From El Nido to Coron
Historically, the ferry from the small town of El Nido to the even smaller town of Coron was an eight hour nightmare; small boats that were tossed violently amoung giant waves, sometimes to disastrous ends. Now however, there is a large, modern fast boat that will take you to Coron in five hours, leaving you only slightly nauseous as it breeches each swell.
The ferry leaves port at sunrise each morning and it was here that we got a peek into the Philippines' strict drug enforcement laws. Before boarding, the port crew had all the tourists make two lines and place their bags on the ground beside them, in straight rows. A policeman with a large automatic gun brought out a drug-sniffing dog to pass by each piece of luggage. The tension this scene created quickly evaporated into laughter when, at one bag, the dog very unprofessionally tried to eat one girl’s lunch.
Upon arriving at Busuanga Island, where Coron town is wedged between a large hill and the sea, David and I quickly made our way past the usual crowd of tuk-tuk drivers offering inflated fares to hotels. We usually try to avoid these touts at every country, whether at airports or train stations, in favor of walking closer to town and finding a cheaper ride. Sometimes, however, this method mutates into a dogged determination on our part to ignore any and all offered fares and find our own way and get far away as possible from the touts. In Coron, we ended up walking for awhile down the main road, not sure where our hostel was, but not quite ready to give in to a ride. One tricycle driver was headed in the opposite direction, back towards the port, when he saw and did a quick U-turn, to pull up alongside us. He slowly kept pace with us as he shouted prices at us.
“70 pesos! 50 pesos! 20 pesos!”
We stubbornly ignored him, even as his rates got ridiculously cheap. Finally, he yelled loudly, “WHAT IS 20 PESOS??!!”
We had to break out laughing. He was right…20 pesos is approximately 40 USD cents and a fifth of what the touts at the docks offered. We had no idea where we going and 40 cents to anywhere was a good deal. That’s how we met Ricardo, the incredibly nice and charismatic tricycle driver that not only took us right to our hostel but also apparently owned half the buildings in Coron, as he told us about some of his properties and later, we kept seeing his name on real estate signs and even by chance later stayed in one of his hotels, the Sea Coral Lodge.
Before we came to Coron, we were excited to see the place that many people touted as even better than El Nido. We loved El Nido and wanted to give Coron its fair share of our attention. However, we quickly felt that we had been led astray by the online community. First off, there is no beach at Coron town. We knew this going in, but we surprised by how dismal the island’s coastline was. Interesting stilted houses lined the bay, but unappealing mud surrounded them, while trash filled the water. Trash is an inevitable feature of the landscape in almost all developing parts of the world, but Coron just felt like it had a long way to go to take care of its surrounding environment.
Busuanga itself lacks the incredible karast formations that Palawan is known for, but these and beautiful beaches lay off on other islands that are only accessible by private or group tours. So if you can’t spring for a private boat, then you need be up and out on any of the four different group tours that go out every day. These tours are certainly fine, but if you choose to take a break from them, or decide you don’t want to spend $30 (a fairly large sum in the Philippines) every day, you can’t enjoy a beach on your own, like in El Nido (Coron does have some small rocky beaches on its south end, but these are not appealing). There is the option to rent a motorbike and drive up the windy roads of Busuanga itself, but because Coron’s tourist infrastructure is still developing, all the rental bikes are usually sold out by mid-morning. With a lack of things to do on the island and the usual spotty Filipino internet, there were a couple afternoons where I succumbed to creating my own entertainment, in the form of Caternet.
Caternet is just like the internet, except instead of looking at a computer screen, you stare out your hotel window at the adjunct roof full of local stray cats.
Rather than being trained to grab my phone at the sound of a notification ping, I would hear a cat yowl and immediately jump up and run to the window. There was always lots of fighting, sex, and well, cats…so honestly it’s exactly like the real internet. Unfortunately, David did not think Caternet was as thrilling, so this was mostly a solo activity.
Exploring Coron Bay
When we did make it out into the bay, twice with different boat tours and again diving, we found all the parts of the archipelago that people must be referring to when they talk about Coron. Karst formations, sublime waters, isolated beaches, and gorgeous wildlife fill the landscape. However, David and I both still agreed that we enjoyed El Nido’s landscape more. The rocky formations were just a little more dramatic, the reefs more beautiful (many reefs in Coron were covered in massive sea urchins that made snorkeling in the shallow waters just a foot above their long spines very uncomfortable). Even the boat crews seemed less friendly and professional and in the kind of tour where you are being shepherded from one paradise to another for a timed visit with boatload of other tourists, the crew’s ability to give you a meaningful experience counts for a lot.
However, I still loved spending time in the glorious Palawan waters. The magic I found in the Philippines and being around a culture that revolves around the sea was an entirely new comfort in open waters. This had started to develop when I began diving a couple years ago. I always had a slight discomfort swimming in the ocean, aware of the vast amount of space under me, toes dangling like bait, ready to attract sharks or any other large creatures superior in this foreign world. Once I actually submerged myself deep into the underwater realm, I realized how much open space there really is in the ocean and how delightful pretty much everything that lives in it is, once you visit them in their own neighborhood. My fear of having sharks somewhere below me disappeared as I swam with them and resisted the urge to reach out and pet them. The ocean is basically a giant pool, with interesting stuff at the bottom.
This love of open water really bloomed as I snorkeled in stunning Thailand waters right before the Philippines, but in Palawan, it only increased, especially with the lackadaisical boat crew on our diving trip. Instead of paddling around with lifejackets and a chaperone, the crew would point out a general direction and I would be free to swim on my own for hours, no one really caring where I was or how long I was gone. The dives were centered around Japanese WWII shipwrecks that had been sunk by US forces in 1944, several of which were quite shallow. While David was diving below me (I abstained because of pressure problems), I swam along the bows of the ships and free dove down to their coral covered decks, following exotic fish as they lived their little fish lives.
Of course, my complaints against Coron are petty considering I’m comparing against other world-class destinations. While I still recommend visiting El Nido instead, the ocean and islands around Coron have a magic of their own. After all, there are only so many places in the world where every shade of blue is represented so well.