When I decided to travel to the Philippines, I knew I wanted to see the beauty of the island chain around Palawan. After researching a few blogs, I found Tao Expeditions. I didn’t need much convincing because it sounded fantastic but the company also got rave reviews.
We would start our trip in El Nido and take a boat for six days, five nights to the city of Coron.
My traveling partner and I arrived at the ferry terminal around 8 am and waited with 23 other guests for the Aurora 2, a 70-foot Bangka, a traditional-style boat designed to maneuver effortlessly in the shallow reef water found in the islands.
The boat looked like a cross between an old fishing vessel and a trimaran. The floors were painted sky blue and the outriggers were made from bamboo. Clothes were already hanging on the line to dry and I smelled breakfast cooking.
The crew were waiting to greet us, including our trip leader Ollie, our chef and Tom, the boat puppy. We were given life jackets to put on, found our seats and after a short briefing, we left the dock. As it was only regulation to wear the life jackets while in port, we quickly removed them, never to be seen again.
With El Nido’s jutting mountains in the background we started our journey north.
Shortly after departure, we had breakfast on board and stopped in a snorkeling spot, then cruised to another spot for snorkeling before stopping at our base camp for the night. Some of us swam ashore and others hitched a ride with provisions in a kayak.
We picked a large hut to share with another couple. As the sun was getting lower in the sky, Ollie gave us instructions on how our bedding would be set up and broken down by the crew. We had assigned sheets, pillows and mosquito nets to be kept in canvas bags.
The showers were structured in a spiral shape for privacy and made of bamboo. The floor was sand with one large stone to stand on. The water was in a large barrel and on top sat a plastic scoop to pour the water over us. The heads were individual stalls made from concrete and, like our boat, were bucket flush without seats.
The crew set up a tight rope made from a ratchet strap, which provided hours of entertainment. Then most of the group started drinking the local rum with pineapple juice and relaxing at the group tables that sat no more than 50 feet from the sea.
Three massage tables had been set up near the group tables and we were offered free massages. After dinner, we got massages while the air was cool. It was delightful.
We went to sleep shortly after, listening to the sounds of the guests partying away below us on the beach. Eventually, all I could hear was the ocean and the symphony of the jungle.
We braved the showers, which were cold but refreshing. It also made us crack up laughing as we poured cold water over each other in the wee hours of the morning in our bathing suits.
After breakfast, we packed up and left. The crew packed up our beds and all of the equipment, which was definitely a treat. Maybe if I didn’t work on a boat, I wouldn’t have noticed how much work they had to do to set up and break down.
On board I spent the day sipping coconut water, while in and out of an interrupted sleep under my sarong.
We stayed two nights at the next base camp, right next door to a local village. Our camp was much more open, with towering coconut palms and entirely on the beach. There were also more huts, so we had our own. It was made from bamboo tied with fishing wire and in it was a platform for our beds, a bench and a small foyer. There was also a nice breeze, which minimized the mosquitos.
It turned out to be really nice being there for two days because it allowed us to roam the island, swim off the beach and relax.
In the morning, we walked along the beach with Tom, the boat puppy, and watched the local villagers start their mornings.
Before lunch, we were shown how to climb a coconut tree like a local. Of course our Filipino guide who had been climbing since he was 12 made it look easy. I started with great ambition, finding my feet inside the already cut notches but quickly gave up as my feet were soft.
I was even able to do some laundry, as follows:
Pump from well into bucket 1. Soap in bucket 1. Rinse under pump water into bucket 2. Hang dry.
This pump was also our showering water where the crew washed our dirty dishes, rinsed fish and did their laundry. I started to imagine why those outside of the Western world often have stronger immune systems than we do. There is absolutely no fear of the general bacteria we obsess about in the West. None of us, however, got noticeably sick, eating and living this way on this trip.
Later that day we took the boat across to another island where the Tao Expeditions farm is located. The farm is a permaculture project where the company trains its employees, kids mostly, who do not want to go to school. They are trained how to build, farm, cook and work at Tao Expeditions. The farm is also quickly building itself up to survive mostly off the land.
The leader of the camp, a soft-spoken Filipino woman who spoke clear English, showed us around, explaining everything along the way. She showed us how they build their huts and how they are improving their huts to protect them from the Monsoons and Typhoons. They soak their bamboo in seawater for a few months, which protects it from being eaten by bugs.
We also learned about the charity and community work Tao is involved in. In addition to training locals and building a sustainable community, they donate some of their profits to help their communities. We were impressed and felt good about spending our money and our time with this company.
We packed up and left after breakfast. The next few days were similar in that we snorkeled, had lunch, snorkeled some more and then arrived at our base camp. The biggest changes those days were the terrain and the quality of coral. The further north we went, the drier the hills became, and the corals became more interesting and diverse.
I might mention that the Tao chef did a great job with the food. Every day, we had lunch on board and breakfast and dinner ashore. Breakfast was always fresh fruit, some sort of egg dish and coffee. Lunch and dinner always consisted of some seafood, some vegetarian/vegan dish and one or two nights a meat dish. The meat was also only bought from the locals and prepared on board. I wasn’t too excited about the slaughtering of chickens on board or the idea of a whole pig on our dinner table but it really was only momentary that I noticed.
Afternoons, after snorkeling, the chef would prepare some sort of snack to keep our energy up. I almost never felt hungry and if I ate meat I would never have. They did a good job and we were all pleased with the freshness and quality of the food. The only thing is that dinner at basecamp was quite late, usually around 9 p.m. If I were to go again, I would bring more snack bars.
The second-to-last basecamp was a favorite as everyone had their own two-person hut directly on the beach. We watched a particularly beautiful sunset that evening with pinks and yellows melting into the dark blue sea behind the Aurora 2.
While the other camps had a little electricity in the common areas, this one did not have any. This made for a spectacular view of the stars, which we gazed up at, awe stricken, from our sarong blankets on the beach.
The last basecamp on the fifth day, closest to Coron, was the most authentic of them all. Our huts were actually situated within a village on a rocky beach that had a long wooden dock. As we settled in, the locals went about their evening, turning a whole pig on a spit, cleaning the floors in their houses, chatting with each other and greeting us warmly as they passed by. Kids darted around the camp, playing and sometimes stopping to say hello to us.
We found a small hut to ourselves overlooking the sea. When everyone settled in and the sun began to set, some guests started an intense game of volleyball with the locals. Ollie eventually announced that there was a karaoke bar around the corner. We laid awake in our hut, laughing, trying to identify the voices.
In the morning, we set off for our last few snorkeling spots before reaching Coron. It was the perfect time to finish the trip. We arrived in the evening, exchanged info with some of the guests and said goodbye to everyone.
I would definitely recommend this trip for anyone who can go with the flow, not need to know what time it is or what is happening next. I am usually a 1-2 day camping kind of girl and I really enjoyed it.
On this trip you will:
Snorkel (not dive) every day, see healthy and abundant coral and fish, relax on a crowded boat, eat great local food, learn about permaculture and the charity work Tao does, sleep in open huts with mosquito nets on the beach, use bucket flush toilets and take cold showers, not hike or interact with locals much, relax on beaches in the mornings and evenings, eat late, have limited cell service and no wi-fi, enjoy/endure loud music until midnight, see beautiful beaches without any tourists, see trash washed ashore on almost every beach, and become friends with a crew who work hard to make the trip great.
Angela Orecchio is a chief stew and certified health coach. This article was edited from entries in her blog, The Yachtie Glow (www.angelaorecchio.com), which offers tips for crew on how to be healthy, fit and happy on board. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.