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June 1st 2013
Published: June 1st 2013
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Coron Town

So after an hour long flight we finally land at Coron just on sunset. Phew! Any later and the plane would have turned around and gone back to Manila; no lights on the landing strip we are informed by a local. A throng of folk waiting to leave are lined up on the runway and it’s all hands on deck to get the bags off so the return flight can go back to Manila with some daylight in the sky.

Baggage collection is done in 5 mins – quick or what (we’d had to put it in the hold as we’ve stashed away a bottle of rum for the boat trip; it’s election time in the Philippines and there’s a ban on alcohol sales for 4 days starting today!!). Outside the tiny airport are a line of vans with boards stating the passengers’ names that should get into which van. Very organised, they then whisk you off to your hotel a 20 min drive away. Cost P150 standard. We guess the airlines and hotels must co-operate to share this info as we didn’t give any flight details to our hotel for a pick up. The driver is obviously keen to get us there – he drives like a demon! We go through very rural areas with few houses and see cows along the road and dogs for the first time (we saw none in Manila – wonder why?).

It’s hot and humid, as we check into Amphibi-ko resort. It’s apparently a Japanese owned place with a Japanese restaurant attached. It’s dark so we can’t appreciate the location, though it seems like we may be over the water in the Bay but the tide is out. The room is good though. They have an in-house dive centre so we decide to go diving the next day – 3 dives for P3000 (about £45) – 2 wrecks (sunken Japanese WW2 ships) as this is what the area is famous for, and one reef.

There’s a power cut in the town that night so we wander a little into the centre of the action looking for food but many of the smaller places only have candle light. There seems to be a good Night Market with lots of food stalls but we decide to play safe for the first night and go to Sea Dive Resort Restaurant for dinner – Blue Marlin & Tangui white fish, both pretty good. It’s back to tipping (unlike Japan where no one tips and it is not expected). As we’re diving tomorrow it’s a dry night – fresh mango juice and calamansi juice – a small sweet lemon -makes it very bearable!

We’re up for the early start for diving in the morning and try the resort restaurant for breakfast. Mango juice (though no other fruit) and coffee as they don’t have any bread for toast!! (Next day they don’t even have mango! And the next day when we leave they aren’t ready at 7.30 am even though we are told that they open at 6 am!). Crazy place.

At the dive centre we’re kitted out in some pretty decent gear and then off in a Bangka for an hour and 20 mins ride to East Tangat wreck – a 35m Japanese submarine detector from the 2nd World War. There’s a crew of 3 including our divemaster Ed, and one other diver – Stefane from France. As we start off it’s very cloudy and overcast but by the time we get to the site it’s starting to brighten up. The wreck is quite interesting with good coral development – some of which are new to us – and a variety of fish and sea creatures – some lovely nemo’s and baby lionfish. But visibility isn’t great, which is a shame.

As we are getting out, first Stefane and then M yell and writhe about in pain – box jellyfish! Tentacles are wrapped around M’s hand and Stefane’s foot. The crew are quick to apply vinegar which neutralises the venom and they both spend the next hour applying vinegar while they wait for the stinging to subside. M still has the red welts and a swollen hand from the little blighter a week later.

The next dive is to a bigger wreck – another Japanese WW2 casualty but this time a seaplane tender – Olympian. The water is very murky as we go down and C suddenly decides she can’t breathe! Not helpful. So she goes back up while the other 3 continue. M says she didn’t miss much – visibility was poor and some of the parts of the wreck you could go in were quite small so he stayed outside.

As C had to wimp out, M recommends she doesn’t push it for a 3rd dive (Coral Gardens) and we head back to town. The dive centre kindly gives us a refund for the 3rd dive and we head off to market for some fruit and a few beers (the shops here have a more relaxed view about the elections it seems). We then see an awesome sunset from the roof of the dive centre (as good as the one at Sihanoukville, Cambodia 5 years ago), and then go to the night market for dinner. Terrific; skewers of chicken gizzards and pork, BBQ chicken, corn, rice and awesome sweet sauce and chilly vinegar for £5.

