Palawan has been called the “best island in the world” and the Philippines’ “last biodiversity frontier.”
Sitting at the southwestern edge of the archipelago, the remote island province doesn’t disappoint.
From El Nido’s world-famous Bacuit Bay to the diving sites off Coron Island, travelers will find dramatic limestone cliffs, World War II wrecks, subterranean rivers, old-growth rainforests, caves and mysterious lagoons.
Though the Philippines is currently closed to international tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic, when travel safely resumes those looking to explore this beautiful area have a variety of options.
While most choose to stay in a rustic beach shack or remote luxury hotel, there’s another way to experience the islands: a seafaring adventure.
“It’s a really different way to experience Palawan — you snorkel, island hop, fish, then camp (or stay in a bamboo hut) on remote islands,” Edi Aga Mos, the founder of socially conscious boat expedition company Tao Philippines, tells CNN Travel.
“Half the fun is just joining in and learning how to cook with the chef, grind coconut, fish off the back of the boat. It’s an adventure.”
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A brilliant idea
Originally from the mountains of the northern Philippines, Aga Mos visited Palawan for the first time in 1999.
Fascinated by the coastal scenery and lifestyle, he returned time and again to explore the outlying islands, where he stayed in fishing villages and learned about their nomadic heritage.
Aga Mos relocated permanently in 2005, before El Nido had paved roads, electricity or ports — and soon spotted an opportunity.
At the time, he says El Nido had several boating day trips but nothing that immersed travelers in the island culture.
What’s more, most excursions followed the exact same routes, which led to traffic jams at the major sights.
“The whole idea was how to get the raw, real experience for travelers — it takes a long time to reach El Nido and even longer to Coron, but we wanted to show the culture of the islands,” he says.
“It’s so beautiful. If you count it, it is like more than 700 islands across this region.”
Later that year, he founded Tao Philippines, which prides itself on offering no-frills island expeditions with a gregarious crew of “Lost Boys” — so-called because many didn’t have an education or job opportunities.
“People were really struggling because the big fishing industry was collapsing, so we hired young fishermen and trained them to work on our boats as crew, cooks and tour leaders,” says Aga Mos.
“We have trained around 150 to 200 young men — probably more — from these different islands in the past 15 years … some work on the boats, others work on our farm (taking care of) livestock, carpentry, construction or the kitchen.”
As the company grew, it hired more people from local villages, including women who often work as cooks, masseuses, kitchen help, housekeepers, seamstresses, gardeners, farmers and camp managers.
“Our camps are run by women. We are slowly recruiting more women; right now we employ about 60 from the villages around the Tao Farm,” says Aga Mos.
“The operation is now 10 times bigger than it was (15 years ago), so we have been able to support the ecosystem, the economy and watch it develop, which is part of our whole tourism philosophy.”
Reviving the historic paraw fishing boat
Tao offers several different route options, but one of the most popular is the five-day Paraw Voyage.
The island-hopping journey takes place on a traditional wooden paraw sailboat, which took two years to build.
“We wanted it to be as traditional as possible, so it took us a long time to find craftsmen who still knew the techniques and materials,” says Aga Mos.
In the end, they made some adjustments, like adding artistic tribal carvings and installing two engines.
Since the boat is so big, he says, they needed the engines to be able to get to the islands before dark and navigate when there is no wind.
Known for their shallow U-shaped hulls, enormous sails, dual outriggers and dugout canoes, paraws are a type of bangka boat — fishing vessels that were once common in Palawan’s waters.
But when engines became available, the old sailboats fell out of fashion by the 1960s.
“It is our kind of contribution to this tradition — how it was before engines. This is how many of the villagers’ parents or grandparents most likely came to Palawan as nomadic fishermen,” he adds.
The vessel, named the Balatik, debuted in 2014 and quickly became famous amongst islanders who instantly recognized the ancient boat style.
At 74 feet long, the Balatik is the largest bangka boat with sails in the Philippines, to Aga Mos’s knowledge, and can host up to 25 guests and 10 crew members at a time.
An island-hopping adventure
On the Paraw Voyage from El Nido to Coron, or vice versa, travelers typically sail on the Balatik most of the day, then motor to an island to arrive before sunset.
Along the way, the boat stops in scenic coves so guests can snorkel around coral reefs, go cliff jumping, hang at a beach, swim, fish or spot sea turtles.
While snorkeling or lounging on the boat decks, travelers will likely see various fish and marine life, like whale sharks and sea cows, says Aga Mos.
