Palawan is a paradise for anyone that loves white-sand beaches, pristine lagoons and snorkelling in coral reefs. And if you’re reading this, that’s probably what you’ve come looking for.
You might be tempted to base yourself in El Nido for a few days and experience the rather unimaginatively named Tours A, B, C and D. Granted, these will take you to a selection of beautiful islands and lagoons surrounding El Nido. But these tours are very crowded, and won’t offer you the same sense of seclusion and serenity as the longer, overnight tours.
Before traveling to The Philippines, we read about some amazing island-hopping tours from El Nido to Coron. They were expensive, but took you off the day-tripping radar to remote islands with deserted beaches and healthy reefs teeming with marine life. And, perhaps most importantly, these tours were far more sustainable.
There aren’t many tour operators that offer this experience, since it’s such an expensive operation to run. However, demand for a more exclusive experience is evidently on the rise since all of the tour operators we researched had no availability for our preferred dates – and this was about six weeks in advance. So we were thrilled when Buhay Isla Tours replied to our desperate email to say that room for another couple could be made. Apparently, one of the other groups was a family of four, and they didn’t mind sharing a hut normally reserved for two people. Winning!
Orginally, Buhay Isla had stood out to us for its excellent reviews and other blog posts that heaped praise onto this small business. The payment process was fast, secure and straightforward via PayPal. We chose to pay half in advance and half in cash on the day of the tour, but you can pay in full (15,500 PHP per person) in advance if you prefer.
Day One – To utopia and beyond…
Our morning gets off to a slow start. Unfortunately, we missed the orientation meeting the day before as we were travelling up from Puerto Princesa aboard a minivan being driven by a complete psychopath. So we have to get orientated in the office, before stocking up on supplies (side note: do not buy a rash guard in El Nido if you are larger than a small child) and eventually arriving at the marina, about an hour late. Not the best first impression for the rest of our group.
But we soon get to know everyone and realise we are in great company. There are four Dutch girls, a Canadian family of four (the ones who made our trip possible, thank you!), an American couple, a Mexican couple and one other British couple who happen to live three tube stops away from us in South London. Small world! The boat (or ‘bangka’) is spacious enough for everyone, although it’s a bit of a squeeze around the table.
The crew are friendly and relaxed, and the spokesperson, Karl, speaks excellent English.
Pretty soon we arrive at the first stop – a beautiful, secluded lagoon with (mostly) unspoiled reefs. We snorkel here for a while, swimming between shoals of tropical fish and vivid lumps of coral. This carries on for a while but when a much larger boat carrying scores of tourists arrives and throws down its anchor onto the coral we’d just been swimming next to, our mood quickly changes. It’s terrible to see a tour operator acting so carelessly and recklessly, and the passengers on board looking like they basically don’t give a shit. Sadly, El Nido still has a long way to go before its tourism is fully sustainable, despite the efforts of local initiatives and other eco-friendly tour operators like Buhay Isla.
Next up is a deserted, white-sand beach that we have to ourselves for a couple of hours. Pure bliss. Then, we are summoned aboard by the horn for what is the first of many divine feasts. There is chili sauce-smothered shrimp and chicken, grilled red snapper, pork adobo, crunchy salads and, of course, “the Filipino power”: rice. All cooked fresh by our marvellous on-board chef, Alvin.
After lunch we travel a long distance to the Linipacan Islands, which we have chance to explore a bit before cruising to our campsite. These islands are protected and basically the same as they were hundreds of years ago – unspoilt, with thousands of broken coral pieces lining their shores.
That night we stay in beach huts with double mattresses and mosquito nets, but not before another amazing meal prepared by chef Alvin – and as much free rum as we can manage.
Day Two – Living the island life…
Waking up to the sound of waves and birds, then being plied with a breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, pancakes, coffee and orange juice, before a mid-morning swim – there really isn’t a better hangover cure.
Our first stop on day two is another beach, somewhere, we can’t really be sure, but it’s amazing and has even better coral than yesterday. There’s no sign of human activity here; civilization feels a world away. We snorkel, sunbathe, and fling ourselves from the bow of the boat for quite some time, before lunch is ready. Somehow, we make room and enjoy another heavenly spread.
Later, it’s off to a small fishing village where we seem to wander around aimlessly for a bit, until we come to a small shop where everyone buys a soft drink either because they’d feel guilty otherwise or because they are dying of thirst. There’s also a game of basketball going on, but to be honest I am grateful for the chance to use a nearby toilet without someone knocking on the door every two minutes.
