Buhay Isla: a boat expedition to paradise islands in Palawan, the Philippines

“And the last but not the least… Filipino powerrrrrrrr!” Our chef has just introduced the copious amount of food that he has prepared in the tiny kitchen in the back of our boat. It is displayed appetizingly on the table, ready for us to devour it. “Banana flower pancakes, steamed squash, fresh mango and pineapple, string beans, fried squid, jackfruit marinated in coconut milk, a whole fish…” And a large bowl of steamed white rice. By the end of our trip we know what to expect when the chef, after summing up all the dishes on the table, arrives at the plate of rice with his famous words: “And the last but not the least…” In unison we pound our fists on the table and yell: “Filipino power!

Some of the beautiful food we were served on the boat

On this trip, we are not only being told what we eat, but also when to eat it, when to swim, when to snack, when to snorkel and when to sleep. There is not much more to it than this, and that is what makes this three-day boat ride from Coron to El Nido so blissful. There is no need to worry about a thing, or even to plan the simplest things like your meals and sleeping spots, because everything is taken care of. The only thing to worry about is whether you should swim left or right when snorkelling above gorgeous coral reefs, or whether to have another rum-cola while stargazing from a beautiful beach at night with the sound of the waves as your soundtrack.

We cruise along the archipelago north of Palawan in a bangka boat, a traditional Filipino wooden outrigger with a sun deck on top. Palawan is an archipelago of 1,780 islands dotted around clear blue waters. Exploring them all would take a lifetime. We only have a few days, so we opted for this boat tour that will bring us to at least a few of those paradise islands far away from everyone and everything. My sister and I are with a group of twelve other travellers of various nationalities and the boat’s crew, including the Filipino power chef and our long haired surf-dude-turned-guide named Mango. We have met just the day before during a briefing at the tiny office of Buhay Isla, the operator we selected to sail us past endless strings of deserted islands. We will cover 150 nautical miles (nearly 300 km) in three days and will pass white beaches and excellent snorkelling spots on the way. We will sleep in Buhay Isla’s base camps that they have constructed on various remote islands. We were promised (or warned?) that we would be going back to basics, but so far this trip is far from rudimentary. The large amounts of delicious food that we are served are fitting for royals, and we need to spend some time on the upper deck to digest it before we dive back into the warm waters to swim and snorkel.

Our first stop two hours out of Coron’s small harbour is a blindingly white sand bank that stretches into the sea from a small island. The sand is soft and pristine and the water is pleasant. We don our masks and snorkel along the coral reef in front of the sand bank for some time before hopping back on our boat.

We sail to another reef, where we see huge corals that drop down into the dark depths of the ocean along a steep wall. Fish shuffle back into their anemones while we hover above, drifting along with the current of the open sea. When we are not swimming, we sit on top of the boat where the sun and wind quickly dry our skin as we read a book, stare along the horizon, or take a nap. Such lovely laziness! For my sister and myself this boat tour is a welcome retreat because we are forced to slow down and go with the flow – literally and figuratively. We’re on a boat with nowhere to go, except the next tropical island.

Our last stop of the first day is another gorgeous beach but getting there is not effortless. A strong current acts like a guard between the boat and the beach. I jump from the deck and hold on to the outrigger while my legs are pulled away by the stream. I take a breath and start swimming. I am sucked ever more to the left while I try to keep a straight line to the beach. I swallow some salt water and feel my heart race. When I arrive on the shore I notice that I only have a snorkelling mask in my hand – the snorkel is missing. A pang of guilt hits me – not just because it is an expensive snorkel that I borrowed from my sister, but also because I have, albeit unwillingly, contributed to the terrible waste pollution of the ocean. I imagine how a sea creature might mistake the transparent silicone tube for food and eat it… Going back into the water to look for it is pointless, however. The strong current must have taken it out to the open ocean already, and it is impossible to search for it without being pulled away myself. Luckily the boat crew hands me one of their spare snorkels and I am still able to survey the beautiful reef. We walk upstream for a few hundred meters and start swimming. A green sea snake lies curled up on the ocean floor. Small barracudas hover just below the surface, their black eyes tracking my every movement.

Swimming in these clear and warm waters is such a pleasure

It is just a mere 20 minutes by boat from this last snorkelling spot to our first overnight camp. We are taken to the shore by canoe and we are welcomed by a cheerful host. This man runs the basecamp year-round, and is full of ideas to expand it and make it eco-friendly. He shows us the candles he has made by filling glass bottles with sea salt and used cooking oil – a great way to recycle. We are pleasantly surprised when we see our tent that is set up on a wooden platform. We don’t have to sleep out in the open on the beach as we expected. We even get to shower! Well, if scooping water from a large barrel with a bucket counts as a shower, but it’s more than we had dreamed of and a great way to freshen up and rinse off the salt and sand.

