FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Philippine Islands: Archipelago Adventure

Nov 1, 2008
2008 / November 2008

I sat in the double kayak and let Ranni, our local guide, steer us and — to be honest — do most of the work as I stared up in wonder at the limestone cliffs of Coron Island. Bamboo scaffolding crisscrossed the cliffs, a network used by the local Tagbanua people to collect swiflet nests to sell to Chinese traders. The prized nests are a delicacy, the basis of a very expensive soup in China. The scaffolding appears as delicate as a spider web — it’s hard to imagine it can hold anyone’s weight — and whole sections are passed from generation to generation. For some families, the nests are the only source of income.

It takes some work to get to the Philippines, especially from the United States. Think long flights and numerous connections. It takes even more work to get out of the capital city of Manila to go kayaking in the pristine waters that entice as you fly over the country. Think small planes, local transportation on “jeepneys” and innumerable, often inexplicable delays. However, persevere and you’ll be rewarded.

Whatever the cause — perhaps a reputation for a shaky government or the remote location — tourism has yet to take a stronghold here. In fact, the Philippines, part of Southeast Asia, is often called the “Last Frontier” by adventurers. Depending on whether it’s low tide or high tide, the archipelago consists of about 7,108 islands, many of them uninhabited. With few other tourists around, it’s easy to feel as though you’re discovering a new land. But to figure out what to do and how to do it without wasting time, you’ll need a guide.

EcoFirst Adventures, a U.S. company, offers a number of tours, mostly tailored to individual interests. Founder Eric Williams, who fell in love with the Philippines while working in Manila in 2003, started EcoFirst to share his fascination.

Because of U.S. interests, English is widely spoken in the Philippines, adding to the attraction for American tourists. The islands had been under Spanish rule since 1565 until control was transferred to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898. The United States recognized the Philippines’ independence in 1935, but before the full transition could take place Japan invaded in 1942. The United States invaded again in 1944, and the Philippines finally gained full independence in 1946.

When booking a kayak trip with EcoFirst, you’ll stay the first night in Manila before starting your adventure. EcoFirst representatives meet you at the airport and take you to the 5-star Manila Peninsula Hotel in Makati, where you can attempt to sleep off your jet lag. You’ll have to go through an inspection at the entry to the hotel, which is guarded by military with guns and dogs. Though somewhat intimidating, it wasn’t a long process.

I was delayed a day due to a layover, so when I left the next day for the island of Busuanga, the largest of the Calamian island group, the kayakers I was meeting had already been there a day. I flew on a 20-seat plane into the tiny local airport and took a “jeepney,” a kind of open-air bus, to the town of Coron (not to be confused with Coron Island). Then it was on to a bangka, a motorized outrigger, to the real starting point of the trip: a small, deserted beach. Tents were already set up, EcoFirst staff were preparing for dinner and my group was out kayaking. I went swimming and waited for them to return.

When they came in, I met Australian Greg Hutchinson, the guide for this particular trip, as well as one other American who had signed up for this first kayaking trip of the season. Greg is a Reuters news correspondent who arrived in the Philippines in 1986 and has spent most of his time here covering the country’s ups and downs. His passion for the place is a natural fit for EcoFirst, but he defers whenever he can to the local guides the company hires. EcoFirst strives to showcase the beauty of the country without exploiting anyone, working in partnership with local communities by providing jobs, supporting conservation efforts and even operating youth outreach programs.

Greg explained all this to me as we ate a delicious meal of tuna ceviche, salad and papaya. After we all retired for the night in our individual tents, the silence was almost unnerving. The next morning, we awoke to a feast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, mangoes, toast and coffee. Not exactly roughing it.

This was our daily pattern: Board the bangka, which was loaded with our gear and kayaks, find a spot to snorkel or explore, and then get back on board to do the same thing in yet another idyllic location. EcoFirst has a number of itineraries to choose from, but if your group is small and flexible enough, you can almost do things on a whim.

We kayaked through mangroves one afternoon and then snorkeled over a wrecked Japanese ship from the invasion of 1942. It was a bit eerie, but amazing. It made me want to get a diving license and come back to explore in more depth.

We spent one night in Coron Town at a small inn called the Princess of Coron. Leaving our bags there, we went one day by bangka to the island of Culion and Culion Town. Culion, the second-largest island in the Calamian group, was once a former leper colony; on a walk through town we saw the sanatorium, which is still a functioning hospital.

Perhaps the highlight of my trip was a visit to Kayangan Lake, though at the time I wasn’t exactly happy about getting there. After going to Coron Island and paying a nominal fee to enter the area administered by Tagbanuans, we were greeted by a steep climb that looked almost vertical. You must climb about 100 “steps” with branch guide rails (occasionally missing) to get to the top. You must also pay no attention to the local guides who race to the top as if taking a stroll through a meadow. But, wow! Once we reached the lake, the colors of blue were unlike anything I’d ever seen. The lake is fairly well-known, and we did meet some tourists heading down the cliff, but we were rewarded by having the place to ourselves for a while once we reached it. I could have stayed all day, but there was always that next great place to explore.


INFO TO GO

Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL), about four miles south of Manila, is the main international gateway for travel to the Philippines. If you book a kayaking trip through EcoFirst Adventures (tel 866 759 9012, http://www.ecofirstadventures.com), a company representative will meet you at the airport. EcoFirst offers two main kayaking trips, but you can also work with them to design your own trip based on your schedule and interests. A nine-day kayaking trip goes to the Calamians, the ancestral archipelago of the seafaring Tagbanua of Palawan. You paddle and explore at will. It runs $3,275 per person for a group of three or more, $3,625 per person for two people. A 10-day Palawan kayaking trip takes you to both the Bacuit and Calamians, two limestone island groups on a 100- mile route which includes crossing the Linapacan Strait, camping on deserted isles and enjoying the local fishermen’s daily catch for dinner. The cost is $4,875 per person for a group of three or more, $3,925 per person for two people. The packages include internal/domestic airfare, transportation and airport transfers, daily guided activities, equipment (kayaks and snorkeling gear), hotel and resort accommodations, most meals, deluxe camping and travel medical insurance. The Weekend Warrior three-day, two-night package includes climbing, kayaking and hiking based in Palawan, from $795 a person. Other trips offer whitewater rafting, surfing, climbing or a combination of activities.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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