Coron, Philippines: Moonscapes, Lagoons & Hidden Lakes
By: Matt Payne
t is early and I am jet lagged. While the roosters are loud, the monkeys, playing a pre-dawn game of tag are louder. While I wish I could sleep more, there is something pleasant about being awakened by scurrying primates and opinionated roosters.
I arrived to Manila the previous day and caught a puddle jumper on Cebu Airlines to the Palawan Island chain, home to the quaint and undisturbed coastal town of Coron. The primary draw to Coron, a small fishing village, is diving. Despite the raucous monkeys, I manage to get a bit more sleep, but as the sun blasts through my window at the Princess of Coron Resort, I begin my day.
Unlike many resort towns, little has been done to modernize Coron. The streets are narrow and lined with small shops and restaurants. Trikes and jeepneys, the primary form of transportation throughout most of the Philippines, whiz past me as I meander through the village towards the waterfront.
I am eager to get on the water, but first I must eat. There are many unique dining options in Coron. The Kawayanan Grill Station catches my eye. The open-air restaurant is centered on a thatch-roofed bar. Each table is under a similar canopy.
The menu features the usual Filipino cuisine, including chicken adobo, which is chicken stewed in vinegar and soy, as well as a variety of pork dishes, but given that I am in a fishing village, I decide to go with the seafood. Within minutes, three small but beautiful lobsters and a side of fried shrimp are placed in front of me and for the next ten minutes times stops, as I devour the garlic-covered crustaceans, washing them down with a San Miguel beer. San Miguel is the pride of The Philippines.
One sip and I know exactly why. It tastes perfect.
My belly full, it’s time to hit the water. I walk through the local wet market. The air is thick and the sky is slightly overcast. The smell of fish is so strong that I nearly choke. Beyond the wet market is the town square where the local children play a curious game, which involves throwing their shoes at one another. I narrowly avoid a flip-flop careening towards me.
As I arrive to the waterfront, I recall the owner of the hotel telling me that finding a guide for the day will be simple. He wasn’t kidding. Within seconds, Filipino men approach me, urging me to hire them for the day. I find a guide with a solid mastery of the English language and a good sense of humor. He takes me to his banca.
Most boats in the Philippine Islands are called Bancas. Bancas are similar to canoes only on each side are long bamboo poles that reach out like legs over the water giving the boat a bug-like appearance. This is to keep the banca stable in rough sea waters.
My guide and his son and I take off to the sea. He tells me that he is going to take me to four spots. First, a popular snorkel spot, followed by a lagoon. Then to a beach that is home to an indigenous tribe accessible only by water, and last to a small island that is home to a fresh water lake. Given that I am surrounded by stunning reefs and beaches, a lake sounds like an uneventful climax to the day, but I am willing to go with it.
We begin with snorkeling at the Siete Pecados Marine Park, a twenty-minute boat ride along the Coron coast. The warm water sprays across my face as I watch schools of flying fish skip along the top of the water. The reef itself is a small but beautiful one with a strong current. While on this particular day we are the only people at the dive spot, the fish are used to humans.
Unlike other snorkeling spots, the fish are extremely curious and within seconds of entering the crystal clear, bath-warm water, a rainbow cloud of a thousand fish envelops me. So dense is the school of fish that I breach the surface to regain my bearings.
My guide laughs as I rip of my mask and snorkel, looking down at the fish still orbiting my legs. I see the guide reach into his pocket and toss a handful of fish food into the water a few feet from me and with that, the school of fish head in that direction to continue to dine.
After an hour of exploring the rich marine life of Siete Pecados, we make our way to the beach. The water turns a deep, exotic, almost alien blue as we cross towards our destination. As we come closer to a sheer and extremely high island wall, I notice a small crescent beach and on it a hut. My guide pulls up and a little girl, about five years old, comes out and asks for twenty pesos. I hand her some coins, jump into the shallow water and wade to the powdered sand beach.
