The travel from Antipolo to the Manila airport took three hours due to traffic crawling at an extremely slow pace. We missed an early-morning flight to Busuanga-Coron by five minutes and, if I had remained superstitious like my aunt, I would have canceled this trip.
In desperation, I called the airline’s president—which was foolish of me—to please delay the flight as we reached McKinley Road in Makati. I conceded upon finding the counter already closed. My only consolation was that, in one of the rare times, the plane left on time.
The airline head, Jimmy B, through his staff, made sure our five-hour wait for the next flight to Coron, Palawan, was pleasant.
The original plan was for me and my fellow traveler, Luca, a colleague in neuroscience, to arrive in Coron on midday to catch more sun—a welcome change for my friend who had labored weeks in his laboratory doing surgery on depressed mice.
But my day’s frustrations quickly turned into quiet joy upon the rare sight of a full moon rising above the limestone cliffs in the east, as the sun, in a fading blaze of orange, sank slowly behind the ragged peaks of the fabled islets of Coron.
This was the night of the blue moon.
CoronThe spray from the sea cooled my face, the breeze caressed our tired bodies as our motorboat chopped on the deep blue waters. I knew then that the promise of a restful sojourn in Coron would be fulfilled.
Mornings in sitio Malaroyroy in the island of Bulalacao, Coron, on the wooden deck of Two Seasons, were a paradise incarnate.
The limpid waters formed a tapestry of the lightest of blue reflecting the white sand underneath, suddenly deepening into a cobalt beyond, dotted faintly by the pointillistic green of the seagrass underneath.
Beyond and around us, the islets beckoned under the clearest of skies!
I remembered the paradise that was Boracay, many shooting stars ago, before the three-mile stretch of the softest powder-white sand became a crowded strip of roasting bodies packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
Back then, Boracay was a retreat from the city—an expanse of stillness, fireflies flitting among the mangroves, tall palms dancing in the wind.
Breakfast was always at the English bakery. And we feasted far into the night: At Dos Mestizos, the paella negra was sublime; the massage at Mandala heavenly; and the kaleidoscope of fireworks was wild on New Year’s Eve. There I would celebrate my birthdays dancing the fading year away, heady with rum!
Bulalacao, a good one hour by speedboat from Coron town, was truly remote and extra special. It was quiet and dreamy, and the beach immaculately clean.
At night, dinner was set by the lap of cool waters, with tiny crabs hurrying, with their claws askance, loitering near the candlelit tables, soft by the glow of moonlight.
Feet buried in the cool sand, we feasted on soft-shell crabs on a bed of the sweetest pomelo made slightly tangy by fresh herbs and a hint of vinegar.
Every night, we savored the different menus we had suggested to the chef, after a delightful massage.
My absolute favorite was the Hawaiian—in which, like snakes, hands, arms and elbows slithered up and down our bodies, now slippery with fragrant coconut oil, as faint throbs of guitar music nearly lulled us into slumber.
Cicadas ruled the night. This was truly paradise.
The days were spent roaming the seas rimmed by the islands of Calamianes, made of steep cliffs and karst rock formations of permian limestones of Jurassic origin. They were majestic in their ruggedness, their pointed tips as if daring the heavens, then suddenly disappearing into the deep, where many a shipwreck has become the playground of a myriad of fishes.
The Tagbanuas serve as the guardians of these ancestral mountains and seas, warning everyone who dares to fish that their home is a sanctuary.
Kayangan Lake nestled in the cliffs is considered one of the cleanest lakes in the world. However, the midday we visited, tourists were clambering like ants up the narrow walkways, and the waters of the lake bubbled from the number of people exploring the deep of the lake with their diving tanks.
It was a sight that tainted this side of paradise—a warning that unmanaged tourism can spoil the quiet grandeur of these placid lakes. Bhutan got it right when it imposed a limit to the number of tourists.
The Barracuda Lake was approached by a makeshift stairway made of pieces of driftwood bleached under the torrid sun.
We arrived at the edge of the waters and found two Caucasians in the thick of discussion about the state of America in the time of Trump and Obama, how the Americans have become too lazy and too demanding of their government, portentous of the decline of almighty USA. It felt surreal to hear such talk. These tourists seemed unmindful of the majesty of the lake.
Meanwhile, a couple of Oriental-looking tourists cracked the stillness of the waters with their throaty shouts, and more Oriental folks came out of the water, heavy with their diving gear.
We waited for the stillness of the lake to be regained, and our patience was rewarded with a few minutes of the most sublime experience in this edge of heaven.
