By Gretchen Filart Dublin
THE Calamian Islands, northeast of Palawan, is a magical place that feels very much like home. An archipelago inhabited mainly by Tagalog-speaking communities, Calamianes is as tropical as the Philippines can get—often sunny and rarely stormy, thanks to the massive limestones sheltering the islands from winds and monsoons.
Whether you’re in northeastern Busuanga or the historic southern island of Culion, Calamianes’s unspoiled hideaways captivate magic-seeking travelers both above water and underneath.
Magical adventures on this side of the Philippines often begin in the municipality of Busuanga, where Calamianes’s sole airport rests. From here, travelers can take a scenic 40-minute van ride through the winding and cattle-grazed countryside before landing on Coron, where diverse accommodations await.
Accommodations are available in Busuanga, but because Coron is closer to the jump-off dock for island-hopping tours, it is usually a preferred base. The largest of the Calamian Islands, Busuanga covers nearly one-third of the land. It is, therefore, not surprising that you will find here the largest game reserve in the country, accessible via van or a four-hour boat ride. Spanning 3,700 hectares of vegetated savannah, Calauit Safari Park houses a plethora of wildlife species, some transported from Kenya in the 1970s during Marcos’s rule. Endemic species, including the Palawan bearcats and Calamian deer, also inhabit the reserve. The most surreal experience of the two-hour walking tour, however, are the antelopes, zebras and giraffes freely roaming among people and feeding them with one’s bare hands.
The marine route from Calauit Island passes by Malajon Island or Black Island, so named for the dark and commanding limestone cliffs along its sandy stretch. At the base of the cliffs lie twin caves, both glimmering with stalactites. One can swim in two natural cold water pools inside the bigger cave. Just within walking distance of the chalky shore are thriving reefs and remnants of a sunken ship believed to be a Chinese vessel. Nearly an hour from Black Island, in the town of Concepcion, lies tranquil North Cay. A spit of palm-fringed, fine white sand jutting out of emerald waters, the cay is an arresting retreat in an endless azure horizon. The water glistens under the sun by day, and amid the resounding silence, you can hear nothing but the ebb flowing.
People who want to maximize the tour can drop by Coral Garden to wade against meters of vibrant corals prior to a final stop at Lusong Point, where a sunken World War II Japanese tugboat rests in the middle of the sea. When it’s low tide, the keel protrudes to the surface, making snorkeling even more exciting.
Though part of the Coron municipality that comprises Busuanga, Coron Island deserves special mention for its colorful marine life, beautiful limestone-covered coves, award-winning lakes, and clean beaches—all within 30 minutes of Coron port. Guarding the cluster of limestone-lined islets are the Tagbanua, who consider Coron Island their ancestral domain. As such, only two out of seven lakes around the island are open to visitors. The rest are considered sacred grounds by the indigenous group.
Most renowned in the island are the lakes of Kayangan and Barracuda, both multiawarded as the cleanest and greenest lakes in the country. Enclosed in a blanket of karst limestones, the lakes’ waters remain pure, glassy and brackish.
After a visit to the lakes, boats make a stop at the outer section of Twin Lagoon. During low tide, visitors can swim inside a small opening from the outer lagoon to the inner lagoon. During high tide, the opening is covered in seawater, so one must use a bamboo ladder to get to the other side. Deep blue and surrounded by the sound of swiftlets and rocks hovering hundreds of feet in the air, a swim in Twin Lagoon is both unnerving and fascinating.
Picnic-style lunch is often served in Banol Beach, a beach pocket that locals refer to as the Little Boracay of Coron. Banol’s gently sloping, sandy bottom and calm water are perfect for families with small children.
The Coron Island tour ends with the extensive reefs of Siete Pecados Marine Park, named after the seven limestone peaks surrounding it.
Inland attractions in town proper aren’t scant either. Souvenir shops, dive centers and restaurants serving world fare dot the streets. Adventure seekers can choose from two mountains to trek—Mount Tapyas and Mount Darala, the highest in Calamianes—then head over to Maquinit Hotspring to relax thereafter.
Bulog, Malcapuya and Banana Islands
Although Calamianes is best known for its towering limestones, it also features exceptional expanses of beaches that rival the world’s best. Often clumped together in a whole-day beach-bumming tour, the islands of Bulog, Malcapuya and Banana are hosts to dramatic white stretches and aquamarine waters with vibrant arrays of fish and corals just a few meters off shore. So pretty are the beaches that Bulog and Malcapuya Islands were acquired by global luxury hotel chains, Two Seasons and Henann Resorts, respectively.
Indeed, Calamianes’s enigmatic destinations continue to captivate people of all lifestyles. But the most magical of Calamian’s offerings is its people, whom I found to be the warmest of all natives in Palawan. Conversations with them are always friendly, but not patronizing, and the townsfolk take genuine interest in tourists for pleasure, not for business. The zero crime rate in the community is a testament of how the locals place prime importance on peace, safety and the satisfaction of visitors.
In Calamianes tourists like me leave no longer tourists, but part of a beautiful mixed community of Filipinos, indigenous groups and foreigners who found leaving the islands impossible. We return no longer strangers, but friends longing for the magic that once possessed us, in an archipelago that serves such countless surprises that even repeat visits thrill, astound and make one crave for déjà vu.
How to get there
Local airlines serve daily flights to Busuanga Airport from Manila. Vans plying to the Coron town proper are available at the airport at P150 per head. Otherwise, you can arrange pickup with your hotel of choice. It is highly recommended to book hotels in advance, especially during long weekends, holidays and summer.
Image credits: Gretchen Filart Dublin