Coron and Busuanga, Palawan, the Philippines
May 1 and 3, 2017
BAM! That DC Comics-style thought bubble exploded in my head as we all bounced off our seats. The bumpiest landing ever was more a slam dunk than a touchdown. Perhaps it was that way for small planes with propellers. Or not. The landing gears slammed on the runway like dead weight; I expected the aircraft to break apart. But it was just my heart. I gathered my wits once the plane was taxiing toward the terminal in one piece. Welcome to Busuanga!
Our stay in Busuanga Island comprised of two towns, Coron and Busuanga (not to be confused with the island), had its ups and downs. My left knee was shot for reasons unbeknownst to me. We had just flown in that morning. Before doing any remotely strenuous activity, my knee had already given up. Wear and tear of old age was one thing this tourist could not transcend. Luckily, I had travel companions-turned-caregivers, Melds and Sukwoo, holding me up to keep my balance and sanity.
We made an Uber ride out of driver Ronel Mendoza’s tricycle. He was at our beck and call, just a text away. First order, first day: he drove us to the foot of Mt. Tapyas, a 210-meter mountain right at the town of Coron. Lest we forgot where we were, Coron was spelled out in Hollywood sign style near the summit. I pressed on one excruciating step at a time, repeated 700 times (the number of steps to the top!). The expected half-hour hike took me a full hour of agony. As with any mountain, high or low, it begged the question: Why climb it? Especially with an injury. The answer: Because it was there. Bench stops were reasonably spaced to provide recovery periods for my creaky knees.
A towering cross at the summit marked the end of my struggle and suffering. My personal Calvary, if you will. The reward was heavenly – the 180-degree panorama of Coron town sprawl and Coron Passage dotted with islands that seemed afloat on its glassy surface. It all made sense: Mt. Tapyas was the perfect first stop as it gave a visual summary of what was to come. Not to mention half-naked Westerners, who only needed the slightest reason to go topless, parading on the view deck.
All that agony and exhilaration at Mt. Tapyas called for some physical pampering. Ronnel recommended geothermal therapy for the weary with injury. But anything in Coron, we soon learned, required different degrees of difficulty to achieve. Second case in point: The trike ride to Maquinit Hot Spring. Huge potholes on the dirt road threatened to topple our tricycle over. Halfway through the 30-minute ride, the engine stalled and wouldn’t budge. Eventually Ronnel flagged down another trike to take us in. The much younger driver blared EDM on his stereo pulsating with colored lights in the cramped cab. What a trip – in more ways than one!
I pegged my expectations down low. I had never seen an outdoor public bath in this country that didn’t make me squeamish. But I was never happier to be proven wrong. Maquinit delivered, and more. For one, bathers were dispersed throughout three levels of pools of varying sizes, depth, and temperature. Crowd size was tolerable and heated water did not encourage splashing and noisy fun. The pools were well-lit by lamps hanging on trees, making ripples shimmer.
At first I got cold feet. Dipping my toe into the pool, I reeled from the 40-degree water. This could boil my balls, I thought. I slowly submerged my leg to acclimate. Soaking neck-deep, I could feel fatigue and pain thawing away. I stretched out almost supine and rested my head on the stony wall as the gentle current of heated saltwater did its magic on my tired, old body. The memory of my onsen experience in Japan came over me. It was as rejuvenating. The respite allowed my caregivers Melds and Sukwoo to enjoy some downtime of their own.
Two days later, on our way back to Coron from Calauit, Ronnel once again recommended a side trip to Concepcion Falls, a baby waterfall tucked deep within the wilderness. It could only be reached by a 15-minute hike through the jungle, which was as organic as it could get, reassuringly untouristified. Soon, a clearing revealed a small lagoon, mud-brown from siltation. Water pouring into it could have been gushing out of a faucet. Still, the watering hole exuded an undeniable charm. The wilderness opened up to collect water and sunlight at the same spot. Murky water notwithstanding, we were compelled to wade in on the strength of tanod caretaker Louie Caca’s assurance that the natural pool was leech-free.
On top of our Coron island-hopping and Calauit safari tours, Busuanga Island was a nature trip in itself – mountain and springs, falls and forest. All was not perfect in paradise, though. We found that food in Coron was ridiculously pricey yet not particularly tasty. Even island seafood came with Manila prices. Our dining experiences mostly left much to be desired, save for Balinsasayaw Restaurant that was relatively reasonably priced and our favorite hangout Fika Indulgence Café that had the only Wi-Fi connection we could find.
In highway robbery, airport souvenir shops took the cake. I went nuts after two measly jars of candied cashew set me back almost a thousand pesos. And without a price tag. I knew it was foolish to do souvenir shopping at the airport, but the overpricing was appalling.
Nature was a big boost to our spirit, but our wallet went bust with tourism economics in Busuanga. Those cashew nuts sure left a bad taste. I felt relieved to get on the plane even with the memory of that bumpy landing still fresh in my mind.