There’s not a lot to do in Coron other than dive and snorkel. There are some hot springs but somehow we can’t see the attraction when the temperature is 33 C. So we spend our final day before the trip taking photo’s around town, and relaxing and buying last minute stuff (dry sack etc) for the cruise. We then chance upon a freshly roasted pig at the street corner P400 (£4.50) a Kg and we take ½ a Kg as it looks so good. It’s our treat for dinner + some Sui Mai (Dim Sum) at a local place as the market food stall we like has more or less run out of food – it being the weekend.

We get an interesting glimpse of Philippines elections in Coron. All the candidates are here with their supporters – arriving in truck loads, as is the tradition. They all turn up, give their last speech - they and their supporters are not allowed to electioneer the next day - the day before the election, so the town will be really quiet as the trikes have been rushing around with loud speakers making noisy recorded speeches or playing loud music. Despite the rain they carry on into the night – its music and party time and at about midnight it’s fireworks time. Elections back home aren’t quite as colourful and noisy.

Bacuit Archipelago Cruise

We meet at the Tao Philippines office at 8-00am (after a lousy coffee from a fancy café) and it’s mildly chaotic! Boxes of food for the trip, dry sacks and rucksacks cover the floor; folk who’ve suddenly realised they don’t have a) booze and b) dry sacks are placing last minute orders; and the trip leader, Olie - local guy made good with Tao, is desperately trying to get folk upstairs for the briefing which is an odd affair when it happens.

We are split into two groups (one of 24 which we join and one of 9) and at 9-00 we head off for the boat. Our companions are 3 Brits, 5 Germans, 1 Pole, 3 Mexicans, 1 Canadian, 1 Dutch, 2 US Filipinos, 2 Australian Filipinos, 4 local Filipinos (one a local TV personality called Tuesday & her husband - a musician Coy aka Jericho), a crew of 7 and a dog (aka Tiger)!

As we have the largest group of we are on the larger boat, Aurora 2 – 70+ft and of the local fishing boat style, with a kitchen at the back, two screen covered decks and wooden out rig beams on each side for stability (when you see these Bangkas on the water they look like spiders crawling across the sea! And no Officer I haven’t been drinking!).

The boat is kitted out with kayaks and snorkelling gear, fishing lines for those who want to try their hand (which M does successfully 3 days in to the trip), and lounging/sunning areas. Our route will take us from Coron, around Cullion Island, through the Bacuit Archipelago and finish at El Nido on Palawan.

We start off with a great breakfast of scrambled eggs and brown bread and water melon, and then start cruising hoping we will outrun the rain heading towards us. We have three snorkelling stops, all quite close by. First is the East Tangat wreck, which we had dived 2 days before so we decide not to snorkel. Then it’s the Gunboat wreck at Lusong which is in very shallow water so you can get to see all of it, including inside, by snorkelling; it has lovely fish and corals. And finally Coral Garden which does what it says on the tin! Lovely. The weather isn’t great – a bit overcast and threatening rain but when your snorkelling it doesn’t matter.

We lunch on board (steamed fish with rice and veg followed by lovely sweet mango) then cruise to Pass Island for our overnight camp, which has an open shower area, and gazebos under which there are bamboo platforms on which we sleep under mosquito nets. The crew ferry across all the mattresses, sheets & pillows, mossie nets & travellers in Kayaks and do an amazing job setting things up for the evenings. Next morning they do the reverse. We never thought that Philippines version of survivor would be so comfortable and hassle free. After the obligatory sunset pictures and lovely dinner it’s bed time.

And that pretty much sets the pattern for the next 4 days: breakfast at the camp, all aboard at about 9-30 am, a couple of stops to snorkel, lunch (sometimes other snacks in between), another stop to swim or snorkel, then cruise to the nights camp site (or base camp as they call them) by 5-00pm. It usually rains when we get to camp but stops in time for dinner and other than that the sun shines and it’s hot, hot, hot!!

There are a couple of places where we snorkel that are fantastic, especially the sites with wrecks. Visibility is great and the variety of fish and corals amazing. On the last day we even see a turtle at Cadlao Island bobbing around in crystal clear, azure waters. The only down side is the small stingers (jellyfish) in many places. They don’t hurt – more like a pin prick, but can be bloody irritating.