Basecamp of our first night

We are presented with another spectacular meal (including, of course, Filipino powerrrrr) and pour rum and cokes like real sailors do while we play card games on the beach. Before turning in for the night we take a short walk along the shore and see bioluminescent plankton light up the waves. When we throw stones into the ocean the organisms light up collectively as if an electric discharge runs through the water.

Our first stop the next morning is one that wakes us up pretty effectively. We sail to an island where the crew invites us to jump off a high cliff into the ocean. Mango and two of his colleagues offer a demonstration: they climb the steep cliff with the use of a rope and then summersault their way into the deep. I have to stay true to our motto Say Yes To New Adventures, so I get off the boat and swim to the base of the cliff. Just climbing to the top is already a bit of a scramble – being careful not to hit my head against low overhanging rocks I slowly pull myself up with the rope. Mango, who had climbed back up, is waiting for me at the top. I tell myself to not even waste a second looking down and to just jump. But that plan doesn’t work out, because while shuffling to the point indicated by Mango where I’m supposed to leap I look down at the dark ocean below and I see how deep it is. “Make sure to jump forward, away from the cliff,” he says. Great, that helps me to imagine all the things that could go wrong, like jumping too close to the rock. I take a deep breath and prepare to jump, but a natural instinct holds me back. The others are waiting in line behind me and I feel the pressure. “Just jump!” Mango smiles. Every time I try, an invisible force seems to glue my feet to the ground and I’m unable to step out. I consider my options. Clambering back down the slippery rock is not a great alternative. Let’s just do it! I hold my nose with my fingers, jump away from the edge, close my eyes try to keep a perfectly streamlined position, and hear the thunderous sound of water splitting as I torpedo down into the depths. The streamlining wasn’t so perfect as my already sunburned butt hits the water flat, and I don’t know how long it took me to resurface, but suddenly my head is above water again. I wipe the salty water from my eyes and look back up at the cliff. What a start of the day!

Another island, another white beach, another pretty snorkelling spot, and another lunch (Filipino power!), and then some leisurely time spent sitting in the warm and shallow waters of the surf. We spend quite a few hours sailing and the monotonous sound of the engine combined with the gentle rocking of the waves induces me into that hallucinatory state of pre-sleep that allows thoughts to slowly float by without any particular sense of urgency.

Our lovely boat – simple but very accomodating

Our basecamp for the second night is situated on a gorgeous white beach backed by tall trees. We swim to the beach from the boat. This night we don’t even have to sleep in a tent, but in a pretty triangle cabin. Inside there is a mattress and mosquito net, and like yesterday we have access to basic toilets and a bucket shower.

Basecamp of our second night – these huts were adorable and quite comfortable!
Building the bonfire

We sit in the warm sand and enjoy a beautiful sunset while the crew builds a huge bonfire on the beach. After dinner we chat and stare into the flames – my mind is slowly getting used to this new pace of doing next to nothing. A walk along the shore reveals hundreds of tiny hermit crabs carrying shells on their backs and running into the water as we pass. An incredibly starry night sky stretches above our heads. I feel that tensions caused by a stressful period at work have left my body and that my perception is focused and mindful. I never thought that doing nothing would make me feel so good.

Swim, eat, sleep, repeat… The cycle comes to an end today as we will reach El Nido by nightfall. But first a few more stops along the way.

After 2.5 hours of sailing we reach Nacpan Beach, a gorgeous and seemingly eternal stretch of white sand on the northern end of Palawan. It is clear, however, that we are nearing civilization again. The beach is full of tourists, enjoying the hot sun and warm waters. There are beach bars and parasols – not exactly a contribution to the sense of deserted islands that has been so typical for this trip.

Nacpan Beach

We still enjoy our time there in the shade of some coconut palms, and luckily the boat crew surprises us with a few more empty and tropical islands before the day ends. These are the most gorgeous beaches we have seen on this trip: fine golden sands kissed by calm clear waters, and a backdrop of steaming jungle and towering limestone cliffs. The sound of tropical birds and buzzing cicadas completes the experience. I’ve found my true paradise! Oh wait, I have not. To get to this flawless beach one has to swim through a sea of jellyfish. Oh well, nothing is perfect, but this still comes pretty damn close.

Stranded jellyfish

I use my snorkelling mask to spot the jellyfish and carefully splash around the near-transparent medusae until I reach the beautiful sand. We are told that manatees sometimes visit this bay. A crew member of the boat spots a sea turtle and invites us into his canoe. We paddle around the bay and spot the turtle again, but as we prepare to jump in and join it for a swim it quickly sculls away. Oh well… I just sit on the beach for a while, taking in the beauty of this place and moment and enjoying the buhay isla (Filipino for ‘island life’) until someone on the boat sounds the horn and I swim back to be greeted with a bowl of caramelized sweet potatoes. The crew has caught a graceful stingray that is killed on the backside of the deck with a knife. The ocean has offered us a lot on this trip…

Approaching El Nido

It’s only another 20 minutes before we sail into the harbour of El Nido, a pastel sky cutting the limestone islands in the bay into dark silhouettes. A shoal of flying fish jumps from the waves as swallows try to catch them. Our dreamlike trip ends here – after we go ashore we will have to chase our own meals again, we will have to find a place to sleep and will have more to do than just resting, swimming and snorkelling. We are more than ready for that though. These three days have been so marvellously relaxing for the body and soul that we are now ready for anything. Filipino powerrrr!

