It still exists: a place without internet, mobile phones and tourists. Where you’ll discover desert islands, snorkel amid untouched coral gardens and camp out on white beaches. Do you want to relax completely and are you prepared to go back to basic? Hop on board of a Filipino bangka and explore the paradise that is Palawan, the most beautiful province of The Philippines. This is the story of our adventurous boat trip with Tao Philippines.
“There is no plan.” Expedition leader Johann of Tao Philippines is very clear. “We’ll start our expedition in Coron and on day five we’ll arrive in El Nido. What happens in between is up tot us, the weather and the sea.” We look excitedly at each other. Most people choose to take a ferry between Coron and El Nido, the most important places for travelers in Palawan, but we like the sound of our adventure a lot better. Between Coron and El Nido are hundreds of small islands, with white beaches and waving palm trees, surrounded by lagoons and a multicolor underwater world. Inhabited by fishing families as well as desert islets, without facilities and especially: without other travelers. For five days we’ll play Survivor on the most remote islands of The Philippines, in the furthest corners of Palawan.
With fourteen travelers and eight Filipino crew, we step on board our bangka (a Filipino boat with a floater on each side), the Buhay. We take off our flip-flops and stow our bags in the back of the boat. From now on, we have to get by with a minimum of stuff. After the obligated ‘check’ by the Philippine coast guard, we leave Coron. And with that, we immediately shift back to a lower gear. Because on the Buhay there’s not much more to do than read, relax, sunbath and stare in awe at the gorgeous tropical islands we pass. There’s no internet and no mobile phone connection. There’s nothing we can do and we love it.
Every day there’s only one goal: making sure we’re at camp before dark. Tao has twelve camps between El Nido and Coron and Captain Dong decides which location is the best, depending on the weather and the wind. In the meantime, we sail past white beaches, turquoise lagoons, coral gardens and small fishing villages. “This is a true tropical cliché”, as one of our fellow travelers says. A couple of times a day we stop, for a swim, snorkel or a round of kayaking. Every now and then we visit a local village, which is always great. The kids are so excited to see us and can’t wait to show us their dance moves, basketball skills or their school. We feel like we’re part of an island community every time we go on land. Because there are twelve Tao camps, locals don’t get visitors every day and they still like it when they do come. “Tao also makes a big point of helping the communities”, says Johann. “We want to offer the locals a chance of a better life. We start schools, teach fishing women to give massages and teach people to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Those things will keep them self-sufficient. Also important: we don’t allow our guest to disturb anything on the islands: we leave only our footsteps behind.”
That means the Tao camps are very basic. There’s no electricity or medical facilities and running water and toilets aren’t available either. We sleep in open huts or local houses, on a mattress with a mosquito net. But the locations couldn’t be better: between the palm trees, on perfect white beaches. In the golden light of yet another stunning sunset we ‘shower’ at a big water tank and wash away the salt and sand we’ve been collecting all day. Nice and fresh! In the meantime, the catch of the day is being grilled on the barbecue. Chef Ann manages to make three fantastic meals a day in her tiny kitchen on the Buhay. Curries, salads, sweet potatoes, grilled eggplant, fresh fruit: everything is more than delicious. Fresh fish, from octopus to huge red snappers, she buys directly from the fishermen we meet along the way. Tao may not be a luxury cruise, but the food is amazing. Every night we eat under de stars and we talk by the camp fire. Accompanied by a bottle of Filipino rum of course.
We sleep extremely well every night, but the nights are short. Because usually we’re woken up in the middle of the night by screaming Filipino roosters, who never learned to start their day at sunrise. But for us it’s a great opportunity to get up at the same time as the locals, and watch the villages slowly waking up. Every morning we sit in the sand in the early morning light, play with curious children who peek around the palm trees and pet the dogs that crash at our feet to take another nap. In the background are the sounds of women boiling water, coconuts being chopped and men cleaning their fishing boats. Never in my life I’ve been more relaxed than on this trip.
The closer we get to our destination El Nido, the more beautiful it gets. The beaches are getting whiter, the palm trees more abundant and the underwater world more colorful. And every now and then, we see more than coral and fishes. When we anchor at another gorgeous tropical island, we notice a rusty point sticking out of the water. “The Japanese marine couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place to shipwreck”, laughs Johann. Just under the surface lies a shipwreck from World War 2, completely grown over by colorful color and inhabited by hundreds of fish. Perfect for another snorkeling expedition. Johann hopes the islands stay this unspoiled. “I love to show this beautiful part of Palawan to travelers. But people who want to take this expedition shouldn’t wait too long. Project developers smell money and have plans to build resorts on the islands between El Nido and Coron. When that happens, this trip changes completely.”
The last night we sleep op Cadlao Island in the Bacuit Archipelago. Another perfect location: a deserted beach, impenetrable jungle and lime stone cliffs towering high above us. Final destination El Nido is close, but first we explore the Bacuit Archipelago, with its sharp, dark peaks and bright white beaches. After lunch we meet a boat with day trippers from El Nido. It’s the first tourist boat in four days and it’s a wake-up call: the expedition is over. It’s time to take a shower, find clean clothes and remove the sand from our bags. When we enter El Nido in our noisy tricycle, we know it will take a couple of days to adjust. For five days, we were totally separated from the outside world. No other people, no internet, no luxury. Just paradise.
For more information: www.taophilippines.com.