Meals over the 5 days are generally “same, same but different”! And always good (thanks Toto - the Chef). Breakfasts are the most varied; scrambled eggs, porridge, banana flower patties, egg coated aubergine, pancakes with stewed fruit, and fabulous iced tea flavoured with local lemons called Calamansi. Terrific. Lunch and dinner tends to be fish - snapper, tuna, and trevally (steamed on board or BBQ on land) – either bought from local lads who come to the boat, or catches by the crew or guests or occasionally bought at local villages en route. And all cooked really well with lemongrass, ginger, garlic and other local spices and served with rice, local veg (pumpkin, green beans, okra, lowki, local spinach) and an occasional salad. One lunchtime we get squid which is done in chilli – lush, and a tuna ceviche. Another time it’s spider crabs – too faffy for some to bother with so C gorges!! Puddings are fantastic fresh mango or water melon. And the piece de resistance of the week is a BBQ whole pig for the final night, with the leftovers for lunch the next day. Awesome! All this washed down with either beer or rum & coke.

Most folk brought some beers and local rum for the trip and Olie has a few spare bottles of rum too, so most nights are very easy going and we sleep well. On the final night we make a great discovery. All the coke has gone but there’s still lots of rum. Bring on the iced tea! Goes really well together - which got a bit too much for C on the last night when she suddenly realised she couldn’t feel her legs anymore and had to be helped to her sleeping quarters by M where she slept whilst the rest partied into the night – some until the morning from some of the noise folk made.

The camps get better as the trip goes on; some nights it’s big, open rooms where we all pitch in together, in others we have “private” rooms. Some showers are open, others closed so you can have a proper wash with fresh water. All the camps are simple and rustic but nice, with a big table to eat at and often lovely sunset or sunrise views. Many have a volleyball area (almost as popular as basketball over here); on the final night there’s a competition match between the Philippines (ie boat and base crews) and the Rest of the World (us). Sadly the Rest of the World are trounced despite M’s best efforts.

The only down side of the camps is bugs and critters! The usual biting ones (mossies and sandflies), a few big buzzy ones that do no harm but are quite disconcerting when they crash in to you, the odd scorpion – found on one of the bags! Oh yes, and a snake! In our room! Or at least, trying to get into our room. C spots it and instead of screaming, grabs a broom and brushes it out the door. Olie comes over to see what the commotion is about and happily tells us it’s venomous. Thanks Olie! Thankfully, one of the crew dispatches it and we all spend the rest of the evening looking at the ground just in case any more decide to visit. None do.

By the end of the 5 days we are tanned, relaxed. We are now in the Bay of Bacuit and the sea is clearer and more azure with Karst Mountains and hills bursting out of the sea – it’s pretty picturesque. Most are wishing we could carry on longer, but we arrive at El Nido, the finishing point at 6-00pm and after a slightly slow and disorganised transfer back to land we head off by trike to find our guesthouse– Viewdeck Cottages. They are in the middle of a power cut and for some reason aren’t expecting us. However, as it turns out that works in our favour; we had booked (and paid for) a room with fan but the only one ready has air con so they give us that instead. Cool! (at least it is when the power comes back on).

El Nido

The majority of the group are staying overnight in El Nido so we’ve arranged to meet up for dinner at the Art Café. It’s a nice place with a relaxed vibe – and does pizza and mojitos. A nice change to all the fish and suckling pig of the last few days.

By 9-30 pm we’re knackered so after saying our goodbyes we head back. As we go through town we notice guys with long sticks walking around quite stealthily. Then there’s a sudden squealing and growling noise; dog catchers! No idea what they do with all the dogs they catch but it seems to be an effort to keep the streets quiet at night. We’re too tired to notice.

The guesthouse owner has arranged mini van tickets for us to travel to Puerto Princesa at 10 am the next morning, so we’re up early for breakfast and then take a quick walk into town for a look and some photo’s. The town is a really small place by the bay at the bottom of a huge cliff which is quite dramatic. It’s full of café’s and Bangkas on the water. It’s a tourist town – nothing else, the main interests being island hopping the Karst strewn waters (a lot like Thailand) and diving. So we are fine about not spending time here as we have done all the diving, snorkelling, swimming and island hopping to last for a while.

