Coron, Busuanga Island, Palawan, the Philippines
May 2, 2017
As above, so below. From the plane window, Busuanga Island gleamed like the bejeweled paradise that it truly was. The bluest sapphire wrapped its entirety; the greenest emerald adorned each cove and every inlet. Such was nature: spectacular at any perspective – bird’s eye view or sea level.
The party of three: Melds, Sukwoo, and yours truly booked an island hopping tour through text. The van pick-up came to our hotel almost full with fellow tourists billeted elsewhere. It was close to 9 AM when we arrived at Coron Port, a wide pebbly quay on which makeshift plywood offices seemed hastily set up for registration, equipment (snorkel, goggles, fins) rental, and payment (including entrance fees of islands and beaches).
A stroke of luck put us in the group under the guidance of Nilo Gallardo. He was an all-around pleasant guide, humorous as he was helpful and knowledgeable.
The first stop was Siete Pecados Marine Park, a sanctuary of massive corals and tiny fish species around a cluster of seven limestone islets. Legend had it that they were the diwata daughters, seven of them, of a fisherman. Of course, despite their overprotective dad, hormones proved more potent as each of the girls eloped with their respective suitors, leaving only these islets in their wake.
Who would want to end up an islet like those diwata? I opted to snorkel just a few laps away from the boat. Actually I was feeling intimidated by the open sea. I could’ve ventured farther but, that time, corals were hidden under a blanket of drab grayish sand.
Half an hour later, we were off to Kayangan Lake, touted as the cleanest lake in Asia. The boatman navigated into a fjord-like inlet carved out of craggy limestone cliffs. The blue sea magically turned crystal green in the shallows. Boats had already berthed throughout the wooden dock. We anchored behind two others and our tour group gingerly balanced on the sides of both boats to get to shore.
The lake behind a hill required a 15-minute climb up about 300 steps. No sweat if my left knee weren’t busted as it had been since the day before. Each calculated step was torture. On top of that, there was the social pressure not to create a bottleneck on the narrow two-way staircase.
The unending ant-like trail of people was a foreshadowing. Expectation: a tranquil mountain lake. Reality: a public bath. That explained why the local Tagbanwa tribe believed the spirit dwellers of this lake had transferred to another one. Perhaps for cultural or environmental reasons, only a small portion of the lake was accessible to visitors. The brackish waters, 70-30 fresh and salty, remained crystal clear, at least.
I made it, bad knee notwithstanding; I deserved a perfunctory dip before heading back up the hill. It took another 15 minutes to queue for a photo op at a clearing near the hilltop. All that for an iconic shot of the picturesque inlet.
Lunch break was up next. The tour group descended on Atwayan Island for a boodle fight spread in a bamboo hut. The island had more going for it than just a meal stop. I wondered why it was turned into a restaurant with picnic huts and a fleet of banca lining both sides of the beach. Its powder-white sand and invitingly clear waters were draws enough.
Everything I imagined I could’ve done in Atwayan, we did in CYC (Coron Youth Club) Beach. Although the shallows were rocky (my aqua shoes came in handy), the beach had the finest and whitest sand this side of Coron. It didn’t even look like Coron with none of the iconic limestone cliffs in sight. I found it charming too how the beach had not been totally cleared of mangrove. I beat myself for leaving my gadgets on the boat; I didn’t have any photo save for random shots of vendors peddling ice cream from small boats.
Then there was Green Lagoon. Past a limestone sentinel in the form of a lion, we entered the secluded lagoon with the engine off. Slowly and quietly – and dramatically – as if approaching sacred
ground waters so clear it seemed boats were suspended above their shadow on the seafloor.
At the foot of a colossal karst wall stood a couple of houses on stilts. Who could live in this paradise, albeit a remote one? The Tagbanwa people, Nilo said. How reassuring to know that, despite the onslaught of tourism, the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines still lived in their ancestral land.
Green Lagoon and its hidden twin, accessible either by swimming through a small crevice under the rocky wall or climbing a ladder over it, were collectively known as Twin Lagoons. From where the boat dropped the anchor, the wall was still a long way.
I never made it to the other lagoon. I chose slow and easy over cramming everything in a flash. There was so much eye candy above and under the water in Green Lagoon. I lost myself, including my hydrophobia, snorkeling and floating on its alternately dark and crystal waters. I was flying over otherworldly corals and drifting under looming limestone peaks. Either way, I was this infinitesimal speck straddling two realms: one as deep as the sea, the other as high as the sky. It was an awe-inspiring experience.
My fellow tourists either went for the other lagoon or waited on the boat. I had our guide, Nilo, to myself. What could be a more opportune time to ask him about his life than when holding on to the same flotation device? He lived in a place I considered paradise. What was it like, I wondered. He just shrugged. Paradise was his workplace. He used to be a full-time fisherman, but like any man, he dreamed of the city and a prosperous life. His stint as a security guard in Manila did not end well, though. He came back to the safe arms of his family and the simple life in Coron – tour guiding during peak season, fishing in lean.
Green Lagoon was truly the highlight of our island hopping tour in Coron. We saved the best for last. It was paradise. But for Nilo, paradise was not a place – it was his life. The warmth of family, the simplicity of livelihood, the happiness of knowing your place in the sun. I stupidly asked him if he had any regrets coming back to the sea. I got more than a shrug. He grinned as if he won the lottery. After all, we were floating on a liquid jewel – the beautiful blue of sapphire and the incredible green of emerald.