A Weekend in Coron

view of the entrance to Kayangan Lake, Coron, Palawan
For some strange reason I somehow felt a strong urge that cold Saturday morning to get out of my bed at the tourist section of the Super Ferry. As I groggily made my way up towards the open deck of the ship I felt the icy wind slap me awake with its rude morning greeting. I had just settled, slightly shivering, into a nice viewing area by the deck railings when out of the mist an imposing mass of karst pierced the early morning gloom. A host of similar, equally impressive rock formations loomed beyond the first. In an instant the cold steel superstructure of the ship was turned into an impromptu view deck for the dazzling seascape unfolding before my now wide-awake eyes.

The scene transfixed me for several minutes until I remembered I had left Nina sleeping in our bunk below. Hurrying awkwardly below deck, I was able to nudge her awake despite her annoyed protests, drag her up the cold metal stairs then watch her annoyance turn into bewilderment at the site of the karst seascape of Coron, Palawan.

After watching an episode about Coron on a travel feature entitled Gone for the Weekend, we had decided on a trip to the Calamian Island group in northern Palawan by ferry that Friday night. And now, observing the majestic scenery before us as our ship slowly guided between the islands of Busuanga and Coron, we knew we were in for a real treat.

various scenes in Coron Island showing karst formations, beaches and lagoons
Coron is a collage of islands, karst formations, white sandy beaches, lagoons
and crystal-clear waters.

Island-Hopping in Coron and the Calamian Group

Coron is a well-known diving destination and has been listed in publications such as Forbes Traveler Magazine as one of the top 10 best scuba diving sites in the planet. But while diving here is world-class, there are several equally impressive attractions in Coron and in the other islands of the Calamian group. Coron Island itself boasts numerous karst formations, lagoons, white beaches and inland lakes. Beyond Coron the small islands in the Calamian group number literally in the hundreds, giving the traveler an opportunity to play Robinson Crusoe in an island of his or her choosing. Best of all, Coron is a relatively untouched place making it an attractive ecotourism destination.

Disembarking from our ferry that same morning, we quickly headed out for our prearranged accommodation in Coron town on the island of Busuanga. After breakfast we rented an outrigger boat owned by a Filipino-Danish couple. Even back then some westerners have settled in the rustic town, setting up small businesses to help sustain them on this small piece of paradise. So how’s business lately? We queried our new Danish lady friend. With a forlorn look in her blue eyes she could only sigh in resignation that the small number of visitors lately wasn’t helping much.

boats moored at the entrance to Kayangan Lake
The entrance to Kayangan lake is a lagoon dominated by the mass of karst rock in the
background that often finds itself highlighted in travel pictures about Coron. Picture taken
on our second trip to Coron; note the number of boats here.

As Nina and I sailed into adjacent Coron Island with its towering karst formations and emerald green lagoons we couldn’t help but wonder why such a beautiful place would lack for visitors even on a weekend at the start of the rainy season. Indeed we would encounter only one or two other boats sailing around Coron’s emerald-green waters. At the same time we were thrilled, for obvious selfish reasons, to have the place almost all to ourselves.

Dive Sites and Beaches

As our outrigger slowly made its way along the waterways of Coron, the massive limestone karst formations we had previously observed from the ship’s deck was even more impressive up close. It was a surreal landscape, with majestic masses of rock rising from the sea floor in various shapes and sizes. After basking around in this magnificent vista we dropped anchor at our first stop: the Skeleton Wreck off Coron Island.

shallow waters near the Skeleton Wreck off Coron Island
Our first destination was the Skeleton Wreck - one of the dive wrecks in Coron.

Coron is world-famous for its wreck scuba diving sites. In late 1944, aircraft from the US Third Fleet caught and sunk several Japanese supply ships and gunboats in and around Coron Bay. The sunken vessels subsequently became home to a colorful variety of corals and fishes – a stark illustration of the cycle of death giving way to life. We have not done any scuba diving before and were content to snorkel at the Skeleton Wreck. But even here the view was incredible. It was nothing like we have seen before in several snorkeling ventures - corals of various colors and make and colorful reef fishes darting in and out of the corals, some of them playfully teasing us. We’ve heard that the view deeper down the wrecks is even more remarkable with big groupers, tuna, schools of big eyed jacks, lion fish, scorpion fish, sea turtles, rays and a host of other sea creatures.

Banol Beach
It’s not Boracay but Banol Beach exudes serenity and calm – perfect for a restful stop
even at high tide.

It was time for lunch after our snorkeling adventure and Banol Beach was just the perfect place for an afternoon picnic. A small, clean and quiet beach, Banol is a favorite among tourists and part of the routine island-hopping circuit here. We had asked our resort to prepare a lunch of fresh seafood for this occasion. After we had settled down to eat on the soft, fine sand, a gentle breeze and the tranquil scene of shallow turquoise waters and white sandy beach with the familiar karst formations towering above almost lulled us to sleep.

emerald green waters and karst formations at Kayangan Lake
Kayangan Lake looks almost mystical. There are many other lakes in the interior
but many of them are off-limits to visitors.