Back on board, some of the crew have fashioned fishing rods out of string attached to plastic Sprite bottles. We watch as Finley, the fearless 13-year-old Canadian kid, reels in a beautiful rainbow fish to rounds of applause. For a moment, we think the flapping fish will be tossed back overboard but is then taken to the kitchen by a member of the crew. It feels like a needless death, but we are reminded by someone that millions of fish are caught and killed every day, so we shouldn’t feel too upset. The city life does make you soft, I suppose.
The rest of the afternoon slowly washes over us. We sunbathe on board for a while, then cool off in the sea, walk along the beach, swim back to the boat, and so on.
We can’t be sure where we spend our second night. Some people think we’ve made it to the Culion Islands, while others think we’ve simply found another beach on the Linipacan Islands. In truth, no-one seems that bothered – especially when the karaoke machine is wheeled out. At first we eye one another nervously, reluctant to be the first, but pretty soon everyone is lining up to sing their own personal anthem. To our dismay, nobody except the other British couple sings (quietly) along to our passionate rendition of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby“. Tough crowd.
Day Three – Trouble in paradise…
We awake early the next morning to rumours of there being a storm on its way. Things are looking a bit gloomy and there’s a slight chop in the waves. It’s enough to make me imagine the worst: giant waves continuously smashing into a helpless tourist boat, the captain yelling MAYDAY MAYDAY into a broken radio, watching all the life jackets topple overboard, dolphins carrying us all to shore, etc.
But then the sun comes out and I relax.
The crew tell us it’s safer to wait at a nearby beach until the sea calms down a bit. So that’s what we do, and it’s all going very well until we walk so far into a shallow coral garden that we end up trapped and unable to get out. Steve, Canadian Dad, to the rescue! He hears our cries and paddles over in a kayak to pick us up. But as I am climbing aboard, I lose my footing and fall into the water, slicing my foot on some sharp coral. OUCH. It hurts, but at least it wasn’t a sea urchin, I think. That would be much, much worse.
After a final lunch (chef Alvin saves the best for last), the skipper starts the engine and we embark on the last leg of the journey, to Coron. The clouds are back and the waves get choppier the further out to sea we get. Before long, the boat is battling some pretty high waves, some sending the bow a good 15 feet high into the air – then back down with an almighty crash. The Canadian family are loving it, legs draped over the side and all. We hold onto the rails pray our belongings don’t get swept over.
It’s clear by this point that we’re not going to have enough time to visit Barracuda Lake, on Coron Island. But we don’t mind too much, and when Chef Alvin presents us with a tray of chocolate-banana pancakes he managed to fry up in the midst of all the swaying and bouncing, it’s all smiles. He and his crew have been excellent throughout.
Island-hopping tour from El Nido to Coron – is it worth the money?
On a 3-week trip around The Philippines, we’d probably consider this tour with Buhay Isla to be the highlight of the entire trip. Beyond the gorgeous beaches and world-class snorkeling, it was an exceptionally well-run tour with fabulous food and company. We’d have loved to have time to visit Barracuda Lake but the elements were against us that day, and that’s through no fault of Buhay Isla. All in all, it was a unique experience that we’ll both treasure for life, and worth every penny it cost us!
What to bring:
- A dry bag that will keep your valuables safe and dry. These are cheap and available to buy in El Nido or Coron.
- A day bag with only the essentials needed for three days. Your backpack will be stored under the boat and wrapped in plastic, so it will be an inconvenience if you need something from it.
- Sun cream, insect repellent and hand sanitizer, and a hat.
- A plastic tumbler to fill with water water bottle (filtered water is provided).
- A headlamp or torch to use in your beach hut.
- Water shoes for cliff jumping and swimming in shallow coral reefs, and a rash guard to protect you against jellyfish and plankton.
- Spare batteries for your camera. There is nowhere to charge your devices throughout the trip (I just left my phone on Airplane mode and it survived!)
- Beer. There’s plenty of free rum, but you’ll need to supply your own ales.
Need to know:
- Cost – 15,500 PHP/person (roughly £228 or $295). This includes accommodation in bamboo huts, three massive meals a day, light snacks, water, soft drinks, unlimited rum, mosquito nets, guides, the use of kayaks, snorkels, masks and transportation to and from the departure point.
- The best time to go is from late November to early March when there’s the least chance of rain. Tours also run in April.
- The tour route can vary according to weather conditions.
- Tips for the crew are not expected but they are welcomed!
Feeling inspired? Comment below, or feel free to send me a message via my contact page to find out more! 🙂
And here’s a selection of my best photos from the Philippines, if you just came here for the pictures.