We heard the drops of water dripping from the cliffs beneath the limestone canyons. We examined the marks left by the countless years of rain and wind on the granite walls, imagining faces, perhaps of spirits, dwelling in the cliffs.
There were holes in the wall high up near the winds, where the birds formed their nests valued for their aphrodisiac powers.
Our guide told us how the Tagbanuas risk their limbs to gather birds’ nests for the wealthy who value them.
We were told that, like acrobats armed with bamboo poles, they could clamber from cranny to cranny to pry loose the precious nests stolen from the birds that roost among the cliffs.
The trees were dwarfed, their roots clinging precariously to the stone cracks, an occasional orchid with tiny flowers peeping out.
As the soft wind blew, tiny ripples crawled on the waters, and my friend explained quietly how one could read the waters this way, so that one could sail with the wind safely out in the open sea.
We lingered in silence, unmoving to become one with eternity.The silence was deafening, till a bird flew low to drink from the still waters.
We moved on and asked our guide why this lake was named after a barracuda. Perhaps, a Tagbanua saw one in his dreams.
Our guide told a beautiful story of a middle-aged Australian man with whom he became friends. The nerd talked about proposing to his loved one in these quiet waters, and he asked El, our guide, to help him.
Months later, he brought his bride-to-be to the lake. El bought a plastic board he put on a table decorated with wild leaves, lighted a candle and prepared a simple meal of fish.
He watched the couple from a distance, as the man proposed under a canopy of stars while their love barge floated lightly on the lake.
To this day, El receives profuse thanks for the extraordinary gift he gave a stranger, who calls him his only friend.
It was now midday. Our guide took us to a lunch of lobster, fish and chicken prepared by a chef and laid out on a table on the shore where an adorable monkey was tied loosely to a bamboo line. My friend fondled him like a baby. He wanted to bring him home to his apartment in New York.
We talked about monkeys that we could export in laboratories all over the world. I told him about my German friends who raised monkeys in Tanay for export and how I found out that they were in the youth army of Hitler during the war.
The monkey was freed from his leash, and he ran to his captors, the guardians of the mountains. Suddenly, the cutest monkey in the world, cuddly and tame, became aloof, and we wondered. The monkey was happier with the Tagbanuas.
There are many coves and islets one can explore in the Calamianes, some pristine, others overrun with tourists, and we wonder how long this paradise will last.
In the twin lagoons, one can swim to the next at low tide through a hole in the thin limestone wall.
There were many boats moored with their motors on, the smell of oil mingling with that of meat being roasted. European ladies smoked on the deck.
The following day we sailed to Malcapuya, an island with a stretch of white beach with rocks the color of iron. It would be a beautiful retreat.
We dreamed of owning the island, only to be told that a big hotel chain had bought it two years ago.
In Malcapuya, as we sipped coconut water from the shell, a coast guard started to shout warnings to a tourist who brought his fishing rod out in the breakwater to fish.
“This is a fish sanctuary,” he hollered, warning the tourist that he would break his fishing rod if he continued to fish.
Near the shipwreck dive site, a wizened old man, with his young wife who looked like one of the women in a Gauguin painting, was busy picking up a plastic flotsam in the deep black waters.
A young man was cleaning the shoreline with a broom.
We were told that the Tagbanuas are, by decree, the rightful owners of these islands. Indeed, they must be, as they have been for many, many generations.
I am glad that they continue to protect the land they inherited from their forefathers. I fervently pray they will not sell their homeland and be displaced like the natives of Boracay who have become alien in their now diminished island.
After three placid nights and days in Bulalacao, the wind picked up. The coconut palms turned fluid with the wind, and my friend was eager to sail.
In past summers as a teenager, he taught children how to sail in Lake Garda near the Italian Alps, where his family still lives.
He got to the boat like a pro and, gracefully, his sailboat skimmed the seas, till it became a tiny speck as he approached an island near the horizon.
A seaplane landed near the harbor, and a pack of about 50 were helped out from the motorboat. Several of them called out my name, and I recognized them to be my patients. After warm greetings and sincere thanks to the wonderful staff of Two Seasons, it was time to go.
The ride back was rough. Many more boats rushed to their island destinations.
For an hour, we rose and fell with the waves, heading to the town of Coron. The sea air was cool, and the eternal limestone cliffs were dappled with bright sunlight.
We were leaving paradise, where the cicadas ruled. I felt a tinge of sadness as we departed, thinking about how many of our beautiful islands will become too touristy and lose their quiet majesty.
I took in the sea air with a deep breath.
I smiled and knew—I will come back to Bulalacao very soon, while it’s still paradise.