The Republic of the Philippines is one of the largest archipelagos in the world, comprised of more than 7,100 islands. It is made up of diverse ethnicities, from the native Negritos to a mixture of Polynesian, Asian and Spanish cultures. In modern history, the country was claimed for Spain by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. It was later ceded to the United States in the 1889 Treaty of Paris, briefly occupied by the Japanese during World War II and, finally, gained independence July 4, 1946.
In December, 2011/January, 2012, I made my first excursion to this island nation, focusing on Palawan province in the southwest part of the country. My exploration, by sea kayak, included paddling in the northwest part of Palawan Island as well as Busuanga, Coron and the Calamanian group.
Most of Palawan province remains virgin jungle, having been protected for decades. Its biodiversity is renowned and there continues a strong conservationist movement, fighting illegal logging and fishing. There are more than 1,700 islands in the province offering endless potential for the adventurous explorer. From Tubbataha reef in the Sulu Sea to the WW II wrecks in the Calamanian group, Palawan has become famous among scuba divers from around the world. The physical geography of this region is dramatic, with karst limestone formations dominating the landscape.
As English is widely spoken, communication is effortless. And best of all, the people are friendly and welcoming.
In the Shadow of Capoas
Mount Capoas is the tallest mountain in northern Palawan Province, Philippines. It shoots out of the ocean to an impressive 1131m. Wherever you find yourself in northern Palawan, it is "In the Shadow of Capoas". Some contend Palawan means “The Land of Beautiful Safe Harbor” while others say it means "Mother of the Small Islands". Either way, there are plenty of safe harbors and hundreds of small islands.
In December of 2011, Ian Taylor and I embarked on a sea kayak expedition from El Nido to Port Barton. It was marked by high and low points that converged to create an interesting adventure. The low, Tropical Typhoon Sendong, hit us on our second day, with winds gusting up to 80 km/h and torrential rains intruding on sleep. It kicked up the ocean swells to over 4m that made for some interesting paddling. In its wake, it left a high, with gorgeous blue skies and puffy white clouds. A major high point was the largely uninhabited west coast of northern Palawan. From Bacuit Bay south to Tuluran Island and the mouth of Malampaya Sound, the coast is predominantly sharp limestone cliffs. These cliffs have been eroded by centuries of waves pounding in from the West Philippine Sea.
Further south, there are miles of empty sand beaches and the occasional fishing village. A series of picture perfect bays lead to the white sand beaches of Minapla and Binga. Beyond, a succession of long beaches extend to the towns of Alimanguan, San Vicente and on to Port Barton. Around Port Barton, a series of islands make for some great exploring and beach-hopping.
The Bacuit Archipelago
The Bacuit Archipelago lies off the northwest coast of Palawan Island and is most commonly accessed from the uber-touristic and somehat dirty town of El Nido. Local boat guides have divided the area into three day tours - A, B and C - and they hustle punters to the same highlights and the same "secrets".
I paddled solo for ten days throughout these islands and explored and camped in places day trippers never see.
The Calamanian Islands
The Calamanian Islands are perhaps most famous for a WW II battle in which the US Fast Carrier Task Force sunk Japanese warships Akitsushima, Kyokuzan Maru and Taiei Maru, as well as damaging half a dozen other ships. It has become a mecca for wreck divers in the Philippines. Busuanga, Culion and Coron Islands are the largest, with nearly two dozen smaller islands completing the group.
I departed solo from Coron town in a fierce wind that was blowing water off the tops of the waves. Although I was hiding in the lee of Busuanga Island, there were some areas that the wind tried to pull the paddle from my hands. I figured if this were to continue, I would paddle out for three days and back for six. Fortunately, the wind subsided on the second day and stayed calm for the remainder of my trip. Circumnavigating Coron Island was a definite highlight.