Once on the little beach, I am invited into the family’s hut. They make their living as host to guests and they call this beach their home. While to me, it is one of the most serene places I have ever been; to them, it is business as usual. An old man sips a beer while his wife cooks over an open fire.
They offer me a piece of candy which tastes like cashew and honey. Their eldest boy is out fishing. At least that is what I can gather from our game of charades. They encourage me to enjoy the beach on a hammock that hangs between two palms. I do so, eating the cashew candy.
As I rest, finally, the sun comes out and I watch as the sea turns from a grey blue to an electric blue. My cue to move to the next stop. I bid my hosts adieu and I told them I hoped to return. The mother suggested that the next time I come back, I should bring a girlfriend. I agreed.
The next stop is a lagoon. We approach another sheer cliffside. A shack sits precariously along a jagged rock just above the water. Two young men tie our banca to a mooring. I am confused as there is no lagoon to be seen anywhere. What I can see, however, are ten or so pieces of bamboo, each about twenty feet long and tied together making a crude raft.
I am instructed to board. One of the young men and I make our way around the side of the island and he gestures that I lay flat as we move towards a small cave. There is about a foot’s clearance between the top of the cave and the water.
We go underneath it, my nose barely clearing and come up on the other side into a beautiful lagoon. The lagoon is surrounded by jagged cliff-sides draped in tropical foliage. Water pours into the lagoon from a tropical spring. When I swim, I can feel the cold current running underneath me in the otherwise warm water. After cooling off, it is time to head to the fresh water lake.
To get to the lake, we cruise through another lagoon. I still struggle to wrap my brain around how a lake could be more beautiful then the beaches and corals I have seen. Perhaps we forego the lake and I can snorkel one more time. The guide will have none of it.
He tells me to have my camera out and ready as the entrance is a spectacular sight. He is right. Reef-wrapped giant rocks emerge from the water against the backdrop of a tropical forest in this tiny lagoon. Like the previous lagoon, there is a small boathouse where a family greets us.
They point me to a staircase where there is a sign that reads Kayangan Lake. This is my destination. Sunbathing monitor lizards watch lazily as I climb the nearly four hundred stairs to get to over the cliffside to the lake. By the time I reach the top, I am perspiring from the humid air.
If there was any breath left in my body upon reaching the top of the stairs, it is immediately taken away as I look at this lake I hadn’t even wanted to see. A rudimentary dock wound around the emerald green water that lapped up against the cliffsides surrounding the lake. The green waters gave way to a rich, deep blue towards the lake’s deep center.
Along one side of the lake is a cave. I swim to it. Aside from the screech of a Seahawk, there is no sound, spare my breathing. The water runs into a cave, so I follow it inside. The stalactites have a reddish hue to them and hang down eerily close to the water.
Sunlight blasts through a small hole, kicking up the crystal blue reflection on the cave’s ceiling and filling it with a serene, heart-stopping light. I sit there a moment, floating in silence. All things seem to fold into one as the water’s reflection dances all around me on the exotic ceiling. My imagination runs wild yet stops in the same beat… and then the sun moves past its window, and the cave goes dark. After a moment in the darkness, I swim out of the cave, certain that I’d just rested for a minute in whatever beauty awaits after life.
I float out in the middle of the lake and listen to the sounds of the jungle, not quite ready to call it a day.
We return to Coron as the sun is setting. Vendors sell exotic meats on street corners and children continue to throw shoes at one another. My guide tries to convince me to eat balut. Balut, a Filipino delicacy, at first looks like a hard-boiled egg, but when cracked, you discover that it is fully developed baby duck that has not yet hatched from its egg. You eat it, bones, bill and all. With a little bit of salt, they tell me, it is delicious.
After the day I’ve had, I feel that perhaps a lobster and a San Miguel might be a better way to end the day. With that, I head back to the Kawayanan Grill Station to relive my lunch. Some places are definitely worth revisiting.
Coron is one.