I’ve been hearing raves about Coron. The place actually alluded to this albeit overused phrase, heaven on earth. But living in a city and accustomed to its bustling and chaotic urbanism, this conception of heaven was far removed from my imaginative mind. Probably I was not fully convinced that such perfection exists within reach. Or more likely, I prevented myself from despair owing to the refutation that such perfection could not possibly exist just within reach.
So when together with some friends we set out to explore Coron in early March of this year, I could not decide whether to get excited or to feel cheated.
Heaven, after all, was within reach.
Coron, belonging to the Calamianes group of islands, is a first-class municipality in the northernmost part of Palawan, Philippines. It comprises Coron Island, some parts of Busuanga Island and other outlying islands. The official tourism website promises Coron to be blessed with pristine white beaches, turquoise waters, limestone cliffs, breathtakingly beautiful volcanic lakes, lagoons, natural hot springs, caves and a thriving marine population. It is most famous for its World War II wreck dive site.
But despite my readings, I still could not come up with a concrete idea as to what to expect from Coron.
Setting foot outside the airport of the neighboring town of Busuanga, all I can see was a vast expanse of barren land, with the midday air so hot and dry to the skin. For almost an hour we traversed a narrow cemented road, along leafless trees, vegetation-unfriendly soil and rocky countryside in going to Birang Guesthouse. Tired and hungry, my eyes did not catch any peculiar sight to assuage my first impression.
At last our van service stopped in a mixed residential and entrepreneurial area, a 20-minute leisurely walk from the town center. Upon disembarking, we were greeted by the coziness of Santino’s Grill. We sampled its offerings of yummy Filipino dishes, slowly discovering the distinct sweet Coron taste.
Longing for the comfort of bed after a full stomach, we unknowingly followed a constricted alleyway, dodging clothes left hanging to air dry, and passing by rows of houses with sometimes screams, banging or shrieks of laughter emanating from inside. We had no time to question the passageway, as we were in a hurry to get to our place of stay.
Standing now by the entrance of the guesthouse, this was the moment images of heaven rapidly conjured. Eyelids about to fall from sleepiness were forced to open wide. I felt my mouth parted a little from gawking at the picture-perfect sight of a hammock beckoning the sea beyond. In a span of a few seconds, my sight fell on a solitary boat in the middle of the blue, calm ocean, invoking a similar peaceful scene from the movie “Life of Pi.”
Birang is a two-floor floating residential turned guesthouse that can accommodate a group of tourists in the two large rooms below and honeymooners on the two intimate rooms above. Guests can choose to lounge on the hammock while reading, surveying the cove-like spot of the water, exposing the skin to the sea air, or simply contemplating. Others can go upstairs, stay in the balcony and be afforded another angle of the open wide sea.
Rested and refreshed, we were ready to tackle the energy-sapping city tour. For indeed, I never thought this would test our endurance. There were no museums, malls or other urban amenities. What Coron offered was a mountain view of the municipality and neighboring islands. And it can only be made possible by climbing 700+ steps up Mount Tapyas. Huh! Imagine the debate going on whether we were to finish the climb or simply cheat ourselves up to midway.
But what was a little suffering in exchange for the prize. There above, on top of Mount Tapyas, the sun was slowly setting down, soft orange rays illuminating every spots around. The scenic view erased negative thoughts, even made us forget the would-be ordeal of going down those steps for another round. But we need not worry. The tour was concluded with a soak in Maquinit Hot Springs, with every limb and joint massaged therapeutically.
Second day was island hopping day. Breakfast by the bay, talks and laughter over tasty viands and the serenity of the sea beyond started this day with a bang. We had ample time to relax while waiting for our motorized banca to pick us up in Birang’s makeshift dock. Seeing the green-painted pumpboat coming, our excitement was heightened.
Our guide approximated the trip to our first stop to be about 45 minutes. We were jovial, alternately surveying the pointed mountains we passed by and the clear blue-green waters, then chattering by ourselves while listening to the guide. Suddenly, we sat still. We were transfixed. In front of us were two gigantic rocks, or mountains, covering much view of the sky saved that portion peeking in between, affording us the illusion of the turquoise waters continuing to heaven as we neared and about to enter.
This was the entrance to Kayangan Lake, dubbed the cleanest lake in Asia. Out of the 13 lakes maintained by the Tagbanua tribe, Kayangan is one of the two lakes opened to the public. To reach it, we had to submit again to climbing 300 steps of rugged and slippery stones. But no guts, no glory. And glory we got upon reaching the iconic Kayangan cove, the most photographed view of Coron.
We had to get down a fewer steps to get to the lake proper. Hurrah! What magnificence. It was a clear mixture of 70% freshwater and 30% saltwater. A makeshift wood walkway was built for visitors’ ease. Enclosed by mountains, a small cave made known its presence in one of them.
Our itinerary for the day consisted of six stops. I would like to mention just three. After Kayangan Lake, I was impressed with Banol Beach. I saw clean, white sand, very clear waters unhampered by eyesore and cottages against a backdrop of acorn-like rock formation.
Then we got to the finale, the Twin Lagoon. It was so-called because of the presence of two 40-feet deep lagoons separated by a huge wall of limestone karst. We docked at the smaller lagoon. To get to the hidden one, either we swam under the crevice of the wall rock or braved the slippery makeshift ladder on top. The water’s dark green color made it murky, and eerie. Looking around, it felt dark, so quiet, despite the afternoon light bouncing off the encircling limestone rocks. Any moment, I anticipated unseen creatures tugging at my feet then dragging me down to the deep.
Having enough strange silence, we got back to the first lagoon, enjoyed the discomfort of hoisting up our bodies onto a raft, and proud to finally align and balance on top.
Our Coron experience would not be complete without mentioning the Calauit Safari Park. Calauit Island is part of the municipality of Busuanga, a 3-hour plus drive from our guesthouse. It housed the only safari park in the Philippines. Compared to the African safaris, it is very little. But it was memorable to me as I had several firsts from the place.
It was my first time to see striped-horse (kidding!) zebras. It was my first time to feed flirty-eyed and gracefully-necked giraffes. It was my first time to touch the sharp and stiff quill of porcupines. And it was my first time to learn there is such a species as a camouflage tree.
I know that there are more enchanting places than Coron. That if I am to cite an analogy with the world being a 12-inch ruler, it is a disheartening realization that I could never witness even just one millimeter of it.
The fox in the book “Little Prince” said “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” So true, yet it makes me wonder too. The fox was definitely referring to those intangible needs signifying the sanctity of human relationships. But if I am to relate his words into the context of natural and man-made creation, I believe that the more visible this treasure is, the more we can be reminded of life’s preciousness.
But with all the social ills and calamities my country is facing, and where travel is deemed a luxury, am I just being an escapist?
I only aim to preserve what human stupidity and natural catastrophes might ravage. I long to take comfort in the belief that my country is still beautiful and has so much to give.
Perhaps, who could know, this would be my legacy.