Create your own paradise island adventure – Book a boat expedition from Coron to El Nido

Let me help you get started with this Q&A – of course if you have other questions feel free to drop me a line in the comment section!

Q – I want
to experience this blissful tropical trip myself! Where do I sign up?

A – There are several operators that offer this trip, sailing from both El Nido and Coron. We decided to go with Buhay Isla who offer various types of boat expeditions in Palawan. Most tours take 3 to 5 days and all visit remote tropical islands. We enjoyed the three-day tour very much and would not have minded extending it by a few days, if only we would have had more time. For the sake of transparency let me say that my trip was sponsored by Buhay Isla in return for a mention in this travel story, but I can wholeheartedly recommend their services regardless of my collaboration with them. The boat was great with plenty of space for all of us to relax, the food was amazing and plentiful, the crew attentive and fun, and the basecamps much more comfortable than we had initially expected. I would recommend them to any of my friends and so also to you!

Q –
Speaking of comfort… what should I expect?
Shower at basecamp

A – Let me be clear that this is not a luxury cruise. The boat is pretty basic as are the accommodations and facilities in the base camps. As mentioned in this story we slept in tents and in basic huts, but mattresses and clean linen were provided and there was always a possibility to wash with fresh water. There are also basic but clean toilet facilities (not necessarily always flush toilets). Most of the islands you’ll visit are remote and/or deserted so you won’t find any stores or other facilities there. But not to worry, as you will be fed plenty of delicious foods and snacks throughout the day and coffee and tea are always available.

Q – What
should I bring?

A – Split your luggage into two: your big bag will go into the hold and cannot be accessed during the course of the trip. A smaller bag should contain all your necessities for the duration of the tour. These are what I think are the essentials:

  • – Swimsuit (you’ll be wearing this all day long because you’ll be jumping off the boat for a swim very often)
  • – Dry clothes (nice to wear at night after your ‘shower’ – I enjoyed wearing long sleeved shirts and pants but it’s warm enough even at night to wear short sleeves)
  • – Head light (useful for nightly visits to the toilets)
  • – Mask & snorkel (but you can also use a set provided by Buhay Isla, included in the price of the tour. If you want to use fins you’ll have to bring them yourself)
  • Sun lotion, and lots of it! Preferably one that is reef-safe and does not damage the fragile corals.
  • Insect repellent
  • Rash guard (there may be stingy jellyfish and plankton, and it will protect you against the fierce UV rays while you are snorkelling)
  • Boat shoes / water shoes (sometimes you have to walk over rocky surfaces and they will protect your feet)
  • Dry bags (to protect your valuables and allow them to be taken to land by canoe every time you arrive at an island, so you can for example take photos on the beach)
  • A towel or sarong to dry yourself with, to lie on the beach on, and to protect you from the sun while sailing
  • Refillable water bottle (plastic bottles are not allowed, there is purified water available for you at all times)
  • A book to spend the hours while the boat is sailing
  • Toiletries
  • Power bank (ideally solar powered) – there are no facilities to charge your electronics anywhere during the tour! Make sure your phone and camera are fully charged before departure.
  • Underwater camera (unfortunately I didn’t have one so I couldn’t capture all the colourful corals and beautiful fish)
Q - Should
I sail from Coron to El Nido, or from El Nido to Coron?

A – It is possible to book this tour in both directions but I recommend to start in Coron and end in El Nido. Our last day was decidedly the most beautiful so I would argue that the closer you get to El Nido, the more gorgeous the surroundings become. By starting in Coron you slowly work your way up to the most spectacular sights of the tour, rather than seeing those already on your first day. We also found that the second base camp (closer to El Nido) was much more beautiful than the first because it had a whiter beach and much bluer and clearer water.

Q – Will I
see different things on the three day tour than I would on day tours from Coron
or El Nido?

A – In both towns tour operators offer day trips around the local area. You will see different sights on such day tours. The three-day expedition visits more remote islands that day trippers don’t reach. For us this was the main advantage versus booking day tours. Before departing we had done a day tour from Coron and we saw different sights but they were crowded with other day trippers. The three day expedition really took us to places where we were the only ones there, and that really adds to the beautiful sensation of being all alone on a paradise island. If you have time, I recommend to do day tours in both Coron and El Nido to supplement the sights that you’ll see on the three-day tour – but expect them to be much more crowded and busy.

Want to read about other relaxing boat trips involving amazing beaches and snorkeling? Check out these other travel stories we wrote:

Exploring Australia’s Whitsunday Islands by boat
Paradise beaches in the Cook Islands
Cruising around the Galápagos Islands
Snorkeling in the Solomon Islands’ Marovo Lagoon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s