Everyone’s seen pictures of the towering limestone islands of Thailand’s Andaman coast. It seems like most of the world has been there too. The similar landscape of Ha Long bay in Vietnam is getting almost as famous these days (in the UK at least especially thanks to the famous episode of Top Gear which ends up there). Before I arrived in the Philippines, I had no idea that a very similar landscape exists off the north coast of the island of Palawan – the many islands of the Bacuit Archipelago.
Getting there was a little bit of a mission – from Coron Town in Busuanga, there are supposed to be boats heading over virtually every day, but two of the boats were out of service. This meant rather getting a few days to relax and enjoy Coron, all I had time to do was a day of diving before having to leave the very next day, for fear of getting stranded. It turned out to be quite a journey – 45 of us crammed onto a pretty small outrigger boat, with no room to move around, for 8 hours. And a pretty choppy eight hours it was too, with every large wave showering all of us at the front on a regular basis. Yet again I was glad of my iron stomach, as others around me succumbed to seasickness.
The journey was completely worth it though, for the Bacuit Archipelago more than lived up to expectations. The locals make it pretty easy to navigate around the many islands, by handily packaging them into three different tours, named A, B & C (and these are the same for all local operators).
First up was tour B, which started us off with a little spot of light snorkelling in crystal clear turquoise water just off one of the islands, which was pretty awesome. That was just a warm-up for the main event though – a stop for lunch at Snake Island, which is so named because of the thin serpentine slither of beach that winds its way out from the island towards its neighbour. It’s the kind of beach that looks like it could have been commissioned by the Philippine Tourist Board looking for perfect shots for postcards and brochures – and yet it’s 100% natural, and we had the place to ourselves to chill out for a couple of hours, while our boat crew made a delicious lunch of grilled fresh fish, chicken and pork – which was all a bit of a bargain considering the whole day-long tour including lunch came to around $10.
Lovely as it was there, we couldn’t hang around all day – after all there are hundreds of islands to explore – so soon we moved on to explore some fantastic caves on two nearby islands, each reached through a narrow entrance just off the beach, and then opening up to reveal huge, towering ceilings. Finals stop of the day was possibly the best yet – an island that consisted of a small beach clinging to the side of some imposing, towering limestone cliffs. The sand was the whitest and finest by far that I’ve ever seen, so much so that it was more comfortable lying directly on the sand than it was on a towel. With just the six of us there (oh, and the friendly island dog of course – even uninhabited islands have dogs here in the Philippines), it felt like we had a little piece of paradise all to ourselves.
After such a stunning day I was worried that repeating the experience the following day might disappoint – I needn’t have worried. For while Tour B gave me some of the finest beaches I’ve ever seen, Tour A took us to the best snorkelling I’ve encountered yet. Again and again we stopped at various spots with the clearest, brightest water imaginable, all framed beautifully by the sheer cliffs of the sheltering islands, swimming through narrow openings into warm, shallow lagoons crammed with coral and beautiful fish. All that snorkelling, swimming and generally gawping at the sheer beauty of the place can get a little tiring after a while, so the boat kindly took us to yet another perfect beach for a final bit of chilling – and even better, this one came with a nice surprise in the shape of a bar hidden away from sight behind the palm trees at the back of the beach. So the rest of the afternoon was spent sitting on the beach, sipping away at fresh coconut juice…and then moving onto the San Miguels.
The most amazing thing about the place is that for somewhere quite so stunning, it has remarkably few tourists (most of whom seem to be Swedish or Danish for some reason). I don’t mean it’s empty, but that there enough islands that it never feels busy in the way Thailand does. Get there soon before everyone else discovers it.
You can see all of my photos of El Nido & the stunning Bacuit Archipelago here.
Next stop: Chilling out with a small monkey in Port Barton & exploring the Underground River of Sabang.