The sun is bestowing its early morning blessing; shimmering in the stunningly clear waters. Rainbow colored fish flurry the colossal coral plates that have risen from the seafloor. I swivel like a thrilled child while surveying the underwater glories. Parrotfish (Scaridae) and royal angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus) glided by, damsel fish (Pomacentridae) drift near large plate corals, Moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus) dash through rock fissures while clown fish (Amphiprioninae) hide in the waving tentacles of anemones. This jovial hex continues for about half an hour, until my guide sends a gesture to ascend. Panting while swimming, I reach for the stairs and haul myself back to the boat.
“It was one of the best snorkeling experiences in my lifetime!” I exclaim to Leidy Ocampo, owner of Gamat Travel and Tours – a travel agency that run tours around Coron Island – who is with me on the vessel. Blissfully situated in Palawan, Philippines, this isle harbors one of the best dive and snorkel sites in the country, boasting of 11 World War II Japanese boats wreck sites. Preservation of these bountiful reefs also means increased income to the locals through tourism.
Lakes of Enchantment
Coron has been dropping jaws for years. Here, karsts limestone massifs rise like sentinels above a beautiful blend of shamrock green and cobalt waters. In 1998, the indigenous tribe of Tagbanua in Coron Island – ancestors of some of the oldest people in the Philippines – were awarded Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC) No. 134, covering over 22,000 hectares of land and sea. This gave them the authority to manage and preserve the marine and land resources, and the right to regulate the entry of migrant settlers and organizations into the domain. Such power is imperative for the Tagbanua community to protect their land from exploitation and destruction caused by outsiders.
The Tagbanua people guarding Kayangan Lake welcome us warmly upon docking. A massive map is displayed before the stairs, rightfully flaunting Coron Island’s paradisiacal topography to tourists. Here, tourists make a payment of Php 200 per person for entrance fees that goes to the Tagbanua community.
“There are 13 lakes in Coron, but only 2 have been opened to the public – Kayangan Lake and Barracuda Lake”, Ronald Abelian, a Tagbanau supervisor informs me. “We haven’t even seen most of them, as prayers and rituals are required before entering those lakes, since they are sacred places where spirits reside.”
I make a quick uphill trek to the spot with the scenic view of Kayangan Bay – the one that usually grace the promotional Coron tourism ads. Getting the ‘I was here’ photo in this view deck is perhaps on every tourist’s bucket-list. I ask my guide politely to take my obligatory souvenir photo here. Finally, another quick trek downhill rewards me with the shamrock-colored Kayangan Lake draped by limestone hills.
“Kayangan in the local language of the Tagbanua people means “entrance”. It is the gateway to the other lakes here in Coron Island,” explains my guide Kuya Roger, an immigrant who hails from Mindoro, a neighboring island province of Coron. After we discuss this, two Tagbanua men onboard a bamboo raft paddle through the lake’s entrance, as if reinforcing the words of my guide.
Kayangan’s sheer beauty is jaw-dropping. Tourists usually frolic here for hours and leap into its deep clear water. Its water is dubbed as one of the cleanest in Southeast Asia. I sport my snorkeling gear and dive into the placid water. I see limestone karts submerged in the water leading to an eerie cave. Meanwhile, the other lake that is open to the public – Barracuda, is frequented by foreign divers. Though still lurking in the shadow of its larger neighbor – Kayangan, it is undeniably as enchanting.
Coron’s paradisaical beauty is immortalized in videos and photos. Al Linsangan is among many photographers who have a love affair with these islands, he has some of the most riveting shots of the island that I’ve seen to date. In fact, his photo of Banol Beach in Coron Island has won in the landscape category of the Moscow International Foto Awards (MIFA 2014). Linsangan focuses on environmental photography and videography. He stunningly portray images of landscapes, people, culture, arts, heritage sites and even marine life through his works, which have been featured in magazines, coffee table books, calendars and brochures.
Through my friend Emil Meron, who works for Linsangan, I met him and his wife in his office in Coron town. He runs Coron Galeri , an arts and crafts shop that promotes local artists’ handicrafts, arts and music. He is also part of Tribu Calamianen, a Palawan indigenous cultural music group.
“I expanded my company to Calamianes Expeditions and Eco-Tours which highly promotes Corporate Social Responsibility at grassroots application. We are known for its low-priced tours where we involve local service groups”, he tells me. “I don’t have a boat or a van. I charter them and hire the boatman, the skipper, the tour guide, the driver and the cook. A minimum of seven families benefits in each eco-tour activity offer.”
Linsangan adopted coastal villagers from Barangay Lajala; the erstwhile fishermen engaged their boats into tourists’ compatible boats. “Today, after undergoing proper training on safety and basic handling of tourists, they are now service-oriented front liners with deep foundation on environmental protection and conservation,” he proudly shared.
It was heartwarming to learn that there are people like Linsangan who has pro-active stance in promoting the best things about Coron and its culture. The shared leadership emphasizing community well-being over individual profit, balancing power within communities, and fostering traditional culture, conservation, and responsible stewardship of the land make Linsangan’s company stand out among several others sprinkled around Coron town. After over a week, I left Coron confident that with people living there like Linsangan, actively promoting community-based tourism, there is a promise of a bright future for the island.
For Island hopping tours and Safari Tour in Coron, contact:
Gamat Travel and Tours
Tour rates: Php 650 (USD 16) to Php 2,500 (USD 57) per person
Mobile: 0999 9936 639
Email: [email protected]
WHERE TO STAY IN CORON
Sea Horse Guesthouse Hotel
Brgy. Poblacion 3 Coron Town
National Highway, Brgy Poblacion 1, Coron Town
Coron Underwater Garden Resort
Baquit Island, Coron Palawan
La Natura Resort
Brgy. 6 Kapyas, Coron
Coral Bay Beach and Dive Resort
Brgy. Maglambay, Pototan Island
The Funny Lion Inn
Sitio Jolo, Poblacion 5, Coron Town
El Rio Y Mar Resort
San Jose Busuanga
Huma Island Resort and Spa
Dicilingan Island, Brgy. Sagrada Busuanga