“Lately, we are seeing more whale sharks — there are many more sightings now than in the early 2000s. And we also see more turtles coming into the beaches to lay eggs.”
Each night, the boat anchors at a different island campsite along the route, where travelers have a chance to interact with local villagers.
“We sometimes go to the villages to buy supplies and experience the village life, but we do not want to intrude and make their lifestyle a show — we are careful with this notion of ‘tourism,'” adds Aga Mos.
After three days of island-hopping, the boat anchors for two days at one of Tao’s two main camps: Tao Farm on the northeastern tip of Palawan or Camp Ngey! Ngey! on Mangenguey Island, closer to Coron.
Both camps have been designed and built by Tao Philippines and feature an array of unique bamboo buildings, dining areas, hammocks, massage huts, colorful bars and rustic “Tuka” beach cottages.
Of the two, Tao Farm is more developed since it doubles as the company’s headquarters.
Here, travelers can learn more about Tao’s bamboo architecture, tour the training and education centers, harvest indigenous produce (like a saba, a cross between a banana and a plantain), or learn to cook.
“We decided that our cuisine should be made primarily with ingredients that grow in the islands,” says Aga Mos.
“So when travelers stop at our base camp, they can see the farm and what we grow, then try it all in a seven-course meal. Our food is really one of the highlights.”
Ambitious new players
Tao isn’t the only company offering experiential boat trips in Palawan.
In 2016, Krish Reigno Masong and Oli Canavan launched Big Dream Boatman, an experience inspired by Masong’s intimate knowledge of the islands.
The two partners are from different backgrounds — Masong was born and raised on Culion Island, near Coron, while Canavan is from the UK — but they connected over a shared passion for adventures.
While traveling through Palawan in 2016, Canavan visited Coron and hired a boat to see the islands without the crowds.
In strolled Masong, his guide, who was keen to introduce Canavan to all the remote islands and local villages.
“We just clicked. Within hours of meeting each other, Krish was telling me about his big dream to start his own business,” Canavan tells CNN Travel.
The idea? Masong hoped to start a tourism business that would showcase Coron and Palawan, “the way you would have experienced it 20 years ago before the tourists, before it got so busy,” says Masong.
“I also wanted to change my life. I am from a poor family, and I wanted to have my own company, my own house, hire local people so we can all have a better life.”
The daytrip turned into a multi-day adventure and, by the end, the pair were drawing up a business plan together.
“Places like Bacuit Bay and Kayangan Lake (in Coron) are so crowded because all the day trips follow the same route and schedule,” says Canavan.
“Many people don’t realize, if you just go 45 minutes, an hour, two hours away from these places you will find magical islands, coral reefs, cliffs to jump off and just unbelievable landscapes and islands, seas and reefs.”
Big Dream Boatman also pays tribute to the Philippines’ fishing traditions.
They operate two modern white bangka boats, named Yzzabelle & Gavrielle 1 and Yzzabelle & Gavrielle 2 after Masong’s twin daughters.
The boat also has a spacious upper deck, nets on the outriggers for lounging and plush mats for sunbathers.
“Before tourism, these boats were usually used for fishing,” says Masong. “They have two big outriggers, which are actually for safety. They help keep the boat stable and balanced in case of bad weather.”
“In Palawan, life has always revolved around the sea. We fish, we boat, we are all connected by the water.”
Corals and sea cows
Big Dream Boatman offers three different routes — El Nido to Coron, Coron to El Nido, or around Coron — and each lasts anywhere from three to four days.
By day, travelers can go spearfishing, snorkeling, learn about indigenous traditions, explore fishing villages and get to know the crew.
One of the major natural highlights, says Masong, is the Coral Garden.
“We have this very famous, beautiful island called the Coral Garden, which has a huge house reef — about 1,500 meters long. It has beautiful colorful coral and lots of fishes to see.”
He says travelers often get to see sea cows near the island of Busuanga, and to play basketball with villagers on Panlaitan, Pass, or Bualuang islands.
“It’s those real interactions that stick with you,” adds Caravan. “It can be a smile from one person that you never forget — and that is how you think about a whole country.”
Come evening, travelers stay in bamboo beach cottages or set up tents and camp in the sand on a remote island, where they often have a bonfire, share some stories, stargaze then fall asleep to the rhythm of the sea.
“You’re the only people on a lot of these islands and you cannot fathom how beautiful it is,” says Canavan. “The sand is so white, the sea is so blue, the sunset is just perfect.”
Editor’s note: The photos illustrating this story were taken prior to the ongoing health situation and do not reflect current social distancing guidelines