Inland Lakes and Lagoons

But Coron has so many other attractions that it’s almost a crime to stay too long in one place. So off we went to our next stop: the freshwater Kayangan Lake, located within Coron Island’s land mass. There are several other lakes in the island, the largest of which is Cabugao Lake, several times larger than Kayangan. However, Cabugao Lake is sacred to the native Tagbanua population and, along with several other locations in the interior, is off-limits to tourism. To reach Kayangan our boat entered a partly-hidden lagoon and docked at a jump-off point from where I had to negotiate the steep face of a small hill. It’s not a difficult climb on the series of stones steps to the summit but the horde of mosquitoes that clung to my legs on this rainy day had me worried until I recalled that mosquitoes here, unlike those in other locations in Palawan, are not malaria-bearing. Once on the summit I had an excellent view of the huge karst formation guarding the entrance to the lagoon – photos of which have become the symbol of Coron (see picture on top). From there it is a steep but easy descent to the shores of Kayangan Lake, said to be the cleanest freshwater lake in the country. The waters of Kayangan are actually brackish – a combination of salt and fresh water. The deep emerald color of the waters, the imposing karst formations and lush, green vegetation around the lake gave it a mystical aura. This, after all, is a protected habitat for the native Tagbanuas who believe that spirits live within the interior parts of the island.

approaching the entrance to Twin Lagoon
Approaching the opening to the Twin Lagoon.

A typical Coron Loop boat ride includes a visit to the Twin Lagoon, aptly named because it is composed of two lagoons connected by narrow opening. The first lagoon is accessible by boat but to reach the second lagoon one has to swim across the narrow opening at low tide. During high tide, this opening is completely submerged and one has to swim through the resulting underwater tunnel formed. Twin Lagoon is deep in some places so I never took off my life vest while swimming lazily in its waters. corals clearly visible underwater at Siete Pecados Marine Park

Our last stop for this whole day jaunt was Siete Pecados Marine Park (Seven Islands). This is yet another place famous for snorkeling and it didn’t disappoint. The corals were clearly visible even just from the boat and were the most colorful we’ve seen. Fishes also abounded in the waters including some jellyfish. Our boatman, a real nice guy, would first make sure the area we were about to snorkel was clear of the creatures. If he saw one he would catch it with his bare hands and throw it far away where it couldn’t harm us. We didn’t try it back then but we’ve heard it was possible to feed the fish in Siete Pecados using bread crumbs.

Other Attractions

Back in Coron town in Busuanga the following day, we leisurely hopped around then later rode a trike to the Maquinit Hot Springs. The water here is at least 40 degrees Celsius and had a soothing effect on us as we rested our tired bodies. Maquinit is actually a salt water spring located close to the shore. There is a dock for outrigger boats on a mangrove-covered beach nearby where we met our boatman from our previous day’s trip and his two European passengers.

the Maquinit Hot Springs near Coron town
Maquinit Hot Springs near Coron town proper is a salt-water hot spring.

We stayed two days in Coron but figured we would need a week to see most of what the place has to offer. We didn’t get to visit Barracuda Lake, another inland lake like Kayangan, accessible by boat and via a short, albeit rocky climb. There also more than a hundred islands lying off the main island masses of Coron, Busuanga and Culion. Sangat Island lying just south of Busuanga is a white sand wonder and a favorite of scuba divers since most of the dive wrecks are located nearby. Malcapuya Island, Banana Island, Calumbuyan Island, Bulog Dos and the rest of the Malaroyroy Peninsula on Bulalacao probably have the best white sand beaches in the area. Many of these islands are either being developed or are earmarked for development although we have heard that the provincial government is taking steps to ensure that development is done in an eco-friendly manner. Altogether, there are more than 600 islands in the Calamianes, about half of them habitable. With such a huge number of potential destinations it is hard to imagine running out of places to visit or things to do in Coron and the rest of the Calamian Island group.

Malcapuya Island’s white sand southern beach
Malcapuya Island; photo taken on our second trip to Coron.

sandbar at Bulog Dos, Malaroyroy Peninsula
Sandbar at Bulog Dos on the tip of Malaroyroy Peninsula.

Calauit Island is probably the most unique attraction in the Calamianes because it is a sanctuary for African wildlife. Here giraffes, impalas, waterbucks, zebras and gazelles from Kenya roam the island and coexist with the native animal populace that includes Palawan bearcats, Calamian deer, mousedeer, wild boar and crocodiles. Off Calauit and other islands there is also a wide variety of marine life including dugongs, sea turtles and giant clams. Combined with the rich biodiversity of the seas around the Calamianes, this place is truly a wildlife explorer’s paradise, among the last of its kind in the country.

view of Coron Island and its karst formations from a resort in Coron town
View of Coron Island and its karst formations from a resort in Coron town.

With all its wonders and unique attractions, Coron and the rest of the Calamianes is a must-visit destination. Although tucked away in the northernmost parts of Palawan it has become more accessible lately with daily flights from Manila to Busuanga and the Super Ferry trip recently restored. It’s been a while now since we last visited Coron but there are plenty more to explore and do in this corner of Palawan as we look forward to a long overdue return.

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