Just before 10 am we head down to the bus stand and at 11-00 (!!) we finally leave. 14 people, including 3 from our trip, crammed in to a mini van with all the bags loaded on top, for the 5 hour journey to Puerto Princesa. The journey is through tropical green countryside reminding us of Bali & Thailand. A 5 min pit stop at Tay Tay and a ½ hour lunch stop at a Roxas street side food hall does the trick and we get to Puerto Princesa Bus stop at 4.45pm – the area is heaving and the many colourful local vans loaded (every which way) with people, cattle, luggage, food stuff – you name it – make this an interesting perspective on Filipino life.

Puerto Princesa

Puerto is supposed to have plenty to offer and good food, so we have allowed an extra day here before heading back to Manila. We are staying at Dallas Pension, so on arrival at the bus/van depot 7kms from town we squeeze into a trike (P150). Clearly designed for the bottoms of two tiny Filipino’s, not M & C!!

Dallas Pension is a small guesthouse run a bit like a hostel with free tea, coffee and water. We have a tiny double room for P800 but it has a fan and does the job. Outside there is a seating area with hammocks that are nice and comfy (good for a snooze C discovers).

Unlike most towns, all the bars and restaurants are on the main road heading to the airport. The town proper has a few local places to eat, a commercial pier, Cathedral and not much else for visitors. The eateries are more varied than Coron or El Nido, and with a few karaoke and dance bars but most menu’s are the same. We end up trying Balinsasayaw, for slightly fancy Philippine food (quite nice) and for lunch we go to a cheap local place in town – Mang Inasal (a chain) that does fab chicken and pork with rice. We get a take out to go with some BBQ pork (lechon) we’d bought from the street stalls all washed down with San Miguel pilsner.

We ask Ace, the manager, for ideas for a day trip. Apparently we can’t do the underground river trip at Sabang as you have to book this in advance including getting a permit at the local police station. His alternative suggestion is a day tour of the town – crocodile and butterfly farm, museum and the Cathedral. Not for us! So instead we mooch about, go to the Cathedral and see a wedding, go to McDonalds for air con!! (it’s pretty steamy here), and catch up with emails and the blog. Feels a bit of a wasted day – we’d have had more to do back in Manila.

In fact the best part of the day is the flight back to Manila. We are due to leave at 8-30pm but as everyone has checked in, and it’s a small airport, they board us early and we take off at 8-10. Terrific.

Manila – after Palawan – for 1 night/day

We arrive back from Puerto Princesa 45 mins earlier than expected. Great for us as its 9.40 pm before we get into a metered taxi to the hostel. We are back for 1 night at Where2Next and it feels like a home base. It’s quiet with the kitchen closed but we get some beers from 7 Eleven and have some snacks before hitting the sack past midnight.

The next day it’s largely admin of a bunch of stuff – hostel booking in Baguio, shopping at Robinsons Mall, a great scone and cheesecake at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in the Mall where most people seem to be preparing for exams. It’s a bit quiet for a Sunday and we hear something like a sermon and realise that they are holding a Catholic Holy Mass on the 4th Floor. Amazing and it’s packed.

M decides it’s time for a haircut so it’s the local barber in the Mall P250 – great job, better price. First cut since Jodhpur in Oct. It needed it – the Einstein look when wild, though C likes it long!

As M’s hand that was stung by the Jellyfish has developed a rash where the tentacles grabbed him, he sees a Pharmacy. They suggest the local Health clinic in the Mall and after a brief registration he sees a dermatologist and is given a prescription of pills and ointment for the hand for 2 weeks?! All in less than 30 mins. Great service or what. Wow.

We take a late lunch at Gerry’s Grill in the Mall - good Filipino food place that has lots of large family groups on a Sunday (& order way too much!) then head back to the hostel to relax before we hit the road for North Luzon by overnight bus to Banaue.

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