursions.

Karst rock formations are a common sight in the Calamianes

It normally takes a few hours’ steady cruise to reach Coron, but we are taking it very slow and easy. We sit quietly on deck, enjoying the cool sea breeze and the morning sun as our ship plows through the waves. To our left, the Busuanga coastline is gradually receding into the horizon. To our right is the wide- open sea, with the nearest major land mass — Vietnam — lying some 1,500km away.

10am

THE CAVES OF MALAJON

Our first destination is still quite a distance off, yet already we can make out its massive silhouette. Malajon Island is an intimidating sight; its towering cliffs seemingly jutting out straight from the ocean floor. A strip
of white-sand beach runs around its entire coastline, but neither this nor the huge rock face is what brings us to this spot. Malajon’s main attraction is a smattering of caves at the base of its cliffs. Before long we are standing on shore, facing a craggy hole in the side of a mountain.

Our guide — a smiling local named Julius — prods us forward and we all walk in. Clad only in flip-flops and swimwear, we aren’t quite prepared for an impromptu caving expedition, but this whiff of the unknown is admittedly giving our holiday an adventurous edge.

Freshly grilled onboard lunch

Unlike the warm and breezy air outside, the atmosphere inside the cave is damp and cool. And it is eerily quiet, save for the incessant, unseen dripping of water. Guided by a tiny lamp, we stoop, crawl and clamber our way through a dark, narrow passage, toward the other end where a huge chamber lies. Here, daylight greets us from a nearby exit, and we are able to get a good look at our surroundings. The space feels like the inside of a cathedral with its cavernous confines and natural arches. On one end, a rock formation resembles an altar, complete with niches and (with some imagination) statues of saints. What is most delightful about this place, however, is the pool of crystalline water at its base

Malajon is an intimidating sight; its towering cliffs seemingly jutting out straight from the ocean floor

“Anyone up for a swim?” Julius asks.

The caves of Malajon Island

We wade into liquid turquoise and, as we relax in these calm environs, Julius starts playing a native flute. The haunting notes echo off the granite walls, turning this ancient cavern into a private concert hall for our
little crew. This is a strangely unreal privilege in the unlikeliest of places.

The performance concludes, and we exit the cave and make our way through light forest toward a blinding white beach. Here, kayaks wait to ferry us to our boat. It is only the first stop in our journey, and already we are wondering if anything else can top this. We have just emerged from a hidden cave on a beautiful deserted island in the middle of nowhere.

Freshly grilled onboard lunch

Sometime in the afternoon

WHERE EVERY DAY IS A SLOW NEWS DAY

“We’re going to stop for a few hours there,” reports Julius, pointing to a blob on the horizon. Our next destination is Talampulan — an island that, despite its remote location, hosts a bustling community of fisherfolk. While many of the landmasses in the Calamianes are largely uninhabited, this 1.3km2 island is a trade center of sorts for this corner of the mini-archipelago. We set anchor at its southern point and proceed to check out the local community.

Fronted by a stretch of pristine shoreline, Barrio Panlaitan seems more like a movie set than an actual fishing village. Here, sun-kissed children frolic alongside outrigger canoes parked at the water’s edge. At the treeline just a few meters away, bamboo huts and little wooden shacks stand side by side. We stroll inland and are met with curious smiles by the residents. Old ladies sit on doorways weaving baskets, not far from neighbors busy laying out racks of salted, sun-dried squid. Down a narrow concrete walkway, a squad of boat-builders is assembling their latest work. At a sari-sari sundry store, we stop for a mid-afternoon snack — homebaked pan de sal bread washed down with old-school Sarsi — while chatting with the seller about the latest happenings in the community.

The expedition boat

“Not much news today,” shrugs the storeowner. “My husband came back from town with a DVD and we’ll watch it tonight. We usually leave the windows open so our neighbors can also watch. Come visit us later!”

The night’s screening is a John Lloyd Cruz rom-com, and from the slight current of excitement that generates, it sounds like it’s going to be a fun night of viewing for a good portion of the town’s population. It isn’t an easy offer to decline, but we must sail on to our next destination, and as we board the boat, residents stroll casually to the shore, waving us goodbye.

Sun-dried squid is a delicacy in Panlaitan

Sunset to sunrise

ON THE ISLAND OF NO AGENDA

By day’s end, we find ourselves on another island, enjoying much simpler means of entertainment. We are spending the night on Nagtenga, a pile of sand and rock that’s so tiny it barely registers on Google Maps. Despite the presence of “proper” accommodation on this private island (there are a few air-conditioned rooms fed by a generator set), we choose to pitch tents on the sand and enjoy the elemental pleasures of outdoor life. The sound of waves keeps me company as I lie inside a sleeping bag and my last view of this day is a sky full of brilliant diamonds.

The night passes like a dream, and before I know it the sun is up. Morning on Nagtenga is so deliciously calm that we find it hard to get going early. The quiet stillness, the hypnotic sparkle of waves and even that lone sleeping dog on the beach — everything on this island conspires to keep our feet firmly planted on the sand. The sun is high up by the time we manage to get back on our boat.

Boat-builders always have work in an island fishing village

After breakfast

THESE SIGHTS, THEY NEVER GET OLD

From the private island we make a beeline to the waters off Coron. In contrast to yesterday’s off-the-beaten-path excursions, the route for today will take us to some of Palawan’s most popular sites, and the plan is to tick off the must-dos.

First is a short climb up weathered wooden steps through karst mountainside to Kayangan Lake — a crystal-clear inland body of water surrounded by stunning granite cliffs. So beautiful is this geographical feature that it is considered sacred by the Tagbanua natives of Coron. Next, we paddle kayaks amid the rocky shores and mangrove swamps of Hidden Lagoon.

The turquoise waters of Talampulan Island

Off Siete Pecados (or the Isles of the Seven Sins), a cluster of seven islets protected by a group of friendly local rangers, we snorkel over lush corals and alongside beautiful sea creatures — if you’re lucky, sea turtles will glide into view. Local lore tells the story of seven sisters who went swimming against their mother’s wishes; as a consequence of their actions, they all drowned and later surfaced as the tiny masses of land.

Weaving tales to explain geographic phenomena is an important element in the Philippines’ old storytelling culture — they add a mystical flavor to these landscapes. The story around Siete Pecados may be grim, but the waters around it offer some of the best snorkeling in Palawan.

Basketry remains a necessary craft in local communities

These are all picturesque slices of the Calamianes, no doubt, but this time we have to share the views with a few boatloads of other tourists.

Sunset

PRICELESS

The day (and our journey) is nearing its end, but we have one more stop to make before we bid farewell to the Calamianes and hop off our boat for good. Just across the strait from busy Coron town is another little-known spot — barely a hundred meters long, Calachuchi Beach takes its name from the flowering frangipani trees (they’re locally known as kalachuchi, sometimes spelled with a “c”) that line its coast.

Local wildlife on Nagtenga

Just in time for sunset, we land on this patch of white sand to take a last, lingering look at the Calamian Islands. In the two days that we’ve been out here, we’ve been immersed in a completely different world. We sit in a bamboo hut, once again staring wistfully into the sea as the blue of the sky transforms into blazing hues of red, purple and violet. The breeze blows softly, carrying with it the smell of salt and something fragrant from the forests. The view is so stunning that we dare not speak. But we know without saying a word that we all agree — we couldn’t ask for a more breathtaking end to our journey.

Cebu Pacific Air flies to Busuanga from Manila. cebupacificair.com

This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written and Photographed

Lester Ledesma

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